Cultivating a Narrative

The act of roleplaying is, in its most basic sense, a form of highly structured cooperative narration. As it was first described to me, when I was eight years old, “Roleplaying is like reading a book, except you decide the ending”. I must admit, that was a mind blowing idea to grasp at that age. Suffice it to say, I was hooked from the moment I heard those words. In time however, I found that this wondrous idea came with an often overlooked responsibility, that each player should be an active participant in creating the narrative they hope to experience. In practice, I have seen this simple idea often get left behind in a pile of books, between the cracks of rules, and hidden behind the disillusionment of not having things go as each player might hope. In this blog I will discuss the idea of establishing a narrative and how a group can foster narrative participation, as well as how everybody at the game table has a central role in maintaining their portion of the storytelling experience. I will also be quickly detailing how Faerie Tales & Folklore encourages different narrative view points across many of its fundamental rules. (Continue below)

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To begin this article I will briefly cover an opposing view point. Not all roleplaying must be of a highly narrative nature. In fact, there are many instances where an abundance of storytelling becomes cumbersome to the main objectives of a session. To this end, a large number of roleplaying games include rule systems (such as sandboxing, or massive military engagements) where an ongoing narrative is secondary to other elements, such as strategy or tactics. Faerie Tales & Folklore is no exception to this, as its rules include many systems that have little or no impact upon the act of storytelling. If this is the form of gaming you enjoy, I would still suggest finding ways to add some narrative flavor to your repertoire. Even in small doses, such additions can add a lot of enjoyment to the experience.

Now, let us focus on the idea of narrative responsibility. What is it, and why should I be responsible for such a thing when I am trying to enjoy myself? Narrative responsibility is the understanding that each player has a portion to play in an ongoing narrative outside simply utilizing their characters abilities to accomplish goals. To put this in more plain terms, a player better serves the narrative by saying “I take after my foe with unbridled fury” (yes, voiced in a strange, poorly intoned accent) then “I attack the lead knight”. By the same measure, a narrator would do better to say “As your company of men makes slow progress through the narrow corridors of the ancient catacombs” (to the sound of prerecorded wind and dripping water) then “You continue down the corridor”. This might seem  a “no brainer” when read in private, though the reality of many of gaming tables has more in common with the later of each example then the former. In defense of most narrators, I must say that this issue is much more commonly seen among players. A narrator tends to find themselves at least partially forced to create some interest in a descriptive, or they face the possibility of rapidly disinterested players.

Let us focus on the player for a moment. When assuming the role of a player, as opposed to a narrator, in a tabletop roleplaying game, it can be easy to fall into a reactionary role of almost unconscious call and response. In this situation, a narrator describes what is happening and the player simply blurts out one of many canned responses: “I attack X”, or “I make a skill check against attribute X”, or even the ever droll “I am doing the same thing as (player X)”. These responses add little to the narrative and exist as little more then button pushes on a game pad. It can be common for players to feel at least partially clipped in their ability to narrate their character’s actions as they would imagine them. This is partially due to the emphasis placed upon a game’s rules, especially the scaling of power, and each player should find their own ways to deal with this issue. It is also partially due to the fact that narration is commonly seen as the duty of the narrator, or the DM/GM. In truth however, it is as much a players responsibility to narrate as it is the narrator. The narrator of a game is responsible for everything BUT the characters played by other members of a gaming group. Thus, narrating your character and their actions IS your responsibility, should you choose to undertake it. By this same measure, if a player feels trapped by a game’s rules,  a narrator’s control, or an unsupportive gaming environment, they are more likely to bottle up and offer less of themselves to the ongoing narrative. When that occurs, everyone at the game table loses.

One might ask “What happens when the mechanics of the game or the dice themselves do not uphold the desired narrative?” The answer to this is simple and well documented in literature and other media… Humor, often accompanied by some measure of tragedy. Think of the film version of “The Lord of the Rings”. In a well known scene, Gimli brags about his senses before being completely and utterly surprised by Haldir of Lórien and his wardens. This is a fine example of one’s initial narrative not working out the way it was imagined. The resulting scene was a humorous dispersion of tension that could have otherwise taken the encounter in a decidedly more unfortunate direction. If a player is encouraged to become more active in their character’s narrative portrayal, it is often beneficial to the process of collective storytelling. Being prepared for those moments when the dice, or the games rules, do not support the imagination is just part of the game. Such moments occur more often then we hope in any game or tale, but without failure or risk, any rewards would be meaningless. Yes, characters die, sometimes the bad guys win but it is not the end of the world and there are always more tales to tell.

During the design process of Faerie Tales & Folklore, I did my best to keep the narrative element “always within sight”. It spawned such previously discussed ideas as the introduction line, as well as virtues, vices, and the benefits they can grant. This focus on the narrative can be seen in more subtle places as well. When explaining hits, the game leaves it up to the player or narrator to define how multiple hits manifest within the game. They could simply be a numerical quantification of how tough that character actually is; they could reference a character’s ability to “roll with blows” thus reducing their effectiveness; or they might represent some otherworldly force that binds the characters body together in a manner beyond that of mortal men. Each of these is a plausible explanation of one’s ability to persevere over mortal injury, but each has a very different narrative feel. In the explanation of how to handle multiple combat rolls, the game allows players to decide if multiple combat rolls that hit a single target are indeed separate blows, or if they amount to a single, more significant blow. This may seem almost a pointless distinction, but from a narrative point of view, it is extremely important. What might be a standard turn of “I use all of my combat rolls to attack the boss.” might become, “I pounce upon the enemy commander, raining a furious torrent blows upon him from every direction!”. Or, if told by another character who intends to mount a single massive attack, “With my great spear leveled, I summon the strength of four men and charge the leader of my foes. No shield nor mail shall see me denied!”

