Does having a narrativist agenda necessarily == wanting to have a coherent plot?

edited July 2014 in Play Advice
Maybe I've misread the explanations, but it seems that this agenda could be boiled down to:

#1 No railroading, or pre-planned story
#2 Address human issues (“ethical questions”, “problematic human issues”, “saying something interesting about people”).

Does #2 inherently produce a coherent plot? If not, does wanting a coherent plot fit into some other agenda?

Comments

  • No, because it has nothing to do with plot. It has to do with Story Now. That is, get to the meaningful bits of a story right now through hard choices. That provides interesting play in the moment, but doesn't guarantee that the pieces come together in anything resembling a meaningful plot.

    However, because it tends to produce structure a lot like modern stories, especially compared to other types of rambling and wandering games, it often does produce a coherent plot. Also, I suspect that the technical agendas that players and designers often tie to Story Now games help to keep players in Director Mode, and that helps produce a coherent plot.

    Coherent plot is hard. If that's your main goal, you have to attack it straight on and think about it during play, or have a play structure that guides you there.

    Look at the scene structure in Misspent Youth. It models story structure with introductions, rising action, a point of no return, a darkest hour, and so on. Merely following that structure pretty much guarantees a coherent plot, but it doesn't guarantee specific character arcs that you might want (sometimes the dice are too nice or too mean). It takes conscious effort to follow the scene structure and not just fall into old gaming habits.

    Primetime Adventures tackles plot straight on with an explicit GM-as-Director/Producer role. It's one person's responsibility to get coherent plot and character arcs, but they have to spend energy to make it happen.

    Dogs in the Vineyard has a Town-creation bootstrapping procedure that produces a coherent plot of sorts. The King of Life's Watchdogs arrive in town, people come to them for help, complications arise, the Dogs solve the problems (probably with guns) and we learn more about who these Dogs are as a result. And probably who the players at the table are, too. The effort to make the coherent plot comes mainly from planning the Town, which takes maybe an hour before the game, and there are procedures in-game for making Towns, but it's as much art as science.

    Those are three examples off the top of my head of how some games can facilitate Story Now group play and help produce a coherent plot via game mechanics. Note that the game mechanics are an additional thing beyond "address human issues."
  • Exactly as Adam says.

    There's absolutely nothing about a Narrativist Agenda which requires a coherent plot.

    However, it's pretty hard to tell a story which addresses human issues and does *not*, at some level, feel like a satisfying story.
  • edited July 2014
    Thanks Adam! This is really helpful.

    My intuition was also that the answer would be "no", without some conscious effort to impose plot, but I wasn't sure if it was just me "doing it wrong". Now that I know it isn't expected as a core requirement, I think I'll actually feel more free to go with the flow.

    Also, it sounds like wanting plot is more of a technical agenda?

    Edit: Thank you too, Paul!
  • I'd say working to create plot is a technical agenda. Wanting it is just a preference. If I were to make wild-ass guesses, I'd say that "technical agenda" is not as clearly defined as "creative agenda" in terms of being a component of /actual play/. That is, creative agenda is a component of actual play, not a player preference or a game design thing, but I have no idea if people ever made technical agenda parallel in that way.
  • Hmm. Sounds like I've conflated creative agendas with preferences.
  • edited July 2014
    Agreed. Yet: the two can be intertwined. If you set up a satisfactorily-loosely-connectable set of goals and objects, the nature of the human brain being what it is, plot tends to emerge. A well-made Fiasco playset is a good example. This is exactly the same thing that gives rise to conspiracy theories - the human brain connecting dots and finding patterns. We are really really good at that. When it comes to drama and literature, we actually have names for all these patterns (even though most people don't know them, it's not necessary to know them by name - you know them when you see them).

    Myth patterns already exist in the cultural consciousness for all the various sorts of dynamic situations, and we're good at spotting them. Therefore it's not surprising to see players draw upon shared ontologies (certain regular patterns of genre, tropes, fiction establishment, dynamism and outcome that we have learned from myths, stories, fairytales, books, movies, "the 36 dramatic situations" etc, our whole lives). And in fact there's a kinda pre-known "official ending" for all of these situations, generally having to do with "justice" in Aristotelian drama, but in these postmodern times more ironic endings are often entertained. Over time it became more desirable/imperative to include at least one "twist", often near the end, to satisfy more sophisticated audiences. This expanded the possible number of end-states for each situation, and yet that number is still finite.

