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.

Boss Decay

We’ve all been there. You unleash an awesome boss monster on the party, expecting it to last good solid 5-6 rounds, only for it to suffer from premature evisceration. So what do you when your dracolich drops on round 3? You can leave the players unsatisfied, or cheat and pump up its hp, or use this one weird trick.

This idea only applies to D&D and D&D-like games. And it doesn’t mess with any of the math of the system, either!

Double the hit points of your boss. Decide how many rounds you want it to last, the aforementioned 5 or 6 is fairly standard. Divide the original hp by this number to find the boss’ decay, then round it to something easy to use. Finally, give the boss a trait: the first time it is hit in a round, it takes extra damage equal to the decay number. That’s it. 

So if you have, say, a Tarrasque with 1200 hp that you want to last at least 6 rounds (a setup with nice, round numbers), give it 2400 hp instead, with decay of 200. If the party is doing as well as you expect them to do, on round six all the extra hit points will be gone, and they will be facing the original 1200 hp Tarrasque, hopefully about to defeat it. If they have unleashed crazy synergies or maybe simply 5 crits in 3 rounds, they’ll kill it on round 5 or maybe 4 instead, the undecayed bonus hp acting as padding. Importantly, good tactics or plain luck will still have mattered.

Once the decay is done and all the bonus hp are gone, you’ll probably want to “switch off” the decay trait – everything is back to normal. Or maybe the boss turned out to be tougher than you thought, and the party actually needs the help decay provides to finish it off.

A possible tweak involves dividing the decay number by 2 or 3, and having the decay trait trigger corresponding number of times per round, but only once per player. This removes the emphasis from landing one attack each round, instead bringing it back to fighting the boss, though I don’t expect this to be an actual issue in play.

This idea is, in a way, a reverse of 13th Age’s escalation die. Whereas the ED guarantees the battle will eventually swing in PC’s favor, boss decay guarantees the swing will not be too abrupt.

Paradigms of Play

…in which Magician talks of himself in third person and reinvents GNS. Well, not quite. GNS (at least as far as I understood it) concerns itself with the desired experience, the agenda of the game: to win, to tell the story, to be true to something. What I want to discuss are different approaches to play itself. The process, not the end result. The paradigms of play. Note, that unlike GNS which suggests a game shouldn’t try to fulfill more than one of its letters, these paradigms are sometimes changed during play, typically in different kinds of scenes. And unlike GNS, I will not be trying to give one-word pithy names to these ideas. It’s not a finished thought, after all, but an exploration of this concept. Here, then, are the paradigms of play I’ve identified.

Fiat Gated Ingenuity

In this paradigm, players come up with creative solutions to problems they face, with (typically) GM acting as the final arbiter as to whether these ideas work out. Rules may be used to resolve individual steps but rarely if ever apply to the entire solution. Social interaction is often handled this way: PCs discuss issues at hand, making a check every now and then if prompted; GM determines how convincing their arguments were, and what NPCs decide to do in the end. Looking for something is another example, and one that is frequently discussed in this context along with the next paradigm. Players declare where and how they look. If they didn’t think to look under the bed, they fail to find the monster hiding there.

FGI requires players to overcome challenges.

Abstract Game Mechanics

In this paradigm, player characters overcome challenges via the interface of abstract game mechanics. It doesn’t really matter what they do, as long as there is a line on a character sheet or in a rulebook that lets them do it. Combat, typically the most rules-heavy part of a game, tends to work this way. This is also what skill checks were made for: in D&D 3e we don’t really know what a rogue does when they search for and disable traps. Rogue-ish things. The GM’s influence is much more limited here, they get to set the difficulty of a task and sometimes to judge the applicability of a rule in question.

AGM requires player characters to overcome challenges.

Mechanically Supported Creativity

This paradigm lies somewhere between the other two, yet is distinctly different. Game mechanics are still king, but a creative justification of their use is required. A primitive example of this approach can be found in skill challenges of D&D 4e, where players may have to look for an explanation as to how they use their best skills to overcome a seemingly unrelated task. A more refined version exists in Fate Core, where looking for a trap might see characters create such aspects as The Wall is Hollow Here and Location of a Draft.

MSC requires players to describe how their characters overcome challenges.

