Monday, November 30, 2009

What Are Narration Rights?


This might be one of the most important issues I ever take up on Socratic Design. I hope I can do it justice. In fact, if I’m not happy with the way this article turns out, I’ll probably do a part 2 later some time.

Defined simply, Narration Rights are the ability to describe what happens during play with the credibility that makes what was described established as fact in the game’s fiction. Okay, so maybe that’s not so simply. Let me try to rephrase. Narration Rights basically dictate who can say what matters when.

Narration Rights pass around quite frequently in all games. There are two main instances when Narration Rights and who has them are important- In-Resolution and Plot-development. Plot development is narration designed to move the characters through parts of the game where there aren’t any conflicts or challenges. Examples might be traveling on a road, describing the interior of a bar, an exposition on the history of a place/item/person, or just general description. I’m not going to talk a lot about this type of narration. Vincent does an excellent job explaining it in his Roleplaying Theory Hardcore article entitled, “Roleplaying’s Fundamental Act.” I highly recommend that article. Usually one person is designated as having Narration Rights when it comes do framing scenes or describing items/locations.

The other type of narration, the in-resolution narration, is more important and interesting to what I’m doing here at Socratic Design. If you haven’t read my post on Resolution systems previously, I recommend it. I’ll be basing a lot of what I say in this article on what I wrote there.

In-Resolution Narration Rights can exist at any of the stages in IIEE. In the beginning… Narration Rights for resolution systems were strictly allocated. In most games the non-GM players were given rights to describe what their characters did during the Intent and Initiation phases of resolution while the GM was given the right to describe what happened in the Execution and Effect parts of resolution. For instance, in AD&D you could say that your character was swinging his sword. However, if you fumbled, it was up to the GM to describe why and what the consequences were. In other games, the EE might have been left up to “non-partial” rules and sourcebooks. A good example would be Rolemaster. The players could narrate that their characters were swinging their swords, but upon rolling, the players or GM would consult a weapons table that would describe (in detail) the amount of damage, injuries, bleeding, and consequences of each strike. However, it was never left up to the players in these games to describe what came after the roll. At least not according to the rules.

Games that followed this tradition were molded in the image of Dungeons and Dragons which invented that dichotomy of Narration Rights. The dominance of that method of delineation of narration existed for decades, and really, one could even say that today most mainstream games follow it. This method is also more a feature of Task Resolution systems rather than Conflict Resolution systems, but that’s not absolute.

While giving the GM control of the final two or even the final one step of resolution has been the traditionally accepted method of allotting Narration Rights, I have a significant problem with it. First, it denies the players the ability to really see his/her character through a challenge or conflict. They have to let someone else describe what their character does or suffers. Second, it stymies group creativity when so much of the narration burden is placed on one person’s shoulders. GM burn-out is a real thing and can really poison a group’s social contract. Finally, and most importantly, strict separation of narration rights very easily can neuter the importance of success or failure. Let me explain what I mean.

Let’s take an old standby RPG example- sneaking past some guards. Specifically, let’s say the situation is that the player-character wants to get by the guards to gain entrance to a building. First, let’s take an Actual Play experience I had in a game I played once called Mechwarrior:

Player: I want to sneak past the guard to the door on the other side of the room. (Intent)

GM: That’s fine, modifier is 2. Go ahead (Initiation).

Player: Here I go! [He rolls against his character’s Sneak ability. It’s a success.] (Execution)

GM: You get past that guard, but on the other side of the divider is another guard taking a coffee break. He notices your character, what do you do? (Effect)

In this instance, the GM totally negated the roll by the player. The GM controlled both the setting and the Effects of the rolls, so he wasn’t breaking the rules. He was just simulating the break room for the guards at a military installation. The Player’s ambitions and goals were secondary to the whim of the GM or perhaps the information provided by the adventure module we were using. The roll became meaningless because no matter the outcome, a guard would have discovered the player character. One has to ask, what was the point of rolling, then? It’s a good question.

Let’s review that same situation but instead, the Player has Narration Rights over the Effect of the resolution mechanics.

Player: I want to sneak past the guard to the door on the other side of the room. (Intent)

GM: That’s fine, modifier is 2. Go ahead (Initiation).

