Friday, March 23, 2018

Chaosless Theory (GNS, Narrativism, and the Morality of Stories)

4th and last in a series on the old essays that defined GNS Theory--the theory of games that dominates what theoretical RPG discourse there is despite the fact that almost no-one claims to believe it any more.

1st one
-about Ron Edwards essay on GNS in general
2nd one-about his simulationism essay
3rd one-about his gamism essay

This one is on narrativism and the analysis will be a little different.

I need to start with:

Kurt Vonnegut, from his novel Breakfast of Champions...

...with the author (whose museum is a short walk from GenCon) offering an opinion on a bad novelist character in the book:
I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. 
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books. 
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales. 
And so on. 
Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. 
If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. 
It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

I would not second-guess Edwards’ definition of narrativism... I have second, third, fourth-guessed his attempts to redefine challenge as “gamism” and to redefine everything else that could happen in a game as “simulationism”—just like I would not drive to Kool Moe Dee's house and explain hip hop to him. Ron helped invent narrativism, he is essential to its development and, frankly, his own indie narrativist spawn are doing a better job of tearing down the fences he built around it than I ever could simply by making games that don’t match this early definition but appeal basically to the same people.

What I do want to talk about is what that definition implies and where it came from and what I think it did or said about all those successors and--by extension--all the parts of gaming they touched.

Edwards spends a massive amount of the essay defining what Narrativism isn’t—that is: it isn’t games that just have stories that the people playing are into but don’t “address premise”—and frankly I got no comment on any of it: he’s saying what he’s into, essentially.

I do want to pick out a few interesting appetizers before getting into the meat though.

Narrativism: Story Now

by Ron Edwards 

Speaking of Champions, Edwards addresses a really interesting passage in it in terms of what he sees as frustrated wannabe narrativism in older games. (Champions in Courier font, Edwards in Times):

One thing that each Champions GM needs to learn to do is to spot, carefully nurture, and eventually play out the "Character Story." 
Each player-character has a Story above and beyond the ordinary adventures encountered during the course of the campaign. This Character Story usually involves the resolution of the most important desires of the character. 
Phosphene - Discovery of and Acceptance by Family. Raised by a single parent and knowing of no other relatives, Phos started his career cynical and alone. Learning that he had a family, the enigmatic Brood, he discovered that he had a tremendous need to become one of them. Eventually he met all his surviving relatives and earned the affection of most of them. Now married and a family man himself, his personal story is resolved.
Lorelei - Growth into Womanhood. In the course of her years of playing, Lorelei grew from a 15-year-old innocent into a mature woman and team leader; the most important elements of transition (other than the years involved) were her romance with Commodore and her eventual rescue of and reunion with her father. 
Take a look at your own character - or at all the PCs if you're the GM - and try to root out the Character Story of each one. [examples follow - RE]
 In short, try to figure out what element of the character's background, relations, or psychology make him interesting but will eventually make him (or his player) frustrated and unhappy if not ultimately resolved. That's the Character Story.
An interesting qualifier shows up in the final paragraph of this section: 
Of course, no campaign lasts long enough for every Character Story to be discovered and exploited ... 
... which I think is a bizarre statement, possibly related to the idea (which I remember all too well) that Champions players should all cooperate to preserve the group regardless of their differing goals during play.
It's only bizarre if you don't think of how Champions is a superhero game and therefore is deeply tied to a form of serial fiction where problems and ideas baked into a character literally never get resolved or: if they do get resolved, get unresolved again, because the story never ends in a human lifetime (or it hasn't yet: I mean even Blue Beetle is still around.)

This is an unusually crystal-pure example of  Edwards showing that (even in a superhero context) his cultural lens for "story" is always classic drama and never serial fiction or picaresque. He references this structure later:

Classically, a story has the following structure: (a) introduce character and situation, (b) introduce conflict, (c) rising conflict, (d) climax, and (e) resolution, of which (a, b, d) are the key pieces. Most stories indeed follow this model regardless of their chronological presentation, point-of-view, or any other details. There's usually no particular worry that Narrativist play will fail to produce 
(That's called 3-Act Drama in some places.)

I hasten to add: that's fine as an expression of where his goals are as a player and his definition of narrativism.


But it has implications later because of the particular audience Edwards had.

This section is interesting in terms of where Edwards' head is at on the value of this kind of play and what he expects it to produce:

Procedural diversity: thematic content 
Given that theme arises during Narrativist play, what does it look like, and how limited or well-defined is it? This breaks down into three independent issues, all of which are pretty subtle and deserve more discussion.
  1. The potential for personal risk and disclosure among the real people involved.
    • High risk play is best represented by playing Sorcerer, Le Mon Mouri, InSpectres, Zero, or Violence Future. You're putting your ego on the line with this stuff, as genre conventions cannot help you; the other people in play are going to learn a lot about who you are.
    • Low risk play is best represented by playing Castle Falkenstein, Wuthering Heights, The Dying Earth, or Prince Valiant. These games are, for lack of a better word, "lighter" or perhaps more whimsical - they do raise issues and may include extreme content, but play-decisions tend to be less self-revealing.
  2. The depth and profundity of the resulting themes. Counter to my lousy phrasing in GNS and related matters of role-playing theory (, "literary merit" of a theme is irrelevant. Themes are indeed important, and I suggest that two broad categories are available: cathartic vs. deconstructive, with the former splitting up into happy-ending, sad-ending, and ambiguous. A related point concerns the range of the possible themes for a given play-instance, from narrow to broad. I'll forego providing game examples as the depth and range of theme rely very greatly on the given play-group's use of the game.
  3. The humorous content. This is, in many ways, a red herring. I consider "funny" always to be a secondary phenomenon, perhaps modifying theme, or modifying something else entirely. For GNS or other theory purposes, you have to look at the something else and discuss that first. Still, there are a couple of points worth mentioning for role-playing.
    • Is play itself funny, or is the topic of play funny? This is a very complex issue, fully analogous to the endless discussions of fear and suspense in horror role-playing.
    • Is the humor acting to bring participants' emotions closer to the Premise, or to distance them?

