new comer, old ground - nature of a premise have to be a question?

edited February 2011 in Story Games
Hi, please bear with me, I know this has probably been done to death for most of you.

Im gradually coming to grips with the social nature of roleplaying -- being on the same page etc... being very important to get a group all enthused together about the same thing, which is the only way to get any regular synergy at the table.

And Ive come to realise that establishing the premise of the game at the start is a main part of that.

However, most of the premises Ive seen are stated in the form of a question -- Can a man with a dark past overcome his legacy and do good deeds (dust devils) etc...

But the definition of a story premise I read which spoke to me was "The premise is, quite simply, what is at stake in your story. It is the foundation of your story, upon which your theme, characters, and plot are built. Your premise determines the primary goals of your characters and lays out the path they will take in achieving those goals. "

Which is not a question, just a statement about what the characters mainly want and what are the main methods/obstacles to achieve it. And I thought yes! once the players agree on that and are enthused by that, the initial situation and goal setting will flow. In a game I am about to run, the group decided on a mythical ancient greek setting. So I thought about the main elements of that: glory, kinship and capricious interfering gods, and came up with the following premise "The characters strive to achieve glory for themselves and their community despite adversity and the whims of the gods"

There is no moral dilemma implicit in that premise. Theres no question to answer as such. but I dont think my group is particularly interested in exploring moral dilemmas as a priority, they are more interested in exploring the setting and (I hope at least) their characters.

So I guess my question is, dose a premise have to be a question? Is it enough to inform the players of the type of thing their characters will be doing and leave it at that?



  • No, although it's often expressed that way.
  • Posted By: stefoidSo I thought about the main elements of that: glory, kinship and capricious interfering gods, and came up with the following premise"The characters strive to achieve glory for themselves and their community despite adversity and the whims of the gods"

    There is no moral dilemma implicit in that premise.
    Well, I think there is, indeed, it's the same moral dilemma as is addressed in your source material - how can men be virtuous when the gods are capricious? How can one truly achieve glory when the gods may be against you and for someone else? What is better, to achieve glory for yourself or for your community? And so on. This is the interesting part of the discussion, what follows is the boring lame part of the discussion.

    What's confusing you is that when Narrativism was defined (badly), it used a very specific definition of premise that is much narrower than the definition you found, invented by a drama guy named Egri, and linked the two together inextricably. And the key to distinguishing Narrativism from what you're describing is that in a Narrativist game the moral dilemma is addressed by the players through play. The players respond to the Premise, not the characters, (though the characters are often the instruments of the players in doing so). In a game where the players don't make any such moral statement, and don't have the responsibility to, it's not Narrativist and doesn't address premise-as-defined-by-Egri.

    In the normal average everyday walkin' around regular person meaning of the phrase "premise of the story", you are on target, though.
  • The interesting part about stating it in the form of a question is that it leaves things substantially more open-ended. You get to explore and find out the answer to the questions in play ("Will I always seek glory, despite what it costs me and my community? Will I always triumph, no matter the adversity? Will I choose to defy the gods, despite their power and authority?"). It focuses on the agency of the main characters and the contingency of events. Things can happen a bunch of different ways! Maybe you're not the person we thought you were! Maybe circumstances won't turn out as you initially thought they would!

    If your premise is a statement, you may not be exploring something as much as reaffirming it, either once or over and over ("Yes, I will seek glory! Yes, I will defy the will of the gods! Yes, I will succeed despite adversity!"). That can be fun too, but it's a different kind of fun. It's not so much about WILL certain things happen and much more about revelling in HOW they happen, the particular circumstances, the particular characterization, the particular details, etc. How will you overcome the adversity that we know you will eventually overcome? How will you become the hero we all know that you are inside?

    Does that make sense?
  • P.S. Sometimes things get confused. For example, I've played games in which it goes like: "Awesome, I'm becoming the hero we all know I --- uh, I guess I'm dead. Huh. Maybe I wasn't the chosen one afterall."
  • If you're talking about Premise as it relates to Story Now in the Big Model then I would suggest looking at your own statement:

    "The characters strive to achieve glory for themselves and their community despite adversity and the whims of the gods"

    That is rife with all kinds of moral choices. When my personal glory and the glory of the community conflict what do I do? What happens when the community is threatened but the gods are in right? Or vice versa? Or worse when The Gods, You, And The Community all have a vaild point of view. The "question" of Story Now need not be a binary Yes/No.

