When it comes to my priorities as a roleplaying practitioner, the enthusiastic, zestful exercise of narration authority may be my #1.
This is a bit surprising to me, because my ability to play has vastly improved over the last year by attending to other aspects of this activity. Over the past four months, it’s been situation authority and its relationship to scene-setting: the down-in-the-mire questions of where we are, who is there, and what they are doing. During the three months before that, it was outcome authority: how what happens happens, without anyone’s blatant or psy-ops-subtle imposition of control.
Still, my favorite moments of play consistently hinge on the act of narration, and I think it’s because narration authority presents an opportunity to recognize, celebrate and deepen our commitment to the functioning of the other authorities and the fiction we’re creating. Functioning may seem like a dry word, but the other authorities, particularly situation authority, often demand discipline. It’s not always exciting to track the location of my character(s) within a situation or inside a scene, but it has to happen for genuine play to occur.
Narration authority is where we get to take a moment and say, “Look at this colorful, memorable and powerful fiction we have produced. Let’s appreciate our mutual creative engagement, attention to this particular game’s instrumentation, and respect for each other’s authorities.”
I want to talk about some specific examples of narration authority in action, both to elaborate on some of the points I’m raising and also to celebrate some recent memorable instances of play.
I also think it’s interesting to see narration authority in action, because in many systems it’s more mobile than the other authorities: someone can spontaneously “step up” to exercise it without danger of murk, so long as they attend to what has already been established. How this happens is obvious and easy in the moment, even if there are a lot of creative decisions being made and instrumentation being employed on the backend.
Rod, Sam and I recently played a one-shot of The Pool. The Pool is very intentional about assigning narration authority, but what this means only clicked for me after seeing it in action. A week before we played, Sam (who was playing as GM) gave us the following pitch:
the setting is western ma, in the pioneer valley, 20 years from now. smith college and amherst college, in their biodomes, have lifted off from the ground and now hover 300 feet above the ground. the rest of the valley is completely overgrown with a massive jungle with frog people and stuff in it. also god is real, and hes punishing us because hes pissed that people weren’t going to church or something i guess
Rod responded with this character:
Valium Vasquez was born with only one arm to punish his parents for insufficient humility before the Lord. He grew up shunned and scorned, and plotted revenge on God by killing an angel and grafting its arm (still holding its Theotronic Ultrablade) to his own stump. Now to kill God!
Within the first two scenes, Valium Vasquez had failed in his attempt to kill God and been blasted miles across the landscape, crashing into the floating biodome of Smith College. A few scenes later, he was enrolled in the college’s Religious Studies program, leafing through the Book of Job, wondering if he should continue on his mad quest.
This went to a roll: Valium’s determination to kill God matched against the Book of Job’s message of submission before eternity. Rod succeeded, and got to choose between getting a Pool Die or making a Monologue of Victory. Given how psychological the scene was (and how low on Pool Dice he was), I expected him to go for the die. Instead, he said (paraphrasing from memory), “I’m taking the Monologue of Victory, because I want to see Valium’s grafted angel-arm ripping a page out of the Bible and scrunching it up as he shouts: ‘This book is useless! It is only a manual for passivity!’”
This image is burned into my memory. Rod made that whole session light up for me with his narration. And I think it was so impactful not because it introduced new fictional content but because it was a culmination of the other factors of play: Rod’s exercise of backstory authority to create a scary and funny character, Sam’s exercise of outcome authority to honor Valium’s failed God-killing roll, even my earlier decision to gift Rod half of my Pool dice to help Valium survive God’s counter-attack.
The act of narration was a moment for us to recognize how far we’d come in narrative terms, and to redouble our creative engagement with the fiction.
In our latest session of Circle of Hands (same group, plus my brother Seth), we created one of the most darkly memorable scenes I’ve ever gotten to play. I find CoH really instructive in regards to narration authority: it is extremely rigorous when it comes to who can narrate what at certain steps in the “killing system,” particularly when a violent confrontation begins. At other points, it is very open, such as who narrates the results of particular attacks or actions.