Ok. Interesting.

The following is probably the most eyebrow-raising in terms of contradicting my and other peoples' lived RPG experience:

Ouija-board role-playing
Here's another outcome for the faulty Simulationist-makes-Narrativism approach. Actually, it's the same phenomenon as Simulationism-makes-Gamism, which I discussed in "Gamism: Step On Up" ( as "the bitterest role-player in the world." I consider the Narrativist version to be the "most deluded role-player in the world." 
How do Ouija boards work? People sit around a board with letters and numbers on it, all touching a legged planchette that can slide around on the board. They pretend that spectral forces are moving the planchette around to spell messages. What's happening is that, at any given moment, someone is guiding the planchette, and the point is to make sure that the planchette always appears to everyone else to be moving under its own power. 
Taking this idea to role-playing, the deluded notion is that Simulationist play will yield Story Now [that is: narrativist -z] play without any specific attention on anyone's part to do so. The primary issue is to maintain the facade that "No one guides the planchette!" The participants must be devoted to the notion that stories don't need authors; they emerge from some ineffable confluence of Exploration per se. It's kind of a weird Illusionism perpetrated on one another, with everyone putting enormous value on maintaining the Black Curtain between them and everyone else. Typically, groups who play this way have been together for a very long time. 
Oh no!
My call is, you get what you play for. Can you address Premise this way? Sure, on the monkeys-might-fly-out-my-butt principle. But the key to un-premeditated artistry of this sort (cutup fiction, splatter painting, cinema verite) is to know what to throw out, and role-playing does not include that option, at least not very easily. Participants in Ouija-board play do so through selective remembering. I have observed many such role-players to refer to hours of unequivocally bored and contentious play as "awesome!" given a week or two for mental editing. 
See the first essay for notes on the eccentric character of Ron's observations.
What I see from such groups is the following: 
-They use a highly customized house-version of a given rules-set, usually AD&D, BRP, or an early edition of Champions; many of the customized details are unrecorded.
Clearly they are monsters

-They employ a personalized set of subtle cues and expectations that arise out of their long-term friendships and habits of play.

The satisfaction-moments are rare to the extent of being perhaps a yearly event. "Nothing happened tonight" is typical, but the group believes that you don't legitimately get the cherished moments any other way. Such moments are treasured and carefully repeated among them. 
Or maybe they just didn't tell you because you're kinnnnnd of a pill?
Rarely, another person participates and (horrors!) actually overtly moves the planchette, or discusses how it's being moved. That person is instantly ejected, with cries of "powergamer!" and "pushy bastard!" 
I have never seen this happen ever but I live where its warm and drugs are legal so
They're socially isolated from other role-players,
Have you met other roleplayers?

as their play is so arcane and impenetrable that no one else can easily participate.
If they go to cons, they go together, stay together, and leave together.
They stay together and leave together? Maybe they live in the same city Ron? And are therefore getting on the same plane?
One of them buys a new game that "looks good," and they rarely if ever try it, always rejecting it when they do. 
I bought Mouse Guard once for Connie because she liked D&D and cute mice and wanted to GM her own game but then she read it and kept falling asleep because there were all these narrativist mechanics.  So guilty af I guess.
They're socially isolated not only from gamers, but from everyone, insofar as their hobby is concerned. Forget social context; it's just these guys, aging, playing their tweaked versions of the game they discovered in high school, reminiscing about that one awesome time when character X did that awesome thing.
Who. Hurt. You.
Ouija-board groups vary in terms of how much fun they have, and I'll leave further discussion of the phenomenon to the forums.

So we have to look at this oddly detailed lament when we deal with Ron's ideas about the role of improvisation, randomness, chance and chaos in creating "story".

Now The Meat

What is narrativism, and what does it want from us?

How is this done, actually, in play? It relies on the concept of something called Premise and its relationship to an emergent theme.
I already snuck Premise past you: it's that "problematic issue" I mentioned. I've taken the term from The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. In reading what follows, bear in mind that he is discussing the process of writing, not an existing playscript or a performance:
... every good premise is composed of three parts, each of which is essential to a good play. Let us examine "frugality equals waste." The first part of this premise suggest character - a frugal character. The second part, "leads to," suggests conflict, and the third part, "waste," suggests the end of the play. ...
A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play. [examples follow, including "Egotism leads to loss of friends." - RE]
This is worth backing up on.

Edwards' idea of story is based on this old dead realist playwright's (any doubts about the extent of that will be dispelled if you keep reading--he says as much). What are some other things Egri consider "premises"?

Check it out:

Here are a few other premises:
Bitterness leads to false gaiety.
Foolish generosity leads to poverty.
Honesty defeats duplicity.
Heedlessness destroys friendship.
Ill-temper leads to isolation.
Materialism conquers mysticism.
Prudishness leads to frustration.
Bragging leads to humiliation.
Confusion leads to frustration.
Craftiness digs its own grave.
Dishonesty leads to exposure.
Dissipation leads to self-destruction.
Egotism leads to loss of friends.
Extravagance leads to destitution.
Fickleness leads to loss of self-esteem. 
And what do you do with these premises? Egri goes on:
Although these are only flat statements, they contain all that is required of a well-constructed premise: character, conflict, and conclusion. What is wrong, then? What is missing?
The author's conviction is missing. Until he takes sides, there is no play. Only when he champions one side of the issue does the premise spring to life. Does egotism lead to loss of friends? Which side will you take? We, the readers or spectators of your play, do not necessarily agree with your conviction. Through your play you must therefore prove to us the validity of your contention.
 Let's be clear: The word "premises" is unnecessarily vague in Egri's text. These are morals. And Egri unequivocally says that you must prove the validity of the moral you pick with your story. The moral guides the story.

