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Narrative Tools and the Platonic Session

A topic by Sandy Pug Games created 92 days ago Views: 1,369 Replies: 59
Viewing posts 1 to 16
Moderator(+6)

Very few games come with narrative guidance tools, and I think that's a shame. Lets talk about Narrative Guidance.

Most games are full of mechanical tools and guidance - advice for how to build an encounter, how the numbers work, why things "cost" whatever they do, etc. These are, in many ways, the foundation of our hobby, but as a fundamentally storytelling medium, the other side of the coin is often missing - games very rarely explain how to weave the narrative they're designed for. Missing are lists of tropes, explanations of important narrative beats, character archetypes and where/when/how to utilize them to create the arcs and stories that these games seek to enable. These are largely left to the reader to figure out for themselves.

There's a few reasons for this - page count can be a big problem when publishing and these ideas are often seen as extraneous, it is often assumed that players will be genre/media savvy and able to construct narratives without any aids, but I think this is a bad assumption to make, especially if the goal is growing the hobby - we don't assume every reader has read an RPG before, we shouldn't assume every player is familiar with Red Herrings, properly structured Climaxes, particular kinds of characters and their roles in stories. There's also an issue with games aiming to be as generalized as possible - even when unintended many games tend toward the "You can tell any story with this game!" style of thinking, which isn't inherently a bad thing, but does create a number of assumptions.

This leads me to Platonic Sessions - I'd argue every game (even explicitly generalized systems) has a platonic session, a perfect game that exists only really in the designers mind during development. This session may change, it may be more than one session in practice, but every game has, deep inside of it somewhere, The Game that those mechanics and narrative choices are being designed for. Understanding what this platonic session is can be a powerful tool for a designer for a number of ways, but the reason it ties in here is because understanding the platonic allows you to better explain to the reader how exactly to go about crafting those narratives - by understanding that your cyberpunk game's platonic session involves, say, corp heists, you can better identify which tropes and beats to communicate to the reader - either via explicit means (a chapter on narrative guidance) or implicit means (mechanics, lore, etc).

Short games and Story games tend to be very very good at Narrative Guidance - either directly telling the reader "this is what you should do during a game" or being designed such that the only game possible is as close to the Platonic as you can get irl. They still tend to lack overt explanation of narrative design, but they still achieve fundamentally the same goal through implicit means.

About as close to narrative guidance tools most games get is including a list of influences, like movies and books and the like, that influenced the designer, or a preamble that roughly explains the same information. This speaks to me as a sign people understand the need for some kind of narrative guidance but simply telling people your game is inspired by Firefly isn't enough - what elements of firefly? what narrative beats and tropes does your game seek to replicate? Why? How can a reader best use your game to craft their own narratives?

Including more Narrative Tools in games would help build the hobby, help build up new GMs and give readers a wealth of information to have better games using your systems. Give it a whirl!

(+6)

Totally agree. It's kind of shocking to read the latest version of Dream Askew and realize that I've read probably 20 other apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic games that don't directly say "here is the role the apocalypse plays in this fiction". Not, like, its fictional details, but its fictional function.  Why it's an apocalyptic game, what doors that opens and what doors it shuts.  

Moderator(+3)

Dreams Askew is such a brilliant example of a game that does a lot of things right in this regard, definitely inspired a lot of these thoughts.

(+8)

*Comes in gently banging a small tupperware box with a wooden spoon*

Mechanical tools are narrative tools.

Yeh sure if rulebooks specifically tell readers what themes their play should be embodying and what tropes they should play out in any given scene, then this will really help players create the narrative that the designer intended. But the structure of an encounter and how much a thing costs innately pushes players towards certain themes or tropes. If combat's in your game, then fighting is probly a good thing that players will be rewarded for actively seeking out. (Some games have combat without making it A Good Thing To Do. That's rare though.) So certain tropes and themes will innately come out of that, and others will be innately locked off. It's impossible to tell a story about how violence is never the answer when categorically it actually is the answer all of the time.

Games are the interactive medium. They speak the interactive language. The narrative emerges organically from play. It doesn't have to be tacked on.

So, basically every game comes with narrative guidance tools. I can't think of a single one that doesn't. (Otherwise I completely agree with everything being said in this thread and I'm eager to see where it goes.)

Moderator(+5)

I can see what you're saying here, and the argument is there for sure, but I think the main difference with what you're saying here and what I was putting up is that the mechanics you're talking about are implicitly narrative shaping tools, rather than explicit ones, and they tend to only cover fairly specific areas of gameplay. Building a fully implicit narrative toolkit is def. possible and something I think should be shot for (Lots of games that do narrative tools well, like the aforementioned Dreams Askew function really well this way), but they also assume inherent genre savvy and media awareness on the behalf of a GM/Player.

An example; D&D is clearly a combat focused game, where combat and violence shape the narrative naturally by its very inclusion and focus in the books, inarguably that's a narrative shaping going on there, but D&D raw doesn't tell a GM *how* to use that violence to tell a story besides its broad themes of Kill Stuff Good. It doesn't educate a player on how to build drama into their characters, it doesn't explain what kind of plot beats go best with which kind of monsters, dungeons and traps (tho some editions and third party content def. have spent some time on this). It tells you how big a dragon is, how much health it has, how much damage it does and how to kill one, but very rarely does it give examples of what a dragon can *mean*.  It's missing a very important element of passing down these storytelling tools - the education in their proper usage. 

I see where you're coming from, and I agree to a big degree that narrative and mechanics are best blended where you can, but properly written rules can contain these tropes explanations and media education without being tacked on, Dreams is a good example, I'm hoping my next release is a good version of it too.

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(+1)

especially given the increasing popularity of story-focused d&d actual play, i think a LOT of gamers are picking up d&d specifically to tell those kinds of stories - and many that i've talked to find themselves disappointed that they can't sit down and just have a critical role or an adventure zone or whatever just Happen, and talked to GMs who feel an immense pressure to build those stories lest they get lambasted as a bad GM despite not having the tools in the book to do that. i think its reasonable for games about playing roles of characters to have conversations about how better to give players the tools to tell the kinds of stories they want to tell?

