Saturday, August 13, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Narrative

I've previously mentioned GNS Theory and the fact that I typically keep it in mind while gaming, plotting, whatever (which is to say, I think about it occasionally, y'know, as a thought exercise).  Note that I'm not sure if it's correct — the field of human endeavor in any activity cannot be simplified to a few core concepts — but it's something that I consider.  So that means it's time for another anecdote.

When I started gaming, I could be considered a simulationist.  I liked the fact that you could model reality with these games, and you could add increasing complexity to make everything more realistic.  It was important not to get lost in the fact that you were telling a story and playing a game, but modeling reality was my secret joy (my notes regarding intricately-detailed neurotoxins in old World of Darkness no doubt still lurk somewhere).  My first game, The Imperial City, primarily reflected this fact by being the most deadly game I've ever run — mistakes were frequently fatal, and the only players who didn't lose a character at some point were the players who only ever played one session (going off alone carried a huge risk of becoming fatal about halfway through the game's run, when it became obvious that the world was full of things that wanted you messily dead).  The characters could pull off marvelous feats together, but any one was squishy and vulnerable (and as a group, they still feared the black cloaked things used by the main antagonist as enforcers).

The Imperial City also had a second simulationist stamp — pretty much anything the characters encountered had full statistics and enough background to render it playable as a full NPC.  I have no idea how many characters I made for that game; I lost count around forty, and that was within, maybe, two years of its eight-year run.

Unknown Armies really emphasized the narrative aspects of gaming, though, and since then I've kept that in mind.  After all, the game only has the model reality in the sense that it has a coherent, logical scope.  It should tell an entertaining story (even if that story is just mindless hack-and-slash or just a story of people dying over and over again in hilarious ways).  And when it stops being entertaining, either bring the story to a close or take a vacation to reinvigorate it.  It's a good time to play that new system you've been wanting to try, or to try that totally wacked-out module that you cribbed together from the ramblings of a homeless guy on K street.

Expect a point to this whole blog post in the next blog post.

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