The Art of Narration – Part 1

Some of my readers may recall that back before the holidays I engaged in a bit of a debate about the merits of using box text descriptions.  It had been argued that box text was a lousy way to introduce an encounter because it gets in the way of game-play.  Allegedly reading aloud a pre-scripted description interrupts the conversational flow of the game and saddles players with more information than they can handle, resulting in boredom.

I’ve already discussed why I don’t think these arguments work (here and here).  But the point was made that I hadn’t actually explained fully why I believe box text to be useful in the first place.  I had considered writing a followup post that would do just this.  However it occurred to me that underlying this question are much broader concerns about the nature of RPGs and the GM’s roll within them.  In particular, how does (or ought) a narrative develop in an RPG?  In this series I’ll explore this and related questions with an eye towards providing practical tips that will aid game play at the table.

Prolegomena

Part of the controversy surrounding boxed text has to do with assumptions about just what a role playing game is and how it should be played.  Several game designers have observed that at its heart a role playing game is just a conversation.  As D. Vincent Baker notes in Apocalypse World:

Roleplaying is a conversation. You and the other players go back and forth, talking about these fictional characters in their fictional circumstances doing whatever it is that they do. Like any conversation, you take turns, but it’s not like taking turns right? Sometimes you talk over each other, interrupt, build on each others’ ideas, monopolize. All fine.

Based on this observation some have concluded that boxed text is an inappropriate device to employ in an RPG because it violates the basic form of the game.  It interrupts the conversational flow of the game with oration.  The problem with this argument is that it’s far too reductionistic.  Casting an RPG as a form of conversation is a useful metaphor for thinking about the basic form of the game.  It is, however, just an abstraction. There’s obviously much more to an RPG than just conversation, and much would be lost if we applied Occam’s Razor too liberally to shave off anything that fails to measure up to our expectations about what a conversation should or should not consist in.1

In order to assess the merits of descriptive devices such as box text we need a more robust understanding of what an RPG is and how it is supposed to function.  On one level defining an RPG isn’t too difficult.  The definition is suggested by its title: a Role Playing Game is a game which involves players assuming certain fictional roles.

But this isn’t very illuminating.  A slightly more fine grained definition might be that it is a collective storytelling game in which players assume certain rolls and describe what their characters do and in which some mechanism is employed to resolve questions about what actually happens.  Yet while a definition like this may enable us to get a grasp on what an RPG essentially is, it offers little practical guidance in figuring out how to play, let alone determining what might constitute playing the game well.

Numerous other questions must first be answered before we can gain clarity on these matters.  What sort of story shall we tell?  Whose responsibility is it to see to those elements of the story that don’t directly involve the player characters?  How much, if any, of the story’s plot should be predetermined?  What sorts of mechanisms should we employ for resolving conflict?  The norms of game play might vary widely depending upon how these questions are answered.

Consider for instance the differences between say a Hyboria style Swords & Sorcery pulp game and that of a modern supernatural horror game such as World of Darkness.

The first genre favors a gritty style of game play in which combat features writ large and player character mortality is high.  Generally there are no predetermined plot-arcs, and in-depth character backgrounds are not encouraged.  The lion’s share of the narrative develops spontaneously as players interact with the world they inhabit.  The storyline does not revolve around the characters.  It centers on the evolving world which the player’s have helped to shape through the countless deeds of fallen or retired characters.

The genre of supernatural horror in World of Darkness by contrast, lends itself to a much different style of play.  The biographies, interior life , goals and relational structures of the characters form a much more central aspect of the narrative.  Much more attention is paid as well to setting the tone and mood of a scene or encounter.  There is usually an intricate plot (or node) structure that interweaves various overlapping storylines.  Combat is deadly, and for that reason generally avoided.

The different genre styles embodied in each of these games come with different norms governing both how the game should be run and how it should be played.  However they do share some commonalities as well.  One of which being that they both assign to one individual the roll of narrator.  This isn’t a trivial commonality.  There are other ways an RPG might tackle those elements of the narrative that do not involve the direct actions of the player characters.  This roll might be alternated by each of the players within the course of an evening session, like in the Polaris RPG.  Alternatively each player might take turns describing what their characters are doing while simultaneously narrating other aspects of the scene, as occurs in the Universalis RPG.  The decision of whose roll it is to narrate these aspects of the story will affect how the narrative unfolds in a game, and as a consequence, how the game is to be played.

The upshot of the discussion so far is that questions of how an RPG ought to be played cannot be determined in the abstract.  There is not a single right way to play an RPG.  Different norms govern different conventions.  There are however better or worse ways to play the game based upon the conventions you’ve chosen to work within.

The GM As Narrator

The majority of RPGs on offer have opted to assign the roll of narrator to a single individual, the Game Master.  So then, what sorts of norms govern this ubiquitous convention?  How does a GM narrate well?  I will explore this question in greater length throughout the course of this series.  For now I’ll just offer a few opening considerations.

A role playing game is different than any other medium of storytelling, and for that reason what makes for good narration in an RPG will look somewhat different than in a novel, a play or a film.  To begin with, given that this is a collaborative form of storytelling, the narrative will not be anywhere near as scripted.  The players direct the actions of their own characters, and their choices form the central threads of the narrative.  The roll of the narrator is simply to provide the context in which meaningful choices can be made.

This context involves everything from backdrop, to set pieces to cast of supporting characters to plot or scenario elements.  The narrator’s job is to immerse the players in the world their characters inhabit, to breathe life into its inhabitants and their customs,  and in general to captivate the imagination of the players.  Unlike the theater or the cinema however the GM has no sensory cues to work with, no stage, no set dressings and no special affects.  The GM must rely upon words to describe all of these to the players.

There is a danger to be aware of here.  Lengthy narration often hinders rather than facilitates role play.  Excessive detail is tedious.  Too much information is overwhelming.  Hence the GM must cultivate the skill of painting a picture with very few words.

There is much more to be said.  But in short, excellence in RPG narration requires the ability to skillfully arrange and describe scenarios which stir the imagination and invite the players to make meaningful choices which advance the storyline.

Next time I’ll talk about narrative mode and why it matters.

1In fact, one might go as far as to say that this sort of argument amounts to what Alfred Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (or ‘reification’), insofar as it mistakenly identifies the abstract form of an RPG with an accurate description how the game is actually played.

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3 thoughts on “The Art of Narration – Part 1

  1. I am currently running an old TSR adventure N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God. I am using Swords and Wizardry rules. There are many examples of boxed text in the adventure. These are generally short and useful. The least useful part of the descriptions are the paragraphs following the boxed text, where the rest of the important information is bunched into a mass of words that can be difficult to quickly decipher and use. This is the part of an adventure I am most interested in improving.

    I find boxed text to be useful because in my experience as GM it has been useful.

    1. This highlights the importance of the layout of information. I think we can all agree that the “wall of text” you mentioned is an example of poor organization. Things gradually improved (by the 3e era the encounter format had been greatly improved), but the sheer volume of information at hand was still a bit cumbersome.

      I think the “One Page Dungeon” format that is embraced by many in the OSR is a corrective to this, as it trimmed away a lot of the excess fat. The point of contention is whether or not boxed text ought to be trimmed away. Like you I personally find it useful. Not everyone does of course, but later in this series I will touch upon a few more points about good narration that I hope will vindicate boxed text.

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