If you've got your "cherry-picking" alarm going off, hang on, back to Edwards next line after quoting Egri:
A protagonist is not "some guy," but rather "the guy who thinks THIS, and does something accordingly when he encounters adversity." Stories are not created by running some kind of linear-cause program, but rather are brutally judgmental statements upon the THIS, as an idea or a way of being. That judgment is enacted or exemplified in the resolution of the conflict, and a conviction that is proved to us (as Egri says),constitutes theme. Even if we (the audience) disagree with it, we at least must have been moved to do so at an emotional level.
Where do these judgmental statements come from? Egri:

It is idiotic to go about hunting for a premise [moral -z], since, as we have pointed out, it should be a conviction of yours. You know what your own convictions are. Look them over. Perhaps you are interested in man and his idiosyncrasies. Take just one of those peculiarities, and you have material for several premises.
Remember the fable about the elusive bluebird? A man searched all over the world for the bluebird of happiness, and when he returned home he found it had been there all the time. It is unnecessary to torture your brain, to weary yourself by searching for a premise, when there are so many ready to hand. Anyone who has a few strong convictions is a mine of premises morals
Suppose you do find a premise moral in your wanderings. At best it is alien to you. It did not grow from you; it is not part of you. A good premise moral represents the author.
We are taking it for granted that you want to write a fine play, something which will endure. The strange thing is that all plays, including farces, are better when the author feels he has something important to say.
And in case you missed it:

You, however, should not write anything you do not believe. The premise moral should be a conviction of your own, so that you may prove it wholeheartedly. Perhaps it is a preposterous premise moral to me -- it must not be so to you. 
Although you should never mention your premise moral in the dialogue of your play, the audience must know what the message is. And whatever it is, you must prove it.

So, according to Egri, and GNS: a story is constructed by thinking of a moral lesson that you, the author, believe, and then using the play to "prove" it.

How do you prove something with a play, dude? Egri describes a playwright who is interested in using his actual Aunt Clara as a subject:

The author who wants to write this play still has no premise. No matter. The story of Aunt Clara's life slowly takes shape nevertheless. There are still many loose ends to which the playwright can return later, when he has found his premise. The question to ask right now is: what will be the end of this woman? Can she go on the rest of her life interfering with and actually crippling people's lives? Of course not. But since Aunt Clara is still alive and going strong on her self-appointed crusade, the author has to determine what will be the end of her, not in reality, but in the play.
Actually, Aunt Clara might live to be a hundred and die in an accident or in bed, peacefully. Will that help the play? Positively not. Accident would be an outside factor which is not inherent in the play. Sickness and peaceful death, ditto. Her death -- if death it will be -- must spring from her actions. A man or woman whose life she wrecked might take vengeance on her and send her back to her Maker. In her overzealousness she might overstep all bounds, go against the Church itself, and be excommunicated. Or she might find herself in such compromising circumstances that only suicide could extricate her.
Whichever of these three possible ends is chosen, the premise will suggest itself: "Extremity (whichever it is) leads to destruction." Now you know the beginning and the end of your play. She was promiscuous to start with, this promiscuity caused a suicide, and she lost the one person she ever really loved. This tragedy brought about her slow but persistent transformation into a religious fanatic. Her fanaticism wrecked lives, and in turn her life was taken. 
So what you do to tell a story is take a moral you already believe and rig up the plot so that it reinforces the belief you already have. Ok, fine I guess--there's worse screenwriting 101 advice--but maybe Edwards isn't full-on recommending this, right? Back to Edwards' next paragraph:
 I think that any reliable means of story-writing, in any medium, conforms to Egri's principles.
They may seem simplistic:
A little?
...the burning passion of the protagonist directly expresses a burning passion of the author's, who uses the plot as a polemic to demonstrate it. However, "Why Johnny shouldn't smoke dope" is only the starting point.
Oh thank god!
More nuanced, ambiguous, and insightful applications arise insofar as more nuanced, ambiguous, and insightful authors and audiences are involved.
 (No details given.)
I said earlier that any role-playing can produce a story, and that's so. But Narrativist role-playing is defined by the people involved placing their direct creative attention toward Premise moral and toward birthing its child, theme. It sounds simple, and in many ways it is. The real variable is the emotional connection that everyone at the table makes when a player-character does something. If that emotional connection is identifiable as a Premise moral, and if that connection is nurtured and developed through the real-people interactions, then Narrativist play is under way. Some nuances:
"Character does something" can mean foreshadowing, flashback, and anything in between. It can mean the character is just thinkin' about it, or it can mean the character flat-out does it. As long as the fictional character is brought into the perceptions and possible emotional responses of the other people at the table, then it counts.
It doesn't matter whether the character fictionally "meant" to do the action, premeditated it, or acted on-the-spot.
In stories (unlike real life), the character's immediate environment is kind of a weird sidekick, who sometimes acts in the character's favor and sometimes against him or her. "Character does something" often includes this sidekick's behavior.
"Identifiable" means assessing how the players treat one another during the process, socially.
From my essay "GNS and related matters of role-playing theory" (
Narrativist Premises focus on producing Theme via events during play. Theme is defined as a value-judgment or point that may be inferred from the in-game events. My thoughts on Narrativist Premise are derived from the book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, specifically his emphasis on the questions that arise from human conundrums and passions of all sorts.Is the life of a friend worth the safety of a community?Does love and marriage override one's loyalty to a political cause?And many, many more - the full range of literature, myth, and stories of all sorts.
The full range of myth? Here's a myth:
What's the moral of that, Ron?