    I propose that these subconscious "pre-known end states" serve as "strange attractors" toward which the players will tend to drive if given the opportunity to do so. I'm not talking about "plot" per se, but rather a drive to emulate a structure from which, if followed without too much randomness injected, will tend to produce something that gives rise to plot automatically in the human mind.

    The problem is in governing the types of elements introduced for possible inclusion in patterns by players, and the conceptual distance between them in application. If they're too far apart or disparate, the end result is surrealism or silliness. This is what I call a "parody engine" - it succeeds mainly in producing parodies of its own artistic intention.

    The design questions at this point become both technical and preferential, along the lines of: "How narrowly can I constrain choice, say by controlling genre perhaps, such that a preponderance of meaningful connections can be drawn?" or "How much variety can I inject into a stochastic system without causing the meaningful connections to be so loose that they only make sense ironically?"
  • I wrote something about this a while ago that might be helpful:

    http://githyankidiaspora.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/the-myth-of-story-preservation/

    In Story Now play you are not at all thinking about making a good story. You are not making decisions for the good of the story. Eff that in the aye.

    The goal of games, even narr-heavy thematic games Story Now, is not to make a story. Story happens.

    The goal is a night of people making meaningful choices at the table. Story is a by-product, like exhaust coming out of a car.

    It is also a by-product of gamist play and sim play. Story just happens.

    Looking out for the story leads to constipation at the table. Story does not need to be preserved or looked out for. It is not a just hatched chick that needs everyone to be careful lest it is trampled. Just play the damned game, make choices that are brave. Look at your character sheet, let your character surprise you and story will just happen.

    Do not preserve story. Shitty stories are made in those times everyone is being careful not to ruin the story, leading to cowardly decisions and furrowed brows and serious thinking about serious things. Story is fun, let it out of the cage. Let the story get damaged and messy.

    I like my stories with only one headlight, the other smashed and a dinged up fender. I like my story with an engine that shouldn’t work, that mechanics insist should not run anymore because there is no spark plug and no engine oil. I like them messy and loud with chipped paint and a spider-web crack in the windshield. You should look at them and know they survived something to get to ya.

    Stories just happen in RPG play. Relax. Let them occur.


  • Judd, that's fantastic. Because stories are "performed" in real-time in RPG play, there's no need to expect - or want - perfect pacing or perfect balance. The important part is that it hits you in the gut.

    From the perspective of Creative Agenda, though:

    What Judd is describing here is a great approach to Story Now play.

    Caring about "the story", and making the plot as coherent as possible, is a very strong variant of Right to Dream (Sim) play. (Something like Microscope, and some Fiasco play, comes to mind here.)
  • In normal play I'd also say that "plot happens". Actually, plot tends to be discovered after the game and people start putting scenes in order post-play.
    I have, however, run several one-shot scenarios that had very tight plots from the get-go.
    "The Journey" gives each player every scene on an index card. The card describes in who is in the scene, in what order they're allowed to speak, and what they're supposed to talk about. Mind you, the card doesn't say what the other characters are allowed to say. Very, VERY intense.
    Other scenarios have completely scripted scenes where the gm acts more like a director, even to the point of asking players to re-take scenes and instructing them in how to play (come on, that was tame. I need to see more emotion!!!). While this would be death to a gamist, for my players it often means having to spend a couple of hours post-play drinking tea and crying while being hugged by the GM.
  • Interestingly, it seems there are two opposite opinions expressed here: plot doesn't just happen in narrativism (but a satisfying story does tend to emerge) vs plot just happens. Right now, my intuition makes me lean towards the former. Aslf's post on patterns rings true too, but again, it's a hunch for me.

    I read Judd's old post and it made a sort of sense too, but I noticed there was talk of Narrative skills That to me sounded like an ability to finesse some structure or at least pacing into the emergent fiction. There also seemed to be agreement that this is a desirable thing to have.