    Now, that said, will your game address any of this stuff directly in play? I don't know. That's up to you. Maybe we're just enjoying being greek bad-asses and fighting some gods (you might want to check out Agon as a game that does this extremely well already). That's just fine. It just isn't Story Now as formulated in The Big Model.

    So this:

    "The characters strive to achieve glory for themselves and their community despite adversity and the whims of the gods"

    Sounds like a pretty cool premise for a game. But it doesn't tell me much about how it's going to be implemented. What are we, the real people around the table, going to be tackling this? What kinds of creative choices/mechanical manipulations are we going to be performing and what kind of social reward are we looking to reap?

  • edited February 2011
    Thanks. after sifting through that, a couple of things leapt out - the first being the character/player distinction that I didnt see. My premise addresses the characters only. It informs the players very well about what will be happening in game in terms of what hi-jinks the characters will get up to, but as people have pointed out, it doesnt say anything about what the players will be doing in a metagame sense. So yes, its a statement - this is what the characters will be doing.

    When the premise is formulated as a question, its probably addressing metagame issues. Informing the players of what they will be doing.

    For my purposes - defining a succinct way of players to pitch game setup to each other so everyone will be on the same page in terms of situation and, to a certain extent, characterisation... my initial premise format is fine. For the purpose of informing the the players about the type of narrative game they will be playing, its not fine. and Im fine with that.
  • oh, and as people have pointed out, what I should have said was "there is no moral dilemma explicit in that premise" there certainly is implied moral dilemma, should the players be inclined to act on it.
  • edited February 2011
    Hey Stefoid,
    I, too have only recently grokked this Story Now Paradigm, and the game that really helped me focus was Burning Wheel. What I surmised and now strive for when seeting up a game is that all the players need to have flags about the premise. They need to want to play the conflict implied by the premise. So for them to be interested enough to persue those flags and engage with the mechanics, the premise needs to be pregnant with interpersonal conflict. Implied moral or ethical or strategic / tactical hard choice. Stuff that matters.

    So for me, its not so much whether the premise is a statement or a question, but if that elevator pitch has charged all the players to enagage; willing to put their flags / keys / beliefs / goals on the line and find out what happens.
  • edited February 2011
    Hi. At this point, personally Im not concerned if the players in my group pick up on any implied narrative-style premise of the game. Im happy if they can make the move from "exploration of situation only" to "exploration of situation + character". By exploration of character, I mean that their characterisation actually leads to character-driven goal setting and character-based-decisions influencing resolving the situation. Rather than situation-only driven goals and purely pragmatic decision making.

    My guess is that exploration of character might lead some players, some of the time, to experience narrative-like play, as they mine a particular aspect of their character as it reacts to various situations. That would be cool.

    To me, the narrative premise is more like an agenda. "in this game, we the players will explore *insert moral dilemma here*" Neither me nor my players are ready to sit down with that kind of agenda. Im not sure what the official term for my agenda is so Ill just call it exploration of situation + character from which narrative issues may or may not emerge.

    Is there an official classification for that? Is it just a variation of sim?
  • edited February 2011
    I've never played a game where it's addressed that formally. I'd venture to say that it's not explicit most of the time. Rather I've been in games where the set up for the characters/situation/setting carries with it the premise. You then play though the situation, players making decisions according to their impulses relative to the fiction. We find out the consequences of those character actions and decisions through play, which is what creates theme. Premise+actions/decisions+consequences.

    Examples? Lots of good games for that. Dogs, My Life with Master, all know the list.

    Dogs is all about the problem of using violence in the name of what is right.

    But you don't have to plan it or anything. Look, your characters have absolute authority and guns. Look here are thorny problems that can't be sorted out in an easy black and white fashion. Look, we're committed to following these characters through their decisions. Boom.

    So the way Jason sorted your premise into questions (and you can address a 'family' of questions pretty easy.)
    how can men be virtuous when the gods are capricious? How can one truly achieve glory when the gods may be against you and for someone else? What is better, to achieve glory for yourself or for your community?

