GNS Theory - What kind of stories are we telling?

As pointed out here, Jesse suggested that there is an elephant in the room regarding Narrativism and what-a-story-is - - namely, Ron Edwards had a super-specific concept that involved the (in?)famous Egri term, "premise".

Here's the definition from the Forge's Provisional Glossary:
Premise (adapted from Egri)

A generalizable, problematic aspect of human interactions. Early in the process of creating or experiencing a story, a Premise is best understood as a proposition or perhaps an ideological challenge to the world represented by the protagonist's passions. Later in the process, resolving the conflicts of the story transforms Premise into a theme - a judgmental statement about how to act, behave, or believe. In role-playing, "protagonist" typically indicates a character mainly controlled by one person. A defining feature of Story Now.
Clear as mud, right? Okay - so, when we say "story", or "Story Now", or whatever, that doesn't necessarily dovetail at ALL with what Ron's driving at, here. In the other thread, it was suggested that process, not end result, was a defining feature of N vs. S. I say we go one step further and say that firm player authorship of theme is where we really get a-going.

What do I mean? Two big things are happening with Narrativism (with AP examples to follow):
- PCs have a ton of power to affect and guide the direction of the plot. Exception: incredibly tight premises are acceptable, such as that of The Mountain Witch.
- The game text asks moral/ethical questions that begin the story. These questions may be implied by the setting, in such a manner that they're basically asking "Now what?" The setting itself (see: Polaris), or tools offered up by the game, will enable the question to be asked openly.

So - lots of power for everybody, AND nothing's really set in stone yet. Polaris is a tragedy, yeah, but the point of the game is to decide what one does with the impossible scenario put forth by the text.

Genre emulation is tangential to Narrativism. The setting, for Nar, is important, but mainly insofar as it creates enjoyable Color and provides a right-feeling space for the Big Question. Or, more likely, the setting draws us in, and then the setting choice puts limits on what kinds of Big Questions we can answer.

Carry is probably not the right vehicle for discussing the interplay of family life, for example.

Just because you're using explicit tools of story-craft doesn't mean you're doing Narrativism. There needs to be a pregnant ethical dilemma at hand, one which is resolved through play. And the players need to be able to make important decisions towards that end. Without both of those things, you don't have Narrativism.

Comments

  • edited May 2010
    I feel compelled to add that stories with a "generalizable, problematic aspect of human interaction" aren't rare. We all know them, and know them well.

    The Conan story The Tower of the Elephant, the stories found in The Martian Chronicles, the books of The Lord of the Rings; the movies Jaws, Die Hard and Aliens; the television shows The Shield, Breaking Bad, and Battlestar Galatica; the plays Macbeth, Glengary Glenn Ross, and Antigone all have a generalizable, problematic aspects of human interaction.

    In short, most stories do. Some stories are ham-fisted about it and some are brilliant, some are blunt and some are subtle. But almost every story people bother to remember have this quality to some degree or another.

    There's nothing odd or rarified about the notion at all.

    The thrill of playing things like In a Wicked Age... or HeroQuest in Glorantha or Sorcerer or Polaris or what have you is that you, as a Player, get to wrestle with these problematic aspect of human interactions the same way any writer who knows his job does.

    You also get to do it socially, which makes it a hell of a lot more fun. You also have to do it on the fly, in public, which makes it a hell of a challenge.

    CK
  • Good point, CK! Well said! :)
  • Clear as mud, right?
    Perhaps it will be helpful to provide a link to Egri's actual chapter on premise, rather than rely on Ron's clunky interpretation of it: http://www.writerswrite.com/fiction/egri.htm

    Egri's writing resembles 1940's issue of Good Housekeeping, more than a rigorous academic text.
    "You, Too, Can Get Rich Writing Plays In Your Spare Time!"
    not
    "An Analysis of Generalized Thematic Principles in Important Dramatic Fiction"

    Which makes me smirk, when Egri is cited as a patron saint of highfalutin theory-talk.
    Just because you're using explicit tools of story-craft doesn't mean you're doing Narrativism. There needs to be a pregnant ethical dilemma at hand, one which is resolved through play.
    I think Narr requires a much less Heavy moral/ethical premise, than discussion often seems to imply.

