Chris Chinn coined this phrase a year or two ago. Basically he asked, “if narration is a part of your resolution system, what mechanics in your game stop a player from saying, ‘If I win, I chop the world in half.” This is a severe problem and it’s a design flaw that has shown up manytimes, especially after Dogs in the Vineyard was released. My own Hierarchy is an excellent example of a game that suffers from this problem.
In Hierarchy, players can raise the stakes in a conflict at will. There’s no mechanical stop-gap to prevent them from betting the fate of the entire world in a single contest. This, of course, is terrible. The design relies total on the Social Contract to keep things in check. That’s possible to some extent, but there are a lot of shades of gray between “my character smacks yours across the face and leaves” and “I chop the world in half.” It can be hard for a group, especially a novice group, to enforce reasonable limits on narration trading during resolution without some mechanical backup.
It is tempting to allow narration to take the characters in any direction the play-group desires, but narration, like all things, needs constraint to breed creativity. Putting mechanical limits on what can be brought into a contest is a necessary part of design.
So what are some ways to do that?
First, you can include a “back-out” clause. Ben Lehman did this in Polaris, where a player in a conflict can negate an escalation by an opposing player by saying, “You ask too much.” So, by designing a way one player to return the stakes back to an earlier a previous state, the game can prevent things from getting out of hand.
Second, you can set explicit options for what can be at stake. For instance, you can say the players may risk “wealth, status, or health in a contest but not life or relationships.” In this case, you are setting up parameters for the resolution system and prescribing what is in bounds and out of bounds for conflicts.
Third, you can have a way to escalate a conflict with a cost and a cap. Dogs in the Vineyard does this. Escalating a conflict from words to fists is possible, but doing so puts the character at greater risk. There needs to be some sort of cap on how much a player can risk when escalating a conflict. Often this is the character’s life. It doesn’t have to be that way, but there needs to be an explicit way to cap the escalation.
Fourth, you can have a resolution system that just doesn’t allow narration to set the stakes. Task resolution does this. Many forms of conflict resolution do as well. You could have the GM always set the stakes, or do it by total group consent. Whatever.
Fifth, as part of the Chargen and prep work for play, the players can set up their own parameters for what is allowable and what is not during narration of stakes in a conflict. Sometimes, in a inter-planar superhero game, chopping a world in half may actually make sense! Cool! But it needs to happen in accordance with the players’ expectation for the game, the designer’s vision for the game, and the limits of the Social Contract. Letting the players hash this out before play allows for really powerful characters and situations without breaking the mechanics.
The main thing is, don’t let the power of narration get out of control. Narration is awesome. It is a lot of fun, but it is also dangerous. It can take a well-designed game and wreck it.