Challenge-based play vs. Narrativism. Incompatible?

Neurotrash's picture

I wrote something really long on my blog.

It covers some questions about the design idea we're exploring in the thread in the design forum, but goes further than that and starts exploring whether a game can be challenged-based and narrative at the same time...

It surpassed the character limit on the Storygames forum, so I figured I'd just post the link rather than try to fit it in here.

Aik's picture

If I read you correctly (no promises) - what you're talking about is perfectly normal. I've heard them called 'character advocacy' games and were a common Forgey-design. The goal of the game from the player side is for their character to achieve what that character wants, within the bounds of that character's understanding of the world.
Making it too easy is still a concern - if your twists just blast away all the obstacles in the character's path, there's no drama in that.

A very large number of games developed to be narrativist on The Forge have all of those 'traditional techniques' you list, and the goal is often explicitly for your character to 'win' by achieving their goals.
The Fudge/Fate 'give you a point if you choose to fail' is antithetical to this type of play.

I remember this series of blog posts being a really good description of the play style:

Paul T.'s picture

That blog is a perfect encapsulation of this playstyle, and describes its appeal really well.

In fact, I'd argue that until Fiasco, the dominant "school" of Narrativist design was all about "character advocacy" play very much in this vein. (You might consider Sorcerer is the originating game for this style of design.)

komradebob's picture

It took some time for games with stances that weren't direct player:character related started taking off in popularity, and got pooh-poohed quite a bit for a while by the Big Thinkers of the Narr-Movement.

Tod's picture

Can we get a definition (your personal definition is fine) of what you mean when you say "Narrativism"? I ask because Wikipedia says "Narrativism relies on outlining (or developing) character motives, placing characters into situations where those motives conflict and making their decisions the driving force." This is something I've pretty much always done, even back in the 80s with AD&D. DayTrippers also does it in several ways. But your blog post implies that your definition goes further than just that, allotting a degree of Narrative Control on the meta level. (DayTrippers also does this, but only in very specific circumstances.) Am I reading you right? And is the Wikipedia definition actually sufficient? (I'm looking at you old-time Forge-ites for that one.)

lumpley's picture

My old working definition of narrativism was pretty much Wikipedia's: at least one fit and motivated character, in a conflicted situation with a moral dimension, using a game system that allows the conflict to escalate to some kind of crisis and resolution, in which the player's an active, crucial participant.

Lots of narrativist games give their players various kinds of narrative control, but to this old-time Forge-ite, what's definitional is only that the player be able under the system to make genuine consequential decisions.


Neurotrash's picture

I guess I haven't really been using "Narrativist" correctly - I think I was mashing definitions onto Forge jargon. Not a good plan.

I think I'm just looking for a word that describes systems that, as Tod said, "allots a degree of Narrative Control on the meta level."

Is there a word for that?

Tod's picture

I too was kinda nonplussed by Wikipedia's definition, thinking that Narrativism - for all the ire that it seems to have caused in some circles - had to be more than simply what I did for my AD&D players. But/so maybe what you're talking about, Neurotrash, is "Narrativism plus Author Stance"?

Neurotrash's picture

Definitely what I'm talking about requires non-Actor Stance - Author or Director...but I don't think I'm just talking about stance.

Here is what I don't have a term for:

1. Game rules that allow players to make meaningful choices about what happens in Author or Director Stance - "decide your character doesn't notice the assassin, and you get a point - lose now to win later" or "spend a point and tell us what's in the drawers" (I don't want to call these "Dissociative Mechanics" because it seems to carry a lot of baggage, based on reading old Storygames threads.)

2. An agenda/playstyle where one's primary goal is trying to create dramatic, compelling, stories narratives that are entertaining as a "transcript" but whose plot/outcome is not preordained.

Not playing to find out "what happens?", but playing to find out "who decides what happens?" - Outcomes are still unknown, but it's about narrative authority rather than in-fiction cause and effect.

Fiasco would be a very good example. Maybe Prime Time Adventures? (I don't own it anymore and it's been a few years)

The above is what I think of when I think of the word "Narrativist", but that's not what that means in Forge-jargon. So what is the word?

And is there a word for games based around Character Advocacy where the rules aren't about successfully using the character's abilities to overcome in-fiction obstacles, but whether the player can use their cleverness/skill/luck to use rules like I described as #1 above to bend the narrative in the direction of their character's goals?