    Anyone want to shed some light on that?

  • edited July 2014
    Just a side note:

    If one takes apart most movies or TV shows, coherency isn't what results. Because we are focused on the emotional/thematic elements of the character's choices and actions (and the back and forth, up and down of successes, failures, and relentless pursuit of some need that must be fulfilled.)

    I can go to almost any Comments section about almost any movie and find countless people talking about how the plot wasn't coherent... but the movie satisfied almost everyone else.

    I'm not trying to put anyone on the spot to justify what the bar is for "coherence" in a plot (though I am curious what that bar is for this thread). But I felt compelled to point out that, historically, because GMs are used to "making a plot" the need to make it make sense was the focus at the expense of character choices. But if you look at how most stories really could be built, you can start with a character with a need for action of one kind or another, press them with choices that reveal who they are and how hard they'll work to get it, reach a climax of some sort where the character makes some amazing and strong life-defining choice*, and not only would you have a story, but in retrospect you would have a plot. A plot, at least, strong enough to stand up in coherence found in almost all TV shows, novels, movies and plays.

    (*Luke Trusts the Force; Ripley goes back for Newt; John McClane surrenders to Hans Gruber after spending the whole movie needing to dominate everyone around him (yes, it's a trick, but notice that McClane never would have used such a tactic earlier in the movie); Mills falls into John Doe's trap in Se7en and becomes the last sin on the list; Michael lies to his wife about who he is at the end of The Godfather; Macbeth goes into battle even knowing he has already lost all he's cared about; the characters at the end of Deadwood's run conspire to commit murder to protect one of their own; and so on...)

  • Absolutely. This supports that school of literary thought which says everything derives from character; and also promotes alternative design approaches, such as object oriented systems design. Which is what many of us are doing, whether we think of it that way or not.
  • edited July 2014
    One more thing (sorry):

    There are good ways to play Story Now, and bad ways.

    There are people who are convinced that if you play toward putting the characters under the hammer of making choices (which, again, is like almost any movie or play or novel you've ever liked) you'll end up with something willy-nilly or illogical.

    Here's the thing: That can happen.

    One could (as the GM and also the Player) introduce all sorts of illogical, useless story elements all in the name of ratcheting up thematic or moral choices. It will become one problematic dilemma after another. One won't get anything like a coherent plot at all.

    Here's what I say to this perceived problem: Don't do that.

    That is to say, there's no reason not to think in the most human, fundamentally logical way, about what the responses of NPCs are, what the responses of PCs are, and so on. If you are disregarding the logic of human beings and a true, chained, cause-and-effect of what the characters are doing, what the responses of other characters are, back-and-forth, until the climax, you'll end up with the kind of movie we all scoff at. (See: The Transformer movies.)

    So, to answer the original post (for me at least):
    Maybe I've misread the explanations, but it seems that this agenda could be boiled down to:

    #1 No railroading, or pre-planned story
    #2 Address human issues (“ethical questions”, “problematic human issues”, “saying something interesting about people”).

    Does #2 inherently produce a coherent plot? If not, does wanting a coherent plot fit into some other agenda?
    I don't think such play inherently produces coherent plot. I think one can screw it up. I think one can do it well. If you do it well, you get a coherent-enough plot. If you do it badly, you don't.

    But the line isn't thin or invisible. Stick with the characters (PCs and NPCs). Think of honest, human reactions. Think in terms of honest cause and effect between choices, actions, reactions.

    So, plot doesn't "just happen." But it's not a weird, difficult thing to reach.
  • edited July 2014
    Loved the rest of your posts. I think I'm much more clear on things now, but I wanted to answer this just in case it helps:

    "I'm not trying to put anyone on the spot to justify what the bar is for "coherence" in a plot (though I am curious what that bar is for this thread)."

    Hard to describe, but maybe the bare minimum would be soemthing like one of those 60's and 70's chop socky kung-fu films. Or, maybe like something out of a Dario Argento movie (Suspiria). I think that movie consists of set pieces with a very thin thread of a plot running through them ( though I guess that's debatable). [Edit: It's not debatable whether it has a plot at all. It does have a not very coherent one.]

