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Who authors the shared fiction in RPGing?

pemerton

Legend
This topic has come up in a couple of recent threads - this one on GMing, and this one on railroading. (EDIT: And also in one of the S&S threads.)

There is a very traditional, even orthodox way, of authoring the fiction in RPGing:

1. The GM prepares material (content, backstory) in advance of play - quintessentially a map and a key, plus associated notes which might include timelines of events etc.​
2. The players build PCs. This may be done independently of step 1, or perhaps the GM tells the players a bit about the material s/he's prepared, or perhaps there's even a bit of back-and-forth between players and GM (eg a player wants to play a PC with a pirate background, and so the GM adds some notes about pirates to his/her prepared material).​
3. The game starts with the PCs at a particular place on the map, at a particular time. The GM consults his/her notes (map keys, timelines etc) and tells the players what their PCs are experiencing - I will call this framing a scene. The players declare actions for their PCs - some of these are resolved by consulting the notes (eg the notes tell us what will be found if a certain rock is lifted up, or how a NPC will react if asked a certain question), and some by resolving checks, and maybe some by a bit of both.​
4. Eventually the players will declare actions that move their PCs to a different part of the map; and/or the passage of in-game time will lead the GM to have regard to some other aspect of his/her prep (eg a timeline with certain events noted on it) and therefore we go back to a new iteration of step 3.​

The basic structure here is GM prep and material => GM scene framing => player action declaration => outcomes that flow from the interplay of prep plus actions.

One variation on this structure, found in many modules (eg the 3E D&D module Bastion of Broken souls) is to encourage the GM to create new material between step 4 and returning to step 3 so that s/he can stick to a pre-conceived series of framings. In Bastion of Broken souls, this takes the form of advice about new villains to introduce if the main villain is killed, so that there will still be an in-fiction rationale for framing the scenes set out in the module, with the "second string" taking the place of the antagonist the GM has killed.

But anyway, here's a different way of doing authorship in RPGing. It is not a variant on the traditional structure, but rather a pretty different approach:

1. Prior to play, the players and GM agree on a genre, go back-and-forth to settle some basic questions about the setting, and the players build PCs. Those PCs reflect the player-GM back-and-forth; and those PCs have clear goals and trajectories that emerge from their agreed backstories.​
2. Play begins with the GM framing a scene that speaks to those PC goals and trajectories. Because a scene needs content - a place, maybe some other people - framing the scene means authoring some content.​
3. The players declare actions for their PCs that engage the scene. If the GM has done his/her job properly at step 2, then the players' declared actions can be expected to be fairly vigorous rather than tentative - more about impacting the situation then just finding out more about it. Some of those actions will change story elements already present in the scene (eg something gets stolen, or purchased, or broken; a NPC gets persuaded, or scared off, or killed; etc). Some of those actions will seek to introduce new story elements - new content and material - into the scene (eg learning something that wasn't already established at step 1 o step 2); different RPG systems have different ways of handling this, but however it's done there are obviously no pre-authored notes that can be referred to by anyone to provide an answer.​
4. Eventually the scene will resolve, but the outcomes of action resolution and/or unresolved goals and trajectories will provide material allowing the GM to frame a new scene - return to Step 3.​

The basic structure of this alternative approach is shared minimal prep (genre + PC backstory and context) => GM scene framing => player action declarations => outcomes of action resolution including new material being created. Some of that new material might be created by the GM - eg imagine a scene which, as framed, includes a building, and suppose that a player declares that his/her PC sneaks into a building; the check fails; and the GM narrates the failure by saying "You try to sneak in, but as you creep up the stairs you see someone who looks rather drunk, half-sitting, half-lying on the staircase landing; as you see her she sees you too, half-opening her eyes and her hand going to the sword tucked into her belt." Now it's established, as part of the content of the setting, that in this building there is this person in this state doing this thing.

Some of that new material might be created by a player - eg imagine the same scene, and another player declares that s/he is looking for any signs that the building might be more than it appears to be. The GM asks what the player has in mind, and the player replies "Well, this place seems pretty grim and so I'm wondering if there might be some kind of echo of this building in the Shadowfell". The GM calls for an Arcana or Aura-Reading or <insert system-appropriate ability> check, the player succeeds, and so the GM narrates that the PC can, indeed - with his/her Arcane senses - detect a Shadowfell echo of this building, that is the source of grim malaise about the place.