Aik's picture

Maybe I'm not playing Fiasco right, but #2 is pretty much irrelevant in my experience with it. The actual plot, in retrospect, is often absolute shambles - the fun of the game is in portraying characters in the moment.
I actually don't think there are many games where the primary goal is a compelling story in retrospect. Microscope, I guess?

Uh, anyway, I don't have a word for it either.

Paul T.'s picture

...but the description you just gave is very clear! Well done.

If I had to try to sum it up, I might say that you’re looking for techniques that allow the players direct authority over or impact on the storyline.

That does tend to conflict with a classic “challenge-based adventuring” paradigm, yes, but it doesn’t, in theory, have to. There are ways to design around that: you just have to be really careful in design. Make sure the authority you’re assigning doesn’t undermine the challenges of the game, and vice-versa.

You also might consider that something like Baron Munchausen is a game where you (literally) tell stories, but it’s also about challenge: the challenge is to outperform your friends. I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for (just a hunch!), but I’d spend a few moments thinking about that; it might inspire something.

lumpley's picture

There wasn't a name for it at the Forge, at least, but sure, some games work that way. We considered it a branch of narrativist design. It started with James V. West's game The Pool, with Primetime Adventures following as an early breakout game.

The in-joke was that it was the "right-hand path" of narrativist design, after a diagram that Ron Edwards drew one time, that happened to put these games over on the right-hand side of the page. My own games tended left, but naturally I played a ton of both.

Neurotrash's picture

Looking over my last post, I'm definitely describing two different concepts that I'm trying to find words for, but I ended up mixing my descriptions of these together (despite having numbered them.)

I've gone back and bolded what I now think is #1 (a type of rules framework) as opposed to #2 (an agenda).

In this post, I'm gonna try to talk about only #2

Aik said:

Maybe I'm not playing Fiasco right, but #2 is pretty much irrelevant in my experience with it. The actual plot, in retrospect, is often absolute shambles - the fun of the game is in portraying characters in the moment.
I actually don't think there are many games where the primary goal is a compelling story in retrospect. Microscope, I guess?

I think my use of "transcript" implies a "viewed-after-the-fact" aspect that I don't really mean. The act of playing the characters and experiencing other's portrayals is actually a big part of what I'm talking about.

Maybe this is what I'm trying to describe:

Imagine there's someone at the table who isn't playing, just watching. The part they're enjoying is what I'm trying to get at. The events of the plot, the performance and characterization of the characters by the players, the suspense of wanting to know what happens next. This is what I'm talking about, but for the players (mainly), not (only) an outside observer.

I think this is what I mean by, "creating a dramatic, compelling, narrative". Not viewing it from hindsight, but experiencing while it happens.

It doesn't mean it can't be viewed in hindsight by outside observers (what people get out of watching Critical Role definitely falls under what I'm talking about.), but neither of those things is fundamental. I'm really talking about the players, at the time of playing.

If I was going to put the agenda I'm talking about into a pithy, reductive, sentence, I'd probably say, "Playing with the goal of entertaining yourself and others".

Moral dilemmas, conflicting values, traditional story structure - these aren't necessarily intrinsic. They're certainly "best practices" for trying to be entertaining, but if you come away from a game about just solving a mystery or exploring a dangerous environment without a moral element, and you are/were entertained by the resulting fiction, it would certainly qualify for what I'm talking about.

Maybe what I'm NOT talking about will help:
1. Playing to test your tactical and strategic thinking, or your ability to solve puzzles, riddles, etc.
2. Playing to "immerse yourself" in a fictional world and "get into the mind" of a character (this is a little fuzzy - entertainment can be immersive, but it doesn't have to be?)
3. Playing to explore a moral dilemma (once again, fuzzy. This is compelling, but it's not the only thing that can be compelling.)

So that's what I want a word for. That's what I was talking about with #2.

Tod's picture

I feel like the target keeps moving. When you started the thread I thought "Oh, DayTrippers' separation of narrative control into horizontal direction and vertical tension along a traditional narrative arc definitely fits what he's talking about." But then a day or two later the clarifications and examples of author stance made me think not, and I was glad I didn't say that. But now I think it fits again.

Neurotrash's picture

Paul, I'll definitely check out Baron Munchausen. I'm not familiar with it. Maybe it can shed some light on what I'm trying to do.