A question of playstyle

Naturally, these paradigms of play are not absolute, and any given situation in a game is going to exist somewhere in between. There are no firm boundaries between them, and each group has to find their own playstyle, their own approach. My own D&D 4e game handled combat as a straightforward AGM affair, mostly used pure roleplaying (read: FGI) for social interactions and tried to use the MSC approach to non-combat challenges.

A large part of this is what tools a system provides in support of these paradigms. Though even if a system doesn’t support a paradigm, this can be overcome to some extent with houserules or playstyle. For instance, a common houserule of giving a bonus to a well-described action, to some extent formalized in D&D 5e as Advantage on a roll, gives some mechanical weight to player creativity, thus moving a very AGM-centric system towards MSC.

Of particular interest here is AD&D and its predecessors, however you count them. Although it lacks rules for exploration, there arose a culture of FGI that was almost universal, transmitted not through the rules text but through published adventures, Dragon articles and, crucially, word-of-mouth. This leads to a curious situation where a modern gamer giving AD&D a shot is likely to have an entirely different experience from the one they would have had back in the day, despite using the same rules. Rules of AD&D do not transmit its culture, and a different playstyle is likely to arise from their literal reading.

Clash of paradigms

A system may have tools, but it is up to the group to use them, one way or another. Just because there is Advantage in 5e doesn’t mean everyone will play it in a MSC manner. If anything, it is the worst of both worlds: it does little for those seeking a FGI experience (it’s not about getting a bonus to the roll, it’s about not making the roll in the first place), while leaving Advantage for creativity purely beholden to the GM – a significant drawback for MSC. Which is not to say Advantage is a bad rule, far from it. But it really needs players and GM to be playing within the same paradigm, and 5e doesn’t do much to enforce that. While Fate’s fate points superficially share the same fiat issues, they are the foundation of the system, interacting with it on multiple levels. Fate points tie into aspects, which are not only often created by the players but explicitly moderated by the group as well. Fate strongly encourages the MSC paradigm and requires group consensus to run at all, making it much less of an issue.

Elaborating on this further, there are two classes of potential issues here. First, the system may not handle the chosen paradigm well. Once again, I turn to D&D, my muse, my curse. Despite, or probably because of, the fact that it doesn’t exist, it attempts to sit on all three paradigms. It can’t afford to pick any one paradigm for anything as there are those who have always played it the other way. The exception, as usual, is 4e, which was quite honest about its methods and functionality, and people still attempted to play it differently. 4e tried to stick to AGM in combat and largely ignored everything else, and the backlash was immense.

A system can’t support all three paradigms for all possible contexts equally well, that much is obvious. It could try, with lots of self-reflection and explicitly optional rules, but that’s not something D&D does. And the more a system relies on one paradigm for a context, the harder it is to utilize a different one within that context. 4e is so reliant on AGM combat rules that willfully breaking them FGI-style basically guts the entire system. A large part of this blog has actually been devoted in the past to introducing MSC elements to 4e combat, enabling and rewarding player creativity while not invalidating the core game mechanics. A lesson learned as a result of all those efforts is that it’s frequently more efficient to emulate “creativity” by presenting non-standard mechanistic options to players, rather than trying to embrace the truly original solutions they may come up with. The rules framework of 4e simply doesn’t leave much space for off-the-cuff innovation within it, page 42 notwithstanding.

Inventing dynamite or a boom-stick falls squarely into this category. In this particular case, a player utilized the existing rules for alchemist fire but bundled many such items together, trivially overcoming challenges by the sheer destructive force of their creation. The game can’t handle the ten-fold increase in damage output as PCs are not “meant” to do that: creativity breaks its mechanics.

It doesn’t exactly help that one of the paradigms, FGI, considers rules to be secondary to the fiat judgement. It is this approach that results in the so-called Oberoni fallacy, where any problems rules may have are considered to be immaterial because rules are already trumped by the GM. Seen through this lens, one of the main criteria for good rules is how easy it is to ignore them. This is in stark contrast to the desire for clear unambiguous rules which enable the AGM playstyle, which in turn is different from the desire for rules flexibility that would let player creativity integrate into the game. None of these criteria are necessarily exclusive, but any given system ends up either emphasizing one over another, or being an unfocused mess. Yes, I’m once again talking about D&D, how perceptive of you to notice.