(Footnote: the story's called "Old Age" so it's likely the "she" and "her" in the final sentence refer to the old woman, but if they refer to the daughter it suddenly becomes a story with a moral. Is it now better? Is it now more of a story?)
Narrativist Premises vary regarding their origins: character-driven Premise vs. setting-driven Premise, for instance. They also vary a great deal in terms of unpredictable "shifts" of events during play. The key to Narrativist Premises is that they are moral or ethical questions that engage the players' interest. The "answer" to this Premise (Theme) is produced via play and the decisions of the participants, not by pre-planning.
A possible Narrativist development of the "vampire" initial Premise, with a strong character emphasis, might be, Is it right to sustain one's immortality by killing others? When might the justification break down?
Another, with a strong setting emphasis, might be, Vampires are divided between ruthlessly exploiting and lovingly nurturing living people, and which side are you on?
I'm still saying the same thing. But now, I've returned to my earlier usage; it's the only meaning for the term "Premise" in my model.
That bit about moral and ethical content is merely one of those personalized clincher-phrasings that some people find helpful. It helps to distinguish a Premise from "my guy fought a dragon, so that's a conflict, so that's a Premise" thinking. However, if these terms bug you, then say, "problematic human issue" instead.
Edwards gets to an interesting technical detail which helps drive narrative play:
Egri presents his Premises as flat statements, and I state them as questions. Using the question form isn't changing anything about what Egri is saying. Premise must pose a question to the real people, creator and audience alike. The fictional character's belief in something like "Freedom is worth any price" is already an implicit question: "Is it really? Even when [insert Situation]?"
A key part of Edwards' vision of gaming narrativism is something like: the GM drops a moral question in front of PCs and they use their part of the game to give an answer and shape the game around their answer. This is pretty much straight up the formula for Dogs In The Vineyard.

Why do this? Luckily, the next line says:
Otherwise it will fail to engage anyone.
Egri's statement-construction is very useful for the single author faced with a blank sheet of paper, with the goal at hand being a finished script. The audience will see the play, not the process of creation. However, in the role-playing medium, not only are there multiple authors, but the audience is also composed of these same authors, and their appreciation of the material occurs simultaneously with the significant creative decisions. Therefore, the Premise's imaginary resolution is up for grabs among the group in role-playing, just as it is up for grabs within the author's own head before the play reaches final draft. In the latter case, the jump to "the point" is swift and hopefully certain; in the former case, the new medium, it is anything but. I phrase it as a question for role-playing, to indicate that everyone involved has his or her fair crack at it as one of the authors.
Egri gives some examples of how stories come from premises:

Let us examine a few plays and see whether they have premises.

Romeo and Juliet
The play starts with a deadly feud between two families, the Capulets and the Montagues. The Montagues have a son, Romeo, and the Capulets a daughter, Juliet. 
The youngsters' love for each other is so great that they forget the traditional hate between their two families. Juliet's parents try to force her to marry Count Paris, and, unwilling to do this, she goes to the good friar, her friend, for advice. He tells her to take a strong sleeping draught on the eve of her wedding which will make her seemingly dead for forty-two hours. Juliet follows his advice. Everyone thinks her dead. This starts the onrushing tragedy for the two lovers. Romeo, believing Juliet really dead, drinks poison and dies beside her. When Juliet awakens and finds Romeo dead, without hesitation she decides to unite with him in death. 
This play obviously deals with love. But there are many kinds of love. No doubt this was a great love, since the two lovers not only defied family tradition and hate, but threw away life to unite in death. The premise, then, as we see it is: "Great love defies even death."

I thought the takeaway was "don't take weird herbals from 16th century friars" but ok.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in their ruthless ambition to achieve their goal, decide to kill King Duncan. Then, to strengthen himself in his position, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo, whom he fears. Later, he is forced to commit still more murders in order to entrench himself more securely in the position he has reached through murder. Finally, the nobles and his own subjects become so aroused that they rise against him, and Macbeth perishes as he lived -- by the sword. Lady Macbeth dies of haunting fear.
What can be the premise of this play? The question is, what is the motivating force? No doubt it is ambition. What kind of ambition? Ruthless, since it is drenched in blood. Macbeth's downfall was foreshadowed in the very method by which he achieved his ambition. So, as we see, the premise for Macbeth is: "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction."
Or maybe: "Witch prophesies should be interpreted literally"?

My turn:

There once was a man confronted by a great conflict about stories between space aliens with katanas, brain-damaged vampires wearing eye makeup, and his friends. He cogitated for years, and then spoke about his beliefs: to the space aliens and vampires he said "I get what you're trying to do, it's just you're doing it wrong". They told him to fuck right off.

To his friends, he said: "Let's tell moralizing stories". They did: either because he convinced them to or because the had always wanted to and he helped them find each other. They moralized hard and they moralized long. They moralized against the space aliens, they moralized against the vampires, they moralized against the katanas, they moralized against the trees and sky, they moralized against each other (privately), they moralized against people of color, they moralized against The Perceived Other,  they moralized in ways that appalled him, they moralized against queer people, they moralized against women for taking off their clothes, they moralized against women for making imaginary bad women, they moralized a trans woman right out of games, they moralized on the ceiling and on trains, they moralized against people for calling them insane, they moralized while paying to defend rapists, they moralized while hiring sexual abusers, they moralized on behalf of people of color while ignoring people of color,  they moralized while paying people 5 cents a word.

They moralized longer and harder and with less self-awareness than anyone outside the Republican party has since before World War 2. And the man distanced himself very much from them and he felt now his legacy was decidedly mixed and increasingly eclipsed. And whenever they were asked to stop they said "But stories are what we DO!"

What's the moral of that?