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okay. people are allowed to also like telling stories with their friends though and would like to have more tools to do that? 

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(+2)

"I am trying to not be rude, but damn do I hate this style of 'dnd needs rules and guidelines on explicitly constructing stories and narrative.'" sure sounds like 'it is hard not to be rude to you for suggesting that people should have more tools to tell engaging stories with eachother' to me

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(+23)

Dungeons & Dragons is a perfect example. The narrative of that game is colonisation. You kill people. You take their stuff. Once you have more stuff, you can kill more people. You can then take their stuff. Once you have more stuff, you can kill more people. You can then take their stuff. And so on, and so on, until players want to start a new campaign. The power scaling taps out around the point the average campaign stops. (Hence why we hit 20th Level under WotC and silly stuff like 50th Level under TSR.

In the fiction of the game, the people you kill are backward savages. If you don't kill them now, then they will eventually come and kill you. So in the fiction, your character is not some wanton murderer. They are noble. The fact that this was the cultural justification for real life colonialist genocides and atrocities is not a coincidence. You couldn't possibly tackle colonisation as a theme in storytelling without engaging with the ugliness of it.

Unfortunately, this is a game that doesn't tackle colonisation for critique. The colonisers in the game are heroes because the creators of the game believed the real life colonisers to be heroes. Gary Gygax agreed that the hobby suffered from male domination, but he handwaved the issue with biological essentialist rhetoric, saying that women don't play D&D because their brains are lesser developed and unable to keep up with the complexity of the game, not because men create unsafe and hostile environments for women. When one of the early creators had biological essentialist views, is it any surprise that the game features race science as a basic mechanic? Orcs get a penalty to Intelligence. Elves get a bonus. It's literally called "Racial Traits".

Gygax is long gone. Now we have Mike Mearls. A man who is widely known for having carried out surveillance for a serial rapist. Wizards of the Coast could easily release a 6e that doesn't heavily feature race science. Just you watch. They won't do it. Because it still aligns with their political values.

They want the games to be more diverse and inclusive. So the rulebooks and supplements have more artwork and illustrations depicting black adventurers, right next to the lore and text dumping racist slurs uncritically on the fantasy setting. Gygax and Mearls both want marginalised and oppressed communities to come to D&D despite hostility, instead of wanting to actively create a safer community. These values then are reflected in the game design.

Sandy Pug Games, you're right. What I was talking about was implicit narrative tools. What you were talking about was explicit narrative tools. But I didn't raise the issue out of mere pedantry. Here in this very thread, we can see a full polemic being carried out on a dichotomy that doesn't exist. 'D&D without narrative' versus 'D&D with narrative'. Trad gamers versus story gamers.

It's true that D&D lacks explicit narrative tools. But adding them would not look like adding a chapter to the rulebook teaching players how to recreate Critical Roll or Adventure Zone. It wouldn't be a new chapter at all. It would be a simple and straightforward honesty with the theme of colonisation. Just change 'adventurer' to 'coloniser', and that's it. You've done it. That's D&D with explicit narrative tools.

(+1)

Having a clear zeitgeist for the game seems to be a very important design component and whatever mechanics exist need to support that. One of the reasons I often get frustrated with folks who say your "RPG (usually D&D) can be anything you want. It can be about love and hate and family and..." is because it cannot be those things, for those things are not supported by the mechanics. The mechanics have to at least facilitate the kind of play and support the tone of play that the game explicitly talks about or dissonance creeps into play.  And certainly at the end of the day if folks are having fun, maybe dissonance in play does not matter to them. I just think it should matter and as a designer it matters to me. 

Moderator

I guess it's no surprise that the example you mention, Dream Askew, is a game that takes care to divide narrative duties up between the players. That makes you wonder why narrative tools weren't more popular in the days when games where dominated by GM roles (just because narrative duties are centralized in one person doesn't mean they're any less challenging to learn!). 

Does it seem likely that shared-narrative games are the ideal environment for narrative tools? Like, are narrative tools any more important in a shared-narrative game than they are in a game with a traditional GM?

(+2)

I think we see a lot of narrative tools presented as modules or splats in most AAA games. DnD's adventure books give a very distinct narrative guide, Shadowrun's lore books and Vampire's city books give a ton of narrative direction through plot hooks. This isn't feasable for indie devs, but similar could be done within a core book.

(+4)

Mutants in the Night, a hack of Blades in the Dark, does something very interesting in this regard. The rulebook talks about the Facilitator using terms like zooming in and wide shots to paint a picture of each scene. 

For example when the crew is getting ready to execute a score, the Facilitator can use a wide shot to frame the building, the guards, the time of day, and then zoom in to show the characters approaching int he shadows. Then the Facilitator can hand off the camera to the players to let them know they are in control of what's happening next.

It's such a simple thing but I think it gives a familiar language to who is in control of the narrative and what is possible when you hand off and hold the camera. More and more, as I run games, I imagine them as television shows, something Blades in the Dark actively suggests you do as well. I use establishing shots and crane shots to look over the city to get a sense of what the mood is, to see current events play out. Also this sort of cinematic language gets people thinking about how scenes look between their characters, and what the NPCs look like. Are the character's listening to music? Can you hear crickets? Does this bad ass cyber ninja who is hunting you have their own musical theme that takes over the soundtrack?

Specifically calling out that there is a camera and a lens through which we view the events of the game is a great narrative mechanic, I find.

"Primetime Adventures" - JDCorley, a poster on itch dot i o

(+5)

Here's a thing that the folks of the Feelings First podcast did when setting up for their Under Hollow Hills campaign that I absolutely loved: They talked about medium-specific metaphors for structuring gameplay, like how it has become commonplace for groups and games to borrow the vocabulary of film editing as a way to frame their engagement with the game. Because Under Hollow Hills is a deeply theatrical game, they made the deliberate decision to use a theatrical vocabulary to structure and inform their play, instead of a cinematic one. Spotlights, scenery changes, soliloquies, exit stage right (pursued by bear)...