In the session in question, Sam played as the GM, Seth played Oswald, a former priest and Rbaja wizard, Rod played Adelina, a High Entertainer and Wizard, and I played the aging peasant-Knight Kai, who started the session as a stubbornly mundane character and ended it as a radiant hive of Amboriyon energies with the ability to transform into a small silver dragon.
The situation we entered involved a village called Brunodorf on the shore of Rolke. A group of sea-raiders from Spur, led by a formidable warrior named Erdmann, had slaughtered the previous rulers and set themselves up as the local gentry, imposing a ruinous agricultural regimen on the peasants to maximize wealth extraction from the area. They kept the village’s priest imprisoned as an example for those thinking about organizing the locals to expel them.
Soon after our arrival, Oswald set up shop among the peasants in quiet defiance of Erdmann. Kai melted into the background of backbreaking fieldwork. Adelina ingratiated herself with the gentry and, through adroit politicking and deft ego-inflation, convinced Erdmann to launch attacks on towns up the coast, creating a potential opportunity for the Circle Knights change the village’s circumstances for the better.
(This led to one of my favorite dialogues of the session: Erdmann asked Adelina, “You know the Young King in Rolke, do you not?” Rod (without missing a beat): “Yes, very well. You are much like him.”)
However, before departing on the sea-raid, the gentry dragged the priest out of the longhouse to publicly torture her – a tactic to shore up their perceived power before leaving. Oswald was having none of it.
He strode into the center of the village, trailed by a grimly resigned Kai, swore an Oath to the priest to raise her from the dead as a draugr, and cast Hate on the gathered gentry and their victim, who promptly started murdering each other as fast as possible.
With a couple of soldiers approaching Oswald and all eyes on the Circle Knights, Kai swore an Oath to protect Oswald and employed his starting Gift (he’s the Knight with the lowest total Attribute scores) to address the crowd of peasants with a Charm roll, calling upon them to massacre the invaders.
I rolled with a single die, plus my Oath die, plus Kai’s Charm of….3. And failed. The peasants surged forward to kill these dangerous outsiders before they could do more damage to the social fabric.
Adelina was running from the longhouse, too far away to help. Oswald only had a few points of Brawn remaining. Kai only had a couple of spells available to him, none applicable. In spite of his rather monstrous Brawn of 8, he didn’t have the necessary Quickness to escape the crowd on a single die.
Both Seth and I had our heads down looking at our sheets, racking our brains for options. I didn’t see any moves available to me as the crowd of peasants bore down, and had just about resigned myself to losing my first Circle Knight, when Seth looked up and, brilliant bastard that he is, said, “I pump a Brawn to get ahead of the crowd, grab Kai, and pull us both into the zone of Hate.”
After Sam, Rod and I picked our jaws up off the floor, Oswald and Kai leaped into the Hate-zone and the crowd spilled after them, all of us seized by the magic as we crossed the border. Sam treated the zone as a Scrum with knives, a truly horrible fucking bloodbath, but thanks to our Oath dice and some lucky rolls, both Oswald and Kai survived.
When Adelina ran up from the longhouse, she took in the carnage and responded with Rbaja, bellowing a mass of mass of black Webs into existence that stuck the crowd together like so many deranged flies. In a rather horrifying touch, Sam narrated the peasants still trying to murder each other through their entanglement, then gradually freezing in shock.
Just because the Scrum had ended didn’t mean that Oswald was out of danger, though. Erdmann made his Strength roll to tear free from the Webs and made his Wits roll to shake loose of the Hate spell. He looked around for Oswald, himself low on Brawn and hopelessly entangled.
Kai, meanwhile, also succeeded on his rolls and squared up with Erdmann, peasant’s staff in hand.
This was the first moment I’d had a chance to breathe since the scene opened, and it hit me all at once how much I was enjoying this awesome and brutal fiction we were making. I said, “I just have to get this in detail,” and described a hulking figure coated in Web-tar, tearing itself free from a pile of groaning bodies, wiping its vision clear of Rbaja-gunk and gore.
