Tuesday, December 15, 2015

D&D / OSR: Using Narrative Sharing in Traditional RPGs - Part 2

So you might have read through the wall of text that was prior article and thought "That's all well and good, but you actually haven't shown me how my game will be improved."

To which I say, "Allow me to illustrate with some examples." Most of these come directly from the examples given by other bloggers where they claim the DM should "Just say No!". I decided to counter with how the DM could actually say "Yes!" and not destroy reality as we know it.

If you have not read Part 1 of this article, please review the full context before commenting. Thanks!

Example 1: Campaign Breaker

The first example was posed by a blogger who claimed that "Yes, and" meant you have to give the player whatever request they ask for, even if it means their character concept completely breaks the selected genre of the game. This is obviously not true. The "Yes and" technique is really intended to modify in-game scenes... But I place this example to show how one can help accommodate a player idea even when it is counter to the group's desired game.

DM: In this campaign, the players will all be reavers on the Agean Sea during the "mythological greek" period. In other words, monsters like dragons, minotaurs, and chimera exist.

Difficult Player: I want to be a noble from the Baltic States that travels with an armed entourage.

DM:  :-|

Normally, this would be a "No" moment. The player appears to be co-opting the theme of the campaign (For this example, we're going to assume everyone was already on board for a pirate theme [pun unintended]).

Good GM: Ok, but this campaign is about pirates... and a noble with money and influence probably wouldn't be a pirate since he'd be declared an outlaw and his lands/monies seized by the King. So... how about being a noble fallen from grace, or perhaps the family is so far into debt, that he has no lands and is forced to the pirate-life by economic circumstance. You need to have some rational reason why the noble is now a pirate.

Player: Hmm... Ok, yeah. His House was attacked by another House and most of his family and vassals were either slaughtered or have fled the lands. He has turned to piracy as a last resort in hopes to raise a group of men and ships to one day take his revenge on those who killed his family.

Good GM: Ok, perhaps he comes from somewhere in the Black Sea region?

You see, a "Yes" DM will take the player's creativity and helps fashion it in a manner that will add to the creativity in the campaign. Instead of just saying, "No, that's way outside the bounds of the setting", the DM helps the player use their idea in a way that fits the selected genre.

Example 2: General Ambition

Similarly, the same blogger claimed that the "Say Yes" play style meant that because the PC has a high skill, the DM must grant him exactly what he asks for (which was another bad interpretation of the meaning of "Say Yes"). This example shows how a high skill check may convince the King to a plan of action he might not have been open to at first blush, but wasn't exactly the player's request.

Player: I have a huge Diplomacy bonus. I'm going to convince King Arthur that Mordred should lead the army in this endeavor.

Bad DM might say: That's ridiculous. He'd never agree to that.

A "Yes" DM might say: Tell me what your character would say to the King to convince him.

Player: Your Highness, I know Mordred's scheming for the throne has led to mistrust of him, but in this instance, we believe he has the interest of the kingdom at heart and should lead the men against this new evil... [insert speech here]!

Several minutes of role playing ensue between the DM and players where the King inevitably answers "No" to the PCs, but instead offers the alternative suggestion that the party accompany Mordred and a unit hand-picked specialized troops to disrupt the approaching evil army's march.

By not just shutting down the player's unrealistic idea, you now have a few unanticipated sessions of guerrilla warfare with the added possibility of Mordred's betrayal against the PCs (or his attempt at redemption with the help of the PCs!) that were inspired by an off-the-cuff player idea and a moment of fun role playing.

You see, it's not that the PCs always get their way or automatically succeed (i.e. - the ability to talk the King into anything they want just because they have a high Diplomacy skill). The idea is that you allow the players the opportunity to present their ideas in character which can lead to awesome campaign moments through improvisation and role playing. The King still said "No" but you gave the player their "Yes" moment and something wonderful happened (more subplots, unanticipated role playing, more session ideas, etc).

If "No" is the first reaction you jump to all the time, the player(s) will stop participating because you are not listening to his ideas and removing their ability to impact the game world (player agency). You have to give players the opportunity to move the plot in directions you may not have anticipated. By just shutting them down, you would not only have negatively impacted their fun at the table, but missed an amazing opportunity to allow the the story to head in an unexpected direction.

Example 3: The Hacked Altar

This excellent example came from +Ian Wyckoff, a gentleman with whom I was discussing the "Yes, and" play style. Ian does not prescribe to the narrative sharing play style specifically, but still admittedly "steals his players' ideas" in his own campaigns.

Ian wrote:  "An example. One of my players said he was going to try to convert a random altar they found. I had absolutely nothing planned for this idea and it isn't covered in the rules. I took a second, and stole the Nethack mechanic of converting altars, giving the cleric a random chance, 25% to convert and get a luck point, 50% stalemate, 25% fail to convert lose a luck point. And now when they try to do this in the future, that will be the baseline for how it is accomplished."

I thought this example perfectly illustrates the "Yes, and..." philosophy. Prior to the player's idea, Ian had never considered altar conversion in his game world. However, the player suggested it, he incorporated it into the canon of the game and now it is a permanent feature. He gave that player the narrative ability to world build in game.

Example 4: Shout Fire!

The PC is in the city and about to be accosted in an alleyway. He asks the DM "Is there a fire escape nearby?"