This narrative flexibility gives both players and narrators a broad range of tools that can be used to better tell their portion of the tale. As with any tool though, they must be used and used effectively. There are many ways to encourage narrative responsibility among players and there are many rules that encourage the same. However, the best tool for this purpose is the creation of an environment that encourages players to take an active role in the ongoing narrative. If the environment is supportive and open, the players are more likely to begin participating as actors within a tale then bean counters at a board meeting for an insurance company. The narrator should reward active participation of the players by working with them to see their desires realized over time. Players should reward the good storytelling of the narrator by playing along with the tale that is being told. Unlike many types of game, nobody at the table is in direct opposition with anyone else, not even the narrator. Everyone is at the table with the primary purpose of enjoying themselves, the more this is understood by all involved, the more likely the group is to foster such an environment on game night. (Continued below)

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Below is a list of ten suggestions to help foster a positive gaming environment. Each suggestion includes a brief explanation why it is important. These are not intended as commandments nor rules, just ideas that can keep game night fun for everyone.

1. Remember, this is a game and everyone at the table is there to have fun.

This one is simple, though some find it the easiest to forget.

2. Everyone at the table should be treated with respect.

This is not some overly PC suggestion, this is just common courtesy for the benefit of a social game.

3. The player should seek to cooperate with the tale being told by the narrator and as such, the narrator should not break the trust of the players.

The narrator has often worked hard to present a particular story for the group, so go with it. Narrators, if you ask for the trust of your players in going along with your story, do not break that trust by forcing the players to do things they, or more importantly, their characters would not do.

4. Establish and respect an order of turns, but defer to the narrator if they wish to speak.

If a roleplaying session is allowed to devolve into social jockeying, it can cause many players to become less interactive. With a group of highly aggressive players, the idea of a “talking stick” can improve the sense of order.

5. Keep the narrative within the predefined confines of setting and scope. Do not use your personal additions to a narrative as a method to circumvent these confines.

This one might seem obvious, but it does no good to imagine the acts of Superman when the role your playing a peasant.

6. Avoid conflicts with other players, including the narrator. Try to find less confrontational ways to settle any disputes that arise.

Conflict within a narrative is perfectly acceptable and sometimes central to the story being told. However, conflict between the players themselves and/or with the narrator can truly poison the environment of a game table.

7. Listen to the narrative effort put forth by everyone at the table. Try to incorporate the narration of other players, and the narrator, into your own.

This is a powerful method to encourage narrative participation. Listen to the ideas put forth by other players and/or the narrator and do your best to incorporate these into the narrative bits you add. This single idea can really help to pull the shy, or less confident, player into the game in a low pressure way.

8. Respect the narrative being created and attempt to work within that narrative to the best of your abilities.

Though similar to #5, this suggestion is based more around a player or narrators attitude about the narrative being created. Scoffing at the narrative, or using your narrative time to mock the current story is truly disruptive and counter-productive. If you are that unhappy with the games direction, perhaps the current game is not for you.

9. Respect the rules of the game, but do not use those rules as a method to destroy the fun of others.

Though the rules of the game exist for very important reasons, these rules should not be used to stifle the enjoyment of the other players, including the narrator. A player who creates a character that cannot be beaten is no more beneficial to the group then a narrator who is unnecessarily brutal.

10. Be the player you would enjoy playing with or the narrator you always wished you had.

Yes, a modification of a Gandhi quote that non-the-less is poignant at the game table.

Many of these suggestions may seem to be common sense, yet they bear repeating. When the players heed these suggestions, not only is the game likely to go smoothly, but those involved are more likely take an active role.

Of course, there are the war gamers. For you guys, just have it off already! Swear, curse, and otherwise carry on like grumpy grognards having the time of your lives. We know why you’re here… “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.”

Yes… A good tactical victory over your gaming friend down the street is fiendishly satisfying. I get it, so does Faerie Tales & Folklore… Just set the field of battle and get on with the war gaming!

For those here to tell tales however, it becomes part of everyone’s responsibility to create the environment that encourages good narrative, and thus good gaming. The habits that help to ensure this are not often as clear to some as to others, and players should seek to encourage the success of their follows and their narrator. This brings me full circle, back to that first day roleplaying and to the friend who introduced me to the hobby. He said one other important thing that day, “There are no winners in this game, and no losers.” It was in those words that I came to understand the most important part of why we enjoy this hobby, having a good time with friends.

Within this wordy diatribe, I hope some might find a bit of wisdom and maybe even a few ideas on how to elevate game night into something truly epic. These days, it might seem that everything entails some conflict, and that might be true, but let us not forget that roleplaying is a social activity… One that is often best experienced when the conflict unfolds through the narrative and not between the players.

When you next sit down at your own game table, take a good look at those you have gathered about you and ask yourself what you can do to create an environment that fosters a greater sense narrative interaction. Be that player you would like to play along side, or become the narrator you wished you had. Somewhere in this process, you will be creating a better game and a better experience for everyone. Enjoy game night friends…

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