One generic label for this sort of approach is "no myth" - it's not perfect, but it tries to capture the idea that material - setting content and backstory is not there from the start as an input, but rather is an output of play, of framing and action resolution, that grows over time. Another generic label is "story now" - because the emphasis of play is on the immediacy of the situation and the imperatives to action, rather than a sense that a significant focus of play is coming to grips with the content (maps, keys, notes, timelines) that have already been authored by the GM.

Just as there can be variations of the traditional approach, so there can be variations of this alternative approach. For instance, the GM might use a setting book to help get material for framing scenes, or to help get material for narrating consequences like the drunk warrior on the landing; and different systems will have different ways of resolving action declarations, particularly those that implicate new player-author content like Shadowfell echoes. What is key, though, even when a setting book is being used, is that the content is introduced as an output of play; it's not treated as a constraining input in the manner of the traditional approach.

Systems which are particularly associated with some form of "no myth"/"story now" include Apocalypse World, Dungeon World (which calls it "draw maps, leave blanks"), Burning Wheel, Blades in the Dark (which is also a good example of a system that uses a setting book to obtain material to help with framing scenes and narrating consequences); indeed, many "indie" RPGs.

I think it can help in many discussions, both about D&D but even moreso when branching beyond D&D, to recognise that these difference are possible, and that there is no single way of approaching the authorship of the fiction that is identical to RPGing as such.
 
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Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
I think that's a fair assessment of the two. What I find very interesting are attempts to blend the two in various ways, which you find, for example, in a lot of indie OSR products. What seems to be missing is a vocabulary we can use to describe what is happening in cases like that. More specifically, a vocabulary that will support (or even simply allow) an account that compares the same kind of effort in two cases. Or to describe the difference between OSR product one and the tradition approach. I think that vocabulary is at least suggested by some of the work you've done here. I'm interested to see what others have to say about it.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I think that's a fair assessment of the two. What I find very interesting are attempts to blend the two in various ways, which you find, for example, in a lot of indie OSR products. What seems to be missing is a vocabulary we can use to describe what is happening in cases like that. More specifically, a vocabulary that will support (or even simply allow) an account that compares the same kind of effort in two cases. Or to describe the difference between OSR product one and the tradition approach. I think that vocabulary is at least suggested by some of the work you've done here. I'm interested to see what others have to say about it.
"Myth Lite" or "Diet Myth"?
 

pemerton

Legend
I think that's a fair assessment of the two. What I find very interesting are attempts to blend the two in various ways, which you find, for example, in a lot of indie OSR products. What seems to be missing is a vocabulary we can use to describe what is happening in cases like that. More specifically, a vocabulary that will support (or even simply allow) an account that compares the same kind of effort in two cases. Or to describe the difference between OSR product one and the tradition approach. I think that vocabulary is at least suggested by some of the work you've done here. I'm interested to see what others have to say about it.
I think that Ron Edwards' essay on setting-oriented narrativism is relevant to this. But Edwards work needs mediation in order to bring it to ENworld!

In my post - which I think you picked up - I tried to say a bit about the role of setting material in the "no myth" approach. My way to elaborate on that would be to develop what counts as part of the process of framing.
 


What is 'No myth' ? Keeps popping up in discussions.

The basic structure of this alternative approach is shared minimal prep (genre + PC backstory and context) => GM scene framing => player action declarations => outcomes of action resolution including new material being created.