As Kai came to his senses he realized he was holding a knife, wet to the hilt in someone else’s blood, and threw it away with a shudder. Then he saw an equally disoriented Erdmann, heavy with blade and mail, advancing on the helpless Oswald. Kai raised the staff in his right hand and stepped in front of him, heedless of his lack of armor, gathering the full force of his will into his left fist as he prepared to Blast his enemy out of existence….
And here’s the thing: the rest of the session—the fight between Kai and Erdmann, the aftermath as the Circle Knights left the village—was just as engaging as this scene. But when I reflect on the session, I see it from the high vantage point of this moment.
I think the reason is that exercising a bit of narration authority let me highlight how our creative engagement and the instrumentation of the game had gelled into something amazing, and (hopefully) it let me communicate some of my excitement and appreciation to my fellow players.
12 responses to “Narration authority is where it’s AT”
Context for narration authority.
Yes but first. By "first," I mean a couple of things.
Thing 1: You're using the term "narration" consistently with my concepts, which I appreciate: confined to just-after outcomes – things which change situations (minimally, this particular scene). It's not about talking as such, which applies to all role-playing, nor describing and orienting and doing things which don't demand outcomes, which is merely situational play (minimally, this particular scene).
However, I would like anyone else reading this to consider that point, before leaping into this conversation either to confound narration with talking per se, or to repeat the hideous nonsense associated with "narrative role-playing," whatever that was or is supposed to be. Again: by "narration," we're talking about describing and possibly extending outcomes.
Thing 2: You can't have narration (as described here) without outcomes, and you can't have outcomes unless you have uncertainties of some sort inside scenes, which are themselves units of situation. That structure, in which narrations are embedded at the deepest level, is rife with confusions of its own. I see it a lot here at the site, especially trouble with situation vs. outcome.
You're right that I've exerted a lot of effort in the past year to get some clarity about situations and scenes. I've been quite careful about this, waiting until I thought the community could handle it. The past month has represented my equally-careful next step, to get into outcomes, which is why I'm focusing pretty hard on The Pool and will do so for some time.
To see and to appreciate what narration achieves in itself, as itself, is a wonderful experience. As perhaps the single technical "turn-around point" of effort into play vs. enjoyment from it, maybe this depiction is useful:
The idea here is that narration might apply only to the outcome which has prompted it, or also to the scene-and-situation more generally (and this brings up a separate authority topic), or also in some distinctive way to ourselves as people, in the social-creative sphere, i.e., this particular narration means something to us in a noticeable way. Arguably what is said, regarding the fiction, in the context of narration authority is a different variable from which of these arrows the person is focusing on this time.
To see and to appreciate what
This is extremely helpful in articulating my ongoing realizations about narration authority. Before my understanding deepened through actual play, I thought about narration, abstractly, as "just" color or as "significant" details (i.e., details that went on to have measurable impacts on the current or subsequent scenes or the situation).
I see here a tendency similar to my initial enthusiasm about the notion of "hopping up" in the Situation: case study discussion, Ron. It's so tempting, when reading games instead of playing them, to look at diagrams of Scene, Situation & Backdrop and imagine successful play as a machine for transmitting significance from the tiniest detail of scene to the largest elements of backdrop, and vice versa. In this model, someone (a player) introduces some tiny detail through narration that becomes impactful to the outcome of a particular event that shifts something significant in the situation (often through the control of the GM) which then nudges the backdrop.
However, when we are in it, the cycle of inspiration, the fun that keeps us in it and drives us on to the next, new event is not and can never be so neatly schematic. We don't narrate this outcome because it's going to be significant later. We have no way of knowing whether this will be significant later. We narrate it because we are engaged by the outcome and because the act of narration makes each other's enjoyment of the resulting fiction more vivid.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you observe that exercise of narration authority, independent of the "significance" of the fictional events narrated, is like the drive shaft where our effort/engagement becomes enjoyment (or our play becomes playful).
