Are We Ready to Lead with the Fiction?

May 3, 2008

This is largely a response to Brand’s post about fiction being part of the rules which, I think, came partially out of our conversation about Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age.

A Super Brief History of Roleplaying

  1. There was D&D (among others), and we followed the rules; the fiction was secondary.
  2. There was Vampire (among others), and we ignored rules that didn’t jive with the fiction; the rules became secondary.
  3. There was the Forge (among others), and we made the rules generate the kind of fiction we wanted, so we could follow the rules all the time; fiction became secondary largely because we assumed that fiction and the rules always operated in sync.
  4. There was In a Wicked Age (among others), which attempts to, as Vincent says, “lead with the fiction.”

What Does This Mean?

I’m not sure we really have a consensus yet. It’s become clear to me, from talking to Brand and Vincent about how they play IAWA, that Vincent sees “leading with the fiction” as potentially much more rules-based than Brand does. But I’m going to try to talk about it anyway, though I think I lean slightly towards Brand (just so you know) [by which I mean, when playing in a “fiction first” style, I tend to be more comfortable when the rules really take a back seat, instead of backseat driving].

Generally speaking, the basic idea seems to be to allow the narrative of play to come first, allowing it to lead players along until they have no choice but to engage the mechanics and, even then, placing the narrative first and foremost in any mechanical resolution (or not even having resolution, but simply structure for the fiction to work itself out). By contrast, a lot of recent indie design relies on the mechanics to generate interesting narrative or allows players to engage the mechanics as a way to complicate the narrative, so the mechanics lead the fiction instead of the other way around. Sometimes you can even engage the mechanics when you’re not quite sure where the narrative is going (the equivalent of having goblins attack if the characters are just standing around) in order to find or force the players to choose a direction.

Leading with the fiction seems, in many ways, like a natural outgrowth of the Forge (and others)’s focus on making the rules of a game uniquely suited to the kind of play you want to create and the Lumpley Principle. The LP (credited to Emily Care Boss & Vincent) defines “system” as including all the processes by which players make decisions about what happens during play. So it seems natural that design and play would eventually come to focus on the larger elements of system exposed by the LP, including elements of the narrative itself, as a source of structure for play.

To me, it’s not surprising that interest in “leading with the fiction” is coming from folks like Vincent, Emily, Mo, and Brand, who share in common a long tradition of post-Ars Magica, troupe-based, freeform play. Interestingly, this background is also shared by Rebecca Borgstrom (author of Nobilis) and, by way of Amber, Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue (authors of Spirit of the Century). Rob’s been one of the folks most excited about Brand getting into “leading with the fiction” stufff, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Trends That Are Now Apparent

While the buzz over indie design is only starting to shift towards “leading with the fiction,” elements of this have been around for a while. Honestly, I’d dub some of these the “rules lite” or “system doesn’t matter” strains remaining in a largely “system does matter” subculture. Primetime Adventures is probably the best example, which has very minimal rules backed up by pages and pages of text about how the narrative might be structured. Even then, in play, most of what makes the game work is the simply act of brainstorming TV show ideas with the other players. The Screen Presence rules help structuring a bit, but everything else is largely icing. Mortal Coil is another great example. There are several indie games in which the minimal rules force players to focus on the fiction, because the mechanical foundation isn’t very robust or doesn’t reinforce specific play styles or themes as much as other cases.

As Brand said, sometimes these leave players wondering “is this me, or it the game?” That is to say: how much are the mechanics of the game contributing to the fun that is had when the game is played? Under the Forge (and others) model, the rules should be responsible for a sizable amount of the fun, because they structure player contributions to the narrative in a way that makes a more interesting or thematically appropriate narrative than the players could improvise on their own. Even the minimal structures of PTA channel input in this way. But the “leading with the fiction” model seems to place more trust in the players, allowing the fiction they independently generate to have a more central place in the fun, while still trying to find ways to more indirectly channel input towards desirable themes (Poison’d is all over this) or specific structures (the “anthology engine” at the heart of In a Wicked Age).

It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

10 Responses to “Are We Ready to Lead with the Fiction?”

  1. Brand Robins Says:

    I like the term “provoke” and maybe “inspire” for what I like system to do.

  2. Brand: I kinda suspect this has two do with multiple different approaches to the Borgstrom Hypothesis.

    One possible way tries to make players feel cool and clever by forcing them to come up with awesome stuff.

    Another possible way is to get out of the way, but create a forum where awesome stuff can be produced.

    Yeah, maybe?

  3. alejandro Says:


    I’m new to these parts, so forgive if I overstep my welcome.

    I’m really interested in this topic, being on how I’ve created a game that intentionally sets out to “Lead with the Fiction.” However, I’m not entirely sure if I understand what that means.

    Is it that the fiction informs the mechanics or is it that the mechanics informs the fiction? Or both?

    I would suggest that in the past most games have had fiction be a secondary “by-product” to the invocation of the mechanics. And it neither informed nor was it informed by their execution… Does this make sense? Am I on the same page as you?

    I would also suggest that DitV was a game that “Lead with the Fiction” in that the traits that were developed came directly out of the conflict. You didn’t mention DitV as an example of something that does this. Am I missing something?

