Narrative Games - three very distinct categories

Reading one of the other threads several people seem to think that Fate is in some way like Apocalypse World as a narrative-heavy RPG when if anything they are on the opposite sides of traditional gaming other than both being pretty rules-light and encouraging shared worldbuilding for the backstory (which happens in most trad RPGs anyway). So I thought I'd try to illustrate what I see as the three main strands of narrative RPG.

Princes of The Universe fighting for survival in a world with the darkest power (Fate)

In a Princes of the Universe game the player characters are powerful and have meta-mechanics that mean that for short periods of time they can be almost overwhelmingly powerful and succeed at just about any roll they make - but they can't do it often. This makes the fundamental question "How far are you willing to go for this goal".

The obvious early example of a game in this style is Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP) with its Karma system; players can succeed on any roll by burning karma but they can't do it all the time because you can run out of karma points fast. The approach didn't get really big until the 90s, of course, with the World of Darkness giving characters two different sorts of meta-currency in the form of Willpower and Blood Points/Quintessence/whatever this splat book gave you. Fate then strips it back and says that the most interesting character decisions in a larger-than-life game is seeing what matters to the characters and where they spend their meta-resource (which need not be meta if the player doesn't want it to be).

And you're rushing Headlong out of control (Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark)

In a Headlong game the characters are in large part the architects of their own misfortune, frequently to the point (as in Apocalypse World) that the GM never touches the dice and in a few cases (like Fiasco) there is no GM. Instead the most common consequence of a roll isn't either success or failure but success with consequences. Meaning that the PC either only gets some of what they want or what they get comes with consequences. The more the PCs roll the deeper things get because they are bringing consequences down on themselves, and the fundamental questions are which consequences the PCs will accept and how they deal with problems of their own making.

The obvious early example of a game of this style is Rolemaster with its degrees of success chart and I've never tracked down the original Ghostbusters game that introduced the world to the dice pool - but if it isn't of that style it ought to be. Right down to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man being a consequence of this.

A headlong game may normally have shared worldbuilding, but in terms of resolution it is normally extremely traditional, with the GM having if anything more authority than in a trad RPG despite not picking up the dice; you need to interfere a lot more to get the consequences right. Also meta-currency other than hit point analogues are rarer in this sort of game than they are in Trad RPGs (with things like the Lucky feat) although narratively satisfying consequences are harder when you've set the world up to the level of the Great Pendragon Campaign.

Who Wants to Live Forever? Who has forever anyway? (My Life with Master)

Most of the canon of Western storytelling says that stories are about change, and many stories are about how the protagonist changes (character growth rather than growth in power). A Who Wants to Live Forever game focuses on this, starting with the PCs with initial mechanical relationships to the world or other mechanical relationships that are going to be shattered and the PC is going to fundamentally change.

The very first Storygame, My Life With Master, did this in spades. The PCs start life as the minions of an abusive master and in the course of the three sessions or so of play one of them snaps and tries to kill the Master. Succeed or fail there's no going back from that - and the game gets wrapped up just after it's discovered whether they succeed. It can't be extended indefinitely - and that was what caused people to riot and lead to the term Storygame being produced.

Hybrids of the above

I can think of a lot of games that seriously showcase two of the above approaches, but I'm struggling to think of something that showcases all three; the Princes of the Universe style is about larger than life characters while Headlong is about misfortunes.

In Apocalypse World (which has precisely no Fate Point style narrative control mechanics I can think of) your class isn't the tricks you have learned so much as your position in the world. There are two basic ways a character can change class; the first is by experience and growth, and the second is by dying (and death is cheap) so if the local town boss (the Hardholder) is left with a bullet in their head they can come back as a badass who's lost it all and is out for revenge, not caring who gets in their way (a gunlugger). By contrast if a gunlugger gets enough of a rep and enough XP they can turn into a gang leader (a Chopper) or even lead the town as a Hardholder. The character's position changing in the world almost irrevocably and because it does so they change class. It's open ended but a dozens sessions or even half that is more than enough.

