Narrative Control - Horizontal and Vertical

Tod's picture

I've talked about the difference between Narrative and Story, and about the nature of Narrative Structures. Now I'm going to show you how I'm applying that theory in game design. From the DayTrippers GameMasters Guide:

You can't know the Story until it emerges, because its whole shape depends on Players' actions. But everyone knows a "good story" follows a good Narrative Structure. This is a tough problem in RPGs, because while all stories have a Narrative Structure, how well they follow it depends on many details. Our approach will be based on the following precepts:

  1. In a well-shaped Narrative Structure, tension rises through a series of events involving assorted difficulties for the protagonists to face. It culminates with a Final Crisis in which the protagonists overcome their main problem and (classically) obtain the Maguffin.
  2. Every Story has a Crisis. Usually more than one. The word "Crisis" means one of four things:
    • COMPLICATION -- something goes wrong, gets harder
    • OBSTACLE -- something must be overcome or obviated
    • EFFECT -- something unexpected is caused to happen
    • DISCOVERY -- something learned to have implications
  3. Complications and Obstacles are things that happen to you. Effects and Discoveries, on the other hand, are the results of something you do or something you learn.
  4. A Crisis may be Internal (a problem within the group), External (a physical or environmental problem), Social (a communicative or ethical problem) or Psychological (a personal, emotional or cognitive problem).
  5. All types of Crisis will force some kind of reaction to occur, not only from the PCs but also from NPCs and other narrative elements.
  6. Different characters may endure different Crises within the same Story, either on their own or in groups.
  7. Ideally the difficulty and stakes of each Crisis increase as we approach The Final Crisis.
  8. Every DayTrippers adventure ends with the drama of a "regularly appearing" Crisis: The Slip Home.

We will avoid "railroading" the Story by separating narrative elements into Objects with no fixed order,
and we will address the "narrative structure" problem by separating the Players' "horizontal control" from the GM's "vertical control".

Tod's picture

This is how Narrative Structure is handled without railroading, in a game of DayTrippers...

Imagine a 3-dimensional grid. A cube. The horizontal axes represent the entire range of possibility; all possible stories in this particular session. X (east/west) is Time and Y (north/south) is Space. The Z axis (altitude) represents "Tension". So moving north/south is moving through space, moving east/west is moving through time (east is forward), and moving up/down represents higher tension vs lower tension. Got that in your head? Good. Let's apply this model to a game session.

3D Narrative Grid

As the PCs move around in the world, if we looked downward on the cube from above, their path would tend to meander north and south (space) while drifting eastward (time) across the grid. A flashback scene would create a zigzag, flashing westward at an angle and then quickly zipping eastward again. The Objects in the PlotField (including the Players themselves) take care of plotting that line, with only the occasional ruling or dice roll required.

This is all as expected, but it's not the only way you're looking at it. As the GM, you're also looking at the cube sideways, trying to accomplish a "Flightpath" with that rising arc, gut-wrenching climax and soft-landing denouement that denotes a satisfying narrative structure. As a result, while the Players have total freedom of movement on the horizontal planes, the level of the challenges and the stakes at risk are guided along the Z axis as you work the "vertical control", indicated by the dashed lines in the diagram above.

"Controlling the Vertical" simply means increasing or decreasing the amount of tension in the fiction. This is done by introducing, compounding or removing various Crises at certain points, and watching for opportunities when Player actions do the same.

Paul T.'s picture

I like this version of the explanation, Tod. It is clearer to me than other things you have tried in the past; still theoretical but with fairly obvious practical applications. I like it!

As I read it, I find myself wondering about using it in play. Depending on how a GM interprets the idea of vertical control, we could be talking about something relatively basic - something everyone does, to some extent - or some pretty heavy handed railroading. It all depends on what tools the GM uses to implement the 'vertical control', after all; it's generally not possible to influence the level of 'narrative tension' without influencing the narrative itself, after all.

If you're interested in writing more, I'd like to hear more about the specific techniques you might use to implement “vertical control”.

Tod's picture

My schedule is crazy and I have more to say, but this link will provide a basis for that discussion, when I get back to this thread again. :-) Happy Holidays!

Paul T.'s picture

I'm still very curious about practical applications - it seems to me that the implementation, in this case, is far more important than the basic ideas.