Player: Here I go! [He rolls against his character’s Sneak ability. It’s a success.] (Execution) Sweet! My character slips past the guard and makes it through the door to the server room unnoticed. (Effect)

OR, let’s have him fail:

Player: Here I go! [He rolls against his character’s Sneak ability. It’s a failure.] (Execution) Ack! The guard notices me when I bump into a table. (Effect) I draw my taser and try to hit him before he can sound the alarm.

In both of those instances, the player’s actions, rolls, and goals are front and center in play. The GM helps facilitate the action without dictating success or failure. The dice rolls matter. They affect the play in a permanent and meaningful way.

Let’s take another- searching a room a clue in a mystery game. My experience from Call of Cthullu:

Player1: I want to pick the lock on this roll-top desk.

GM: That’s fine, roll for it.

Player1: My skill is 65. [Rolls a 75. Failure]

Player2: I look under in the wastepaper basket for anything useful.

GM: Roll a spot check.

Player 2: [Rolls an 88. Failure] Drat!

Player 3: Let me have a try at the desk. [Skill is 43. Roll is 55. Another failure]

GM: Okay. You fail to get the desk open, but on top of the desk is an open envelope. There’s an old parchment inside and…

In this instance, the GM has negated the effect of a failure. One might not think that this is as bad as the guard example, but really it almost is. There were no consequences for the failures. However, the GM had to make up something to keep the action going. Otherwise the game would have stopped. If the players had the Narration Rights to describe the outcomes and consequences of a failure, the action might not be stymied. For instance, it could turn out this way:

Player1: I want to pick the lock on this roll-top desk.

GM: That’s fine, roll for it.

Player1: Player1: My skill is 65. [Rolls a 75. Failure] Okay, I break the lockpick in the lock and suffer 2 damage but manage to get the thing open. Inside I find documents that link the businessman to the cult we discovered…

That’s not an easy thing to do in a game design. I know this from personal experience. It took me a long time to get the mechanics of The Holmes and Watson Committee right. And then it took my play group a while to get used to them. However, I have found it is much more satisfying for players (and the GM too honestly) if they get to describe what happens to their characters. The action and the fiction of the game center much more around what all the participants want to do rather than preconceived plans by one player.

Even if your game breaks down the Narration Rights to the Player gets to narrate all successes, the GM gets to narrate all failures is better than the GM gets to narrate all Executions and Effects. But even then, I feel that’s not very challenging both as a designer and a player.

Do you HAVE to do it that way? Of course not! Your vision for your game may require a more traditional method of allocating narration rights. But don’t let that be your default position because it’s easier. Challenge yourself and your play group.




vbwyrde said...

Hi Troy. Thanks for the thoughts. It's a question that has come up for me a number of times in the past couple of years through our Literary Role Playing Society discussion board. We have some advocates of Alternative Narration rules, and so I've bumped my head against this question a few times. It's kind of tough nut to crack in a way. The thing is that in the groups I've played in we've settled on the traditional mode of narration: The GM narrates the effects of actions. The reason why is because players have a tendency to over-extend their narration to include things that don't count in the actual event, such as the bit in your example "...and then (though he failed) I find the secret documents". The problem is that there's plenty in the world that the Players don't know (such as where the secret documents actually are - what if the GM knew they were not in the drawer, had given multiple indications which were ignored previously, but the players assumed they were in the drawer anyway). The GM would have a problem with the Players who over-narrate the effects. How do you get around that?

Troy_Costisick said...

Very good question, VBWyrde. My reply would be to ask the GM how important it is to his game that the documents not be in the drawer.

Is the placement of the documents *really* crucial to the fiction, or will the events play themselves out naturally in much the same way they would have, had the PCs found the documents in the safe? Or wherever.

For me, it is much more of a question of weight in the fiction. Is it more important or 'weighty' that the player-characters find the documents or is it more important for the documents to be located in a specific place? I tend to side with the PCs finding the documents. The location is secondary.

The problem that can arise for players who aren't used to that sort of thing is in the social contract. It's really a matter of trust IMO. The GM might wonder, "will the game be as fun if I let the PCs find the evidence when they want vs. when I want?" The GM is protecting his vision of the fiction because he believes that will create the most fun. And for some groups, that might be true.

However, if players are "over extending" their narration, it is just a sign that they too want to engage the fiction, progress the plot, and have fun. The over extension is their way of communicating their shared vision of the fiction. They want to be creative too!