Lots of games have attempted to formally or mechanically emulate the distinctive features another narrative medium. But I was excited by the possibility of instead approaching the way players talk about the game in play with a lighter hand, as a set of principles or vocabulary to lean on in the moment.

The value of this is the same as any shared language or vocabulary - it lets us communicate more effectively to each other what we are trying to do. What vocabulary you give your players is also part of game design!

(+2)

Thank you very much for the kind words! I was really pleased with how that conversation went and how our attempts to shift the aesthetic vocabulary of play have been playing out. Stoked to hear it's been interesting and thought-provoking to the audience as well.

(+3)

It's very, very good! Looking forward to future episodes. I very much hope you end up doing a whole tour.

Here's the thing, expressed differently: thinking carefully about aesthetic vocabulary suggests an approach to game design that aims to imbue play with a theatrical quality (or cinematic, or literary, or...) without necessarily attempting to emulate the structure of a different medium in its entirety.

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(+2)

Ahhh, that's great. I need to get back to doing what I have done in previous games. I used to frame just about every game I ran as old timey radio dramas, with an opening monologue and theme music.

I'd like to hear more about this lingo that was used (without needing to wade through actually listening to the podcast) - do you have any specific examples?

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(1 edit) (+2)

Game mechanics always imply a narrative, whether they're board games or ttrpgs or video games. Even something as simple as chess has the implied narrative (or ludonarrative, if you're feeling fancy) of the white army fighting the black army. The post that started this thread is about ways of making the expected narrative explicit. So, for example, your game of D&D will always have a plot. It might just be "we kill the dragon and take their stuff," but it's still a plot. When we talk about narrative tools, we mean ways for the game designer to make explicit their expectations for the game's implied plot, what Sandy Pug Games called the "platonic session".  Making these expectations explicit helps players (including the GM) get the most out of the game experience. So when someone who's completely unfamiliar with fantasy tropes decides they want to run D&D, laying out the platonic session for them would help them get the most enjoyment possible out of their own session. It isn't that drama and narrative are things we want more of in our games, it's that they're already there, and that not understanding them often makes play uncomfortable. If you had no picture in your head of a platonic session of Pathfinder, the story that "evolves through play" might be one of pastoral life and farming simulation. This would likely be confusing and not very fun because of the gulf between your game and the game that Paizo designed. Lots of things in the Pathfinder rulebook imply that this is not what your game's narrative should be, but the point of the post is that, because there are members of your audience who have never engaged with your type of story before, your game can only benefit from making these expectations explicit.


tl;dr Your characters already have drama and your game already has narrative construction: now let's talk about how to show your players how to match this drama and narrative to the game you've given them.

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Moderator(+9)

"Why does a dragon, or any large monster, need to have a deeper meaning beyond a potentially hostile encounter as a gate between party and treasure?"

I don't think there's anything wrong with acknowledging that every monster in D&D has a history in the real world, often tied to traditions and criticisms of those traditions.

Dragons especially are corporations and aristocracy; they hoard wealth, using impenetrable defenses and power both social and physical to take whatever they want from the world around them. 

But, then, I am the person who sort of believes that "meaning-making" is more or less the core reason people exist at all, so. Grain of salt, I guess.

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Moderator(+4)

I mean, I feel like it does give one answer why, but you're dismissing it out of hand much like all the other answers you've gotten in this thread. It seems you simply don't want to directly engage with the subtext of monsters (and themes as discussed above). That's fine and valid, but demanding other people justify their enjoyment of it while refusing to show them or their answers any respect is a good way to drive off conversation.

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I Don't Know How Else To Tell You That Some People Like Telling Stories

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(+5)

fuck dnd for a minute cause i wouldn't play it if you paid me, and even forget the fact that as the most popular rpg there are so so so many people who want and would benefit from having more storytelling tools to tell the stories they want to tell in the system they want to use. fuck all that for a minute. 

you're coming in here picking fights on every post in the "narrative tools" thread about how Narrative Tools Are Bad and youre So Angry That People Want Them. you're repeatedly dismissing people's legitimate opinions that, in a genre that is largely about telling stories, that people wanting tools to make games where the story isn't 'i found the cleverest way to solve this tactics/thought puzzle isn't my character cool' or 'let's get loot and kill goblins' or whatever, is a bad thing. i'm sorry you've declared some huge crusade against "story gamers" and i'm sorry that there aren't enough angry grognards here for your tastes but maybe let those of us interested in telling stories, talk about how to do that better, without jumping in on every post to say that it makes you so mad that people want to tell stories? maybe take a step back, my guy, and realize that maybe this conversation wasn't for you to begin with, and was for people interested in narrative tools and the construction of a hypothetical platonic session, like the OP said. if you want a groggy thread to rant against people telling stories, go do it somewhere else; picking haughty "debate me coward" fights repeatedly about "explain to me with logic why you like telling stories" over and over is clearly not productive, right now! take a walk, some deep breaths, and then if you wanna come back and treat people with respect and listen to them instead of fighting some strawman proxy fight please come back and hang out! 

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(+3)

you're still picking fights about people daring to want to play games different from you but go off i guess

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Moderator(+3)

My understanding of your line of thinking, Axes&Orcs, is that you're presenting two points:

1. D&D is not (and is not intended to be) a game that's designed with narrative structure in mind. (And maybe 1a: If people want narrative structure there are better games out there.)

2. Because 1, creating space in the text of D&D for what we might call "narrative training tools" is unnecessary.

If those are accurate readings of your points, I agree with point 1 but I think point 2 is no hill to die on. 

You're right that D&D was designed with particular goals in mind, a lot of people use D&D for stuff that's well beyond those goals (my feathers always get a bit ruffled when I hear "we played the best game of D&D ever last night... we never even picked up the dice!"), and those people might have an experience that's closer to their flavor of fun if they used a different game. 