I think I have a lot more to say about #1 (rules that affect the story and narrative authority directly, the "Right-Hand Path", as it were).

I feel like a lot of the games that use this kind of framework use it mostly as a "spotlight equity" device. Something to make sure everyone gets a say about what happens. I don't (and I'm not super familiar with a lot this type of game, so...grain of salt) feel like there's a strong "competition" element to them.

I think my original essay was a clumsy attempt to explore the idea of introducing more "player skill" into this framework.

Upthread I agreed with the term, "Character Advocacy". I don't currently think that's right. I think it might apply to specifically what I was talking about in the essay, but now I don't think that was what I was going for.

Or maybe it is...just advocating for a different thing.

Not playing for your character to achieve their goals. Playing for your character to be...narratively important?...entertaining?

I once saw something (no idea who said it) that defined a storygame as, "A game where Samwise was built with more points than Legolas".

That's what I'm looking for. Competing (through rules) not to decide if you survive or achieve you goals, but playing to see to what degree your character is Frodo, as opposed to...Fatty Bolger?

(In the rules framework I'm talking about, Fatty Bolger's player rolled a lot of botches.)

Neurotrash's picture

Yeah. I think I was talking about two things when I thought I was talking about one.

I think #1 (rules) is what you're talking about?

Paul T.'s picture

...have character advocacy and the centrality of the character built-in, so to speak, since the whole point is to portray a protagonist in a story that asks them to address some kind of premise.

Is it possible to make a game which makes that more of an emergent property, or challenges the players to “compete” for which character is more of a central protagonist?


I think there are so many ways to do that, that it’s hard to give any more specific answer.

For example, in In a Wicked Age..., characters are rewarded with long-term benefits if they assume an underdog position dramatically.

In games like Universalis, there’s a sense of finding out who the truly important characters are, as well.

I haven’t seen a lot of games in this design space, but it’s certainly possible. I had a game called Inconceivable which did this a bit.

I haven’t seen a truly hardcore version yet. Capes may be worth looking at; it has a bunch of mechanics which allow you to try to make your “thing” more important or central, and then the other players respond with their own moves.

I’m not sure if this is helpful, because I’m still not entirely sure what the question is, though!

Nathan H.'s picture

I mean, the quick and dirty answer to your question is yes.
Yes, they are incompatible.
Was that so hard?

I think the words challenge-based and narrative-based might be poorly chosen, but who am I?
I'd try and narrow down what that actually meant.
Can you have a game that focuses somewhat on a cycle of pass/fail, still produce something that somewhat resembles a story.

Nathan H.'s picture

I think it's the knowing why you(the player) failed that fucks with any sense of story.
I mean, this isn't always the case. Sometimes, in a role-playing game, you just fail, and get no reason, in-game, why. But if the rules are there to inform you of play, what's the story there to inform of? Why have two masters?

Nathan H.'s picture

What's the story there for, if the game is doing all the informing?
It's like playing the piano and having sex; you're not gonna be great, at doing both simultaneously.
I guess that's why the whole DM/players division has lasted as long as it has?
The distribution of story(the piano playing) is given primarily to one person, while the game parts(the sex) are handled by everyone else.

komradebob's picture

I think that, if your challenge is at the real world, real people level, then yes, you can have narrative control and the appeal of overcoming challenges in the same game.

For what I'm puttering with (again), the thing is non-character monogamous and uses heavy director/author stance. In it, the challenge is literally co-operatively creating a series of fictional events in a limited real-life time frame.


Here though, I'm trying to clearly state that part of the challenge to differentiate it from more traditional design focus of challenge as in-fiction and/or PvP/PvGM/PvScenario.

That's a very different sort of challenge, so I feel it needs to be explained, underlined, and written in 10 foot high letters.

Tod's picture

I agree. Fiasco (and similar games) actually have two games going on. There's the "roleplaying game" in which characters face imaginary challenges, and then there's the "collaboration game", which happens not in any imagined space but right here in Reality Prime(TM). The second is meta to the first. The challenge of the collaboration game is to spontaneously create scenes that make sense given the genre and your character, even while you are unable to predict what the other Players are gonna throw at you.

komradebob's picture

That is a great way to explain it, Tod. I find it very hard to describe to friends offline, mostly because they've only experienced RPGs as character players, and have very little experience as GMs. It's hard for them to visualize RPG play as anything except in-fiction challenges to a team of characters.