There's a reason that, like I said back in the first essay, all this sat unpublished in my Drafts for the better part of a decade: I didn't feel like going there was warranted. But with the stuff we've seen lately?

Here Are Some Ideas About Stories...

...from authors:

Novelist George Saunders, winner of the Booker Prize: “Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth. Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another; rather, it teaches us to abide with the fact that, in their own way, all things are true, and helps us, in the face of this terrifying knowledge, continually push ourselves in the direction of Open the Hell Up.” 

Writer/activist Sarah Schulman, : "Without the intervention that most people are afraid to commit to, this escalation cannot be interrupted. In other words, because we won’t change our stories to integrate other people’s known reasons and illuminate their unknown ones, we cannot resolve conflict in a way that is productive, equitable, and fair."

The eminent Zadie Smith: "There are times when reading Wallace feels unbearable, and the weight of things stacked against the reader insurmountable: missing context, rhetorical complication, awful people, grotesque or absurd subject matter, language that is-at the same time!-childishly scatological and annoyingly obscure. And if one is used to the consolation of 'character,' well then Wallace is truly a dead end. His stories simply don’t investigate character; they don’t intend to. Instead they’re turned outward, toward us. It’s our character that’s being investigated."

Neil Gaiman, being less avant-garde but more direct: "Once upon a time is code for ‘I’m lying to you.’"

...and of course there's that one at the top from Kurt Vonnegut.

Here Are Some Other Ideas About Stories...

...from prominent RPG people influenced by GNS and the scene it created. They are of a quite different tenor:

-"But make-believe is how most cultures, including mine, teach morality to youth. Stories about what to do and not to do and how doing good things gets you good results."

-"If someone tells you that your fucking around with stories they consider sacred hurts them, you can't call them a liar."(Someone defending the idea that the use of the golem in D&D is offensive to Jewish culture.)

-"Stories like this amplify what is often invisible in other games, the smaller stories, the ones you haven't heard before. The ones that focus on the people who maybe don't get the the spotlight, the popularity, their voices and stories heard. The stories that maybe aren't about violence, colonialism, and all that nonsense that is the basic language of tabletop games."

-"I would love to tell stories that make the people who agree with them feel strong and proud ... and which set the ground strategically such that any strong counter-story has to make the people who agree with it feel oppressed and shamed, even as they support the narrative itself."

-"It really does amaze me how many 'epic rpg stories' are only the result of a natural 1 or natural 20 (or the equivalent in another system) and not any inherent creativity from the players or GM. If you get a long chain of 1s or 20s, or the dice explode to a ridiculous degree, or something like that it's amusing, but "I rolled a [1 or 20] and the DM [said I shit myself/said my speech was so beautiful everyone stood up and clapped]" is pretty commonplace."

-"Any story-telling experience can contribute, constructively, to healing, because PTSD sufferers need to be able to tell our own stories to the world and, more importantly, to ourselves. As an accessible storytelling medium, RPGs can't be beat."

...are you noticing the difference?

Some Fact Claims

GNS Theory had three undeniable effects:

1. It helped people who were into what would be called indie narrativism find their joy and develop games that appealed to them

2. It caused many gamers to shift their critique of other game styles from “You want to kill ogres? Gross” to “Well I can see from this design you’re clearly interested in gamism, but you haven’t really explored what kind of play your game incentivizes or what it’s about”. (1)

3. It created an online network of indie game designers and online game gadflies (they appear in each others’ credits, Patreon each others’ projects and talk about hanging out at cons together) that has been, at least compared to analogous communities, unusually publicly critical of people and products outside of it and unusually publicly uncritical of people and products inside it.  (2)

Hypothesis (that is, an educated guess that I am not sure about): 

Despite GNS's obvious origins in the typical early Internet-Creative stew of left-leaning politics and activism and despite the fact that neither Ron Edwards nor many other successful narrative designers approved of- or could have anticipated it-, the way GNS stereotyped the “necessities” of play, and especially fetishized certain techniques as essential to drama and “story” and foregrounded morality as central to story both originated in- and contributed to- a certain nerdy, militantly middlebrow risk-prioritized-over-benefit brand of interpersonal and cultural conservatism, which made that scene vulnerable to the kinds of half-thought-out or outright bad-faith weaponized cultural and game criticism that characterize it now, especially in its relationship to “problematic content”.

I realize this is a stretch and that the argument for this hypothesis better be good. I also realize the data to prove this isn’t available to me yet and that it would be irresponsible to claim it as anything other than an educated guess that requires more investigation if anyone cares. This is a suspicion, not an accusation.

The point of all the quotes is that GNS helped spawn a subculture singularly obsessed with the most obvious functions of the most obvious kinds of stories-escapism, identifying with the main character, who gets to be the main character, didacticism, therapy--while, here at the beginning of the 21st century (and honestly starting well before Lajos Egri wrote his book) our greatest authors have for the most part concluded that stories are fucking suspicious and simply rewriting formulaic dramas with a few nouns and verbs replaced with nouns and verbs that we feel more ideologically comfortable with isn't enough. The very structure of the classical story is part of a problem of modern consciousness. 

This attitude in literature is consonant with what is often called postmodernism and now maybe even postpostmodernism. In literature, its avatars include: Nabokov, Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Kathy Acker, William S Burroughs, M John Harrison, Alan Moore, Octavia Butler, Godard, Cormac McCarthy, Angela Carter, David Lynch, Grant Morrison, David Foster Wallace, JG Ballard, and the other authors above.

Its tools include multiple discordant voices, indeterminacy, shattered or experimental dramatic structures, unreliable narrators, intentionally distracting formats, wild violations of genre tropes, nested layers of narrative, improvisation, collage, meanings you have to think to get and which can change, irony, and intentionally breaking the 4th wall. Which are pretty D&D things if you think about it.