    Even Ron says television commercials often contain "astounding" fiction:
    http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=5796.msg59007#msg59007

    For me, if I have an opinion on something-- that's enough to build a genuine Narr premise upon.
    Like if Harold & Kumar want to get to White Castle; it doesn't matter whether that's a paltry thing to be protagonizing toward. It's enough.

    But maybe I'm just stretching the definition of Narr enough to make room for my own non-heavy tastes.
    Maybe the prevailing view doesn't include me.
  • edited May 2010
    "Highfalutin' theory talk"? I consider all of this practical matters of carpentry. Not theory or highfalutin' at all. But that's me.

    And yes, there's nothing inherently "heavy" about any of this. Comedies, Romantic Comedies, Musical and so forth all have these elements.

    On a personal note, while Ron provides a citation of Egri's work -- because he's an academic obsessed with citations. I never read Egri until after reading Ron's GNS essay. I wasn't particularly impressed. But I'd seen what Egri was talking about in movies and plays before that. When I make comments like those in the post above, I'm not hanging my observations on Egri's book but on my own observations of story construction.
  • Jesse, I have put some thoughts to paper about this topic in a little more detail.

    The results are here. For the link-wary, my hypothesis is that Narrativistic mechanics concretize characters' relationships to people, places, objects, ideas, and so on, doing so centrally enough that they distinguish themselves from, say, Apocalypse World by dint of their specialization.

    There are two or three games mentioned briefly in the post, as examples, but no Actual Play reports are in there.

    Have at!
  • Posted By: Zac in Davis
    The results arehere. For the link-wary, my hypothesis is that Narrativistic mechanics concretize characters' relationships to people, places, objects, ideas, and so on, doing so centrally enough that they distinguish themselves from, say, Apocalypse World by dint of their specialization.
    Interesting idea, I think you've got a decent preference there, but I think at this late date it's sort of a lost cause to try to redefine what "narrativism" means. Anyway, relationship-defining systems is a good classification of certain systems (and I agree that WW games don't do much with that in their Background system, or even in the relationship maps they've presented in their supplemental material.)
  • Zac,

    I'm not sure if a need for relationships is unique to Story Now. But certainly I've been telling people for several years that relationships on the character sheet are required to get Story Now to sing.

    For me, it's simply a craft issue: If you want the choices characters make to be clear and robust, have their relationships to family and loved ones be affected by those choices. For whatever reason, it resonates quickly with people.
  • I think much depends on the time in life the players are at too. I know when I was in college, family issues never motivated any of my characters, because, at that point in my life, I was working as hard as I could to be independent of my family, to not be motivated by them, and to develop my own self. Family dramas meant nothing to me at that time. However, career and office politics really got my characters moving, someone trying to stop them from their goals.
  • Posted By: Zac in DavisFor the link-wary, my hypothesis is that Narrativistic mechanics concretize characters' relationships to people, places, objects, ideas, and so on
    In this hypothesis, how is "concretize" defined? Would this hypothesis say that Spirit of the Century encourages narrativism? The SOTC character generation encourages relationships to be built between the characters and the rules encourage you to take aspects that indicate relationships with people or special objects, but I think most people consider SOTC to encourage Simulationist play.
  • Dan, I can honestly say I'm not familiar enough with SOTC to say for sure.

    What I meant by "concretize" is that relationships of all sorts can and are quantified in the mechanics, in some way. At the same time, no single play element or technique will yield Narrativist play.

    Check the comment Jesse has since left on my blog post - it mentions Houses of the Blooded and some important ideas, grounded in Forge theory. Good stuff.
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