And yeah, with what I was working on, that bit ("The challenge of the collaboration game is to spontaneously create scenes that make sense given the genre and your character, even while you are unable to predict what the other Players are gonna throw at you.") really does constitute the main challenge. That's also part of the reason I'm throwing time limits in there, to up the challenge a bit.

Neurotrash's picture

That is exactly what I was talking about! (but in a much more concise/less addled manner than I was able to pull off)

I'm talking about what Tod calls "The collaboration game" and how to focus on those rules and make them more competitive/challenging. To make them, as Komradebob says, "the main challenge."

Not even necessarily super competitive, but more like a game of catch. Give the players mechanical tools to throw each other curveballs, put each other in situations and ask, "how do you resolve this issue?" but not based on their characters' skills or powers. Instead, based on narrative tools to change aspects of the scenes, introduce new plot points/characters/relationships/etc.

Komradebob, do you have anything to look at for the game you mentioned you were working on? Notes? Etc.?

Oh, and what do we call the "The Collaboration Game"? That was what I was talking about when I was talking about "Narrativist rules" earlier, but that's clearly not the correct term.

komradebob's picture

let me look around. I may have put something up on google docs.
None of it was super involved though.
I was writing a game (or playstyle) for kids and non-gamers, so it was more like a GM-less parlor game than anything else.

komradebob's picture


Essentially, I changed perspective by telling players that they were people hired to make a movie centered around [genre/setting/situation/roughly sketched cast of characters] rather than characters in a movie about [same stuff].

The middle mechanics weren't terribly clever, just stuff mostly borrowed from other lightweight, distributed GMing games ( Archipelago was a fairly big influence, along with some of its variants).

What is a bit different is that I added a few things like the time constraints ( total play time is supposed to be no more than 2 x 4hour sessions, and preferably only one) and that I added to different, layered post-play decompress/debrief mechanics.

1) A series of not very serious cards talking about how the just-created movie went down with the public. Players have options to see these and choose one and just do a brief answer off-the-cuff to the questions. If players obliquely pick a bit at one another good naturedly with their answers or engage in some goofy, self-deprecating humor, those are working as intended. But they're also supposed to get players thinking about the story created as a whole, including what they might change or cut, if it really was some sort of story for another audience.

2) "Valentines cards". I made series of relatively generic cards, about 8 in total, each expressing a sentiment like " Hey buddy, you were really, really good at [ activity X that made play enjoyable]". Each player gets a stack of these. After everything else is done, players deal out one card from their stack to each other player, face down. Once everyone has done this, the remainder of their outgoing stack is discarded to a common pile, each player shuffles their received cards and then checks out what they got. If you received say, three different types of cards from other players, consider yourself an all-arounder. Your playstyle had different elements that appealed to different people. If you got some multiples of a single card type ( or similar), you're strong in one particular area and people noticed and appreciated that.

Players can see either ( although the Valentine's cards are maybe more important to give individual focus and goals) or both types of cards before play begins and it shouldn't ruin anything.

Note that neither has any game mechanical effect, although they hopefully have some social level effect over the long-term. They're just group feedback and player recognition mechanics. The particular rules about the Valentine's cards being face down and shuffled before being looked at are to make it easier to praise your fellow players and give feedback by obscuring the source of the feedback a bit.

I've been thinking about adding a third sort of post game wrap up mechanic to the mix of tools ( and I am emphasizing in text that all of the stuff should be thought of as tools more than rules or mechanics). Basically, it's a one-page letter created pre-game and sealed in an envelope by whichever player creates the basic scenario set-up ( etc). In it, the designing/presenting player writes their prediction on what they think/want the other players to do with the "ingredients" they've been handed. Hopefully, hilarity ensues when the letter is read, post-game, if the players went wildly astray from the prediction, or praise is heaped for players who took the basic skeleton and used the ingredients to create something really memorable, but actually pretty close to the implied genre expectations.

Anyway, that's where I'm at with my overall design.

Neurotrash's picture

I think it emphasizes the working together aspect more than the "approaching play from a meta-fictional level" aspect...after all, one could argue all RPGs are collaborative?


Komradebob, that looks cool. Looking forward to seeing where it goes!