    So first question, what do we need? Capricious Gods and men trying to be virtuous in opposition. Second question? Men trying to achieve glory, and gods who are against them or for someone else. Third question? Men trying to achieve glory with opportunities to achieve it for themselves or for their community, and those things may not be the same.

    In play you don't say "oh I'm addressing this." in some self-conscious way. (maybe some folks do, I sure haven't.) You just make decisions according to your read of the characters in situation.

    What do you think? Does that make sense?
  • edited February 2011
    To me, it appears stefoid's question and the subsequent replies-- are almosssst connecting, but not-quite.

    First, there's the simple question: can a thematic premise be PHRASED AS a statement, rather than a question.
    And the easy answer is Yes.
    But stephoid isn't actually asking about mere wording.

    He's asking about cases where there is no actual dilemma being decided in play.
    Cases where the conclusion is foregone, before the game even starts.
    Such as a 'suicide mission', where there's no doubt that the characters will-indeed choose to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
    (Rather than a game where giving-in to selfishness is an actual option.)

    The answer to this is: by all means yes, it can be fun to play a Golden Age hero who never falters, or a scoundrel who never experiences regret.

    There's nothing wrong with that, and that backstory can enhance the enjoyability of the game, even if the choice is a done deal, not an open question.

    Secondly, there's the ponderous word 'moral'. As in, 'a moral decision'.

    The thing about 'moral' is that it implies melodramatic hand-wringing and grandiose angst.

    For a moment, let's substitute 'tough decision' in the place of a moral one.

    So... maybe there's a character who, in play, is offered a choice between apprenticing as a Fighter or a Wizard.
    Let's say this is a purely-practical distinction, a choice between short term and long term benefit.
    If you choose Fighter, you'll get immediate combat ability, but little room for growth.
    If you choose Wizard, you'll have a long period of vulnerability, with potential for eventual badassness.

    The subsequent adventure can be edge-of-the-seat dramatic, as the character plays-thru the consequences of his choice.
    There's a theme there, even if it isn't a morality choice.

    Lastly, I'm not sure I agree with JDCorley's assessment that the player must be making the moral choice, rather than the character.
    I'm sure Corley has thought about this thoroughly and has an entire stock explanation for his view. Because... he always does.

    But it is easy for me to imagine a situation where a character fails a Bravery check, and cowardice is imposed on him (beyond the player's control);
    and the gameplay is nonetheless dramatic and fun because of the assigned motivation.

    Can the kind of play I'm describing be considered by-the-book Narrativism? Maybe not.
    But can it enhance the player's enjoyment of the game? Absolutely.

    For what it's worth, I think that players who aren't into roleplaying the struggle to make hard decisions--
    are MORE likely to prefer truly Narr gameplay, because if the struggle is presented as an actual hard choice,
    then the players can experience making-the-decision, whether they choose to roleplay it out, or not.

    Whereas, if the conclusion to the decision is forgone, then the players have to actually make the effort of going-thru-the-motions
    of roleplaying the human motivation part, even if that's not the player's preference.
    (Such as failing the Bravery roll, and having to say Cowardly stuff for the rest of the game, to lend color to the ongoing -3 penalty, or whatever.)
  • I'm gonna say "no." I don't think a premise can dodge a question.

    The only reason to play any RPG ever is to resolve unanswered questions. If you've explicitly answered what you think is the question, it just means the question has moved elsewhere.

    This feels mostly like a semantics/definitions discussion: Do you have to call your unanswered questions "premise"? Nah, whatever, you can call it whatever you want. And there are of course unanswered procedural-level questions (can I kill the troll? can I jump the chasm?) that obviously aren't as lofty as "premise."

    But in the end, I think the only interesting thing inside any RPG is the questions waiting to be answered. Whatever you want to call them.
  • edited February 2011

    I just handed my laptop to another player, asking whether I had expressed myself in a discernable fashion.

    I'll paraphrase her reply: "Of Course it's better to roleplay a character, like Gollum, who acts a certain way; rather than
    impose how You would behave in the those circumstances."

