Narration, the GM and the New Wave

Those of you that have chatted with me or followed my blog for long enough will realise that I am an older gamer.  I grew up gaming in the 80’s and saw the introduction of quite a few systems over my time.  Recently my eyes have been opened to the broader world of gaming that is bubbling beneath its public persona of D&D as well as Pathfinder.  The indie games that are out in the community are fantastic and offer new and exciting ways to play games.  It also offers a new way of looking at the role of the Games Master (GM) as the narrator of the story.  As I was driving to work this morning I was thinking about these differences and I want to talk about the role of the traditional GM as opposed to the evolving role that is beginning to emerge.

Traditional gaming is alive and well

The GM is the traditional narrator in games.  This is largely because it is the GM that knows the full story that is occurring and with that they know what needs to be said.  Traditional games tend to see things that stray from the main lines of the story as an annoyance or a problem for the GM to deal with. Many games that I have played have lengthy sections on what to do when your players inevitably goes off the rails.  This is the old style view of GM and revolves around making the GM’s life easier.  They take the group of players they have and apply a story that the GM feels they will enjoy.  There is a lot of work involved in this and so anything that is aberrant is seen as a problem in these games.

Old school games also push for colourful narration from the GM.  As a GM I have trained myself to add a colourful flourish to every stroke of a blade.  Mention the pulsating power of the mage as he sends his missiles of pure force into the trolls that are defending their bridge.  Every mountain is a vista of harsh and barren views and every forest is twisted and gnarled, dark and mysterious or a nest of bountiful life.  Descriptive words are the armour of the GM.  Also, when a player is not terribly comfortable with words to define their character (I roll to hit.  It is a 20.  I think that hits.  I do 3 damage) the GM is called to breathe life into the action and help the player see their actions as something more than a couple of rolls on the dice.  “Your character ducks under a clumsy blow from the ork chieftan and darts under his arm, carving his ribs with a light blow from your short sword”.

My wife used to play Earthdawn with us.  She did it to get an idea of what this roleplaying thing was and why I liked it so much.  She was very much a roll and say the numbers kind of player but she played a lot longer than I thought she ever would.  She told me that it was because of the way that I described things as the GM she could visualise what was happening and she enjoyed it.  This is the role of the GM in the more traditional game.  Of course in combat though you need to step back and allow those who want to add a flourish to do so.  I have a player who loves to add flourishes and keywords to their different abilities.  I am sure if he could he would get in a “By the power of Greyskull” line but he has fun so on a good night I step back and allow him free reign to do these things.

The new wave offers a different style of game

In a traditional game though, the idea of a player narrating the story outside of the combat situation or personal environment of their own character would be unheard of.  They do not know what the GM has planned.  They don’t know what the GM is scheming so how can they narrate things that are outside of the characters control.  Imagine even in a fight the idea of a player narrating that a boulder falls from the cliff above as they release a sonic boom and the rock heads directly toward the manticore that is threatening you all!  Or a player calls in a contact who they know that went to school with the villain offering an insight on where they will appear next.  An NPC the GM did not create to shortcut to a confrontation with the super villain? Preposterous I say!  Off with that players head.

Well, this is the new style of the narration in games.  I am going to bang on a lot about FATE here for a couple of reasons;

  • because it is indie, highly successful and a lot of people are playing it; and
  • I run it and have some experience playing it.
FATE and a lot of other systems in the indie community are now looking at this style of narration.  Where the player and the GM work collaboratively to narrate a story.  This idea actually carries some interesting connotations to games that you can play.

The first obvious connotation is that there is an expectation for the player to tell a story as well.  It is an expectation in FATE that starts from the first moment that you are introduced to the game.  For example say you join a FATE game and you are sitting with the other players to build your characters.  The GM may or may not have a setting in mind.  If he doesn’t the first thing that you are likely to discuss is what the world is like.  What type of game do you want to play?  One player likes fighting robots.  Another one likes magic and a third player says he is OK with whatever as long as there is a sinister organisation to infiltrate and find out some information.  Eyes turn to you and you realise that you have to come up with a part of the world that will offer something to the overall story and how it is played.  You come up with “How about we live on a world where all the plants are carnivorous and the favourite food is us?”

