Monday, February 2, 2009

Absentee Narration

This roleplaying and story-gaming post is another for the "what happened at the table" file that I know at least one of my readers is fond of.

On Saturday I ran a Changeling: the Dreaming one session game for the Abigail, Becca, and Jacob, a friend from out-of-state. The premise was all childlings, all pooka, all the damned time, and if you know anything about Changeling, you know that this means that I'm completely insane. I could babble endlessly about Changeling, one of my all-time favorite games, but you don't need to know all of that to understand what I'm going to talk about. What you do need to know is that the characters were playing children, and in the climactic scene of the one-shot - the rescue of the players' characters' teacher, Sir Ben - the following moment occured (paraphrased, of course):

Timmy (Jacob's character), a terribly sneaky eight year old with access to several powerful stealth abilities, had snuck through battle in a warehouse to where Sir Ben was bound with iron chains (a bad thing for a changeling). Timmy managed to pick the locks, freeing Sir Ben. I described Sir Ben reaching for his sword and rising to help win the battle, when both Jacob and the Abigail shouted "wait!"

"What?" I asked.

"What about my sword?" the Abigail asked. Her character, Maddie, had a sword - a blade enchanted to transform whoever it struck into a harmless bunny rabbit - which had been stolen by the same villains who had kidnapped Sir Ben. "Wouldn't it be great if he couldn't find his sword and ended up using my sword instead?"

Jacob nodded. "That was just what I was thinking."

Of course, there was no way I was going to shoot this down. First of all, it would protagonize the Abigail's character in a final scene dominated by powerful grown-up Storyteller characters. Secondly, the thought of the serious and patient straight man that was Sir Ben charging into battle with a sword that turned his victims into bunnies, and what would inevitably happen next, was hilarious.

So, of course, I changed my narration so that Ben glanced about for his sword, didn't see it, and instead took up the ornate longsword covered in depictions of fierce-looking rabbits. I narrated how Ben waded into the fray and turned a huge blue troll into a bunny, to the cheers of all my players.

But, it got me thinking. Although it was a great experience for all my players (even the third player, Becca, who hadn't been involved in the sword switch at all), the moment was a little unsatisfying for me.

Before Jacob, Becca, and the Abigail (who all read Burning Zeppelin Experience) get upset and concerned that I wasn't having, let me explain: what happened on Saturday was a moment of narrative success and mechanical failure. Mechanically speaking, because the Abigail's character was out of the room, there was nothing she could do to influence events so that the amusing series events could come to pass. Because I was the Storyteller and I hadn't described the scene so that Maddie's sword was anywhere nearby, there was nothing Jacob could do, either. In order to bring about this highly amusing vision, we had to step outside the game. We experienced a collective moment of creativity that made a good scene great (and really funny), but it had to come solely from us. The game failed us.

I am not an immersionist. By that, I mean I do not roleplay solely - or even primarily - for the experience of forgetting distractions and being my character. Similarly, although I agree that system matters in a general way (and think GNS theory is overapplied), I don't need a system to be dead on. I'm willing to accept that some games need a little adjustment and occasionally bypassing a game's rules in the name of fun doesn't mean that the game is a failure or you are somehow "playing it wrong."

Disclaimers aside, however...

I think it would be really nifty if there were a game that handled this little problem. After all, from a certain perspective, Maddie's sword is already an extension of Maddie... and therefore of the Abigail's narrative will, of her presence in the game. Why shouldn't the Abigail be able to make choices around her narration of the sword regardless of where her character is?

What's most fascinating for me, you see, is the degree to which the Abigail was satisfied with this conclusion. The Abigail is usually a stickler for protagonization. I mean this with all affection; I am a big fan of protagonization, too, after all. What I mean by this is that the Abigail gets really annoyed when she is made to feel like her character is not suitably central to her story. She's gotten quite mad in the past when, for example, other players picked up plot threads central to her character and started hogging them. As it became increasingly apparent that the one-shot was going to end with the grown-ups having a big fight, I was concerned that the Abigail and the rest of my players were going to be disatisfied.

