The Process of Narration

April 17, 2011

Jamie Fristrom, who I finally met last week, is asking good questions about narration rights in GM-less games over on SG. Actually, I think Jamie’s one of the most interesting new voices to pop up there and lord knows SG needs some new interesting voices.

In any event, I wanted to log my response here, because laying it out explicitly helped me think more clearly about Geiger Counter and, also, how narration works in games with deterministic resolution, where the formal process of narration is especially crucial to structuring fictional outcomes.

Some of these games break narration rights down into various different steps or stages, yeah?

Like, in Geiger Counter, there’s:

  1. Deciding what/where/who the next scene is about (“Jack and Maura are meeting in the airlock”)
  2. Framing the scene (“So Jack’s just come back from printing out some readings and Maura is running a routine check on the space suits”)
  3. Playing characters (“Jack says, ‘Maura, can you double check these figures for me, they look really strange’…”)
  4. Adding new information to the story (“Maura says, ‘That’s impossible. It looks like something is alive inside that asteroid’…”)
  5. Invoking a threat (“The airlock starts activating by itself! The inner door shuts and the outer door is preparing to open!”)
  6. Invoking traits, gear, or other fictional circumstances (“Maura tosses Jack a space suit and struggles to put one on herself!”)
  7. Resolving the conflict after dice have been rolled (“Jack manages to get his suit on, but he loses consciousness just as he gets the seals closed”)
  8. Ending the scene (“And…. cut.”)

It’s not really the case that you can narrate whatever you want, whenever you want. There’s a process you have to go through, and the kinds of things you can narrate are restricted by what “stage” of a scene or the overall game that you’re in. As another example, in Geiger Counter, the menace doesn’t attack PCs until it has at least 2 dice to roll, it’s just hinted at. Or, in Mist-Robed Gate (another game you should look at), you can only hint at what you want before the blade has been uncovered.

Also, each time you narrate something, you’re restricted by what you or someone else has narrated previously. Like, above, when Maura’s player introduces the idea that there are things living inside the asteroid, she’s limited by the concept of Jack’s printout of some readings. The new information she introduces has to be something her character could figure out by looking at some printed data. And, if the contents of Jack’s printout had been established in a previous scene (he was taking a geological survey of the asteroid, say), then the kinds of information she can introduce is limited further. Likewise, if someone’s character isn’t in a scene, unless things change, they don’t get to play their character in that scene. That’s a pretty big restriction!

So it definitely matters how games structure the process of narration as well as the issue of “who has authority to say what.”

6 Responses to “The Process of Narration”

  1. Simon C Says:

    Maybe I’m just a cranky Forge-wonk, but this question reads to me like “A game’s rules are important to how it feels to play”, which was maybe an interesting insight in 2003, but is hardly news now, right?

    What are a game’s rules except for who gets to say what, when?


  2. Sure, but the infinite ways in which you can answer that question is what game design is, yeah? How is rethinking the fundamentals ever a bad thing?

  3. Simon C Says:

    Well, fair enough. Personally, though, I’m far more interested in the “what” than the “when” in “who says what, when”. I think games have explored different ways of passing around who has credibility at various stages for five or six years now, and produced some interesting results.

    What’s more interesting to me though now is how rules shape /what/ people say, not just /who/ says it.


  4. Definitely, dude, me too. The explicit focus on the “what” is part of what I really dig about Apocalypse World.

    But the “when” and the “what” are totally related in my mind, even more than the “who.” After all, if you say the same thing at different points in the game, it’s totally different, right? Context is all.

    There’s a reason that Apocalypse World moves are typically framed as “WHEN you encounter the WHAT, do this thing.”

  5. Simon C Says:

    Good point.

    The “who/what/when” split is interesting to think about, actually. It might be fun to write a game’s rules explicitly in that format.


  6. Yeah, it would be easy to do as a AW hack:

    Basic: “WHEN WHAT1 happens, WHO does WHAT2.”

    More Complicated: “WHEN WHAT1 happens, WHO hold 1. Spend hold 1-for-1 to do WHAT2 to WHO2 whenever WHO likes.”


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