I like to stay down in the
I like to stay down in the mud with the most basic, necessary-minimum examples. Let's consider narration without any extra or distracting features:
All of those are good things depending on the other rules or practices of play at the time, but again, to understand the variable, we need to examine it without trimmings.
Examination 1: narration about what?
That depends on how much the outcome procedures provided.
Whatever it takes, for purposes of this conversation, try to imagine a situation where the narration is "just itself," allowing for those other authorities to get mixed in whatever that particular system needs or however it makes it likely.
Examination 2: what are rules about narration?
Here's my example, which I've mentioned in interviews: including a sound effect with a given violent outcome.
I want to talk about the "Gunch!" as such. That's some narration, right there. Here are some distinctive points confined to that particular thing.
Examination 3: what does narration do?
By itself? Not necessarily anything. But that's not a weasel word, because "not necessarily" necessarily includes "could well be." You're focusing on exactly the right point: that it's particularly powerful when we don't know or even care, at this moment, whether it's going to get reincorporated.
Maybe I better stop here to see if this makes sense to anyone.
This has been one of the
This has been one of the things on my mind regarding design, especially for Romance of the Dragon-Lotus. I have been re-reading the original document and I noted that there is only place I mention narration and that surprised me. I can only assume I did not finish that part of the game before submitting it way back when.
But I did put something into that early draft about Narration and Sacrifices. The player narrates their sacrifice of an attribute point to gain dice for a conflict they are not otherwise capable of. They get bonus dice if they make the narration "evocative". That is the designer's words, not…er I mean that is how they were written then. So if you do a good job your GM can throw more dice at you.
Today I do not think that is good design at least as its stated in the text. At the time R(E)ODL was my design that was inching towards the N in GNS, at least that was the goal. (I add that for context, not to draw that into this discussion.) No one should have to dance for their dinner(success).
For this discussion, this is the juice for me. And my initial thought is: that it can never be neutral. If we are not projecting forward to its effect on future events, we don't know if an outcome or associated narration of the post-outcome is going to be consequential. OR maybe everything is consequential, dragging us backwards into whether we needed to adjudicate an outcomes or not in the first place.
I think I am getting caught up on the minutiae of Outcome changes situation and What's Next changes it again.
Last thing. I remember my first play experience, I was the GM. And after my player killed a Kobald, I asked. "Okay what do you do now?" And we discussed the possibilities because it was new to us and then the player told me what they wanted to do. It was the first experience for both of us, but it seemed natural to let the player talk through it. This was absent any prodding from the text, because I barely knew what the text said.
Hi Sean, I appreciate that my
Hi Sean, I appreciate that my phrasing was the juice – however, I disagree fully and emphatically with what you said about it.
Whereas I think that it must always have the potential to be neutral: what is sometimes called "only color," or perhaps more importantly has little or no content which anyone feels like reincorporating. It just exists as its literal self of narrating the necessary content. Sometimes, it might be present only as an absence! Bob could have said that sound effect, but he didn't. As Bob had the authority, for purposes of this illustration, and he didn't say anything more than clarify that the goblin is indeed dead or whatever else was minimally required, we know "nothing gets said," and we all move on.
Why tolerate this neutrality? Should we not demand more? Do we not need more? Are we not here to gussy up each and every thing? Look at the lost chance to ramp up outcome and situation content too! What the hell, Bob? And what is up with me, Ron, claiming that such neutrality is not merely tolerable … but required in some way? (That guy, so contrary. So counter-intuitive.)
I think it's simple: if you lose that potential neutrality up to and including the option to do no more than nod at the minimal requirement … then narration becomes a dog-and-pony show. Either a stop-play moment for spectacle or a grinding chore. Awesome capoeira dance strike! … is a hell of a lot less awesome if you had to say it. Indeed, despite all your hyperventilating and perhaps physically demonstrating for us, it is automatically not awesome if you had to say it.