The Firefly system (note: not the Serenity system) seems to be aimed at action-comedy and is a rare Headlong Princes game. The consequences pile up, but so do the plot points and as things become more of a mess there are still the plot points piling up to be able to get out of there. If anything I'd say it was better for a Ghostbusters or Police Academy style game of action-comedy where there are huge messes but people don't seriously get hurt than it is for the slightly grittier Firefly
 

Gradine

Archivist
In Apocalypse World (which has precisely no Fate Point style narrative control mechanics I can think of)
This analysis is fairly spot on for the most part, but for (probably) this. While it's true that AW and PbtA games in general lack a universal Fate-Point-esque narrative control mechanic, there are definitely on occasion playbook-specific moves that grant similar abilities to players to use in specific circumstances. I'm significantly less familiar with AW itself than many other PbtA games, so I guess it's possible such moves do not exist in AW proper.

I should note too that Blades in the Dark (which is, at the very least, PbtA-adjacent) does have an universal narrative control mechanic fueled by meta-currency, albeit a bit more limited in scope (if only because the nature of gameplay in BitD in general is fairly limited in scope)
 

pemerton

Legend
In a Headlong game the characters are in large part the architects of their own misfortune, frequently to the point (as in Apocalypse World) that the GM never touches the dice and in a few cases (like Fiasco) there is no GM. Instead the most common consequence of a roll isn't either success or failure but success with consequences.

<snip>

The obvious early example of a game of this style is Rolemaster with its degrees of success chart
This caught my eye. I'm not really sure I agree, thoiugh maybe I'm missing the point.

I've played a lot of RM (1000s of hours). I'm in the process of preparig to play AW. I'm not expecting them to have much in common at all, except to be non-railroads with plenty of non-combat action.

But is that enough to make it a narrative game? (RQ fit this bill also, despite it's lack of degrees of success for non-combat resolution.)
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
I'm not sure exactly how to respond to this....

I guess I've seen too many implementations of these rulesets (at least the core mechanics) that break these assumptions. Nor am I at all sure that the "opposite sides of the traditional gaming" thing is accurate, either.

I mean, its designers thought Fate would be bad for something like Horror...but it turns out later people saw the rules and thought....Nope, works just fine. Similarly, the AW engine has been applied through Dungeon World to do a pretty fair imitation of traditional D&D. And there are other PbtA games that jog pretty far away from the "architects of their own misfortune" trope as well. Similarly, both games also feature "success with a cost" so...yeah.

Further, and this may be just me, both PbtA, FitD, and Fate rely much more heavily on the established narrative than traditional games (read D&D). Where traditional games tend to rely heavily on thinly-disguised meta-narrative mechanics (HP, spell slots, levels, etc.), and the narrative must bend to serve them, none of the above games do. Which I see as a much more important distinction than the various genre flavors the engines can be assigned.

On the other hand....I twitch a little bit when people describe any of these games as Story Games. With the exception of Fiasco (and I'm not familiar with MLWM) these games do not actually do anything to drive a story arc to or through any particular conclusion. However, they are all really "narration-focused" rather than Forge "Narrative", IMO.

Anyway, just my $.02
 

pemerton

Legend
these games do not actually do anything to drive a story arc to or through any particular conclusion. However, they are all really "narration-focused" rather than Forge "Narrative", IMO.
I think the problem with this is that Vincent Baker, in the list of influences on Apocalypse World (p 288) says "The entire game design follows from 'Narrativism: Story Now' by Ron Edwards."

I can't comment on Fate, which I've not played (and which looks like it has the potential to support what Edwards calls High Concept Simulationism). But I don't think Vincent Baker is confused about what he was doing with Apocalypse World - clearly the game is intended to generate story (in the sense of theme, dramatic crisis, narrative resolution, etc) in the course of play. Which is exactly what The Forge means by "narrativism".

both PbtA, FitD, and Fate rely much more heavily on the established narrative than traditional games (read D&D). Where traditional games tend to rely heavily on thinly-disguised meta-narrative mechanics (HP, spell slots, levels, etc.), and the narrative must bend to serve them, none of the above games do.
I think there's a clear affinity here with OSR-type RPGing. Classic D&D involves a high degree of playing the fiction. The mechanics you point do govern the availability of resources to players, but don't cause the fiction to bend to serve them. (There is no narrative in the sense of "story" in OSR play!)
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
I think the problem with this is that Vincent Baker, in the list of influences on Apocalypse World (p 288) says "The entire game design follows from 'Narrativism: Story Now' by Ron Edwards."