I am of the belief that the act roleplaying should be a group effort, not the work of one individual. Saddling the GM with all the responsibility for creating the fiction and describing the action is a ton of work and preassure. Not only that, it stifles the expression of the other players.

The players deciding when they find the evidence reduces the responsibility of the GM, gets others to buy into the shared fiction of the game, and since the finding of the evidence was destined to happen anyway, it doesn't do much damage to the plot. So to me, it's good all around.

The main hurddle I think you are describing is, as I said, a matter of Trust. Does that make sense to you? Am I in the right ballpark with that assertion? As I see it, the GM has to trust the players not to abuse their power to skip right to the ending. The players have to trust the GM to provide satisfying opposition but not to railroad them into playing exactly the way he (or she) wants. It is hard at first. No question. But the payoff is oh so sweet.



vbwyrde said...

Thank you for the thoughtful reply. Yes, I agree with you to some degree that it's a matter of Trust.

But there's more to it than that, actually. At least the way I see it.

The really central issue to me has to do with who owns the World itself, and why. It's the Why part that's the most interesting, and the answer to that explains my opinion of the Who. So I'll start there and try to be brief.

Why does the GM own the World? Because as a Player I prefer it that way. It's not about the GM being on a mamoth control freakish ego trip. It's about me as the player wanting to explore someone's interesting world vision, whether that be a mystery story, or a political story, or a story about strange monsters and their interaction with the world, or just some bizar eco-system that I couldn't possibly have imagined. The GM owns the World because that way the Players can explore it.

Explore. Its an important distinction. Explore means I don't know what's there. I don't create what's there. I can't make up stuff about what's there. I can, however, explore what's there, and discover. Why is this important to me? Because I find that in games where I am co-creating the back-story, the World itself, I find it very difficult to be immersed in that world because it lacks the one thing that immersion requires: A feeling of Reality.

No, not "It Is Real". We know it isn't. But it Feels real. And it feels real because the GM, our author, *knows* what is going on there. For me immersion is one of the chief appeals of the RPG genre of games. I can enter a World, and interact with it. That's totally amazing. And if the GM has done a good job at being creative with their world, which many I know have, then it's an increadible experience - and one I can immerse myself in. When you co-create the World, suddenly that *Reality* is gone.

And that's why I believe the GM should maintain ownership over the World.

vbwyrde said...

... continued ...

That said, I also think it's fine for Players to narrate certain things, such as what the effect of spells or blows, or their actions are. The character wove a basket? Great... I'm totally happy to hear him describe it. Did the character cast a fire bolt that has a jagged edge of blue flame and a core of flaming orange? Superior! Just so long as his narration doesn't change the effect of the damage given, as rolled by the dice, I'm totally down with that. All sorts of narration of that kind is fine with me.

But my concern is that Players will naturally have a tendency to want to over-extend their authority, and narrate into the effect something that was not rolled, but is to their advantage. Why? Because you're giving them the authority to do so... with some gray zone stuff about group veto.

The problem with group veto is that the group will then have the authority in the game to narrate to their advantage. And that's no really fun. Why? Because, as far as I can tell, what makes a game fun is that it's challenging. But if you get an intrinsic advantage that can very easily be used to neutralize the challenges, then it stops being fun, and becomes a form of masterbation. No challenge, just narrate what you want.

Now I'm not saying that all Collaborative RPG sessions go that way. I'm sure many probably don't. But the collaborative rules allow for it. And that's my concern. It seems like a potentially bad setup.

Potentially. Don't get me wrong though - I'm not totally against it. With some players I'm thinking it can work out. But then, there's still the immersion thing.

So that's two strikes, for me. It's just how I look at it, both as a Player and then beyond that, as a GM. I don't know if that all makes sense to you. I feel there are pros and cons to this approach. I'm not against it. But the cons make me hesitate.

Anyway, we are holding a discussion about your post on the LRPGSW in case you want to poke your head in and see what's being said:

Lee said...

This is a fun topic, and I am glad that I wandered into it. Thanks to Troy for the well written post.

