So, periodically I have disagreements on the word “narrativist”, so in an effort to overthink games more, I’ve been thinking about how exactly I use it. Well, literally I use it mostly for story-focused tabletop systems and experimental-to-me LARPs.* But when I’ve historically described something as narrativist, I think I’ve been referring to one or more of the following distinct things:
- Meaningful Choices
- Shared Narrative Control
- Explicit Scene Framing/Narrative Structure
- Focus on Feel and Themes
Dividing games into gamist, narrativist, or simulationist derives from GNS theory, which comes from the influential Forge indie RPG community, mumble mumble backstory. In this model, narrativist games focus on developing characters and putting them in situations that test their beliefs and ideals with challenging decisions. For me, this brings to mind Dogs in the Vineyard, the LARP “A Garden of Forking Paths”, or classic Star Trek. (IF-wise, Open Sorcery goes somewhat in this direction.) Done well, this can be quite interesting and effective. I feel like it works best when everyone’s on the same page enough to agree on what choices are interesting and hard but not enough to agree on what the right choice is, which is pretty group-dependent. While putting a lot of pressure on the GM, a GNS-narrativist game can be quite powerful.
Shared narrative control, while also keeping focus on the narrative, is a largely contradictory direction, taking aspects of describing the world, plot, NPCs, or the passage of time away from being firmly in the hands of the GM and sharing it with the players. Examples of this sort of collaborative game would be 10 Candles, where players can periodically declare things to be true without dispute or limit. LARPs with PC director roles or PC-framed scenes can do this to some extent as well. Sorta a mirror to this is games like Apocalypse World that put more limits on the powers of the GM, which can give more narrative weight to player actions by giving the players a solid understanding of the risks and rewards involved. These sorts of systems can require more improvisation but can lead to stories that more deeply reflect the group as a whole and transcend what an individual could come up with independently.
Relatedly, scenes or other explicit narrative framing is something I’ve grown quite fond of. This can happen non-collaboratively with, say, an on-rails scenes LARP or mechanicked flashbacks a la Last Fair Deal Gone Down, or collaboratively in games like Chuubo’s. I think I just appreciate the ability to skip to scenes that are interesting to the story and deal with time in a more flexible way. I’ve been framing scenes as a player in a Fate game I’m not running and it’s super great. The perspective flip from “what does my character do next” to “what scene should we have next” solves a lot of problems I used to have with pacing while GMing. Structures can help keep things moving and interesting, and the choice of what types of scenes to prioritize can deeply shape the feel of the game.
Feel and themes are another thing that can be really cool. The poker-like conflict system of Dogs in the Vineyard isn’t essential narratively or mechanically, but it works so well. Nerf guns and boffers in LARPs let the player symbolically do what the character is doing in a way that can be immersive even though there’s a layer of abstraction. Relatedly, games can bake their themes in pretty deeply, the way Chuubo’s lets you buy a guarantee that baking muffins for The Lord of Death’s Dominion will make your life better or Apocalypse World ensures that things can always go horribly, horribly wrong. These sorts of things can show a sort of intentionality to a game that can make a game fit together strongly as itself, rather than feeling generic and arbitrary.
Taken to extremes, focus on feel and themes leads to prioritizing bleed from character into player. 10 Candles is played in the dark and involves literally burning traits that you use. Singing together as players can help us get into a particular mindset in Last Fair Deal Gone Down. Mumble mumble Undertale. Relatedly, these sorts of games often encourage transparency between players and the GM and players steering characters for the sake of the story (in contrast to GNS-gamist games, which often forbid metagaming as cheating). If I as a player know your secret, I can frame scenes that highlight it the way an author might highlight a character’s secret in a book. Or an ability might be under the player’s control but be uncontrollable for the character in-universe. Games that explicitly address this aren’t leaping to mind, but I find it works quite well in practice.
In conclusion, there are lots of different ways that games can center narrative, and at least the ones I’ve listed here are all pretty great. Rather than try to invent an elaborate system of terminology or continue overloading words, I guess I should just be descriptive. Or I should develop a five-dimensional hyperspace and plot all known works of fiction on it in a completely rigorous and sensible way.
*: Obligatory complaint about people using “freeform” for a category of LARP that’s neither free of form nor related to the already-widespread freeform RP tradition.