Tod's picture

@Komradebob - Is this the same game we were talking about ... almost 3 years ago, following my posts about "ScenePlay" on S-G?
@Neurotrash - I'm only half-serious about the word "Collaborationism." I figure that's what it would have been called if it was considered at the time GNS was developed, to fit in with that taxonomy. But I agree it's not optimal.

komradebob's picture

It never really gets finished, so, yeah :(

What I'm trying to get done right now is a chopped down and focused version that I'm going to farm out to nerdy friends who are parents to field test on their hopefully nerdy offspring.

Paul T.'s picture

It’s also important to consider how you want the players to encounter a collaborative storytelling challenge.

Do you want the whole group to try to do the best they can, together? (Like building something together.) (Archipelago)

Or do you want each player to strive to do it better than the others? (Capes, maybe.)

Or do you want the players to throw challenges at each other, in turn, and see who can overcome those challenges with the most grace? (Baron Munchausen does this. So does Dungeons and Bananas.)

I also really like building other challenge-based goals into collaborative storytelling games in order to shift the focus of competition. Imagine a game where you have a group of heroes trying to survive against a terrible monster. But the way you get points against the monster is by creating emotional dilemmas for each other... now we’re fighting together against this monster, and we have a clear target to aim for, but to do so we have to engage with this metafictional collaborative thing together.

Sometimes the external sense of competition really helps refocus.

komradebob's picture

At least for what I am doing, there's a lot of inherent challenge. It revolves around simply working together at all and getting a project done in a short amount of time.

Did you all ever see the film Barton Fink? At a very, very surface level, the film is about the title character, a talewnted playwright, who is hired by a Hollywood Studio in the 1930s to write movies for them. The studio really loves his "everyman" plays, right?

So they set him to write films, or at least film-doctor scripts for them. They start him on wrestling films. In the movie, he's having a hard time figuring out what to do, so another character just plain tells him: Look here's the formula. Here are the elements of this genre. Now go out, make that, but put your spin on it. That's all they want.

Barton fails horribly, of course, and everything spins out of control, because, hey, Cohen Bros film.

Essentially, the system I'm working on does the same thing, but puts 3-5 people together to do it with a time limit. Hopefully they're more successful than Mr. Fink.

But that's the inherent, RL people level challenge. Even co-operating fully, with tight scene framing/cutting, feel no need to go to the optional tools ( because you're stumped, or two players have differing ideas, or you're using the Itras By YesNoAndBut[details] cards etc), and you are just humming along with keeping on a tight play could still fail. You could make something so paint-by-the-numbers that it never rises to even a basic level of customization and interest. Or, you collectively could "fail" by going so far outside of the working concept, that while great, you've so thoroughly abandoned the original concept that you probably would not be trusted with another project by the studio.

And that's assuming that none of the normal creative clashes and inadvertent blocking associated with shared creation of fiction have occurred to such a degree that you never actually make it anywhere near the finish line ( My system actually assumes many play groups don't make it to the finish, and that's an okay result if there's enough material(scenes) that it is clear it could have been finished with more time).

Again though, it's all built from a perspective outside of the fiction and outside of the characters. If a player is particularly good at getting into the head of a given character, great at portraying them following the natural path of their motivations and personality, and so might make for a better end product. Or it could derail everything the group collectively is trying to accomplish. So, again, an inherent challenge.

All of that kinda hits on what I meant by co-operative, but also challenge filled, but not necessarily keyed to competitive. OTOH, I'd expect there to be some competition of some kind. Different players will want different emphasis, even if their characters aren't competing. If those players can deal with that well, they might great something great from that tension between ideas. Done poorly, resolution of the competition between the RL people takes for ever, and the project crashes and burns.

Forgot this part, but whoever builds the starting stuff also faces a challenge: Providing enough materials to work with but not so much that they've eliminated creative breathing room ( or reduced it to only very small, insignificant areas, like unnamed characters needing names). That challenge looms even larger if the person creating that initial list of ingredients then also participates in the play ( highly likely).

Hopeless_Wanderer's picture

Just as an aside, @Neurotrash said

And is there a word for games based around Character Advocacy where the rules aren't about successfully using the character's abilities to overcome in-fiction obstacles, but whether the player can use their cleverness/skill/luck to use rules like I described as #1 above to bend the narrative in the direction of their character's goals?

Anti-princess-play? Does that work for a label?