  • Right. So "plot-enough" -- which is really, I think, all that is required.

    I would say that pre-2000 story-based adventure modules were all based on "really plotted" in order to make it seem inevitable the PCs would follow it. (Surprise! They rarely did!) This, in turn, taught GMs to come up with their well plotted campaigns and adventures with the assumption that the PCs would follow along because everything was well plotted.

    My own view, obviously, is that such plotting is problematic (many Players chafe against such plotting and blow up the plot anyway). And, moreover, one only needs to put pressure on the characters, let them make decisions, and the plot will be revealed in the wake of these decisions and actions.
  • Gosh, I hope not.
  • What a great thread.

    One thing that sometimes happens if you stick very closely to Not Railroading and Exploring Human Issues is that you'll get weird pacing. I think @jenskot tells of one of his Dogs games that lasted like 5 minutes of in-fiction time because the PCs all shot each other in the first conflict. IIRC, it was intense as hell while it was happening but it's not like you'd ever see a movie like that. Maybe a 10-minute short or something, but not a movie or other more traditional form of media.
  • Yes!

    I would say THAT is the downfall of "Story Now", not a potential lack of plot.

    If you're not railroading, and honestly interested in seeing where the story will go and being surprised by it, you cannot know exactly how long the story will be. Sure, if the group is on the same page, then you can work together, but, ultimately, you're playing to find out, and that means that sometimes you end up with a novel and sometimes you end up with a short story.

    I don't see any good way to plan out a perfect, 10-session-long game with a climax in session 9 in most Narrativism-supporting games out there. (Unless you do it by deciding ahead of time how long certain characters are in the spotlight, like Primetime Adventures - but then I'd imagine that not all of your Episodes will be exactly the same length - in television, that's something that happens in the editing room, not the first draft. And you don't get an editing room in roleplaying.)
  • Well, maybe.

    At least in my experience, those well-planned, 10-session-long games utterly depended on withholding information from the players, stalling their progress at key points, shunting them around in varying degrees of frustration.

    Look, that Dogs game mentioned above? It's a short story. Five pages or so. Awesome. An utterly respectable (and hard to pull off well!) traditional form of story.

    That happened? Start again with new Dogs. I'm honestly not seeing any problems at all. If the Players really see the ultimate expression of who their characters are played out in an hour or two... fantastic! High fives all around!
  • edited July 2014
    Hi Dreamer,

    I forget some of my Forge theory, but in practice, Story Now contains multitudes, and multitudes contain Story Now. Season with plot coherence, pacing, structure, story goals etc. to taste.

    I've had fun games which went exactly as Judd recommends (example: Sorcerer, played with emergent character choices based on the fictional agents in motion) and fun games which went exactly as he says not to do (example: Fiasco, played with engineered character choices based on perceived needs of the story). I've even played Primetime Adventures both ways -- once within the same session!

    Ask not whether you are doing Story Now right or wrong -- ask only whether you're doing it right or wrong for you.

    Or, y'know, listen to all our old war stories and guess at which ones you might enjoy doing yourself. :)
  • Christopher:

    I didn't make this very clear in my post, but I'm with you. I see it as a feature, not a bug. I think my favourite writers sometimes end up with a novel and sometimes with a short story, too. I dig that.
  • Hi Dreamer,

    I forget some of my Forge theory, but in practice, Story Now contains multitudes, and multitudes contain Story Now. Season with plot coherence, pacing, structure, story goals etc. to taste.

    I've had fun games which went exactly as Judd recommends (example: Sorcerer, played with emergent character choices based on the fictional agents in motion) and fun games which went exactly as he says not to do (example: Fiasco, played with engineered character choices based on perceived needs of the story). I've even played Primetime Adventures both ways -- once within the same session!

    Ask not whether you are doing Story Now right or wrong -- ask only whether you're doing it right or wrong for you.

    Or, y'know, listen to all our old war stories and guess at which ones you might enjoy doing yourself. :)
    This thread has been very educational for me!
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