The other class of issues is due to a clash of paradigms within a group, be it between fellow players or a GM and a player. As an extreme example, imagine a GM presenting a puzzle to players, only to have them declare they roll Intelligence to solve it (GM expects FGI, players go with AGM). Alternatively, imagine players flooding a dungeon with a decanter of endless water – an FGI solution to an AGM problem. And it’s not just the players who can be the cause of a clash: the infamous tucker’s kobolds can be seen as FGI used by GM (with themselves being the fiat arbiter, never a good sign) against characters who are not on the same playing field, trying and failing to respond to ingenuity with game mechanics.

The hobby even has many derogatory terms for those playing against the expectations of the group: rules lawyers, munchkins, rollplayers. Curiously, all these refer to players who prefer mechanics more than you do. For the other end of the spectrum the best I could find or remember were “special snowflake” or “magic tea party”, though those’re not quite the same.

As an aside and perhaps a topic for a future post (whenever that may come), it’d be curious to look at these paradigms through the lens of Games People Play.

A new perspective

That’s what I hope this post will give you. Since I’ve started writing it, I kept seeing examples of paradigm mismatches, some of which I’ve provided above. Armed with this new terminology, perhaps we’ll be better suited to tackle them. And of course, the definitions are not set in stone, feel free to challenge them.

Post-D&D Rehabilitation

Like many others, I’ve started my roleplaying career with D&D. It was, without a doubt, a formative experience, shaping my gaming attitudes and habits. Not always for the best. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say me and my fellow players marked by D&D require rehabilitation. Why? Because we think D&D has taught us how to play RPGs, while in reality it has taught us how to play D&D. Which is quite a trick, considering D&D doesn’t exist.

And because it doesn’t exist, not all of these issues will apply to you. It is quite likely you have successfully circumvented some of these pitfalls, and they will seem entirely basic to you. In fact, most of the advice I have to offer here applies to D&D games just as well. What’s more, disregarding this whole post and doing things “the D&D way” (a D&D way?) is perfectly valid, too. It’s a way to play these games, just not the only one. Finally, it may seem like I’m bashing D&D. Far from it. I love it and will keep playing it (or games inspired by it). I’d love it a lot more if it were honest with itself. Until that happens, lets be honest with each other: we have a problem. Continue reading

No such thing as D&D

This was meant to be a different post. I was going to talk about rehabilitating post-D&D GMs and players. That particular fuse will have to wait for its match. As I worked on the intro, meant solely to prevent readers from declaring me a heretic, it kept growing larger. And larger. Until it became its own, quite distinct thought. And now it is its own post. Rehabilitation post-D&D will have to wait. For now lets question its existence.

What is D&D? Depends on whom you ask. It’s a game of dungeons and dragons where dungeons are passe and dragons are to be avoided. Of heroes going on epic quests where said heroes may have to save-or-die at any point. Of sacrifice and raise dead. Of mystery and stat blocks of gods. Of imagination and dozens of rulebooks. Of tables for every occasion and “GM knows best”. Of Tordeks and Pun-Puns. Of Tolkien and Conan. Of Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale.

It is all those things and more. It’s everything and therefore nothing. This is its legacy and its tragedy. D&D doesn’t exist. A mass hallucination, an alluring mirage, a promise that cannot be fulfilled. It is not a game. It is a cultural artifact. Everyone has their own D&D. Every gaming group, every online forum, every game designer. They all play their own D&Ds, they all discuss their own D&Ds, they all make their own D&Ds.

This uncomfortable truth is at the core of some of the fiercest misunderstandings of the hobby. It goes deeper than “optimizers” versus “true roleplayers”. Saying you play D&D conveys minimum useful information beyond “fantasy” and “class-based”. It is impossible to have a conversation about D&D without laboriously establishing common ground first, and not many people realize the need for that. Or, rather, not many people realize that “D&D” is not common ground. Instead, we put forward our opinions based on our versions of D&D against different opinions based on different D&Ds and are amazed that others have come to different conclusions.

Of course, all roleplaying games are by definition unique to the group playing them. They are a process, an ephemera, an experience. However,  a focused game system produces similar experiences, while a generic system can be used to play different games. But that’s just it – D&D is not a generic system. Instead, it is THE system. The first such game that existed, the first game most roleplayers tried. And thus it is the tool that all too often gets used for any job, regardless of its fitness.