But for point 2, I feel like there's a lot of stuff in the D&D books that people never use (if we limit ourselves just to the PHB: travel, encumbrance, trade goods, underwater combat, etc.). To me, it doesn't feel like a betrayal of D&D's design if WOTC adds a few paragraphs (or even a whole chapter) on how narrative structure can be noticed and highlighted in the course of improvisational and/or tactical play.

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(+1)

Fundamentally, the reason we play games instead of rolling dice and doing math with the results is because games are emotionally stimulating. That is, ttrpgs produce emotional responses (whether the emotion in question is fun, fear, sadness, etc.) and we play primarily for these responses. The challenge of working out how to get the enemy's hit points to 0 is, in contrast, intellectually stimulating; the part where you're an elf and the enemy is a dragon is the part that makes it fun or scary rather than simply challenging or interesting. Without the narrative, the game becomes "component one performs operation thirty-seven, decreasing component two's attribute eleven from one-hundred and sixty-two points to eighty-four points." So, the narrative provokes the key emotional response that makes the game worth playing. Metaphor, as you probably know, is the among the most important tools that narrative has for provoking emotional responses (possibly the most important, discounting base sentimentality). A game that ignores basic understandings of metaphor (or a DM who doesn't understand the metaphorical frameworks they're working in) produces narratives that are dissatisfying on a subconscious level. This isn't the worst thing in the world, and I honestly think that D&D's flavor text does a fantastic job of implying its metaphorical framework for players and DMs. But having an understanding of the essential narrative at the core of a game you're designing and the metaphorical framework you're working in lets you design your game so that your players are incapable of missing the particular emotional response you intend to provoke, and that's the idea at the center of this thread.

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(+2)

Very late to the party here, and I think from the deleted posts you've dis-engaged, but real quick, as to why D&D would benefit from narrative tools, well, it's because approaching fiction as a story comes natural to us as humans. People embellish anecdotes and give them a plot because a simple recitation of events can be pretty boring, unless those events are pretty damn amazing, and even then, it's better with a plot.

So, it's very natural to think that as the gateway to the hobby for many, it might be better to talk to people in the sort of language they're used to from other media, rather than in the simulationist wargaming language that is its default. You may disagree, but wargaming, like hardcore strategic boardgaming, is an acquired taste, and while it's a taste I like, among many, it's going to be confusing to someone who isn't already steeped in its culture or isn't coming from a wargaming  or tactical / strategic gaming background. (My personal problem is that D&D is a terrible wargame, and I like more narrative games just as much so I'd rather play those than D&D, but that's another, uh, story.)

Of course, the one attempt to make use of the lessons learned from a medium that was heavily influenced by D&D, video games, resulted in 4e, which became one of the more reviled editions, even though that arguably was the best modern language for thoughts like "this monster doesn't have any context other than it being a cool monster to fight." (Personally, I felt like 4e came a lot closer in spirit to the way things were done "back in the day" while accepting modern innovations, but it appears if you can't kill a 1st level PC with a simple orc stab, it's not D&D or something. But again, my personal preferences are another story.)

There's a strong element of wanting to eat one's cake and have it still sitting untouched on the plate in some elements of D&D fandom, where fans want to claim D&D is good for deep story but don't want to engage with any tools that make it easier to do that, and still want it to be a tactical wargame, without engaging with any of the innovations in that realm since the 1970s. And that's on top of the whole "adventurers as colonizers" problem.

I don't think you need a BA in Art, Media, and Culture to understand that. Mine was a double major in Computer Science and English, by the way, in case it matters. ;-P

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(+5)

Hi Ian.

It seems like you care a lot about this topic, and have a lot of feelings about it.  I think it's great that you're interrogating the terminology, because it can be confusing to people who aren't familiar with it. But I'm not sure that the OP said or implied that everyone needs to use narrative conventions when telling stories together. It seems like you're reading a lot Sandy Pug Games' post. I can totally understand how that is! But I think in this case you're reading something that is not there. Sandy Pug Games, and the people replying to you, aren't saying that WotC has to put these concepts in their text. They're not saying that everyone has to care about the concepts. It seems like they're saying that it is okay to care about these concepts, and that they can have a benefit in some cases.

Does my assessment seem fair, or am I off in some regard? I would be happy to hear what I've missed in the discussion.

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I'm going to be honest with you Ian, and I hope you would do the same with me, that some of your posts in this thread do quite seem like you're talking past people. In your response to the post that you linked, for example, you said: "I would need a strong argument to convince me that explicit guidelines, rules, and mechanics would serve a game like D&D by being included in a core rule book." I can't find anything in Sandy Pug Games' post where they implied that they would. I can find points where they said "properly written rules can contain [those concepts]" or that D&D  doesn't have those concepts, but nothing about D&D benefiting from having those concepts in a core rule book. Did I miss something in the post?

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(+4)

Okay. I hope you have a nice day.

(+3)

I'ma use a dungeon as an example.

A dungeon that has a big monster at the end has provided the material for a climax, which is a narrative piece (whether you want to call it a 'beat' or not, dunno; that's not my terminology)

Foreshadowing and building up to that monster by having things like the giant claw marks here, the weird cult of kobolds that pays homage to it in the cave over there, and so on, more firmly establishes it as climactic - it improves its quality as the narrative device (beat?) of "climax".

D&D and many other games have bits pointing this way all over the place; they just aren't typically explicit or direct.

Making them more explicit, in the sense of Do This To Get That, is useful.

(+1)

I dunno about you, but I just write people (sometimes human, usually not), with their own wants, needs, and assets. I don't think about shoehorning them into "character roles" or hitting "plot beats". I want to inhabit a character's mindset when playing, not sit outside it and check whether I'm hitting a checklist of tropes.

(+2)

that's very unsatisfying to some people. I know because they tell me; "I want this event to have x beats."

we are in the storytelling business, after all, and if we don't think like storytellers, if we don't at least examine the rules and devices of storytelling, we are not doing our best.

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(+2)

it means "read novels, watch TV, go to the movies, attend the opera, play video games, listen to the radio, and dissect those stories."