I can't comment on Fate, which I've not played (and which looks like it has the potential to support what Edwards calls High Concept Simulationism). But I don't think Vincent Baker is confused about what he was doing with Apocalypse World - clearly the game is intended to generate story (in the sense of theme, dramatic crisis, narrative resolution, etc) in the course of play. Which is exactly what The Forge means by "narrativism".
I haven't played (or even read) Apocalypse World itself, but I have read and played several of its descendants. I also am very picky about my thinking on "story game" vs "Narrative rpg". Maybe I'm crazy, too. In any case, I don't see how the PbtA engine actually drives "Story" vs. driving "Narrative\Narration". For a close cousin that I think does a better job, I look at Blades in the Dark. There, you have nice tight beginning-end-conclusion mechanics, with the added bonus of making things loop like a serialized TV show. (Honestly, I keep thinking of Peaky Blinders when reading it.) And I see I made an error in my post above in excluding it from the "Story Game" category.

Maybe I'm too picky (or ignorant of some brilliant facet of AW that didn't get picked up by most of its descendants), but I generally see the PbtA games as sort of careening from one trigger to the next. (In a mechanical sense, the fiction\narrative is likely to be coherent.) Whether it spirals down to some conclusion seems to me to be as much at the whim of the players/GM as a traditional rpg.

I think there's a clear affinity here with OSR-type RPGing. Classic D&D involves a high degree of playing the fiction. The mechanics you point do govern the availability of resources to players, but don't cause the fiction to bend to serve them. (There is no narrative in the sense of "story" in OSR play!)
hmm.....I'm a little baffled as to how the fiction/narration isn't bent to the rules. I mean, that's kinda the point (in any rpg, really). Wizards/magic work a certain way because they have to, in order to make sense of spell slots and memorization. The same is true of combat and almost any other aspect of ongoing narration/fiction. HP totals determine quite a lot about how PCs act, yet there have been innumerable arguments over the years on just what happens when you take damage! You can write down whatever you want for your backstory, but your class & level will matter much more than that ever will. Granted, traps and the other interactive scenery are more freeform in some of the early material, but perusing the published adventures, one can see how quickly they moved to fill in those gaps.

I see a stark contrast between that and the way games like Fate, PbtA, and BitD handle things. Mostly because in those old games, your character isn't really a part of the fiction, she's just a scribble of mechanical notes. Writing or having a backstory is optional, since basically the character drop in ex nihilo. (There are OSR folks who don't even name their characters until they reach third level.) YOU might figure out a puzzle or negotiate a social encounter...but your character has less and less to do with it as you go back in rule sets.*

In all the modern games mentioned, your character "stats" and even their character sheet is much more integral to the fiction directly. Heck, the fictional elements of many PbtA games changes profoundly depending on what character packages are chosen. The mechanics in these games let you determine the a lot of the nature of the fiction, rather than just bounce through it. Even if they don't drive it through a story arc, they let you determine much more about the elements that you will encounter.

just my $.03

*And, to be clear, that's totally legit as a playstyle.
 
I haven't played (or even read) Apocalypse World itself, but I have read and played several of its descendants. I also am very picky about my thinking on "story game" vs "Narrative rpg". Maybe I'm crazy, too. In any case, I don't see how the PbtA engine actually drives "Story" vs. driving "Narrative\Narration". For a close cousin that I think does a better job, I look at Blades in the Dark. There, you have nice tight beginning-end-conclusion mechanics, with the added bonus of making things loop like a serialized TV show. (Honestly, I keep thinking of Peaky Blinders when reading it.) And I see I made an error in my post above in excluding it from the "Story Game" category.

Maybe I'm too picky (or ignorant of some brilliant facet of AW that didn't get picked up by most of its descendants), but I generally see the PbtA games as sort of careening from one trigger to the next. (In a mechanical sense, the fiction\narrative is likely to be coherent.) Whether it spirals down to some conclusion seems to me to be as much at the whim of the players/GM as a traditional rpg.
I thought I mentioned this in the initial post - and it isn't something that gets picked up by Dungeon World and Apocalypse World's descendents via that path although is picked up and even expanded on by Monsterhearts and other descendents. Blades does indeed drive much more towards "episode conclusions", but Apocalypse World is great for "season conclusions". Without this part Powered by the Apocalypse games are, I agree, about careening from one trigger to the next and seeing the fallout ("And you're rushing headlong, out of control...").