For consideration: you may be thinking about outcomes rather than narrations.
I see the utility and
I see the utility and desirability of the neutrality as you are explaining it. Let me try to walk through where I am at as I think I am getting close?
If I am reading it right, narrative authority talks about the former.
Goblin dies. I say "I stab the goblin in his stupid face and he slides off my sword " or I say nothing at all. And then I say "I move on to the next door I see."
In my thinking there is no pause, no separation between them. "I stab the goblin and move onto the next door I see." Which is taking different parts of the flow and jamming them together for convenience or some other reason. When they are not (necessarily) at all related to each other.
OK, right there – please,
OK, right there – please, never, ever "narrative authority." That can only ever mean control over what happens, and it is a terrible thing which obviates anything you and I do or talk about. No one will ever read it to mean anything different. I've never used that term. This is about the highly localized phenomenon of narration, and it's one of those times where the word does matter.
That's a technicality (but important), it's finished, now I'm moving on to the question.
I think, right now, that you may be a little bit focused on outcomes and situations so that it's hard to "see" the narration authority all by itself. It may not even be especially important to do so. But let's look at your phrasing of the example just once.
Let's back up a little. In this system you're imagining, did we know you were sword-stabbing before the roll and whatever led to someone saying "The goblin dies?" Or did we only know that you were attacking him somehow, with this sword, perhaps? This matters – how much was already established, and how much wasn't? Systems differ greatly in this regard, both in terms of required content and in terms of specific added details.
In many of the games you and I have discussed lately, especially those beginning with "D," they do not require much detail in terms of single actions. You find out what the outcome is in certain numerical terms before you say how it happened.
Are you noticing that? That you wouldn't have said what you said, above, unless you knew the goblin had been killed? That your narration included not only describing the final details of the outcome but also a considerable amount of its run-up too? That, by contrast, if we were playing, for example, RuneQuest, much of that kind of content would have been established before the roll, and furthermore, that "the face" content was subject to a hit-location constraint?
So your phrasing is a lot more than just "describing." It includes events that occurred before the death. That was a hefty chunk of outcome authority in there.
The only part that's really just narration authority by itself is "he slides off my sword." And you're right that "I move on to the next door I see" is actually a contribution to situation, as you exercise your rightful component thereof (your character's movements) for this game.
I don't think they're mashed together at all. They are three completely different phrases, delivered as distinct packets of information.
As I've said a lot: what a thing is and how it works are not the same as what it feels like to do. To you, sure, it feels like one thing you said or one cognitive contribution. But we are not psychologists here; we are physiologists – in that analysis, it's three different actual things.
I appreciate your patience on
I appreciate your patience on the Narration thing. I do finally see what you are talking about and it makes sense.
More possible confusion
Hi! I'm going to step in for more possible confusion! I'm sorry.
Regarding what Sean said, when I first set out to write my own "heartbreaker" (over a decade ago, at this point) I was very proud of how I was going to make it so that every action had to be narrated or the game wouldn't work. See, when you write it down it goes from vague, unspecified awesomeness to existential dread.
I engineered the mechanics so that it would have to work that way, including such things as keywords in narrations and triggers and obviously had horrible returns in actual use.
What I learned is:
As a "conclusion" of sort, my impression is that narration works best when it rides with something else, and is somewhat intertwined with other authorities, more than when it's an isolated moment where you do just that.
I've discussed with people that say "but then it's just dressing!" but I embrace that: try eating salad or pasta without dressing. You'll still get your caloric intake, you'll still have to take a stop at the bathroom later, but it will be a fairly miserable experience. So if I can make my own comparison between roleplaying and food, I'm fully content with narration being "dressing". Dressing is what makes the food good.
