GNS Theory for LARP – part 2 – Narrativist
Much like Gamist, Narrativist play has a lot of facets. The core premise of narrativist play is the application of theme to the game. It’s the theme that varies. Some narrativists wish to express their internal character themes, and others desire external themes to express themselves onto their characters.
Theme is about requesting the future
The entire goal of theme is to foreshadow desired changes to a character, or desired events for the character to encounter. A character may attack orcs on sight and viciously mutilate them. This may seem to be simply fulfilling the requirement made by their character background of “village was massacred by orcs”. However, it should be viewed as a request from the narrativist player. That request is “please give me something about orcs that takes this character somewhere else.”
Oftentimes, the storyteller needs to meet the player in the middle, as the narrativist player has an idea where that “somewhere else” is. Some players may want to reconcile their hatred of orcs in some fashion. Other players will just want more and bigger orcs, and the opportunity to kill every orc everywhere. On the macro scale (across several games), it’s best to ask the player where they want to go with it. On the micro scale (in a single scene), emergent gameplay must be relied upon.
Narrativist play is about decisions
Just like gamist play, you cannot have narrativist play without presenting a player with decisions. There’s some key observations to be made here.
First, these decisions are often the primary conflict with gamist play. If you present a decision that has a clear gamist choice versus a narrativist choice, you are going to have conflict that is meta in origin. Nobody is going to like that, and the gamist and narrativists will most likely resort to name-calling, or at least claiming that the other group is “playing wrong”. An example would be a huge group of injured peasants. The gamist knows that expending magical resources will do nothing to “win” the game or the encounter. The narrativist might have a thematic reason to help the peasants.
Second, just like gamist decisions, the narrativist decisions must be validated. The validation, however, is very different. The validation to a narrativist is additional information and/or screen time. If a narrativist makes a decision (i.e. healing the peasants), but then nothing of note happens, the decision feels empty. If later on the narrativist learns that the peasants were able to home safely and rebuild their village, the narrativist is validated. In some cases, a negative validation works as well. The healing of the peasants could mean that they were later captured and enslaved by the slavers that have cropped up before.
Narrativist play can be poisonous
Narrativist play can be just as poisonous as gamist play, but it’s not commonly viewed as such. This poisonous play has the same requirements as it’s gamist cousin, in that the enjoyment comes at the expense of the enjoyment of others. The most common version of this would be the narrativist that refuses to compromise their character’s theme, halting gameplay until other players concede their own narratives. Another example is the narrativist claim of “but my character would act this way”. This is just as poisonous as the gamist claim of “but this is the best way to win.” Another poisonous play is the narrativist cornering an NPC, usually a captive, and dragging out content that isn’t there. This is commonly the PC saying the same thing over and over, until the NPC concedes the point in boredom/frustration. Some NPCs love this, but some NPCs just stand there and take the abuse.
Narrativist play is cooperative between Plot and PC
The story that a narrativist craves is part created by plot, but part created by the player. The amount of each can vary widely, with the story being almost entirely created by one party. However, the key is that at least some of the story is created by the other party. This is an important observation, as it dictates that narrativist play requires cooperation between storyteller and player.
Design for the Narrativist
Here’s some tips and tricks.
- Present plenty of rumors and lore before game. These give the narrativist ideas on the kinds of thematic moments coming up in game.
- Present a list of quests to choose from before the game. These give the narrativist a goal (and coincidentally the gamists as well). These quests need not give any concrete reward, but instead something that gives that character a unique reason to be on that adventure. Both the quests and the rumors help the player to meet the storyteller in the middle when it comes to story.
- Have a mirror-moment in every game, preferably in the middle. The goal here is to have a player reflect upon the nature of their character. Most players will need to do this with meta-thought (i.e. what would my character do here?) In general, this is a place where the character is further defined. The mirror moment can be any of the following:
- A moral quandary, preferably one with no “right answer”. It might be important to make sure there isn’t a gamist angle to this quandary (see above), or make the decision something that an individual makes rather than the group.
- A softer version of the moral quandary is presenting the quandary in theory, but not in practice. An NPC can discuss what they are going to do in a situation, with the intent being that the PC can reflect their approval or disapproval.
- Another “soft” moment is a “shrine meditation” scene. A magical location requires a specific ritual to get an effect. That ritual entails reciting some story/lesson/philosophy (think Stations of the Cross or the Sith Code). An even better version of this is that the character has to reflect back their interpretation, or answer questions like “What is best in life?”
- An actual mirror in a fantasy game could have magical properties (and a mind-altering device in sci-fi can work as well). The mirror could show an exaggerated version of the character, or an opposite version of the character. The mirror could impose a temporary or permanent change to the character’s personality (like a Mirror of Opposition).
- Have the opportunity for a heroic moment. Many players deeply desire a heroic theme to their narrative. Think about heroic moments in fiction. They almost always involve one of two elements, both related to the movement of the hero.
- The hero stands in place. This is the classic “holding against impossible odds” moment. Create a chokepoint for somebody to hold. Throw goons at checkpoint. Put something important behind the hero.
- The hero travels alone across a hazardous area to accomplish something. There’s three elements here.
- Put something that one person can accomplish at a distance.
- A ritual to stop.
- A damsel to save.
- A villain to stab.
- The hazardous area to cross. This is usually just bad guys. This should be controlled to let one person through, but nobody else. The example I can think of were the bullshit force-fields in The Phantom Menace that held Obi-Wan back. From a viewer’s perspective, these were a bucket of fail. From a player’s perspective, the hero won’t notice that they somehow got through the all the bad guys really easily. However, your NPCs would have instructions to “let the first player through, but make it look like you tried to stop her”.
- Make sure that the decision is easy for the hero to charge into peril. Make the goal something important to a specific player. So important that they don’t think twice about trying to charge through six NPCs. You can do this with quests (see above) and other foreshadowing.
- Put something that one person can accomplish at a distance.