Why are narrative games so hard to grok?

Nice clickbaity headline, well done. But it’s true – narrative, “modern” games like Fate or Dungeon World are seemingly much harder to run, or even play, correctly, as compared to the more “traditional” games like D&D. By “running the game correctly” I mean using the rules to their full potential and in a manner articulated by the game’s authors. Are the narrative games terrible at explaining themselves, are they inherently unintuitive, is there a problem at all?

The titular observation is based on personal experience (though backed by the prevalence of answers on Fate or DW questions on RPG.SE amounting to “you’re doing it wrong, no really”), so some discussion of said personal experience is warranted. I’d started running RPGs with the release of the preview of D&D 3.0, some sort of quickstart pdf with 1st level characters and a fight against skeletons. As is fairly common, I was the only person in the group dedicated enough to read all the rules, so I ended up running the games. We worked our way through the free adventures WotC had put up on ther website. They were straightforward hack-n-slash affairs, or maybe that was the best I could manage at the time. I wasn’t a good GM, far from it. That took years of practice, of very gradually expanding my range, of trying different approaches, of arguing on an Internet forum (hi, Rolemancer/GameForums), of learning from other GMs (it took moving to a different country to find them).

Through it all, I’ve never felt I was running D&D incorrectly. Sometimes I would misunderstand the way a rule worked – mistakes happened. Often I would not get the experience I expected. I didn’t necessarily have great mastery of D&D 3.5 – not on the level of character optimization boards. As mentioned, the games frequently wouldn’t be any good, just an unsatisfying sequence of fights. And of course I’d get mired in plenty of online arguments about superiority of particular playstyles – but that’s just what they were, playstyles. “Roleplaying vs rollplaying”. I never had a feeling that I’m just not getting how to run D&D, though, only that I wasn’t getting how to be a good GM.

With well over a decade of GMing experience (oh boy), I finally decided to get out of the comfort blanket that is D&D. The tag “First Impressions” documents the more noteworthy of my forays. There were a few smaller games which we tried to play and simply couldn’t get to work for us – they didn’t make it onto the blog. Even in the games that did, a common theme would emerge: I’d read the book, and be uncertain I could actually run the game well. I’d read it again. Then I’d go online and look for existing discussion, easily finding other people with same concerns, which hardly dissuaded my fears.

This was particularly notable with Fate: the entire first campaign I ran in it was essentially a learning experience, both for myself and my players – seasoned roleplayers, all. I still don’t use compels very well. I “cheat” in Apocalypse Engine games I run – I rarely think in terms of GM moves, simply running it as any other game. That’s, pretty explicitly, against the rules.

But weren’t narrative games meant to more naturally emulate the storytelling process we all grow up with? Dungeon World was once described as “D&D you always thought you were playing”. What gives? Why are narrative games so damn hard to grock?

A part of it is due to the “narrative game vocabulary” still being developed. Roleplaying itself is still a relatively new hobby. Within it, certain playstyles have had decades longer and a whole bunch more games to grow, to figure out how to articulate their concepts. Again, take Fate as an example: it’s gotten so much clearer over the years. It’s progressed both in weeding out the unnecessary clutter from its rules, and in how it explains these rules. This process will undoubtedly continue.

But the main reason narrative games are hard to run the way they’re meant to be is due to narrative games codifying how they’re meant to be run. Narrative games have Opinions. Unlike traditional games, which give you tools to resolve situations that come up in typical scenarios of the game, narrative games also give you tools for creating these scenarios. Fail to use those well, and you fail to play the game well.

Why are you fighting goblins in a dungeon in D&D? You have a quest to get a MacGuffin, who cares, roll Initiative. Why are you fighting goblins in a dungeon in Dungeon World? The party had rolled a 3 on their Carouse move, choosing to gain useful information but letting things get really out of hand and getting entangled in the process. GM offered them an opportunity: they can get out of jail if they promise to go deal with goblins who’ve been robbing caravans. They can even keep whatever’s already been stolen. Quest, MacGuffin, etc. But they flow directly from the game rules.