Perhaps not too helpful, but paraphrasing my own work, you could have a GM say "the beast spits at you a big glob of acid" and the player says "Is this a Splah attack? Then I Raise My Shield as a valid defence maneuver". And it's fine. Or you may have the GM be more colorful and the player doing the same with their own narration, and it's going to be fine too (and possibly more fun, but that's about tastes). Or you can even have the GM say "The beast spits a huge ball of acid goo in your direction" and a player simply narrating they duck behind the collapsed statue they climbed moments before, and they don't know/remember that that's a very valid Interposing an Object defence move, and the narration triggers the mechanics.
I know that's maybe not helping so… let's take the Trollbabe text example about series (not just because I really like it but because I think we're all familiar with it). How much narration will go into that scene, in actual play? How much of that moving around, and swimming and fighting will be described beyond the necessary flow of information? What do we want to see and why? How much do we want to see the two struggle, do we want to say that the trollbabe kicks the axe into the mud and that it clangs against a rock sending a ringing sound in the silence of the forest, do we want to see her go underwater and re-emerge at the last moment? Do we want to say the guy tries to grab her leg and drag her underwater, instead of merely nothing she attacks her?
And how much of all this is integral to this medium, and how much is us visualizing things in other narrative languages and try to import those results with no consideration of the difference in the process? To me, this point is crucial: narration often fails because we do not fully understand or respect the type of medium we are using, and its features. We have something in our hands that is radically different from anything else (Ron made some powerful observations on this in the "debriefing" discussion of our game of The Pool) and trying to pervert it to look like something else is doomed to fail. This is why I think the "ok, play has ended, we can now narrate what happened" model never works (it only really works when it's the GM doing it, and it's because he's using several other authorities at the same time): narration as part of this medium is not meant to be consumed as a completed process, but during play, while the dice are being rolled and decisions are made. It may be the entire point of the medium itself. It may not end up being as pretty or eloquent or consistent among watchers but that's not important, it's the only form of narration that is experienced while it's created and we should value that.
Writing this down, I realize that probably the meaning of point 4 is this: everything else has to work and be reliable and not intrusive, because perhaps the function is facilitating this non-mandatory, non-necessary moment which is when we "enjoy" the medium.
I thought about just leaving
I thought about just leaving this here untouched. You are so all-over-the-place that it's like a parody of a beatnik poetry performance. That includes the bits and parts which are full of insights or useful things to investigate, which are tempting but the whole is too sprayed around to address.
It's pretty clear why: the word "narrate" just seems to have sucked you in and become everything and nothing all at once. As far as I can tell, you are referring to any time and any way that any person simply says anything. It's just talking, with authorities all thrown in, in whatever way that a particular understanding or misunderstanding may apply. In fact, the word seems to be a trigger for confusing authorities as thoroughly as possible.
OK, I lied – of several candidates, one important thing you mentioned is the possibility, and even power, of sometimes not describing things which have happened, or the way they are. I mentioned this briefly in the exchange with Sean and thought to myself, that's something which really ought to get some attention some time. So let's follow up with it, if you'd like. It merits a full post of its own, from play.
I can tell you writing the
I can tell you writing the post you're replying to was an exercise in frustration, and I hoovered on the "publish comment" button telling myself I should review what I wrote several times. I've been there several times recently and I'll admit it has become slighty exausting, in its own way, because there's a clear gap between my mental processes and my capability to communicate them clearly in a foreign language. It's like swimming in molasses and more and more I realize that not only I'm frustrating myself, but I'm also providing very little of value to others.
I have no energy for (and I think it would be disasterous in any possible outcome) a rebuttal or retort or worse yet "clarifications". If that is what my message communicates, up to and including being just about the general act of talking and the implication about authorities, I very clearly need take a break and reflect and re-adjust and develop a new skillset for communication before I frustrate myself into turning to petanque as my new hobby.
I'd love to read a discussion about the last point (or any point that gets further discussed) and possibly partecipate as soon as I get over this precious moment of clarity, but I think I'll wait for someone else to make a post about it.
Very good job of laying out relationship between the rules, larger theoretical issues, and the flow of actual play, and telling a cool story about what some cool Circle Knights did.