Tod's picture

So. The cube described above is a good way of picturing the horizontal-vs-vertical aspect, and that's important, but I should note that I do not run with a copy of this cube, or a diagram of the cube. It's just a convenient way of describing an ideal form in my head: an Arc that (a) makes sense given what's emerging from the Players and (b) presents a rising sense of tension or a mounting series of conflicts in pursuit of some goal, reward, or meaning.

What I do have a printed copy of while I'm running is the Story Circle. My form is actually circular (see here) but there's no reason you couldn't just write out each phase vertically as you go down the page. While moving through the Story Circle I pay close attention to the actions, cues, and psychic content arising from both the characters and the Players themselves, looking for opportunities for Crises to emerge as the PCs move through the emerging narratopography.

A "Crisis" is a Complication, Obstacle, Effect or Discovery. These are the things I'm constantly looking for and weighing in my head. I especially look for them in phases 4-7 (that's the interior arc inside the circle diagram), and I try to make each one harder or more complicated than the previous one. The exact number of Crises is variable, but in a typical 3-4 hour session representing a single "episode," I find that 3 is a good number to shoot for. Often the first one is minor but sets the mood/theme for what is to come, the second one is more serious and there's usually something important at stake, and the third one is a big climactic necessity standing between the PCs and the final goal.

As I've said elsewhere, the Crises are best looked at in reverse order: Discovery, Effect, Obstacle, Complication. That's because Discoveries and Effects are based on PC agency and are therefore more desirable, while Obstacles and Complications - should you have nothing better to work with - are usually pretty easy to improvise and rationalize from the fiction.

When the session is in the Crisis Zone (phases 4-7), I'm looking around at the fiction and the PCs' actions, asking myself "What sort of Crisis might come from this?" Sometimes the Players find something that has disastrous implications: Discovery. Sometimes they do something (or roll poorly) and the Crisis becomes instantly obvious: Effect. Other times an NPC or creature acts on its own motivators and gets in the PCs' way, or a barrier must be overcome: Obstacle. Sometimes I put something/someone in jeopardy, or throw in something the Players wish they'd known earlier, because it changes things for the worse: Complication.

It's important to note that before play begins, I have no idea what these things are going to be. I may have some NPC goals and potential Obstacles or adversaries in mind, but that doesn't mean they'll actually be used, nor does it mean I won't be improvising something completely different in play, because the story went somewhere I hadn't expected. But each Crisis, whatever it is, it must make sense with the fiction, and whenever possible it should arise from the actions of the PCs or the Psychic Content of the Players.

DeReel's picture

I totally see how you can use the StoryCircle as a writer, or as a GM. It reminds me of Directions RPG, where players evolve through various dramatic structures. My use for it, with a GMful table, would be to celebrate the passing of each "gate" (entering a new section of the wheel) like in a rallie or a regatta.
But what if they keep missing a gate ? Do they timeout ?

DeReel's picture

There are two obvious ways of coding the graph into a game :
1° taking the graph as a general - neverending - movement upward is what most campaign games with long term resources (Burning Wheel chiefly) did. Macro-resources accumulating or depleting, stakes increase, and fictional crisis highs and lows manage local variations (4-5, 6-7).
2° taking the bounds of the graph seriously, and simply declaring an act structure with declared (fictional) higher stakes and tighter frames, with constraints from past game accumulating, does that (Penny for my thoughts, Misspent Youth, Fiasco, Lovecraftesque, for instance, but I am sure there are better, more iconic examples).
3° Some games probably add mechanical constraints to 2°. The act structure can be just like a tick on a clock, right ? Heck, increasing damage output according each round precisely does this at micro-level ? that sort of things.

Thanuir's picture

I would react to this in the same way as to any intuitive control; what does it matter what I do, since there will be upturns and downturns coming my way anyway, in a Robin D. Laws -style emotional rollercoaster?

Given that this is happening, what meaning should I find in the game? Maybe try to time the up- and downturns in some manner, though that sounds kinda gm vs. player in spirit, and not terribly fun in any case.

webtech's picture

It is an easy mistake to make - and many do at first blush - to believe that the vertical elements must always be related to a single central arc. They do not.
So the Crises and "Beats" (if your model uses beats) are more like "Fruitful Voids" for the GM. And it works *amazingly* well.

It is common for the GM to present fruitful voids to Players, thanks to modernist games and narrativist styles. But why only one way?
It seems less common to consider that such techniques might just as well be applied to the arc itself, and answered by the GM in real-time.
This approach allows the GM to be just as spontaneous and inventive as we ask Players to be -- except we apply that to arc and pacing. It is *game*.