One generic label for this sort of approach is "no myth" - it's not perfect, but it tries to capture the idea that material - setting content and backstory is not there from the start as an input, but rather is an output of play, of framing and action resolution, that grows over time.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
The essay by Edwards is good, but I think his example of setting-centric story-now play is, um, a little odd. Perhaps extreme is closer to what I mean. Personally, I use varying levels of pre-developed 'setting' in my story now games. My guideline is to have enough material for the choices made in character creation to be coherent. In Apocalypse World, much of that same sort of material is actually built right into the playbooks, which is cool. However, if I'm running my own setting, or my own game, I need to give the players some idea of the world they will inhabit, you simply can't play without that, and that means prep. I will draw a distinction here between campaign prep and session prep. I am indexing the former rather than the latter

This brings me to my second point, story-now is not, as some people believe, absent of any prep when prep is at least partially synonymous with 'setting'. It can be, but isn't always, nor does it need to be. Broadly speaking this can and is often accomplished by group world building in some form, but that isn't always the case. I find no-prep more common in games set in some version of modern earth, which has as a side benefit, enormous setting knowledge built in to each player. Fantasy and Sci-fi games replace that real-world knowledge with setting prep, in a huge variety of ways depending on the exact game in question. I think most of those examples escape the orbit of Edward's essay and probably need their own vocabulary and explication.
 

One point where you will run into a lot of wrangling is in Step 1 @pemerton. That is to say, plenty of people have extensive discussions between players and GMs leading up to the development of characters, setting design/selection, probably even rules selection (or at least customization). This is not necessarily prefatory to a 'Story Now' or 'Zero Myth' kind of game.

Yet I have, MANY times here, been told that because there was such collaboration, and then usually ongoing collaboration at various points, on various elements and maybe even direction of the narrative, that "there is no meaningful difference."

Now, to me, and I am expecting to you as well, there IS a meaningful difference in that Story Now is a much more immediate and constant interplay between developing fiction and the process of playing the game on a minute-by-minute basis. A game where every week between sessions the GM asks a few of the players what sort of stuff they want to do, how did things go, maybe exchanges some ideas on material to use next, is one thing. A Dungeon World game in which players can and do, by dint of the mechanics, obligate the GM to bind himself to specific facts during play, is a rather different beast, and is the sort of thing really meant by Story Now.

I think Edwards does capture this kind of distinction, and I think generally it isn't problematic to use a lot of his terminology and concepts. My feeling is that there's more of a 'political' issue with it in the sense that it has been promoted as a more modern form of play, and there are those who feel they are thus being relegated to practitioners of a more 'primitive' kind of play. I don't hold by that, BTW, which is why it is in scare quotes of course. It kind of interestingly compares with other discussions of the use of that term, though! lol.
 

Reynard

Legend
I call it "naked GMing" and I try to do it once a year: gather a group of trusted players for a long weekend at a secluded location and just play entirely off the cuff for 18-24 hours of table time. It is always great fun and sometimes even results in someone one might be able to describe as "coherent."

I'm not sure how I feel about the "no myth" descriptor, but then I don't generally like "Forge style" terminology.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I call it "naked GMing" and I try to do it once a year: gather a group of trusted players for a long weekend at a secluded location and just play entirely off the cuff for 18-24 hours of table time. It is always great fun and sometimes even results in someone one might be able to describe as "coherent."

I'm not sure how I feel about the "no myth" descriptor, but then I don't generally like "Forge style" terminology.
And I'm not a fan of blatant genetic fallacy arguments.

I also don't like some of the Forge terminology, but it isn't because it's Forge stuff, it's because I find a specific term to not be sufficient for my needs. Usually because it's inflammatory, obfuscatory, and/or confusing. No Myth, on the other hand, I find to be a good term -- it's not inflammatory, it's not confusing, it's a fun term for no or very little initial setting. Dungeon World is meant to be run No Myth, as is Apocalypse World. You start play with a genre concept and build some of the initial bones of the world together alongside the characters to inhabit them. The rest is fleshed out in play. There literally is no myth here in play.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
@Ovinomancer - I agree with you, but my point above is that this isn't literally true of either AW or DW, not really. There's enough broad setting strokes, plus a little detail, in the game intro and the playbooks to situate the game to start. I know I'm splitting hairs, but this is more in service to a definitional conversation than it is about general terminology. In terms of the latter I think no myth is an excellent term.
 

pemerton

Legend
The essay by Edwards is good, but I think his example of setting-centric story-now play is, um, a little odd. Perhaps extreme is closer to what I mean.
I've never played the sort of game he describes.