    Thanks alex

  4. stefandirklahr Says:

    I’ll follow up alex there with my own take, to see if i get it.

    So, the way i’m seeing it, we (without getting too complicated) have three kind of games in this space:

    First, games where the mechanics and fiction sit side by side, more or less content to ignore one another. My beloved wargames are mostly like this – after the battle is over you have a story, and you can even use that story to set up the next battle, but the battle rules and the battle stories are really in different spaces. I agree with the interpretation – i can’t remember whose! – that these sorts of games just aren’t rpgs of any kind.

    Secondly, we have games – most of our popular rpgs – where the mechanics lead the fiction. So, in, say, Burning Wheel we arrange a host of mechanics – Beliefs, Instincts, Traits & the Artha wheel – to push the course of play toward the fiction, toward achieving change and meaning in the fiction.

    And now, we have the idea of games where fiction leads the mechanics… which as far as i can tell would be games in which, again using BW as an example, i would have my priorities, my role, for my character and in playing toward them i would naturally engender a situation that calls up the mechanics to arbitrate an “unwelcome”, to use Vincent’s term resolution. No Artha at all – maybe a sort of reverse-Artha, in fact; not a bribe to play well with the fiction, but a bribe to play with the mechanics satisfyingly?

    Hmm… i’m not sure that’s what you and Brand are quite going for. But what i can see of your vision here seems to be very interesting stuff!

    Maybe only ready for veteran roleplayers, yet, then? 😉

  5. Alejandro: No problem; thanks for posting and asking questions. I would consider Dogs part of the #3 step listed above, not as a “leading with the fiction” game. As I told Vincent recently, in Dogs, the mechanics point players at where (some of) the good fiction is, by providing mechanical incentives that lead you towards winning conflicts, which naturally leads you to escalation and fallout and all this other good story material. You end up committing these violent acts in an attempt to keep the peace, which highlights one of the main themes of the game. So Dogs is an example of the mechanics pointing at the story and supporting the story, but the story doesn’t lead the mechanics; the mechanics lead you directly to the story, but are not more important than the story, as they are in D&D, say, where relationships between people (and other story elements) have no mechanical value.

    So I guess I’m talking about games in which the story points you towards the mechanics, instead of the mechanics pointing at the story, but it’s hard to describe that because I don’t think many of these games exist quite yet. I’m still exploring this idea myself. Sorry 😦

    Stefan: I think you’re reading me right, but I’m less sure about your “leading with the story” Burning Wheel hack because I haven’t played BW all that much.

    I don’t think this is something for “veteran roleplayers,” though. In my experience, newcomers to roleplaying often lead with the story because they’re not used to the weird marriage of narrative and mechanics that most RPGs involve, so they focus on the narrative, because they know how to tell stories. So, in some ways, our gamer baggage may make it harder for roleplayers to move back to a place where the story leads the mechanics. But, like I said, I’m not sure because this style of play isn’t something I’ve done a lot, at least not lately. Brand can probably speak more on it.

  6. Per Says:

    I can fully see what you mean, I think, but…Sorcerer for one doesn’t fit the bill “Forge-type games where fiction is secondary” – and Wicked is pretty much a version of Sorcerer in so many ways. I know people often forget how important the fiction in Sorcerer is (just remembering the latest discussion about intensive care etc), but that doesn’t make it so. The established fiction in Sorcerer is the basis for everything happening later on on the game. Trollbabe possibly the same. The Pool?
    I guess what I’m saying is, maybe your breakdown is too simplistic to incorporate all games, and that there are “leading with the fiction” games out there already, and some of them pretty old.

  7. alejandro Says:

    I don’t get it then. It seems like “Lead with the Fiction” should mean: Make mechanical decisions based on the fiction.

    In fact, that is what your latest example of newbies seems to imply. That is, players new to RPG/SGs lead with the fiction because they haven’t yet been “corrupted.” (Let’s not get into a discussion of what corrupted means.) However, people that have been playing for a long time tend to not do this anymore.

    Okay, great. I can buy this. Except that this seems to imply a style of play rather then a method of game design. I only say this because you use IaWA as an example of a game that “Leads with the Fiction.” Whereas DitV is an example of a game that almost “LWtF.” But, the only difference I see between these games is that IaWA doesn’t have a predetermined setting and DitV doesn’t have predetermined traits. Given these two games, it seems like DitV would be a game that better “LWtF” then IaWA.

    (I apologize ahead of time if this doesn’t make any sense. I’m running on precious little sleep.)

    Thanks alex

  8. Brand Robins Says:


    It isn’t anything like news. But as with philosophy the course of gaming is filled with reiterations. Also, while I don’t know about Jonathan, I’m saying something different than Liam was, though in some ways aligned.


    I think the Borgstrom hypothesis is too top down for what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about things on the level of multiple simultaneous interactions, both social, mechanical, and in the fiction, and the permutations thereof.

    Which means I’ve got a lot more explaining to do. I’ll see if I can get to it with half a brain while I’m in the midst of moving.

  9. […] articles today, which recombined a few ideas nicely. For one thing: I was inspired to reread about “leading with the fiction” and also see the results so far of Levi’s Amagi Games project (where, among other things, […]

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