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(+3)

a "beat" is a unit of narrative time, part of a larger rhythm, and it comes from musical notation. basically put, you put beats in the storytell so not everything happens at once, or so things don't just keep happening without pause. in any 'random game', as you put it, a beat is just an event that happens in the story. you hit the upbeat, then you hit the downbeat. you spend a session fighting the vampire lord, then you spend a session deciding what to do with all the blood. in one scene you play the boxer in the ring for the title championship bout, in the next you play the boxer celebrating their victory or mourning their loss.

i'm not a particular fan of the three-act; i prefer to improvise the narrative structure of my campaigns. but just because i improvise, doesn't mean i don't spend a lot of thought, work, and time on the structure.

(+1)

"I want this event to have x beats."

Yeah but why should I follow that whim (assuming it's not an invocation of a safety tool)?

The Last Jedi would have been a weaker film (i.e. it would have been The Force Awakens) if it polled some random sample of the fanbase and constructed its plot according to what they wanted. Rian Johnson knew what he was doing with the deliberate evocation of dissatisfaction.

And I'm not even trying to create a film. I'm trying to create a *game world to inhabit*, where NPCs have depth and meaning to their actions beyond some instrumental value to the protagonists' arc. For all that people like to point the finger at D&D and say "it treats NPCs as sacks of HP and loot, mere objects for the PCs to plunder", at least it's not treating them as sacks of plot points and tropes for the *players* to plunder. Why is that better, less problematic storytelling?

(+3)

here's why you should follow that whim; because your players asked you for it. what else are we here for?

and I mean, if it has never happened to you, maybe it'll never happen, and you won't have to learn anything new.

I get what you're trying to say with "plundering plot points and tropes," but you are unequivocally wrong. a story is a living thing, and the play is the pumping of the blood. plot points and tropes cannot be plundered, and those are but the components of a story to begin with. the story matters. the gold and treasure may go into a fictional economy, but I have never heard of it as a system mattering aside from fiat. if there's a game out there concerned with GDP and the actual flow of goods, I will retract my criticism.

and I mean, it doesn't need to matter. if all you want is for players to get lots of money to buy the things they like, there's no reason why you have to calculate deficits to determine this quarter's sales tax.

finally, being able to inhabit a character's mind and being aware of tropes, clichés, and other narrative conventions are not mutually-exclusive positions.

Do you actually believe I "won't have to learn anything new" by choosing not to be some wish-fulfilment genie?

(+2)

its a possibility, yes.

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(+2)

point one: no, i believe you are mistaken. glacus is not basing the idea that narrative language should be mechanically weighty; "immersion" or inhabiting a mindset or otherwise roleplaying is usually a fiat thing.  and fiat is the furthest thing from concrete; interacting with emotions, beliefs, and motivations in a concrete way will require mechanics - narrative in nature - that make these things matter.

point two: sure, i'm saying that as a gm, that these players do exist, because i play with them. and that one day you might have to deal with their desires, and they may not intersect with yours (the horror!). which leads me to the last point.

point three: of course the gm is also a player.  of course they should also have fun at the table. but when someone wants something different, you're going to have to deal with it. you must decide whose enjoyment is going to win out. and you can save yourself a lot of grief by preparing for it.

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we really aren't, my friend.

Moderator (2 edits) (+4)

There's some really interesting dialogue being made here, and some perfectly valid critiques of the idea put forward which I deeply appreciate. I think its fair to say that some people go into GMing and games with very different ideas of what constitutes a "good game", a division I think we're all pretty familiar with. I'd argue that there's a lot of value to be found even by (for lack of a better term) simulationist designers and GMs by examining (and being given the tools to examine) what the fictional, emotional and narrative repercussions of the naturalistic character choices they make within the space they build for (or with) their players. Just as I think it serves even the most story-game, narrative driven person to be given, for lack of a better word, mechanical tools to create worlds with a degree of verisimilitude. 

To admit my own biases, I'm pretty obviously squarely on the Games as Story side of the discussion, and so a lot of my analysis comes from that. 

Regardless, thanks to everyone who posted some examples of games that do this sort of thing very very well. I really appreciate having more reading material on the list. Maybe we could post some more examples, maybe even a chunk of your favourite usage of narrative tools, to aid in the discussion? Here's a small snippet of one of my games (Americana, currently shooting for a June release date) from the Adversaries section. The game is in investigation game where you play as high schoolers, just for context.

"The Best Friend 

Strengths: Cute, Loyal to the End, Trustworthy, Always Got A Plan, Emotionally Switched On, Physically Strong
Weaknesses: Forgetful, Magically Useless, Rocky Home Life
You’ve known this person your whole life, and you’ve most likely spent more hours with them than your family. You trust this person more than you trust yourself, you love them like a sibling. Which is why they’re a problem.

The Best Friend may seem like an odd choice for an adversary, but think about it. Who’s going to be bugging you about where you were last night? Who’s going to be knocking on your door and asking your mom where you are? Who’s going to get really upset and hurt when you blow them off to investigate the sewers tonight?
The Best Friend is a perfect double-sided blade. They are someone the player’s character can trust and get help from, but they’re also emotionally invested in their friendship to a degree that can impact the character’s ability to conduct their investigations. They might even accidentally jeopardize it by prying too deeply or asking the wrong questions at the wrong time. They mean well, of course, they mean the best, but they’re working with half a deck and their best friend looks tired all the time, and why do they have a black eye? What’s going on?

Best Friends are great to put unexpectedly with a Crew or at a Hang, they can be waiting for player characters when they get home, asking piercing questions. They can be great at school too, trying to get the character’s attention while the player is chasing up a lead or spying on someone. "

What I tried to do here with the Best Friend was provide a kind of simple explanation of what role that character archetype often takes in high school investigation stories, and suggest places and times for the reader to use that archetype, identifying common tropes and their purpose without being too overt about it. I'm not sure I've 100% succeeded here, but this is a small bit of what I'm talking about when I suggest including this sort of thing in your game.

Something I realized in writing this out is that there is one area of narrative tools we are really good at - plot hooks! Every game I've ever read is full of plot hooks and little evocative story beats.