What does Ron think of that?
I think most postmodernism is arrant garbage, so I'll say that a story is a fictional series of events which present a conflict and a resolution, with the emergent/resulting audience experience of "theme." [moral] I also think that stories concern a fairly limited range of possible conflicts, but the angles one might use for presentation, and the interactions among the range, make for quite a stunning array of individual examples or expressions of them. 
That was written 3 years after the original narrativism essay and Ron affirmed what he said there recently. Back then, he summarized his post in the following way:

"White Wolf games, and their spiritual children, produce behaviors in the people who play them that are not only socially dysfunctional, but downright harmful to people's ability to just tell a simple story."...I can quibble/clarify just a little, to point out that I think White Wolf games of the early-mid 1990s were the high-water mark of the damaging trend, not the originator. And that I'd say "enjoy and/or tell," not just "tell."

Why, in 2018 when the fate of the free world might depend on which news a Facebook robot decides to drop in front of us, or how many people voted because of a cartoon frog, or on Stormy fucking Daniels, would anyone want to tell or hear a simple story? And why would the ones who did think of themselves as more story-savvy than other people?

If stories can contribute to our survival it is first and foremost in recognizing complication--especially the complication of storytelling itself.

Along with death and taxes, chaos is inevitable. You will spend your entire life in a struggle against chaos, especially in creation: "Anything you build on a large scale or with intense passion invites chaos." Francis Ford Coppola said that one.

And none of the stories GNS exhorted people to tell (or the story about what stories were) prepared the small culty Indie RPG audience for chaos or complexity.

They did quite the opposite, encouraging a simplistic rhetoric about how STORIES MATTER which, with the pretension boiled away, were basically equivalent to "videogames cause violence" with a protective layer of vagueness and uncertainty inserted--incarnated in the Extremely Online use of "problematic" to hide a multitude of unprovable concerns which would shift subtly under their armor in response to prodding for evidence.

Edwards himself claims that White Wolf Games's rhetoric of "real roleplaying" did serious damage to the gaming community--but that's pre-internet so who knows? But with his own rhetoric we can actually track the spread of gibberish memes from messageboard to messageboard and from gadfly to designer and what it reveals is: the more influential GNS is in any give subcommunity, the more likely it is to uncritically "Yes. This:" any idea smiling properly and carrying the right subcultural passport--up to and including advertising the work of Forge game designers and the Forge-adjacent game designers harassing them on the same day, and decrying trolls whose products they themselves are pushing on their own sites.

This could be dismissed as the usual internet shitshow if it wasn't for the fact that nearly all these confusions begin with somebody post-GNS reaching out to tell the internet that somebody else's Stories were morally bad--generally to a feeding frenzy of shares and Likes. And everyone else but this crew does it less.

Edwards, in the same series of posts:

A brief list of the specific features, or telltales, of the damaged story-capacity.
- The person cannot distinguish between "hopping over a fence" and conflict, between "this guy meets that guy" and a decisive plot event, or between "dramatic close-up" and character decision-making
- The person cannot summarize any story in simple four-point structure (conflict, rising action, climax, conclusion) - they typically hare off into philosophical or technical interpretations, or remain stuck in narrating the first ten minutes of the story in detail
- The person will devote many hours (and can talk for many hours) to commenting on the details of the story's presentation, either feverishly supportive or feverishly dismissive, but entirely uncritically
Leaving aside the issue that all of those sound like descriptions of early David Foster Wallace or Jon Barth stories, let me try to match that not with "specific features, or telltales" but with a list of things story-parsing things post-GNS people disproportionately don't or can't do:

-Imagine wildly morally different scenarios that could all lead to the same event.

-Notice equivocation from a sympathetic narrator: that is, one word is being used in multiple ways or vaguely.

-Notice a double standard used by a sympathetic narrator.

-Avoid using received phrases uncritically.

-Acknowledge any parallel rhetoric being used by both a sympathetic and unsympathetic narrator.

-Notice and name most of the basic verbal propaganda techniques which standardized tests expect middle schoolers to recognize (bandwagon, testimonial, etc--except "emotional appeal") especially when used by a sympathetic narrator.

-Ignore tone.

-Acknowledge that two narrators--both sympathetic and sympathetic to each other--have mutually-exclusive stories or philosophies.

-Spontaneously bring up a not-genre, not-assigned-regularly-in-high-school piece of fiction they read. Especially a hard one.


Believe it or not, this late in the essay: I have no ill will toward the games or the players of them. I have only a suspicion that this rhetoric about how stories were simple-acting moral forces, in the context of the angry angry early internet, added and validated and solidified a tendency to point fingers at any story the fingerpointer didn't want to hear.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the creators of the most Paladins & Princesses style wish-fulfillment game then went on to massively botch their relationship to-, and investigation of- a sexual abuser they hired (3). I don't think it's a coincidence that the author of the most bland and poorly-written of the popular Indie games, who lashed out at games for being allegedly rapey then hid in a hole when pressed for clarification for "mental health reasons", went on to plow their advertising money into supporting a site that decried rape culture while harboring rapists. I don't think it's a coincidence that the people who were repeatedly told what they had in common was stories and that stories mattered and that stories were simple things turned out to be consistently gullible and panic-stricken in the face of any reality more complicated than "The person you like did a good thing" or "The person you don't like did a bad thing".

Meanwhile, gamers who either expected no truth at all from the chaotic stories they were inventing or who decided the meaning, if any, was achieved rather than received, managed to not do any of this. They, like anyone, could be bad, but they didn't consistently couple badness with a long-term deceptive and destructive rhetoric of their own goodness.  Is there a GNS fan reading and thinking "That's them not me!"? Then do something about it.