The thing is, they weren't disatisfied; in fact, they all loved it. The fact that Maddie's sword was there, in the final battle, thanks to the efforts of Timmy (Becca was satisfied, I believe, because the entire battle happened because of her - she'd run for help and brought grown-ups into it in the first place) made everyone happy. And anything that can make everyone happy is a phenomenon worth exploring.

So, how can we do this?

One level, this issue could be resolved as a narration technique. As you run the game, keep in mind the idea that the player's interface with the setting is everything on her character sheet, not just the person. Even when a character's various accutrements - objects, people, etc. - are disconnected from him, ask the player "what do you want to be going on with this?" and treat this narration with the same weight you do his narration of his character's actions.

There is, however, one small problem with this approach. Even though a player's narration of his character's is given weight and authority, it isn't a yes or no situation. In most games, there are game traits and dice or other randomizers involved. That is, if you narrate your character's action as "punching him in the face," I (the GM) take that as "I intend to punch him in the face," and there are dice rolls involved. Your character's ability to punch and her character's ability to not be punched in the face are rated in some way, these traits are compared, and gaming happens.

If Changeling: the Dreaming had granted the Abigail the opportunity to say "Maddie's sword is in the right place at the right time so that Sir Ben sees it instead of his own sword," how, then, would you rank a sword's ability to be in the right place at the right time?

Ideas come to mind, but I'm going to let it go at that. In a later post, I may explore applying this concept, but I think identifying the problem is enough for now.

Sons of Kryos, this one's for you!

* * *

  • Do you know of any games where there are rules to handle absentee narration?
  • Have you ever run into a similar experience, where absentee narration happened and you wished you had a system for it? Or, alternately, have you ever run a game where absentee narration would have been awesome, and the game suffered because it didn't exist.
  • How would you apply the idea of absentee narration to a game design?

4 comments:

Albert said...

Most games that use the phrase "Narration Rights" or similar implicitly leave open the option of what you're calling 'absentee narration'. That is, even though one player has final say over what happens in that part of the scene or conflict, other players aren't necessarily supposed to be keeping quiet. They're supposed to be contributing "Wouldn't it be cool if..." suggestions via on-topic table chatter as well as playing their own character within the narrator's editorial framework. And once the GM's role is refracted into the same concept, suddenly that setup becomes the status quo instead of the unusual case.

So while hardly any of these games have a mechanical way for a non-NR-holding player to force ephemeral details to happen, they set up a social context where everyone (including Mr. NR!) should be working together at all times to build a satisfying situation and story.

Becca said...

I think you yourself said that the final combat was really just window dressing. You basically narrated the baroness and her court kicking ass. The manner in which the ass-kicking took place did not seem to matter as much, and therefore it doesn't really matter where the idea for grabbing the bunny sword came from IMO.

P.S. I'm really bitter that I left my delicious looking berries in your fridge. Please eat them so they don't go to waste?

P.P.S. Abby and I have talked about going to see Coraline if we can ever figure out when it comes out.

Scattercat said...

You may want to look at a game called Universalis. (I'd link to their main page, but it's really hideous and Timecube-esque.) It's a game in which you don't have a character, per se, but you have a certain number of points which you can use to create story-objects or to manipulate ones that already exist.

Angela and I (and Dan and Hannah and David) tried it and didn't care for it, but that was more because of A and I's aversion to having other people touch OUR creative toys. (I.E. I spent all my points to make very specific cool things, at which point I had nothing to stop David from doing stupid crap with them.) Still, it seems to be a game that addresses that issue you touched on.

Mark said...

@ Albert

I agree that most games do what you're describing. It usually (in fact, with a good group, pretty much always) works. Nonetheless, I find myself fascinated by the idea of a game that does this, explicitly.

I suppose that's my approach to game design right there - I look at what happens at the table and I think: "that was nifty - can I make a game that does this, only reliably and with forethought?"

@ Becca

Yes, the Abigail and I will eat your berries (sounds dirty). We'll also go see Coraline (which, by the way, comes out on Friday).

@ Scattercat

As per our gchat conversation earlier, I think Universalis might be a good read for me, but it sounds like a deeply flawed game, probably not one I'd want to play or spend money on.

... by the way, how do you put links in comments? I haven't figured that out yet.