Fiction of Objectivity

In Storytelling and Journalism, the following comment came up:
Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanThe idea that "this is really how it happened" versus "this is how we say it happened".I don't believe that the former exists in any sense other than to disguise the second (at least when we're talking about people recording and telling history; it's not that I don't think that a real thing happened; I just think that editing happens when someone observes and reports, or even chooses to write something down.)However, the fiction of objectivity is a powerful thing, and making a system that appears that way seems to be what a good number of people want.I'm not sure that "A game play that plays along with the fiction of objectivity" is going to help anyone to understand, though.
I think it's an interesting point. As far as I know, no games claim to generate objective reality (though there are a few nods in Nephilim). However, nearly all games do make a claim about defining objectively what happened within the fictional setting. i.e. The results of the game mechanics don't tell us what someone said happened -- but rather what happened. RPGs in general lack a narrational voice within the fiction -- that's just as true for most story games as for most traditional RPGs.

Two possible exceptions I can think of are "The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and "A Thousand and One Nights". And even these are iffy in that there isn't really any sense that there isn't really any scope for addressing an unreliable narrator. I recall an interesting comment about one of the Spring 2004 Iron Game Chef entries -- "Snow Day! - or Fort Joey Must Fall!" that it was post-modern in the sense that it didn't tell you what actually happened. However, I never played it and don't remember it that well.

One approach would be a game like the Baron's or 1001 Nights which featured different stories about the same fictional events. It seems like an interesting challenge -- I don't think I'd be up for it any time soon, but I'd be curious about people who try it. There was one time I played in a long Theatrix variant campaign ("Immortal Tales") where we had a wrapper story that the PCs were meeting in the present to swap stories about different things that happened to them long ago. However, this was a thin layer over our rotating GM scheme, and we never addressed unreliable narration.


  • Daniel Wood's new Game Chef game, What Remains, is the most recent example of narrative voice that I can think of, though I'm not sure if he addresses this specifically. It's about re-creating the past in a way that may or may not be completely accurate. You can download it here.

    You're right though in, I think, the lack of games that address subjectivity in narrative, especially the subjectivity that causes player experiences of the same game events to differ. Now, a game that addressed THAT topic specifically would be really neat.
  • Yeah, this is an interesting point to consider.

    I actually wonder if this might be one of the big appeals of RPGs to lots of people -- unlike real life, where all you have is what you see and what people tell you, in an RPG you know exactly what actually did happen. It's right there on the page: a roll of 14 on the critical hit table means that the monster is skewered through the eye. There is no doubt in the development of the fiction.

    As a counterexample, I point at Sailing to Atlantis, in which "facts" about the characters and setting are highly fluid, and the game mechanics manipulate those facts, often to extremes.
  • A quick observation: I took Joshua's comment about "game play that plays along with the fiction of objectivity" as a way of saying that one way of distinguishing between thematic and "non-thematic" play is that the latter is invested in some concept of game-mechanical "realism," emulation, or verisimilitude, but that this is in and of itself a kind of thematic premise, committed to a particular model of how the world works that because it is necessarily incomplete cannot actually be "objective" in an absolute sense.

    But the notion of a game built around intersubjective inconsistencies is kind of neat: Rashomon, the game.
  • How We Met, from this year's Game Chef, is essentially the Rashomon version of Breaking the Ice.
  • This is important. We need to be able to break out of the "what happened, exactly" shell when we have to.

    The Polaris framings are specifically designed to destroy the idea that all things you're saying could be equally factually true.

  • In the category of "stuff which didn't make it into Bone White, Blood Red because I just plain ran out of time," this thread has some natterings from me about inconsistency.

    I don't really mean "Rashomon, the game" (something that Fred also asked about on that thread), but rather the idea that the game represents (simulates?) a story in the mythic sense rather than the historical sense, and thus inconsistencies either with the real world or even within the story will result.

    This is not only unavoidable in most games, but in this case, is wholly desirable, as it emulates the way in which inconsistencies occur within myths and legends.

    The specific inspiration for this stance is Native mythology, but it's also true in other mythologies which are primarily passed along orally rather than as written text.

    Once something is written, it becomes ... somewhat less mythological. It's fixed, it's words on paper, people can point to it and say "look, there it is!" and it becomes that much harder to interpret, reinterpret, retell, play out, mythologicize a story, especially if a certain form of the story becomes Definitive.

    I haven't fully developed this in the WRITTEN form of Bone White, Blood Red, but within the notion that floats around in my skull and sometimes expresses itself as electrons in a computer, inconsistency and the unreliable narrator (Spider Grandmother and the others) are a key part of the game. I didn't cover narration well -- or almost at all -- in the Game Chef write-up, and so understandably almost nobody but me is aware of this.

