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Narrative Control - Horizontal and Vertical

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Narrative Control - Horizontal and Vertical

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:

· 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.

· 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

· 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.

· 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).

· 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.

· Different characters may endure different Crises within the same Story, either on their own or in groups.

· Ideally the difficulty and stakes of each Crisis increase as we approach The Final Crisis.

· 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”.


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 Cyber-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 lines in the diagram below.

“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.


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”.

Thanks, Paul.

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!