The part I pointed out here is that your character's playbook is based on your place in the world (in Apocalypse World) or your fundamental flaw exaggerated to supernatural form (in Monsterhearts) and there are certain rare situations under which you can either change this fundamental relationship or take one of the advanced moves (AW)/"growing up moves" (MH) that represent real, fundamental, and irrevocable character change. It's easy to overlook this part of AW and it's not something Dungeon World does (as its classes are based on D&D) but it both leads to and emphasises narrative conclusions in a way few other games do.

I joke in D&D that a level 1 fighter is (mechanically) someone who excels at swinging a sharpened piece of metal hard and fast at monsters while a level 20 fighter is someone who excels at swinging a sharpened piece of metal really hard and really fast at big monsters, but I'm only slightly joking there. In AW the Hardholder being left for dead and coming back as a Gunlugger out for revenge or the Chopper stepping up to protect the settlement and becoming the new Hardholder is real and fundamental change that both flows from and emphasises a conclusion that was being groped towards

To put things into a less hypothetical context the last Apocalypse World game I ran the Brainer mind controlled the Hocus into leaving their cult. In reply the Hocus drugged and killed the Brainer, who bled out into their mask and when an NPC found it and put it on they became the Faceless. The loner Battlebabe realised someone had to look after the Hocus' cult so became the new Hocus. And I forget where the Hocus ended up without their cult but working to help someone else - Savvyhead I think? This happened in six sessions and none of it was forced but it would not have happened without the AW rules pushing the options to the forefront and mechanically supporting the choices.
 
I've played a lot of RM (1000s of hours). I'm in the process of preparig to play AW. I'm not expecting them to have much in common at all, except to be non-railroads with plenty of non-combat action.

But is that enough to make it a narrative game? (RQ fit this bill also, despite it's lack of degrees of success for non-combat resolution.)
No = AW gives the DM more power and more flexible tools in many ways, and twists a whole lot less.

If I may use MERP as a proxy for Rolemaster (on the grounds it's what I have to hand and it's Rolemaster Lite) there are seven degrees of success on any of the given skills MERP has seven degrees of success to Apocalypse World's three (Blunder/Absolute Failure/Failure/Partial Success/Near Success/Success/Absolute Success vs Hard Move/Partial Success or Success with Consequences/Success) - and in this regard they are similar although MERP has more options..

But there are two serious differences between the tables. The first is that the rolls are all meaningful on a partial success (or near success or success with consequences) and you never get a result like "Partial success. You have figured out part of the lock/trap and have an intuitive feel for the rest. Do something else for 10 minutes and you can try again." What does that ten minutes mean in context? It could be a complete failure or it could be meaningless and it's possible to get endless chains of rolling (the Dungeon World partial success result for lockpicking and trap disarming is "On a 7–9, you still do it, but the GM will offer you two options between suspicion, danger, or cost").

Possibly more important are the failure rules; the Apocalypse World non-combat ones all basically say "6- : Something bad happens as a result (GM's choice - have fun)" with suggestions of about the right magnitude. Rolemaster is much much more tightly constrained with a pick broken in the locks, and a 50% chance of setting off traps being on the table. As opposed to literally anything that the GM thinks is appropriate. The OSR talks about GM empowerment but they've barely made it past the starting line. It's down a path Rolemaster was pointing to with graduated success but way further.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
I've been thinking about this, too...

I think a three mutally exclusive category system is highly artificial, and not even terribly useful

Games where mechanics determine who decides the outcomes. (Fiasco, Houses of the Blooded)
Games where mechanics decide which prior agreed result happens. (Burning Wheel)
Games where the mechanics decide the cost of success (Marvel Universe)
Games where the mechanics determine quality of success without regard to difficulties (Dying Earth AWE/PBTA)
Games where mechanics determine success (or modify success chances) by reference to the story appropriateness (Theatrix, Fate)
Games where mechanics where metacurrencies earned by story affect the odds (Fate, Dying Earth, Burning Wheel, Cosmic Patrol)

None are nice clean exclusive categories.