The closest I've come to running a game in which setting is the source of theme/premise, and is used in the way he talks about, is 4e D&D. But that game didn't involve the sort of Glorantha-style "embeddedness in place" that he refers to in part because the whole point of the 4e setting is to propel its violently capable protagonists into gonzo D&D-esque action.

The two games I've run that most closely resemble his approach to embeddedness in place have both been one-shots set in late Victorian England - Cthulhu Dark and Wuthering Heights - but in those games the setting wasn't really the point but more served as the backdrop for finding out what happens to the characters.

Personally, I use varying levels of pre-developed 'setting' in my story now games. My guideline is to have enough material for the choices made in character creation to be coherent. In Apocalypse World, much of that same sort of material is actually built right into the playbooks, which is cool. However, if I'm running my own setting, or my own game, I need to give the players some idea of the world they will inhabit, you simply can't play without that, and that means prep. I will draw a distinction here between campaign prep and session prep. I am indexing the former rather than the latter

This brings me to my second point, story-now is not, as some people believe, absent of any prep when prep is at least partially synonymous with 'setting'. It can be, but isn't always, nor does it need to be. Broadly speaking this can and is often accomplished by group world building in some form, but that isn't always the case.
One point where you will run into a lot of wrangling is in Step 1 @pemerton. That is to say, plenty of people have extensive discussions between players and GMs leading up to the development of characters, setting design/selection, probably even rules selection (or at least customization). This is not necessarily prefatory to a 'Story Now' or 'Zero Myth' kind of game.

Yet I have, MANY times here, been told that because there was such collaboration, and then usually ongoing collaboration at various points, on various elements and maybe even direction of the narrative, that "there is no meaningful difference."

Now, to me, and I am expecting to you as well, there IS a meaningful difference in that Story Now is a much more immediate and constant interplay between developing fiction and the process of playing the game on a minute-by-minute basis. A game where every week between sessions the GM asks a few of the players what sort of stuff they want to do, how did things go, maybe exchanges some ideas on material to use next, is one thing. A Dungeon World game in which players can and do, by dint of the mechanics, obligate the GM to bind himself to specific facts during play, is a rather different beast, and is the sort of thing really meant by Story Now.
I've put these two quotes together as they both deal with the same thing.

I think AW brings a genre - there are hardholds, and cars and bikes, and the bikies travel in gangs. There are lots of guns. And there's a psychic maelstrom, and as a result there are strange psychics and fortune-telling cult leaders and a little bit of weird tech.

It can be spelled out in those few sentences, and I've put them together by reading the playbooks. I could have looked at the discussion of Fronts and might get a bit more detail - there are mutants/grotesques, for instance - but I think there's nothing in that extra detail that one wouldn't be able to get to from what I've stated above. And there's nothing stopping a MC from pushing in slightly different directions that Vincent himself didn't think of!

Burning Wheel is fairly similar: there are Elves, Dwarves and Orcs - all very Tolkien-esque, and when you read the lifepaths there's little or nothing that would catch one by surprise - and then there are humans with lifepaths that drive home a strong mediaeval feel with a hint of sword-and-sorcery coming out of the Slavery & Servitude and Death Cult lifepaths. In other words, its classic FRPGing but whereas D&D leans into the gonzo BW leans into the serious.

If that's what is meant by developing a setting in advance of play, then there's no conflict with Story Now. You can do it the BW way - brainstorm together, get some ideas, build the PCs and then get going in that implied world (or, as I did in my first BW game, say "Hey, the GH map would work for all this" and so we start with that); or the AW way, of playing out the first session and building the initial relationships and then having the GM/MC go away and prepare a setting that makes sense of all that.

But if we're talking not just about a genre and a broad palette that signals the sorts of themes that might figure in play, and are talking something much more specific - there's this village here and they do things this way; there's this stronghold here and its overlord is a cultist of such-and-such a god; etc - then we've moved into the heart of Edwards's "setting dissection" essay. The most traditional models of this sort of setting - eg MERP, the well-known D&D settings, the 80s and onwards Traveller Imperium, etc - all tend to be at odds with "story now" play because they build in not only the premises of conflict but its resolution.

One striking feature of the real world as a site of play is not just that most people know at least a bit about it, but it notoriously doesn't supply its own answers!
 




I've never played the sort of game he describes.