@VBWyrde- I think that your point stands, but only if there is some form of "win for my character" as a goal for the players. If there is no "beat the game", then there is no advantage to seek by twisting the world to your desires. If the "win" is to create interesting stories, with characters that have depth, and real meaning to the actions that take place, but there isn't a heavy undercurrent of "make my character win in his life", then shared authorship is fine.

The GM is not the only person who can be creative enough to make an interesting world, and as a player, if I didn't create it, then I am exploring it, no matter if the GM created it or not. Another player could have created it, and I am still exploring it. So in a way, having more distributed narrative rights means that I have multiple GMs, not just one. As long as the goal of play is to create tension, drama, meaning, and exploration of both the world and dramatic themes, then shared narrative rights is a positive.

Trust is necessary for this to work. If you feel like players will manipulate the world through their authorship rights in a selfish way, without regard for the fun of others, then this will not work. If the players are only interested in getting to the "win", then this will not work. If the players only trust one person with power over the world, then this will not work.

I would sacrifice a lot of my narrative rights as a GM to ensure that players were allowed to infuse meaning into the game. I will admit that I have not had a lot of experience with nar style games, but I try to incorporate a little in most games. I play FATE and PDQ, and both have tools for minor bits of player narrative rights. They also have tools to clue me in as a GM to what themes the players desire to explore. These two games have resulted in more meaningful games than any of the CoC, Marvel superheros, D&D, or any other traditional role playing games that I have ever played. If I want tactical minis, 4e does it best for me. If I want exploration without input into the world, I can get it from a novel. When I want to be involved in creation, when I want to have a "This is what it means to me" moment, and when I want the play to be guaranteed to bring the "pow!", then shared narrative rights gets it done best for me.

Try it out with a mature group that understands that selfish manipulation will be pointless. You might be surprised at how little you lose and how much you gain.

Troy_Costisick said...


VBWyrde, I totally get where you’re coming from now, and I think it’s just fine. Participating in another person’s vision is a very functional way of roleplaying and definitely one that can create a lot of awe and excitement during play in the various areas of exploration. Back in the day, I had some really tremendous fun playing Iron Crown’s “Middle-earth Role-Playing” where narration rights were divided just as your group does. For the style of play that you prefer, the way that your group allocates narration rights is perfect. Don’t change a thing.

And I’ll definitely check out your link. Thanks for making me aware of it!

Lee, thank you so much for adding your input. I think VBWyrde has a good thing going for his group. And I think it’s important to note that we’re talking about play here not design. My article was about design. I’m totally in your camp when it comes to the sort of play I prefer, but I also recognize it’s not for everyone. My article is aimed at encouraging designers to experiment with non-traditional allocations of Narration Rights. I think, and I believe you agree, that non-traditional rights will produce more consistently fun play for a whole lot of gamers, but certainly not all. Some will always prefer “Players declare intentions, GMs declare effects” narration styles. And that’s just fine. But I don’t want designers to get stuck there automatically.



vbwyrde said...

This is why I like you, Troy. You're not on an agenda driven quest about these things. Some people I talk to seem to have an automatic "I must convince him to do it the New Way" attitude that is distressing because it ignores my preferences. Thanks for being fair minded and non-partisan. I respect that. As for the design aspect, I've folded into my game rules notes on the various narration approaches, and what I believe are the pros and cons of each. I hope that will bring the issues to light, and provide GMs and Players using my system the information they need to make an informed, well considered decision.

Thanks again for your blog. I'm a fan.

Troy_Costisick said...

Uh, yeah, I don't think anyone can tell another person their play is wrong. If someone is not having fun or there's problems in the group, there are ways to analyze and rectify those problems. But saying "play" is bad or wrong is just out. ESPECIALLY, if the group is having fun. None of the theory crap means anything so long as the group members genuinely feel like they are having fun.

I read over the comments in the link you sent me. That looks like a really cool group. It opened my eyes to the perspective you take when looking at design and play. I see that we are opperating from two different but equally valid assumptions about roleplaying. I'm not going to go into it here in the comments of this article. It will require a separate article all it's own. It's probably something I wouldn't have written on had we not had this conversation. So I owe you for that.



vbwyrde said...

Sure thing. Glad to be of service. This is what makes the blog-o-sphere is so fantastic. The Collaboration aspect.

Feel free to drop in on the Literary RPG Society if you like. We're always happy to have creative and thoughtful dialog.

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