And I'd define storygame thusly: Games where the mechanics are intended onlyto be invoked to create interesting changes in the story, as opposed to being invoked simply because situation X has occurred.

I'd note that I don't see Narrative Games as a good label - to some degree, ALL RPGs are narrative.
(The biggest error of Dr. Edwards' logic is that Gamist, SImulationist, and Narrativist are separate mutually exclusive categories rather than qualities all RPGs possess each of to varying degrees.)

The only way to eliminate gamism is to create a totally immersive simulation system like a holodeck. The only way to eliminate gameism is to have no rules that players knowingly interact with. I can't think of any way to totally eliminate narrativism, as we are, as a species, story generation machines that contextualize almost everything into narratives.... Which is why even many themed abstract boardgames generate tales in the players' memories....
 

lordabdul

Villager
The more I'm reading about narrative RPGs, and the more I'm confused about what they're supposed to be. This post above is the first I've seen in a long time that actually makes sense to me!

And I'd define storygame thusly: Games where the mechanics are intended onlyto be invoked to create interesting changes in the story, as opposed to being invoked simply because situation X has occurred.
I'm wondering if it's more a matter of incentives to follow established tropes, or something?

I mean, mechanics are always in a sense invoked to create interesting changes in the story.... even in a "standard" game like D&D you do a Stealth roll not purely because you're stealthing, but because the GM decides that it would be narratively interesting to know if the story goes that way (the PCs sneak into the house) or another way (they get caught). If, for some reason, there's nothing interesting or desirable from the "get caught" outcome, the GM might not ask for a roll at all... although I guess we're getting into the fact that the "narrative" aspect of an RPG is as much a factor of how the GM runs it as what mechanics are used (a simulationist GM might always ask for a roll). But in the end, the fact that there was a house to break into, that it needed being stealthy, whether it's easy or not, etc... is mostly the GM's doing. If that scene is narratively satisfying within the overall arc, and whether it's in line with the game's expected tropes (the house might be a high fantasy castle, or a gritty cyperpunk corporation HQ, or a tower with a princess in a romantic medieval tale) would all be mostly resting on the GM's shoulders.

A "storygame" however might encode more of the expected tropes in the rules. The fact that a romantic medieval tale expects a knight to, say, be madly in love might be encoded as special mechanics (like traits/passions in Pendragon). This gives incentive, or a least a framework, to players to follow the tropes of the genre being played in. As such, this removes some of that burden from the GM's shoulders. And the tropes could be completely structural instead of thematic. For instance, most stories follow an arc structure where protagonists go through a series of low and high "states". So HeroQuest does that: it gives guidelines/rules for the GM to set the difficulty of a task (like breaking into that castle/HQ/tower) based on whether we are in, say, the beginning of Act 2, or the end of Act 2. Of course, again, the GM doesn't necessarily need to run HeroQuest to do that, they can do it in D&D, but it requires reverse engineering a few things.

So basically I'm leaning towards a definition where a system is more/less a "storygame" ("narrative RPG") if it does more/less offload narrative GM duties into mechanics. These mechanics can be either incentive-based mechanics, where players act according to the tropes without realizing it (like CoC's SAN system making players cover their eyes to not see the monsters), or they can be explicit mechanics that tell the GM or, more often, the players how to act and/or what to do next.
 
The more I'm reading about narrative RPGs, and the more I'm confused about what they're supposed to be. This post above is the first I've seen in a long time that actually makes sense to me!
Honestly they are just a couple of related strands of tabletop role playing games - and like most RPGs people built them because there's something that they want to focus on that the games they are currently playing doesn't do as well as they would like.

Storygames as a term came about because some would-be gatekeepers on RPG.net decided that My Life With Master couldn't be an RPG because it wasn't open ended - indeed it can only tell a single type of story. So the maker shrugged and called it a Storygame instead because he was more interested in creating an interesting game than arguing about the terminology. And because My Life With Master was a very interesting game it inspired a lot of people for good and ill to make games like it.
 

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