The closest I've come to running a game in which setting is the source of theme/premise, and is used in the way he talks about, is 4e D&D. But that game didn't involve the sort of Glorantha-style "embeddedness in place" that he refers to in part because the whole point of the 4e setting is to propel its violently capable protagonists into gonzo D&D-esque action.

The two games I've run that most closely resemble his approach to embeddedness in place have both been one-shots set in late Victorian England - Cthulhu Dark and Wuthering Heights - but in those games the setting wasn't really the point but more served as the backdrop for finding out what happens to the characters.



I've put these two quotes together as they both deal with the same thing.

I think AW brings a genre - there are hardholds, and cars and bikes, and the bikies travel in gangs. There are lots of guns. And there's a psychic maelstrom, and as a result there are strange psychics and fortune-telling cult leaders and a little bit of weird tech.

It can be spelled out in those few sentences, and I've put them together by reading the playbooks. I could have looked at the discussion of Fronts and might get a bit more detail - there are mutants/grotesques, for instance - but I think there's nothing in that extra detail that one wouldn't be able to get to from what I've stated above. And there's nothing stopping a MC from pushing in slightly different directions that Vincent himself didn't think of!

Burning Wheel is fairly similar: there are Elves, Dwarves and Orcs - all very Tolkien-esque, and when you read the lifepaths there's little or nothing that would catch one by surprise - and then there are humans with lifepaths that drive home a strong mediaeval feel with a hint of sword-and-sorcery coming out of the Slavery & Servitude and Death Cult lifepaths. In other words, its classic FRPGing but whereas D&D leans into the gonzo BW leans into the serious.

If that's what is meant by developing a setting in advance of play, then there's no conflict with Story Now. You can do it the BW way - brainstorm together, get some ideas, build the PCs and then get going in that implied world (or, as I did in my first BW game, say "Hey, the GH map would work for all this" and so we start with that); or the AW way, of playing out the first session and building the initial relationships and then having the GM/MC go away and prepare a setting that makes sense of all that.

But if we're talking not just about a genre and a broad palette that signals the sorts of themes that might figure in play, and are talking something much more specific - there's this village here and they do things this way; there's this stronghold here and its overlord is a cultist of such-and-such a god; etc - then we've moved into the heart of Edwards's "setting dissection" essay. The most traditional models of this sort of setting - eg MERP, the well-known D&D settings, the 80s and onwards Traveller Imperium, etc - all tend to be at odds with "story now" play because they build in not only the premises of conflict but its resolution.

One striking feature of the real world as a site of play is not just that most people know at least a bit about it, but it notoriously doesn't supply its own answers!
I think genre and setting often blend a bit, especially in a 'no myth' kind of game like DW. Now, I can set DW games in some part of my own D&D campaign world, and all that did was establish a few basic elements that are pretty much implicit in the DW material already. Even though the maps have been constantly elaborated since the mid 1970s there's infinite amounts of missing detail, and LARGE blank spots with at most some name like 'Zond' crayoned over it (yes actual crayon in the original map, call it 'oil pastel' if you wish). There's plenty of room for the players to inject whatever, and few hard constraints. Anyway, so what if it violates some established fiction from some 1982 D&D session that most everyone has largely forgotten and only exists as pencil notes in some binder that is now sitting in my garage?

I think you could run DW in WoG too, it would be fine. There might be a few "oh, that must be another name for Hardby" moments, perhaps. In fact, using these sorts of settings can toss you free genre material to chew on. I remember you brought up some examples of super hero play a few years ago that touched on that. Certainly there's a whole range in there from true hard zero myth everything aside from basic genre is established in play all the way to highly detailed canonical settings that have answers for a lot of things. Frankly even the most detailed settings are mere sketches anyway. Their most salient characteristic is just establishment of what is and is not POSSIBLE within their specific milieu. Even that may not be very well constrained!
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
What authored fiction speaks the bones?
Roll 1 : It's a forest
Roll 2 : It's raining
Roll 3 : There is a random encounter
Roll 4 : The PCs are surprised!
Roll 5 : The encounter is at 100'
Roll 6 : It's a chimera
Roll 7 : It is famished and attacks from above!
 

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