Oh and shout out to King Crackers who has explained the idea just beautifully and with more patience than I think I'd have been able to muster

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I think the really important piece of content like this is the suggestion of times and places to use a particular trope. Plenty of games stat up common character archetypes, to the point where it's almost expected GM content (assuming your game has NPC stats). Adding places your players will expect to see certain things conveys a lot more information about the genre you're working in in a much more condensed way than just listing the tropes themselves.

(+6)

I really like how Belonging Outside Belonging's structure really leads you towards making weak moves/vulnerable moves early on and leaning into a triumphant arc when you have more tokens to spend on strong moves later in the game.  Really helps illustrate growth and building community imo

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there's a really cool thing Blades in the Dark does where it hits you with the punchy setting description of "You’re in a haunted Victorian-era city trapped inside a wall of lightning powered by demon blood." but then immediately follows it up with an explanation of why that is:

The point of all this is to create a pressure-cooker environment for our criminal escapades. Traveling outside the lightning barrier is a very bad idea, so it’s impractical to “leave town and wait for the heat to die down” after you pull off a score. Everything the players choose to do has consequences for their characters and shifts the balance of power around in the city—driving the action for a sandbox style of roleplaying game.

i think this is really sharp, and it's a good example of what Blades is trying to do, which in some ways is to present the most elegant tabletop version of an open-world video game. the city's big and stuff goes down without you, but you're playing in a limited space and can't leave. it's why factions happen for the most part without player input, and it feels right for the kinds of story Blades is willing to tell.

more generally, i think one of the things that makes this difficult is that it's such a tough thing to implement story beats because it feels like it'll end up constraining creativity. i'm fine laying down gear because i'm confident if people want start calling my sparkshot guns like, boltspitters or something, they'll just do it and won't feel like they're playing the game wrong, but if i tell them "your story should integrate these tropes and these themes," they'll feel constrained by those beats? and i think the emergent narrative structure of play can be more interesting than the structure of a conventionally-told story, and i worry that sending people in aiming to capture those story beats might stifle creativity or limit people.

Moderator (2 edits) (+4)

I think that's absolutely a big concern - and one I think anyone who's had experience in a structured lit class has probably felt at some point. It's a pitfall to be avoided when writing this sort of thing, and something to actively educate against the use of. In my mind, and hopefully in my writing, the goal is to enable people to better embrace their ability to express themselves or creatively explore their ideas and unique stories through making people actively aware of how the sausage is made, rather than enforce specific and strict cookie-cutter plots. Blades is a really great game that does a lot of great narrative and media aware design/tools while encouraging GMs and players to have fun with and mess with those rules rather than stifling them.

I definitely have had bad art teachers who didn't know how to weave these two concepts (That of personal self expression/freedom and the education of the 'rules' of the artform), but I feel like I'm a better storyteller and writer for having learned the rules and media conventions in the first place, after all, its hard to break, bend or make new rules if you're not super aware of how they work in the first place.

(+4)

oh, yeah, i definitely get that impulse as well. even so, it's always clashed with the second impulse which like...a practical example of this is that i was raised Hindu (atheist Hindu but like, culturally Hindu) and i really don't know anything about Christianity? and i've to some degree actively resisted learning because i think my work will be stronger for operating completely without reference to Christian symbolism and symbology! and sure, i don't recognize that symbology as easily in the media i consume, but it's nice to have a personal and thematic aesthetic that exists entirely orthogonally to that throughline in most Western media. part of what's often frustrated me about PbtA games is that because the moves themselves are codified tropes, it makes it really tough to push the limits of the genre that a given game captures in a satisfying way, so i'm interesting in not laying that out in my work and seeing where it takes people. i think playtesting will probably have a lot to teach me about whether that's effective, but i'm very interested to try it out and see how far i can get on a minimum of that kind of information.

Moderator(+3)

That's a really interesting viewpoint and - regardless of where your playtesting leads you - I'm really excited to see how that is reflected in your work. Thank you for sharing!

(+3)

I absolutely love Blades in the Dark for that bit of setting-building and reasoning. Partly because the most recent D&D setting I created was set up in a similar way: a walled city surrounded by deadly mists, so play would be contained to the city and players would build on fraught relationships with NPCs and factions over the course of multiple campaigns. Then I discovered Blades and saw all the similarities.

(1 edit) (+4)

I can certainly get behind the idea of narrative guidance, but the less focused an experience you're trying to create, the more counter-productive this can be. I'm skeptical that every game does have a platonic session. Or rather, that every game is well understood through the lens of having a platonic session, or better designed by a designer who uses that framework. There's more than one way to guide players, and I think a lot of games that don't draw the shape of a platonic session or an otherwise refined narrative guideline for players do instead draw a very detailed picture of how to use the mechanics as narrative tools on a scene-by-scene and session-by-session level.

A game of Apocalypse World or Spire probably isn't a good candidate for the platonic session lens; these are games that wrap narrative into mechanical minutiae and crowbar flavor into crevices of the system and the voice of the text and then hand players the power to obliterate anything resembling a consistent narrative structure with each new ability selected in character creation--Spire much more so than Apocalypse World, but they're both in that general direction. Games like these often have quite a bit of text dedicated to helping players use those chaotic systems effectively not by steering the session into a particular shape, but by steering the participants in the conversation into a particular frame of mind. This is by no means incompatible with what you seem to be after, I'm just not sure it's quite the same thing, either, and it doesn't seem to be an issue of missing material to me.

I can't speak to anyone else's creative process, but both as a GM and a designer, I find it very helpful to proceed with a looser sense of purpose in mind. I make the game I want to make that does what I want it to do, but when I get down to the more difficult work of testing and refining I'm not worried about a platonic session, I'm worried about providing others tools that do interesting things. I think most games lack clearer narrative guidance not just because some of them need more but because a lot of them don't. If the goal is for players to tell a very particular story, naturally it makes sense to guide players along that path very strongly. But that just isn't the goal of many, many games.