    Oh, also, the idea that writing and paper demythologicizes oral tradition is a big, big part of why Bone White, Blood Red doesn't use written character sheets, and I don't want players to take notes during the games.

    An ideal game of BWBR would be played just as (in the "flavor text") Spider Grandmother introduces it: no references to rulebooks or other printed artifacts; instead, you sit down and one person (playing the SGM role) tells you how to play and you start playing. The rules should be simple and easy enough that you never need to look at books or printed paper. (I may have failed in the GC '07 version to capture this type of simplicity.)

    The games we play in our youth are rarely learned through reading the rules. Did anyone here ever read the Monopoly rules before playing? Did you actually sit down with a book to learn to play dominoes? Nobody taught you how to play chess, you just read a Wikipedia page? If so, congrats, you're in the minority.

    And heck, most D&D players learn not by reading through the books from cover to cover, but by sitting at a table, not knowing what the hell they're doing, writing down whatever stats they're told to write, and rolling whichever dice are asked for.

    That's what I want BWBR to be like, but with even fewer written artifacts.

    Sorry, I seem to have gotten away from the topic of objectivity here.
  • edited May 2007
    Posted By: Bill_WhiteA quick observation: I took Joshua's comment about "game play that plays along with the fiction of objectivity" as a way of saying that one way of distinguishing between thematic and "non-thematic" play is that the latter is invested in some concept of game-mechanical "realism," emulation, or verisimilitude, but that this is in and of itself a kind of thematic premise, committed to a particular model of how the world works that because it is necessarily incomplete cannot actually be "objective" in an absolute sense.
    As far as I know, no games claim to be objective in an absolute sense. Actually, it's pretty common for RPGs to explicitly claim subjectivity -- i.e. that the rules are not objectively complete. However, even if they don't explicitly claim subjectivity, they almost never claim absolute objectivity.

    As for the division, I can see classing game systems into simulative (i.e. those that try to capture non-fiction sources like CORPS or Twilight 2000), emulative (i.e. games that emulate fictional sources like Toon, Feng Shui, and Primetime Adventures), original (i.e. defining their own tropes rather than explicitly emulating other sources), and abstract (i.e. The Pool, say). I don't see a difference in objectivity, though.
    Posted By: Ben LehmanThis is important. We need to be able to break out of the "what happened, exactly" shell when we have to.

    The Polaris framings are specifically designed to destroy the idea that all things you're saying could be equally factually true.
    You mean the framing of "Long ago..." and "But that all happened long ago, and now there are none who remember it?" Yeah, it's neat. I remember distinctly how one player said that it changed her view of how she approached the fiction. That is, she felt like she could more easily do bad things to her character knowing that she was "already" dead and gone.

    On the other hand, I don't see it as necessary. For example, I had a wrapper story for the Immortal Tales campaign, but I've done plenty of other campaigns before and since without an explicit narrational point-of-view (i.e. the omniscient third-person). It's never seemed especially important to me, though I've toyed with trying it again.
  • edited May 2007
    I love, love, love screwing around with inaccurate narrators, or narrators who have an incomplete view of things.

    I have only really used this a couple of times.

    Once, I had a scene in a Gotham City game take place entirely in flashback as CSI investigators pieced together the sequence of events in a gigantic fight scene. I intentionally had them describe the player characters as they saw them: supernatural, terrifying, mysterious, etc. It had a great feeling of giving props to the characters. It was really easy to get casual once you were "in the characters' skin", you slowly became less aware of the fact that a blank kabuki-style mask is so goddamn scary. Having NPCs point it out, exaggerate it, become affected by the "image" of the PCs (a big part of the setting) was terribly rad.

    Another time, I had some bad guys sitting around a table complaining about the player characters and describing their interactions with them. (This was blatantly stolen from the best Batman: Animated Series episode ever, in which several villains do this over a poker game.) When a bad guy well known for being a weedy wuss who hits like a 8 year old girl described his "roundhouse haymaker punch that nearly knocked that ninja bitch off her feet", I got laughs galore. Everyone knew that was absolutely NOT what happened. (Edit: The players' participation was that they were a part of the scene being described by the bad guy. I didn't really give them any direct guidance on how to be inaccurate, I just let them do the best they could - after all, someone could always 'correct' the narrator if need be.)

    I would love to see more techniques like this out there to use. I just got done reading 'Seven Types of Ambiguity' by Eliot Perlman and it sneaks the (first) inaccurate narrator up on you so well by making him more obviously flawed in other ways.
  • I'm designing an epistolary game that is specifically about subjective reality and filtering beliefs, and I'm finding it challenging to maintain that frame of thought: that nothing the characters write to each other is objectively true; that even their shared reality is merely the set of elements they agree to believe. The whole concept keeps slipping out of my grasp. This, despite my having written stories with unreliable narrators.