Naturally, you can, even should, have the exact same sequence of events in a traditional game. It’s not like narrative games invented cause and effect. You don’t need the rules to have a satisfying story. It is, however, telling how eager we are to adapt these narrative shaping structures to other games – e.g. Dungeon World Fronts in D&D by Sly Flourish.

And here’s where we get to the core of the issue. A traditional game doesn’t care if you have a satisfying story. It has some opinions on what stories should occur within it, and its mechanics do have an effect on these stories – even such seemingly minor rules elements as hit points matter. But, because D&D doesn’t exist, a sequence of fights in 5×5 rooms is just as much a proper D&D game as a game of courtly intrigue and noble duels. As long as you roll a d20 + attack bonus and compare it to the AC of the target, you’re good.

In contrast, narrative games have story bits and GMing practices “hardcoded” into their rules. Failure to compel PCs in Fate means failure to involve them in the plot. Failure to come up with an interesting consequence to a bad roll in DW calls into question the necessity of that roll in the first place. By making these narrative elements explicit, narrative games make our failures to implement them explicit.

And finally, if the group isn’t after the narrative elements the game wants them to employ, or if the mechanics are not well written or well explained, making it hard to reconcile the rules-mandated narrative element with the rest of the story, it comes off as clunky. A failure to use an unwieldy tool the purpose of which you don’t quite understand.

With mixed success (hah), narrative games describe tools, constraints, and practices they believe will lead to the game being played not just correctly, but well. Narrative games are hard to grok, because being a good GM is hard to grok. And it may be even harder to grok what the game considers to be a good GM.

3 thoughts on “Why are narrative games so hard to grok?

  1. Perhaps part of the difficulty is that the formative years of a GM are often heavily influenced by D&D, with its systems deliberately leaving narrative elements open for the the GM to do whatever they want. That puts many good GMing practices on a pedestal, implying they are learned alongside “system mastery” or “GM experience”, contributing to the grognard stereotype. It is then easy, as you’ve elaborated above, and quite correct to say that the influence of narrative-light or narrative-agnostic systems such as D&D is one of the causes of difficulties many GMs have when absorbing narrative-heavy or constrained-GM games.
    But perhaps it’s not the universal case? I haven’t played D&D until well into my years, being influenced by relatively narratively involved World of Darkness in my formative years. I realise that WoD didn’t always promote good narrative practices or even attempt to claim some bad practices were actually beneficial for the group, but it encouraged *some* particular narrative. As a GM that meant you had to come to terms with accepting what the game tells you to do, or consciously depart from it, either way having consideration of how the narrative should look thrust upon you. Clumsily, yes, but in comparison with D&D, it was still a different GMing experience.
    I now suffer much less resistance when switching to a new GMing style. Fate, PbtA, DitV or other games with remarkably non-trad GMing styles are just as easy for me as WoD was back in the day – or perhaps even easier. I don’t think I’m a particularly good GM, but my brain remains flexible enough to adapt, and I think this is a result of my choice of games in my early years.
    But a new group of players emerges – ones that started GMing with markedly more narrative-oriented D&D 5e, are familiar with Fiasco, heard of PbtA and perhaps even tried 13th Age. They won’t have the same issues. Perhaps a decade from now they will complain about OSR mechanics that are difficult to grok.

    • Looking at it again, I now realise this essay may come off as an attempt at describing a universal truth. To be more precise, I think the issues outlined vary in significance for different people based on their prior experiences, natural inclinations, what have you. Evidently, they’re not a big deal for you. And they may well, for some, pale in comparison to issues unique to groking “traditional” games, which I haven’t covered here.

      • I didn’t mean to imply so. You describe a very real experience and no doubt ubiquitous. It seems I have a different experience to many, because at the height of popularity of D&D (at least where I come from) I was doing something else and completely disinterested in the hobby mainstream. Perhaps it’s that different beginning that marks the change? I’m sure it can’t be simplified to “narrative games are difficult if you started off with D&D” but perhaps there is a grain of truth there.

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