The GM builds up some aspects out of this and you all spend a bit of time fleshing some stuff out.  You all come to agreement that you are survivors from a star ship crash on a lush green world.  Psionics is available as a form of undiscovered “magic” here and is heightened by some unknown effect of the plant life on the world.  After the crash the players will discover that someone else must be on planet when robots come to salvage the parts of the ship.  They all have a symbol blazoned on their chest suggesting some kind of sinister organisation.  Robots in this setting are a bit dumb but you realise they are being used because after the crash you saw giant plants swarm the ship and eat any of the crew that did not survive.  You are alone on a hostile planet and need to do a lot to survive.

Nice and quick world generation that is powered to the desires of the players so they get what they want.  But wait there is more!  You move on to your characters and realise there are no stats!  If you have not yet read my description of the first game of FATE I played you can go to it here.  It talks about how I, as a statistic based old school gamer, had to come to terms with the idea of a game with no statistics.  The mechanics of a FATE character are built around the story of the characters life.  They draw aspects from their character’s history that you narrate in a character creation session.  Then you add skills and you are away.  This in itself takes away any randomisation elements and you get to build a character with a story that you like, with assistance from the others that are going to play the game with you.  The other part of this is that your character’s background then build more of the world around them and everyone gets an idea of how things operate in this world.
Pre-made or player driven worlds can be
used with much less focus on detail and
more focus on play

In game it is much the same.  The players get to narrate their actions and add to the world.  The player with the decent contacts score recalls seeing the armorer escape into the forest after the ship crash.  He was Jonesy and she had helped him propose to his wife (who unfortunately got eaten) but as one of the first things they need to do is find him as he will know what they can use for weapons.  The marine grunt with good resources grunts and reaches into his pack, offering to go point as he draws out the double barrelled shotgun he calls Nellie and keeps on hand just for this kind of situation.  All of these are examples of player narration.  The GM has had no involvement yet.  There is no real equipment list and the aspects sort of guide what players get and can hand on.  The GM simply goes with the flow and offers challenges along the way.

This does not mean that the GM does not need to prepare, but it does mean that they need to prepare less.  No need to map out a hundred statistics, feats and traits.  A bad guy can be simply a line on a note card with a few aspects to work with.  A discovered base of the secret organisation can be a handful of zones for the players to move through, each with a narrative and a few aspects to support them.  When the characters roll the dice it is them that narrate what happens.  The GM just offers encounters, sub plots and motivations and is truly a referee.  

FATE is by no means an easy game to pick up as an old school player.  It is a very different style of play.  As a GM (I am running The Demolished Ones by +Brian Engard  ) I have to constantly remind myself not to talk every single time a player rolls the dice.  It seems old habits die hard.  It is up to the player to say “Using my aspect Just in the nick of time I remember my training in security systems enough that this circuit needs to be shorted to open the door”.  They roll the appropriate skill, spend a FATE point to boost it and the story rolls on.  In this style game the GM is encouraged just to say yes and see where the story goes.  Ask a lot of questions, keep the players interested and see where things go.
Things are changing!  Get involved and
have a go at the new wave games
Preparation in this style game can be as long or as short as you want.  It may be you want to, as the GM, design a world without the players input (like that of The Demolished Ones) so you can create material that you will think comes in handy.  In general your mechanics side of preparation is still going to be less as the focus is off statistics and on to story so there is no intricate detail that needs to be followed just to get the right balance.  You want the super villain to be a flying sorcerer from the 11th sun of Tauron then give them an aspect and move on.  This allows for a strong story driven basis that the players are invited into and to populate with their own ideas and motivations.

Or you can start a game from scratch and develop the world like I did above with the players.  generate the characters and do the planning on the fly.  Think a little ahead of the players, make notes, write aspects and you are well on the way to a great game.  Ask the players a lot of questions and be their fan.  Encourage them to build solid personalities and help them explore their characters limits to create a memorable and fun game!

As I said at the start, games are evolving.  The front end that the rest of the world sees is still this world where people sit with sheets of paper and miniatures with a central story teller.  But things are so much more than this now.  Honestly, my interest in gaming has increased threefold when I found games like Fate Core, Lady Blackbird, Edge of Space and more.  It is exciting to see the way our hobby is going and it is also very exciting to be a part of how the face of narrative is changing in the new Wave of gaming.  Keep rolling!

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