D&D’s development history reflects that of many successful software projects. It’s early history is a classic example of feature creep. As the hobby was being developed, as it stretched its metaphoric muscles for the first time, players tried to achieve things that core game didn’t offer, by bolting new sub-systems onto it. D&D’s middle history is all about legacy content. It had all these “classic” features that made it up, and it tried to streamline them and make them more useable. And while mechanics got smarter, the inherent incongruences were made all the more obvious. D&D’s modern history was a departure from tradition. Yes, 4e. The designers actually tried to make the game focus on something. And the game was better for it! Of course, focusing on one part of D&D made it not the D&D that half of the community played. And the edition wars raged on. And, finally, the future: Next edition.

On the one hand, designers of Next recognize the immaterial nature of D&D: they promise us rules modules to build the game that most resembles D&D of our own. On the other, everything they’ve shown so far I’ve hated, because it wasn’t my D&D. It’s already full of assumptions about the core game that I’m not interested in. And if their best attempt at producing most bare bones basic core D&D that everyone will accept fails, is there any hope for the final game?

Which makes me wonder: do we really need a new D&D at all? Can’t we accept D&D as the origin point from which the hobby has sprung, to be remembered fondly? Can’t we be content with Dungeon World and 13th Age and Cortex Fantasy Roleplaying and others? All less than D&D. All more than D&D.

Whatever Next will be, it won’t be D&D, because D&D only exists in our imagination. Reality can’t compete with it.

Goblin Dice

Dice do many different things in our RPGs. They are a crucial element of the Game part of it. They model the un-modelable, all the little things that combine to determine what happens. They offer the illusion of challenge – we know the PCs will win. They take the story in unexpected directions. But do the same dice do it all?

D&D’s d20 is a prime example of what I’ve taken to calling a “goblin die”. You roll high, a goblin dies. You roll low, a goblin lives. No one doubts the eventual fate of the poor goblin. It doesn’t matter if it’s killed this round or the next. But it’s still fun to roll those dice, just as it is fun to fight the scrambling goblins. Hence, goblin dice: good for determining the fate of goblins. Not so good for determining the fate of heroes, or worlds. They are terrible for anything important. Continue reading

Retrospective on D&D 4e, part 2

Having examined lessons learned from running a lengthy 4e campaign in the previous post, today I will take a look back at this very blog. Over the years I’ve used it to consider the problems raised and ideas inspired by my game, and try and find solutions for them. That, and lots of theoretical blathering. So as the previous post was a guide to 4e, this post is a guide to this blog, or at least its 4e-related bits. Continue reading

Retrospective on D&D 4e, part 1

Having completed my 140-session D&D 4e campaign (I know, I know, I’ve mentioned this last time; I’m still proud, shut up), what have I learned? While I’m done with the system, perhaps you aren’t. So let me be your guide. We’ll take a look at 4e itself in this post, and then at the ideas in this blog pertaining to it in the followup. In no particular order… Continue reading

Odds & Ends

I’ve done it. I’ve finished my long-running 4e campaign. 140 or so gaming sessions, 3.5 years. I feel I’ve squeezed every last drop out of the system, done everything I could have with it. I won’t be GMing it anymore, which means I won’t be writing about it anymore. That is, after I make a couple more final posts about everything I’ve learned. But worry not, my 10 or so regular readers, I have plans for this blog.

Now, then. Several small ideas, not worthy of a blog post on their own, presented to you in bulk. Continue reading

Psychodrama on the battlemat

Reviewing DramaSystem and analyzing how it handles inner character conflict got me thinking of how I’ve handled this in my 4e campaign. The fact of the matter is, 4e and D&D in general offer little to no support for creating drama. They provide rules for actions, but how character motivations inform those actions, and how in turn completion of those actions affects motivations is left entirely to the players. So, given an abundance of action rules, in particular combat rules, is there a way to express motivations and dramatic conflict through them? Of course there is. This is in many ways a corollary to the post I wrote on providing encounters with purpose: once you decide you want to use a combat encounter to highlight some dramatic moment, you can use these techniques. Continue reading