Now, the DM hadn't considered a fire escape in the alleyway encounter. But, most urban centers with apartment buildings often have the fire escapes in alleys with the little ladders that can be lowered.

DM: "Yes... it's about 20 feet away, almost exactly half way between you and the thug. He sees you notice the ladder and it appears he's going to move to cut you off."

The DM isn't exactly certain what the players wants from the fire escape (a way out, or perhaps the tactical advantage of height) and doesn't want to give the PCs an unfair advantage for free, so an excellent choice from a story perspective is to place the fire escape equidistant from the PC and the antagonist. This opens up the action to other possibilities. Will the PC try to race toward the fire escape first, or will they feint toward the fire escape and instead bull rush their opponent to knock them over (perhaps using a bluff skill to get a bonus or advantage on the bull rush)? Or the player might have had something completely different in mind.

Now, an old school DM might have ruled it isn't there, or perhaps assign a 2 in 6 chance and roll the dice... But why break the narrative and the immersion by stopping for a die roll?  Say, "Yes, you see a fire escape," and the scene continues uninterrupted by the meta of rolling the dice. By giving the player this narrow bit narrative control, you have opened the possibilities for that player by adding a minor detail into the encounter that you had not considered.

As I mentioned in part 1 of this article, if the detail would not normally exist in the environment, the "Yes, and" DM will may not give the player exactly what they want because it breaks the scene, but perhaps offer a similar feature that fits the scene better that will accommodate the player's ideas or desired actions.

Player: Is there a fire escape that will let me climb up to the second story?
DM:  This part of town has lower buildings, so there isn't a fire escape, but there is a dumpster that might allow you to reach up to a second story window ledge...

Example 5: I know a guy...

In an example posed by another G+ comment, the scenario given is that the players come into a town needing some information.

Player: Hey, I know a guard in this town. We grew up together when we were younger and he owes me a favor.

So again, the first inclination may be to say "No, you don't" because it appears the player is trying to use narrative sharing to gain some in-game advantage by ret-conning some back story for his character. But again here, you can say "Yes, you do" without necessarily giving the player any meta-game benefit.

DM: You hail Bertram, a guard you recognize from your childhood. He looks puzzled as you wave.
Player: Hey Bert!  Long time, no see... What's happening?
DM (as Bertram): Do I know you, stranger? You look familiar, but...

You see, the guard may not remember him, and or even if the guard does recall the PC from childhood, perhaps he doesn't think they were all that good of a friend, or he actually thinks the player owes him a favor. There are any number of ways where this doesn't go quite as the PC had intended.

Additionally, there may not be a reason the guard even knows the information the player is seeking... Or if he does, there may be a reason he would not share it with some guy he just happens to know from his childhood.

This could even work to the DM's benefit because now instead of Random Guard #3, the DM has an NPC that knows the PCs. He could be used for future plot hooks. Bertram could get into trouble and need help from the PCs. So let the player have the contact in town. It gives both the players and the DM role playing and plot possibilities for the future.

Example 6: Book Worm

To re-use a ridiculous example from a relatively well known, but prone to mouth-frothing rants blogger:

DM: You enter the large, dark library, lined with shelves of various subjects.
Player: Is there a book on botany in the library?


If the player asks a very specific question like that, clearly they have some idea in mind for their character that excites them. It probably makes absolutely no difference to the overall plot whether a botany book is there or not. So give him the freakin' book. 

I don't really care if you are using the "Yes, and..." play style or not. If you don't offer the player that tiny concession, you are the worst DM in the world regardless of how you play. The likelihood is that you will completely kill his enthusiasm for the game, but he's probably better off quitting the game if his DM disallows such a minor concession based upon some irrational need to control every detail.

And, no, your game world will not shatter into a million pieces of broken immersion if you do this.

The anti-narrativist would argue "The world should be so real in the DM's mind that even if he hadn't compiled a list of books in the library, he would know whether the books exists in the library or not simply because the library is real in his mind."

To which I say "Bull$#!t".

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of details that do not exist in anyone's mind until the question is asked or the DM describes a PC observation. A DM hasn't pre-defined every pixel of the game. Some details will come into existence simply because the players are there. The DM might think of a bit of improvisational narrative on the spot, or add more details at the moment of description as the creative juices are flowing. The thing, whatever "it" is, didn't exist until it was thought up and uttered on the spot. Just because it was thought up by the player rather than the DM does not break immersion or result in a loss of narrative control by the DM. These world changes do not break immersion because they happen all the time even in non-narrative sharing games.

Final Thoughts

There's no reason to be a narrative control Nazi if the players are asking for details that do not break the campaign or the story. Using the "Yes, and" philosophy, no one ever had advocated that the players get everything they want or ask for. No RPG ever in existence has espoused such a mechanic.

If the players try to abuse the narrative sharing, keep using "Yes, and...", but make them regret it. Recall the story of the Monkey's Paw. Sometimes what you wish for is exactly what you do not want.

However, when the players ask for something that doesn't break the scene, setting, or the genre, give it a try to grant their request if it is plausible. You don't have to give the players everything they desire and can even use their request to work for you as a DM to give a new plot twist, add some impromptu sub-plot, or new antagonist. The players will come up with ideas that may have never entered your mind, and it's a wonderful thing to be surprised by your own game. 

By shutting off those opportunities, you are not only harming the player's investment in the game, you are missing out on opportunities and emergent play that you may have never imagined otherwise.

And that would be a bummer.

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