The Original Sin of gaming: equating chaos with evil, happened with the publication of OD&D, just after Vonnegut had written:
 Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. 
If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. 

But AD&D had that rectified by '77. Hell, even England had that figured out by '77. What happened to you?

(1) (Factual detail: I don’t know whether it contributed to 4e D&D’s hyperfocus on system-specific-tactical play but it undeniably contributed to the popular online defense of that design as “objectively good gamism”.)

(2) (Factual detail: Well-known game designers and community organizers in the indie scene declaim responsibility for it even to the point of repeatedly claiming there is no “scene” or “community” despite the fact they have easily-demonstrable economic and social ties going back almost twenty years and if one of them says something big and controversial online, the others inevitably know about it within 48 hours.)

(3) (Barely coherent samples of said chaos here)


Gary F said...

Can you talk a bit about how this eventually became about shifting narrative control from GM + Random to player controlled? And if that's the right way to play why is D&D so much more popular than PBtA?

Zak Sabbath said...

@Gary Furash

I think that's a canard.

1. More narrative control is helpful if you want the kind of morality-tale structure Edwards does

2. There's nothing at all here from me or Edwards about the "right way to play" that would pit pbta against D&D that way. They are meant to appeal to different desires.

3. Did you read it? It sounds like you didn't

Anonymous said...

Kudos. This is a great post. (That Robert Bohl snip seems pretty typical. You go against the collective and they lose their minds.) The Ouija Board lament always seemed like a way to explain away functional friendly gaming groups that the GNS crowd could never manage by explaining their enjoyment and cohesion as *dysfunction*, thus keeping followers assured they were the virtuous ROLEplayers not the primitive ROLLplayers. I'm glad the fad is mostly over.

Zak Sabbath said...


I think you are close to the mark BUT "roleplayers not rollplayers" is not a thing Edwards was into, at least not at this time --and that Ouijaboard description could, from his pov, just as much apply to "role" players, since Edwards felt that was Whtie Wolfs' fault (largely) .

That's why there's 3 categories: people who are doing it wrong, OTHER people who are doing it wrong, and narrativists.

Anonymous said...

That ending is fire by the way.

Verad Bellveil said...

How do you think the theory would have changed if Edwards' ideas of what constituted "true stories" were not pulled from Egri? If he hadn't written off postmodernism as "arrant nonsense," but all other things being equal, would GNS have maintained a similar structure, but with fundamentally different definitions to Narrativism, or would it be totally unrecognizable?

Further, do you think it would have had anywhere near as much an impact on indie-RPG design?

Unknown said...

With regard to this abbreviated quote,
"It really does amaze me how many 'epic rpg stories' are only the result of a natural 1 or natural 20 (or the equivalent in another system) and not any inherent creativity from the players or GM."
I've noticed that these tales (solely in my anecdotal evidence, I've never tried to get consensus from others) tend to be exaggerated anyway. I've listened to people tell tales of what happened in games I ran, claiming to have gotten a natural 1 that led to something ridiculous, when I remember them sitting there and considering a foolish course of action on the basis that it made sense for the character to act that way in the context they were in, and then rolling poorly on top of that. Like it's a bad idea to attack Baba Yaga's house with a scythe while it's trying to stomp on you, but rolling a 4 on the hit roll only made the situation look more silly, not actually become worse. These kind of tales tend to be, in my experience, the most prone to exaggeration, either from a desire to make them more immediately understandable, or simply because the result is easier to remember than the process that led to it.

Secondly, are those quotes being presented as extra reading material, or do you have a stance to take on them? I'm having some difficulty working it out, since the general thrust of your argument with regards to GNS-born theories is that they're missing an important point, I don't see any context there to indicate whether you're presenting them as just something to thing about, support for your points, or counter-points to be considered despite being born of GNS.
I don't like making the assumption that the writer is presenting something in a particular way, in case I'm misreading things, and because I personally feel that all of those quotes (under the heading "Here Are Some Other Ideas About Stories..." are somewhere between incomplete and plain wrong, I find myself assuming they're presented as examples of how GNS can mislead the reader into making bad assumptions about games. But then the incomplete ones make me second guess that assumption, so ... I don't know. I'd appreciate the clarification.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Kyle Traylor

I don't know. It's hard to imagine a version of the writer/game designer/game theorist I see here that would have preferred a theory of stories other than Egri's while still being the same guy, nor an audience receptive to our universe's Edwards that would have also been receptive to such a different idea. It's like asking if Timothy Leary had been into weightlifting instead of drugs


Regarding the tales: having filmed, watched and uploaded hours and hours of RPG footage (publicly available), I have to say I completely disagree. Pretty cool stuff happens on crits and fumbles. Maybe you've been at bad tables.

My position on the quotes from GNS acolytes in the essay is that they're not great. Examples of very Basic with a capital-B thinking about RPGs and stories. They are "somewhere between incomplete and plain wrong," but they are not so much "examples of how GNS can mislead the reader into making bad assumptions about games." as examples of how GNS either attracted or inspired such very Basic thinking--while encouraging people to think of that Basicness as highbrow.

My position on them in general, outside the essay, is: read what you like. If someone finds these views compelling and/or original then there probably isn't much I can say to them that is going to be of use.

Verad Bellveil said...

Fair enough. Some elements of the structure of the N portion of the theory seem to suggest they could be used, or could have been written, into a framework absent Egri's theories. Thoughts on this are unfocused as yet so I have nothing solid to offer there.

Separate question related to audience: do you think validation of certain moralizing tendencies is what they were looking for in specific? If Edwards did not produce GNS, would a similar theory have lead to a similar coalescence of the same people?

FM Geist said...