    So-- you and she are divided about "the only reason to play any RPG ever".

    Nor is it merely semantic.
    Gollum is defined by lofty premise. Regardless of whether the premise is decided in-play or beforehand.

    EDIT: unwhispered! Also: Golem Gollum.
  • edited February 2011
    "So what would Gollum do in this circumstance?" or "What is the most consistently Gollum-like response to this situation?"

    See? Question.

    I think we're talking about totally perpendicular things. I'm not getting the connection between the agenda that drives one to play Gollum a certain way, and imposing player-level behavior in play. Maybe I missed a post? Could you connect those things for me?

    Lots and lots of games are built around following a character down a path, no matter where that path takes you, and playing as consistently and as principled as possible. Games like BW even build their entire economies around incentivizing players to seek a character-like, principled, consistent response to any situation. But none of this seems connected to "premise."

    EDIT: This is in response to a thing Todd whispered to me, but it totally doesen't need to be a whisper! There's nothing nasty in there.
  • edited February 2011
    "Lady and Gentlemen, tonite we are gonna play Ants and Grasshopper. You fellas will be the ants who work hard to prepare for winter, and she'll be the Grasshopper who fools around. And then at the end we'll randomly roll to see whether it snows this winter, to know which philosophy was the correct choice.
    Heck... I'll roll right now: It's gonna snow later. Ok, let's play!"

    That would be infuriatingly limiting for some, but just-the-right-amount* of theme-determined-in-play, for others.


    Theme would be reduced to color.
  • Lots of good responses so far but I'll try and add a little bit to it.

    The reason why we talk of premise as a question is because we are playing to find out what happens.

    We dont know how the characters will react but through play we intend to find out. Exploring situation + character can be the perfect way to answer the question (even if it's only an implied question which is probably most often the case).

    I'll try and give a run through of how this works in play.

    Situation + Character -> character deciding how to react to the situation = statement about the character -> result -> changed situation + changed character -> etc.

    So what this means is you have a character in a situation and he's free to react to it, how he chooses to react to it and what that says about the character is what we are playing for, that is the address of premise. As play goes on the situation changes and the character changes and we end up learning more and more about the character and what he believes, and it is what the character believes not necessarily the player (it's better if the player can at least feel some empathy for the character and understand them but it's not a requirement)

    Sim play differs because it either doesnt view play as a question or it doesnt really care about what the answer to the question says about the character. In the versions of sim I play the above equation could be the same except the situation doesnt really change and the changes in the character are purely mechanical/physical ability related. Gamist play doesnt care what the statement says about the character beyond winner or loser (for the most part).
  • So if you are not explicitly addressing a question, but merely deciding how your character reacts to discrete situations as they occur and you remove "+ changed character" from your equation, its sim?

    I can see how if a group has the agenda of nar play, they are going to collectively engineer opportunities to address premise when a group without such an agenda wont actively do that.
  • I think there are two things being conflated here. One is the idea of getting everyone on the same page and aimed at playing the same game, i.e. accepting the premise of the game. The other is the detailed, technical Premise as used on discussions of RPG theory.

    Stefoid, you're right that you need to get everyone in the game agreed on what sort of game they'll be playing, what sorts of things they'll be doing, and all of that. That's small-p premise. But you don't need to sort out all the details of the capital-P Premise, the specific moral question, before play. I never have, and I think that kind of explicit statement of one specific Premise would hamper play: everyone would be second-guessing their play to see if it fits that one question.

    Instead, what works for me (and for others, as reported upthread) is creating a situation where there are a few possible Premises and seeing which such Premises grab which players. It could very well be that the exact Premises you're addressing only become apparent in hindsight.

    But, even so, because everyone has agreed to the same small-p premise, the game should work.

    Does that help?
  • edited February 2011
    Well said, Neil!

    Stefoid, you can still have moral quandaries resolved through play in Sim games. It's just that in Sim, that isn't the top priority of play. For example, my game frequently asks players, "Are you willing to do this thing for supernatural power? What are the consequences of your answer?" But because the priority of the game is placed on virtual experience and quests, more than addressing Premise, it ain't Narr. Those moral questions can come and go; they're not the glue holding the activity together.
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