What is a "Narrative Mechanic"?


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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
A search tells me I have only used the term once, back in 2010.

I may have more frequently used the term "narrative control mechanic", which is a little more clear in what it's referring to.

And, if I saw "narrative mechanic" I'd probably think they are really referring to a mechanic that calls for some specific direct control of the narrative.

On the player side, the "Legwork" move in some PbtA games calls for the player to describe/make up the person they eventually got information from. This figure does not have to have previously existed in the narrative - "Yeah, I talked to Bob, who is a homeless guy who often hangs out in the alley outside my office building, to find out where the new drug supplier's operation might be."

In Fate, when offering a Compel, the GM takes control of the narrative to add a complication that didn't exist before, or push character action in a way consistent with the character's stated Aspects - "Okay, so you have the Trouble Aspect: 'Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?'. Here's a fate point. When you open the sarcophagus you notice that it is Full of Snakes. That's now an aspect on the scene you may have to deal with."

I'm citing examples where someone is adding elements to the narrative, but those aren't the only things narrative control mechanics might do.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
A narrative mechanics is some resource or ability a player can use to influence the narrative in play. Narrative as in describing a scene and result beyond pass fail state of the character itself. In games such as D&D, these are very rare, in other games they are common and expected part of play.
 


Reynard

Legend
A narrative mechanics is some resource or ability a player can use to influence the narrative in play. Narrative as in describing a scene and result beyond pass fail state of the character itself. In games such as D&D, these are very rare, in other games they are common and expected part of play.
Does it have to be explicitly a meta-mechanic? As in, do in-fiction actions that influence the narrative ()essentially, all of them -- that's kind of the point of play) not count by definition?
 

In your own words, not using jargon or other bespoke terminology. What, to you, qualifies as a "narrative mechanic"?
Most simply, an in-play* mechanism where the player gets to define or alter the wider world, happenstance, or situation in which their character finds them self, rather than the actions or internal reactions their character takes. *at least I think so. If a Player takes an organizational tie for their character during character creation and thus gets to help define an organization that exists in the game world, that is at least a distinct type of situation, although it might be another flavor of narrative mechanic.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Does it have to be explicitly a meta-mechanic? As in, do in-fiction actions that influence the narrative ()essentially, all of them -- that's kind of the point of play) not count by definition?
I think the distinction of calling it a narrative mechanic is necessary. For example, picking a lock or not obviously does influence the narrative in the most basic sense. Allowing the player to narrate picking the lock and everything around and beyond the PC is typically reserved for the GM.

PF2 skill feats are a good example of how the distinction can be confusing. There is an advanced feat that allows a PC to spread rumors rapidly, and with ease of success. Some folks say thats not very impressive and that rumor spreading should not require a feat. However, the intent is that anybody can spread rumors with the right skill checks and time investment, the character with the feat does so with ease and greatest chance of success. The narrative mechanic here boosts the potential player agency above pass/fail.

Its difficult to demonstrate the distinction in D&D and derivatives because they traditionally don't rely on narrative mechanics, as I understand them anyway.
 

Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
In games such as D&D, these are very rare, in other games they are common and expected part of play.

Not sure what you mean by "such as D&D". All RPGs? D&D-derived d20 RPGs? "RPGs without Narrative Mechanics"? (That last would be a bit tautological.)

What is/are the key characteristics that define "such as D&D", in the context of this discussion?
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Not sure what you mean by "such as D&D". All RPGs? D&D-derived d20 RPGs? "RPGs without Narrative Mechanics"? (That last would be a bit tautological.)

What is/are the key characteristics that define "such as D&D", in the context of this discussion?
I was asked to shy away from jargon, but I suppose trad compared to story now style of RPGs should suffice.
 

innerdude

Legend
Not sure what you mean by "such as D&D". All RPGs? D&D-derived d20 RPGs? "RPGs without Narrative Mechanics"? (That last would be a bit tautological.)

What is/are the key characteristics that define "such as D&D", in the context of this discussion?

Roleplaying games whose main rules / mechanics typically involve a player proposing and then resolving a single, discrete character action and the immediate result of that action. "Discrete Action Resolution Mechanics", or DARM for short.

As opposed to External Narrative Universe Mechanics, or ENUM for short.

(Hey, I'm a software developer, I'm always down for creating a new acronym out of thin air for no reason whatsoever.)
 

Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
I was asked to shy away from jargon, but I suppose trad compared to story now style of RPGs should suffice.

Drat, because I honestly (still) don't really understand what Story Now means, despite having tried to read up on it.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Drat, because I honestly (still) don't really understand what Story Now means, despite having tried to read up on it.
Lets use Powered by the Apocalypse vs. D&D. They use narrative mechanics differently and in frequency in my experience. I can certainly be wrong this is my understanding as the OP asked for it.
 

Tony Vargas

Legend
I'm tempted to say a "Narrative Mechanic" must be a mechanic that players (or/and the GM) can use to contribute to the story being told as the game plays out.
But, that'd be all of 'em. 🤷


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Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
@Bill Zebub , think of it this way --- "Story Now" means that the system supports ENUM mechanics in such a way as to allow players to focus and purposefully inject character-centric concerns into the flow of play, in some cases while specifically limiting GM veto to do so.

Could that be re-phrased as "giving the player limited power to step over the traditional divide between player authority and GM authority, if in the service of their character's personality/motivations/etc."?
 


Reynard

Legend
Lets use Powered by the Apocalypse vs. D&D. They use narrative mechanics differently and in frequency in my experience. I can certainly be wrong this is my understanding as the OP asked for it.
I asked because lots of people use it in different ways. For example, i don't really think of metacurrency as a "narrative mechanic" but obviously some folks do (and adamantly!). So I am truly interested in how you personally define the term.
 

Reynard

Legend
Could that be re-phrased as "giving the player limited power to step over the traditional divide between player authority and GM authority, if in the service of their character's personality/motivations/etc."?
I'm not sure that it having something to do specifically with their own character's personality or motivations in inherently necessary. I mean, conceivably a mechanic could be designed in such a way that participants are expected to use it in relation to other characters or even world building situations.
 

Tony Vargas

Legend
As far as the distinction between helping to build the narrative by invoking mechanics that resolve your own character's specific actions and invoking mechanics that build the narrative in ways outside the character's knowledge or power to affect... I'm not sure how useful a distinction it is. It seems like both are going to be needed in any RPG.

For instance, casting a Wish spell to alter a character's race, sex/gender, age, social class, or innate talents, vs you determining those same traits for your own character at chargen by making choices and using a point buy system to get your stats.... In both cases you may be dictating not only things about the character, but, like, who they're parents were.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I think that one problem is that mechanics are often labeled "narrative mechanics" not by fans of such mechanics but, rather, by detractors of story or narrative games as a quick and easy way to identify mechanics they don't like. So the metric of what can make something a "narrative mechanic" sometimes reads as criteria with a low bar:
Do I like this mechanic? Yes or no?

If yes, then it is NOT a narrative mechanic.

If no, then it IS a narrative mechanic.
🤷‍♂️
 

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