Things that still baffle me after the 4th rundown:
—the view of literature as moral instruction seems like an impoverished view of literature? Like, the concept of how storytelling works is less complicated than how Roland Barthes saw the storytelling of professional wrestling operating (in an era of more simplistic shorthand in wrestling which is also considered low brow entertainment).
—which brings me to “what are these people reading” (other than each other’s games)? I find it hard to swallow that they’ve read much? Given the whole literature of ambiguity and non-moral quandary goes back (in genre) *at least* to Aickman, Machen, Du Maurier, etc. & ambiguity, complication and reader interpretation have been big in literary circles for as long as I’ve been alive (unless you are Howard Bloom or one of his adherents).
—like even SocJus or whatever discussion *at this point* on fucking Tumblr has a more dynamic relation to the written word. Which is somewhat depressing from the standpoint that this is a *literary* enterprise and it *matters* somehow because it is *moral instruction* but even someone as committed to minimalist storytelling as Brecht would seriously question the didacticism of “here is a premise explored primarily through DM fiat because the rules funnel story & interpretation towards a particular outcome”?
—which (I am truly sorry I write so much) is just weird from my experience of having friends into this style of game because it feels like the ability to have any fun is premised on (1) agreeing with a fairly simple premise that structures the game and (2) playing with people you largely agree with? Which if this is supposed to be provoking insight seems like a pretty significant bug (although I feel like some aspects of this mentality see it as a feature: people who are “correct” play this game and get a proper outcome)?
—even charitably reading Edwards i feel incapable of articulating why I would *want* to play Narrative games because for all his praise: they seem hollow as fuck (but I also read & doing an intro to creative writing group exercise with mechanics to force a homogenous outcome feels wasteful since I could *just write something* instead).

Idk, like this flummoxes me?

WrongOnTheInternet said...

Just imagine if Edward's basis for stories was the joy of watching a clusterfuck unfold, instead of a morality play. D&D's already pretty good at the former, though.

Verad Bellveil said...

That is in theory the purpose of Fiasco, so it's not impossible for such things to appear in GNS. But it's possible that players disregard the clusterfuck element of the rules and play it for the didactic anyway.

Zak Sabbath said...

@kyle Traylor

" If Edwards did not produce GNS, would a similar theory have lead to a similar coalescence of the same people?"

I think there may have been less fuel on that fire--or they might not have met each other so quickly.

@FM Geist

1. Yes

2. Harry Potter

3. Yup

4. I think success here IS mainly centered around uptight people inventing game sthat appeal mostly to other uptight people

5. I think it is worth pointing out that many hollywood films that are good can be said to follow Egri's model (from a certain pov) and that may be the lens they see this through

FM Geist said...

Viz 5: yeah, I don’t think Egri’s model is valueless? I’ve just always seen RPGs as drawing heavily since Appendix N on pulp and genre which has plenty of stories that confirm to Egri’s model (good and bad) but also have a strong focus on challenges & outcomes than on personal growth & social values (and a lot of the more moralizing work—Heinlein & Goodkind spring to mind—tends towards the conservative, libertarian or reactionary viewpoints like idk Michael Moorcock diagnosed).

But viz 2: yeah if yr reading Harry Potter performative allyship is the most complex form of good you can envision since it promotes a world that is extremely black and white.

James said...

The very structure of the classical story is part of a problem of modern consciousness.

Now this is the essay I want to read.

Ghasthouse said...

Where did you find that cool "Old Age" story?

Zak Sabbath said...


Angela Carter

Unknown said...

Thanks for the clarification, it's been quite helpful on a second reading. With regards to the crit/fumble bit, I may have misspoke; I do believe that funny and/or awesome things happen because of crits and fumbles (I have a house rule that says if one of my players kills something with a crit, they get to describe the death, and if it's plausible or fun then it's fact. This has led to several dragon heads escaping catapult-inflicted bouldering with somehow-intact eyes to be sold, as well as general absurdity). I don't believe that every story found online that contains "and then I rolled a nat20/nat1" is factual, just purely due to people's memories and tendency to simplify or dramatise. The point of the paragraph though, was that perhaps the author of the quote is all too willing to believe that someone's simplified version of things is fact, which seems harder to swallow when the claim is read as "the creative response to the crit was caused solely by the crit", which seems to have been implied.

I just wanted to point out why I thought the author of the quote was wrong, but I suppose I should've written a draft rebuttal first.

Ghasthouse said...


josh said...

i wanna read the one about how like sometimes, when youre a chaotic neutral thief, you have to totally play it straight. be all upright and well behaved. why yes fauntelroy, i'll take two lumps. why yes i did here mrs weatherby's cat has gone missing. it's a rare moment but we must remain vigilant if we feel like it.

Patrick Mallah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kabo said...

Dear Zak,

I'd just like to congratulate you on a very good and clarifying set of essays. Except for the sociological and psychological observations towards the end, which I can't really speak to, it all struck me as more or less true, and as managing to put the finger on many of my own issues with the whole GNS structure, which I've been carrying with me for years without ever taking the time to articulate for myself the way you've done.

It has struck me that much of the indie rhetoric suggests a failure to see that a trad system is, in an important sense, not the game; and correlatively, that the GM is not a player. The GM is the game designer, the game is what she brings to the table, and she uses the system as a set of tools with which to design the game. Many indie designs are clearly geared toward identifying the game with the system, and reducing the role of the GM to that of co-player (or removing the GM role altogether); which is a valid design choice, of course, but clearly not the only way to view the GM/system/game relationship. Many enigmatic assertions about "adversarial GM" and the GM being "empowered to powergame" make sense in light of that assumption.

In other news: There's a weird bug in Blogger that makes it impossible for me to get past the "content warning" dialog on your posts without opening the link in a private browsing window. The problem could be on my end, but I've had the same problem on several devices. Thought I'd let you know.

Zak Sabbath said...

@kabo Thanks!