Moderator

It's interesting that you name AW as one of the games without platonic sessions - I actually built a lot of this idea from studying it in part and, in the abandoned longer write up I did of this a while ago used it as a prime example of a game that has a pretty solid "intended experience" (a flawed term, as it implies some kind of imposed thing) in spite of its relatively generalized nature. Not every story told with AW will look similar, but they are, by necessity of the games ruleset, told in similar ways.

But I digress - even the most general game has, in my mind, a platonic session, consciously or not, a designer is trying to make something for a particular purpose, to fill a need they see missing or to contribute to a particular ongoing dialogue. When you say you're building games that provide tools for players to do interesting things, the particulars of those interesting things are what make up the fundamental grounding of your platonic session (and the needed guidelines for narrative tools). Some of the comments I made in the thread above this speak on this a little - while it's absolutely possible to limit player (and designer, and GM) creativity with bad narrative design or poor educational frameworks, well made ones are liberating and further allow those wonderful interesting things we're all trying to enable. The goal of the tools I'm proposing and talking about aren't necessarily about telling a particular story, or even a particular type of story, rather it's about informing a reader what stories they can tell with your games they perhaps couldn't with another game - or how the storys they tell in your game would differ from another, similar game.

But, of course, I have to admit I have a personal bias for more focused experiences, so perhaps its some of that creeping in - either way, great points. I agree at the very least that the approach to narrative tools and education must be very different depending on the intent of your design and goals of your game.

(3 edits) (+2)

"consciously or not"

I guess this is at the heart of where I'm losing you. If despite intentionally designing a game that has a quite varied array of platonic sessions that aren't easily coalesced into one narrative focus I'm not necessarily making something that needs more narrative focus to consistently deliver the intended experience or an otherwise engaging experience.

"When you say you're building games that provide tools for players to do interesting things, the particulars of those interesting things are what make up the fundamental grounding of your platonic session (and the needed guidelines for narrative tools)."

Suppose I have my session concept. The game is then not in the concept but in how the tools I provide lure players through the messy thicket of the game's ideas and their desires and their ideas of what the game's ideas are. Players often crash out of that thicket in a whild direction, so some games try to cultivate a very specific and consistent path through it.

But (whether or not this or that designer had a Platonic Session in mind) I think it's interesting to give players instead an explosive energy and a bunch of spare parts and, if they must be mundane, a machete and see what sort of path out of the thicket they come up with and what sort of story is produced. Some game systems seem very good at bottling the sort of energy that makes that work rather than merely creating a directionless mess of themes players have to bring their own energy to.

Accordingly, I don't think it's a widespread design failing that mostly shorter, more focused storytelling games provide these path-cultivation tools in a way that fits your framework of a Platonic Session. That's less a mistake on the part of everyone else and a particular feature of those types of games! I think there's a lot to be said for games that consistently create worthwhile experiences but do not consistently create the same kinds of stories. We can still call that a platonic session, saying for example that in Game A, the platonic session is one that deals with themes B, C and D. But at that point we may as well be talking about themes, surely, rather proposing that too many games lack narrative tools.

Edit: I'm sorry, I got lost editing that when I went in for typos. I'm not sure how to revert and I'll try not to do that again but it's quite different from the post that was responded to below. Should convey the same ideas though.

Moderator (3 edits)

I think I have a better grasp of what you mean, thank you for clarifying. Apologies if I'm still off base at all here.

I think in a lot of ways this is tied somewhat to a slightly more common discussion about what happens when games hit players tables - about house rules and unintended rules readings and so on - and my reply is largely the same to that; that we can not control what the players and readers do with our texts doesn't seem to me to be something worth worrying too much about at the end of the day (Except in wanting to make sure our rules are clear and accessible anyway). It's inevitable that people will read our games and do things with our games that we simply have no way to predict or imagine, and regardless of what design lens, tools or lures we use, they may be missed, misunderstood, misread, re-worked or re interpreted. To some degrees nothing of our intentionality survives past first read/play, such is Death of the Author I suppose. You have no control over what the players ideas or desires are, only in how you communicate your own expectations of their play. A Platonic Session might also be understood as your work luring the players meshing perfectly with their desires and ideas. An impossible reality, but as a hypothetical, its a useful tool.

I'd also say that your platonic session isn't a set-in-stone thing established at the start of your project, I'm sure we've all had the experience of writing a game or a system and realizing the very essence of what we were aiming for wasn't working and had to rework the fundamentals or even scrap it. Understanding what you want people to do with your game in the end is just another part of the design process - The Platonic, or Perfect, session of your game may be very different by the time you finish writing, but there's still a lot of value in understanding it and being aware of it, even if it changes drastically after your first playtest or rewrite or what have you.

I should also maybe specify that my idea of a Platonic Session is strictly a design tool, it's not really useful to anyone after you've put your work out there - Think of it the same way some people write a guiding principle or a mood board. Its intended to keep you on track with what you're trying to make, rather than an attempt to bind players to that specific vision.

For the last part here, I'm worried the idea of a platonic session (the design tool intended to help inform a designer and guide the work process) is getting a little mixed up with the overall advice of providing narrative tools (a player-intended inclusion).. All games that intend to tell stories should have information and education for how those stories work and function, and its my belief that all games, fundamentally, intend to tell stories of some form. I'd also point out many of the games mentioned that have excellent narrative tool inclusion are actually fairly large games in the grand scheme of things - Spire is actually a great example of one, AW too. Blades was mentioned, etc. Smaller games can be good at explaining very focused, very intentional-narrative and guided experiences, but that's only really one form of what I'm talking about. 

Also Edit: No worries! It happens, I should wait some time before replying. I have some thoughts about the specific stuff edited in but I think I largely addressed most of the stuff in some way here, at least, I hope so.  Some of it doesn't make any sense anymore but I've already wrote a lot of words. To try and address the first part tho - By conscious or not I'm saying all games are ultimately saying something regardless of the designers intent, and being aware of that something is a useful tool, and many games are published without being actively aware of what that something is. If your intention during design is to make a bundle of machetes with which the players hack their own path through a jungle of your own design - that's your Platonic Session right there.

