What is a "Narrative Mechanic"?


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Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Maybe “narrative mechanics” is a mushy term?
I think that is this case (this thread) the adjective 'narrative' is being used to carry rather a lot of water. There's some regular conflation with another mushy adjective, 'meta' that shares some descriptive groud but isn't exactly the same either. One of the challenges is that the analysis seems to start with the premise that mechanic, un-accented, describes a set of things that are neither narrative nor meta (or not the-thing-I-dont-like). I don't actually think this is obviously the case and may in fact present false dichotomy of sorts. We might have more luck if we had a stable set of descriptors for all mechanics based perhaps on function. That and a better nuanced version of both narrative and meta.
 

What I find weird in this (and many previous) discussions about narrative games and narrative mechanics is that people who seem to like games where such mechanics are prevalent, nevertheless often try to deny that there is anything that differentiates those mechanics. I don't get it. Like I recently made a Blades in the Dark character, and have tried to familiarise myself with that game and I hopefully soon get to play it. It certainly has a bunch of narrative mechanics, most prominently flashbacks and quantum gear. And that's fine!

But I don't get people who insist that narrative games play differently yet when we are trying to label mechanics as narrative they fight against it and insist that there is no difference. Like what? o_O
The thing is that what's being called "narrative mechanics" aren't where the differences I notice lie. Apocalypse World is an ultra-strong narrative game that has approximately as much in the way of what this thread defines as narrative mechanics as GURPS or Savage Worlds, and I don't see anyone calling those narrative games. However it does have some distinctive features that make for a strong narrative such as:
  • "Play to find out what happens" - even the GM doesn't do a whole lot of planning and the PCs are the stars of the show.
  • Every roll matters. There's never a "roll to see whether you have to roll again". The outcomes are strong success, partial success, and failure-with-consequences (GM's choice).
    • Because every roll is consequential the story spirals out of control fast and no one truly knows where it is going. Strong plans and pre-written campaigns aren't pointful
  • Characters are tied to the setting and the setting is created at least partially round the characters. You aren't a band of wandering nomads - instead you have your turf and thus things that are inherently valuable. And the player character sheet includes NPCs
  • There are permanent negative consequences other than death and equipment loss and playing into them makes things more fun. (In AW there's the "when life becomes untenable" consequences; in Blades it's Trauma - and your Blades character won't really be rolling until they've picked up their first trauma)
  • An XP system that encourages doing what makes the story more interesting and tangled
  • An expectation of short campaigns with conclusions rather than pretty much open ended campaigns that can last almost indefinitely. This encourages stronger consequences and with it stronger stories.
  • A restriction on the power of the GM such as the GM never touching the dice during play and having more limited power than in traditional RPGs.
  • A focus on getting the right outcomes over step by step processes to get the character to work. (Most "narrative mechanics" as defined in this thread come from doing something here to fill gaps).
 

Reynard

Legend
If a "narrative mechanic" is one that changes the story of the game or state of the fiction upon determining its result, then essentially all mechanics are narrative mechanics and it isn't a particularly useful or interesting definition. Even a failed Perception check on D&D changes the fiction by updating the game state for the players.

I then fall back on the idea that a "narrative mechanic" is one that allows the Player to author something in the fiction not necessarily based on the Character doing the authoring. Sometimes it is hard to tell where the boundaries are, though. Create An Advantage in Fate feels very much like a narrative mechanic because the player is authoring the fiction in a mechanical way -- adding an Aspect. However, there really isn't a way to do this outside of direct action in the fiction by the character. The Aspect is just a consequence of a successful action, and the player gets to decide the precise nature of the consequence. Is it really different than a character in a more traditional RPG getting to apply a status condition as the result of a successful attack?

I'm just musing, by the way, not asserting anything. I think it is interesting to discuss but I don't think it is possible to come to a reliable definition or consensus.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
Create An Advantage in Fate feels very much like a narrative mechanic because the player is authoring the fiction in a mechanical way -- adding an Aspect. However, there really isn't a way to do this outside of direct action in the fiction by the character. The Aspect is just a consequence of a successful action, and the player gets to decide the precise nature of the consequence. Is it really different than a character in a more traditional RPG getting to apply a status condition as the result of a successful attack?

In a more traditional RPG, the character typically gets to apply a specific status condition as the result of the use or some prescribed ability. If you use a Trip Attack, the opponent is Prone. In Fate, Create an Advantage allows the creation of pretty much any Aspect you can dream of, if you can find an action that narratively works to that end.
 

pemerton

Legend
A focus on getting the right outcomes over step by step processes to get the character to work. (Most "narrative mechanics" as defined in this thread come from doing something here to fill gaps).
This point was what made me click "love" rather than "like" for your post.

The idea that characters should work is fundamental to RPGing (in my view) but is something that so many RPGs struggle with, mostly because of legacy approaches to design.
 

Reynard

Legend
In a more traditional RPG, the character typically gets to apply a specific status condition as the result of the use or some prescribed ability. If you use a Trip Attack, the opponent is Prone. In Fate, Create an Advantage allows the creation of pretty much any Aspect you can dream of, if you can find an action that narratively works to that end.
I think that's an artificial distinction. First, it is easy to imagine a traditional game that has a broad palette of potential status effects. Second, the potential Aspects as a consequence of Creat An Advantage isn't nearly infinite: it must make sense in the context of the circumstances in which it is employed.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
I think that's an artificial distinction.

I don't feel "fixed, focused, combat-tactical scope" vs "open, broad, arbitrary scope" is at all artificial.

But then, we already seem to disagree that diegetic/adiegetic is a valuable distinction, so that we disagree on further stuff isn't surprising.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I think that's an artificial distinction. First, it is easy to imagine a traditional game that has a broad palette of potential status effects. Second, the potential Aspects as a consequence of Creat An Advantage isn't nearly infinite: it must make sense in the context of the circumstances in which it is employed.
It seems like this would lead to a lot of special pleading by players that this specific aspect they want to inflict makes sense in the context of the circumstances, and wasn't chosen just because it provides the most mechanical advantage.

It's similar to the main issue I have with aspects in general. I've played several games that use them, and IME it always leads to players doing their darndest to leverage positive ones whether they make sense of not, and ignore negative ones whether they make sense or not, for mechanical reasons.
 

Reynard

Legend
I don't feel "fixed, focused, combat-tactical scope" vs "open, broad, arbitrary scope" is at all artificial.
Sure, if you eliminate the actual context in which they would be deployed at the table, it looks like a major differnce. But IME in play it isn't that different.
But then, we already seem to disagree that diegetic/adiegetic is a valuable distinction, so that we disagree on further stuff isn't surprising.
I don't think I have made any arguments about diagetic versus adiagetic at all. Hell, I didn't even know what diagetic meant until recently (probably from in this thread).
 

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