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I'm not much of a Death of the Author sort of person, myself. Especially in the age of the Internet, the author can sometimes get into a situation where no matter how much they want to be dead with respect to their work, they are consistently revived in it and unable to escape being present while it is at the table instead of merely when it is being made. Commentary tracks, development blogs, and help threads all put massive holes in the idea that the author's intent can vanish into the ether no matter how strongly we preference play at the table from an analytical perspective.

I don't think there's anything wrong with having a platonic session. I suppose I got stuck on the implication that many games seemed to be missing a way of conveying that to the players or at least that, from the perspective that they have a platonic session somewhere in abstract space, they lack the tools to lure players sufficiently close to it. It's that aspect--the Platonic Session as a critical tool--that has me a bit lost. I certainly see why it can be a useful way to think about how to develop a good tool-set for players. I'm just also tempted to point out that shorter, more focused story games doing a more consistent and focused job of this is a feature of those games more so than a bug in other games.

Moderator (1 edit) (+1)

I don't have anything more to add here other than that I don't really consider the Platonic Session to be a critical tool - I think I'm largely the only designer to actively use this lens and plenty of great games are being made without a cohesive and singular vision. It's just something vital to my own personal work process and something I think many designers would benefit from is all.

Otherwise I think we might be at a bit of an endpoint here. Thank you for the discussion! It's forced me to rethink a lot of the specifics behind the idea and the way I present it, I really appreciate your viewpoint.

Moderator (1 edit) (+2)

Sort of side-ways to this conversation, but relevent I think; this Twitter thread showed up on my feed today - https://twitter.com/the_strix/status/104247685907666944 - One area I think I failed to make clear is that the goal of including narrative toolkits shouldn't be to teach any particular specific field of media analysis or education - I'm not promoting the enforced monomyth, that would be a terrible mistake. These tools must, by default, be different for the game you make, they must be as tied to the experiences you hope to enable as your mechanics are. The monomyth and three act structure is a good place to start, but its not the best fit for a lot (most?) of games.

Quick Edit: Be sure to check the replies to that tweet too, some of the conversation in there is super good - and lots of good reading material in there.

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You know, the idea of explicating the narrative elements at work in depth is something I've never considered. I like to list the themes, I like to have those themes and motifs resonate throughout the text, and I like to have mechanics that create the desired narrative structure. The idea of including bits that say "and you do this thing because it'll create this effect" is not something I've ever really thought about. Part of me thinks it's like explaining how a magic trick or a joke works, that in providing that autopsy, you kill the spontaneity and the life of the narrative.

And yet, there's been plenty of examples in this thread of why I'm wrong! It's definitely something I'll need to be more considerate about in the future.

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I think that's a more reasonable fear for a participant than for a designer. In other words, a game designer ought be explicit as possible so that the participants in the game can keep things behind the curtain. The incentives for a designer are, as always, completely opposite of what the incentives for a game player are.

Apologies if it's too late to reply to this but I was thinking of this recently and realized that this idea of platonic session often differentiates between the games that I found most useful as books and the games I had to do the most work to get interesting. Some nonstandard older examples, good and bad:

Over the Edge 2nd edition provides 3 different adventure models and has a discussion of how these approach three different types of things the players can do with the setting as well as discussing the variety of other ways things can spin out of control. 


Puppetland is one of my favorite never played games. It doesn't do this very much in the original edition (I haven't read the newer one yet) despite being very short. It's a very interesting game that I looked awt, want to play, and have no idea what to do once I start. 


Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st edition doesn't give much on this front but the sample adventure stuff and gm advice leads to a model of "give the pcs (who are usually underprivileged and poor) something they really shouldn't have possession of and react realistically to what they do." It's not the most flexible but I never felt lost when trying to run this. 


Dream Park had explicit design instructions for adventures with what makes the best for each stage of the play session from introducing the world to tying up the lose ends. Which is rather meta since you are playing people at an rpg adventure park. But you get very detailed mashup genre guidance in making sure your adventure is good and a time is had. 

Feng Shui is one of the best/worst combos since you have so much guidance on the world and how to do scenes and even how to get characters into the beginning of the story. "They're there. Why? Now a fight breaks out." But after that I've had pretty solid 50% chance of either a gripping storyline happening or it fizzling out because we're not following the genre and get lost. 

Dogs in the Vineyard and In A Wicked Age do some of the most explicit work in this regard. Dogs guides your prep and tells you how to use your prep hopefully helping you create a solid jumping off point no matter hwat happens. Wicked Age is more flexible but still you follow a range of stories that have been specifically tonally focused and guided so you know what scenes matter and what to do next at pretty much any given time.

D&D barely acknowledges this in the core rules resulting in the standard loot and treasure hack which can be done well or poorly, but at the same time peopel constantly trying to push it into other spheres to do something different or interesting with wildly varying results, even from official writers. The Ravenloft line, for example, has adventures that veer from the near-aimless and very confusing to the perfectly executed pinpoint shot through the heart. Most of the former could have been the latter had they provided a little bit more of a framework and didn't just focus on the dungeons that cropped up on the adventure. 

Amber tries to do this by talking about campaign styles in detail and giving ideas. When not played as a PVP rpg, it gets very confusing and often peters out because of the lack of clear narrative engine and guidance on the long term. I always want to play it but never know what to do to run it (a  common concern of mine for many of these games). 

Monster Hearts, Apocalypse World, and most of the better pbta games end up having a constant narrative engine that pumps you towards new actions till you find a note to end on, focusing on actions and scenes more than the session. This is a very serviceable way to do it and ends up being very powerful. 

Finally, Sorcerer. The game that tries hardest to do this yet I end up most confused about. I don't understand Bangs at all as a reader meaning I don't know how to prepare them and that's after reading each book 10+ times and having run the game several times. I think there is a level of narrative guidance or instruction that would really improve the experience and help me as a reader know what to do. This is curious since the books are great, the rules are great, and the author is explicitly trying to help me create games that focus on stories that are going somewhere. It might be user error.

Just a few thoughts as I flipped through my bookshelf.