    So I get what Ben means about needing to break out of that shell. I mean, how the heck can I address the shell when I'm IN it?

    - Lee-Anne
  • Posted By: Diurnal LeeSo I get what Ben means about needing to break out of that shell. I mean, how the heck can I address the shell when I'm IN it?
    Cool. If you're trying to break out of that shell as the goal of your game, then obviously you need to break out of the shell in order to succeed at your goal.

    I was just trying to say that it's not wrong-bad-fun to not do this (i.e. just play in the traditional gaming stance of omniscient third-person narration by the players like The Pool or Dogs in the Vineyard or what have you).
  • John -- that's a really odd reading of my words.

    What I mean is "we need ways to break out of this shell so we can if we have to." Not "we need ways to break out of this shell necessarily otherwise we're personal and artistic failures."

  • Ben -
    Well, but why would we have to break out of it? It seems to me that it would be a neat thing to try as part of general experimentation. i.e. Have an idea and see what it gets you. Those are always good.

    Is there another reason to do this, though? That is, is there something that we expect would be achieved by having subjective narration? Are there goals that you think call for subjective narration?

    JD -
    I can't tell from your description -- Were those narrated scenes actually played out with the players, or were they just NPCs talking? If they were played out, can you comment about how they were played?
  • John, Bill's reading of that quote is, in fact, what I meant. The fact that most games claim that the rules aren't objectively complete doesn't mean that the rules aren't written as though they are.

    Now, keep in mind, I'm not convinced of the hollowness of Sim play that many others see. I think there's fun stuff in there. I think it's been poorly supported in just that way: "Here are rules that are the physics of the game world. Also, there's a guy who decides when physics apply." That won't construct a game world with an objective, scientific basis; it'll create a world with a mysterious and fickle prime mover. It's about as objective as Middle Earth, when the sky is red in the morning because there was a battle the night before. (Well, this time.)

    But outside of that, consider Under the Bed or PTA. In Under the Bed, the whole story is often a fever dream and all from the eyes of a single child, often necessarily so. In PTA, the impossible often happens because it's funny, scary, sexy, or otherwise emotionally charged. That's built right into the rules. The editorial process is central to the rules, not tacked on.

  • Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanJohn, Bill's reading of that quote is, in fact, what I meant. The fact that most games claim that the rules aren't objectively complete doesn't mean that the rules aren't written as though they are.Now, keep in mind, I'm not convinced of the hollowness of Sim play that many others see. I think there's fun stuff in there. I think it's been poorly supported in just that way: "Here are rules that are the physics of the game world. Also, there's a guy who decides when physics apply." That won't construct a game world with an objective, scientific basis; it'll create a world with a mysterious and fickle prime mover. It's about as objective as Middle Earth...
    Maybe this should be split into a "How best to support Sim" thread? I'm not sure. So you agree that the rules claim they aren't objectively complete, and you also agree that they match their claim -- i.e. they aren't in fact objectively complete in play. But you're suggesting that the designers are trying for objective completeness during the design process. They later admit its lack, but that effort causes problems in the final rules. Is that a fair phrasing?

    If so, given the match of claim and results, it seems like a separate thread. I'd prefer this thread to talk about objectivity and subjectivity in actual play.
  • John - They were played out. The NPCs talking were the 'frame' of the scene. I went and dug out my notes.

    So one start of a scene was:

    JDC says: "Skinny Mike, so named to distinguish him from Fat Mike, Mike the Mick, Mike the Kike, Mike the Wop, Nigger Mike, Pickaxe Mike, Icepick Mike, Cold Hands Mike, Mikey Doves, Sewer Mike, Big Mike, Little Mike, Mike the Priest, or Tuesday Mike, holds the icepack to his face. He says, 'Honest, padrone, I took every precaution when we were moving the drugs, there was no way anyone could have known...'

    Carmine Falcone, the untouchable crimelord of Gotham City, leans into the light and says, 'We already know how they found out.' His consigliere, Jimmy Gazzo, takes out a notebook and puts his hand on Skinny Mike's skinny shoulder and explains, 'Two nights ago our courier - Tony remember Tony, from the party at Valenzetti's last month?...Tony was coming back from dropping his kids off at his ex-wife's place....and all of a sudden he hears this THUMP. Like he ran something over...'"

    JDCorley changes his voice back to his normal GM voice and says: "Tony gets out of the car to see what it was he hit. He was always a dumb bastard. Tony is wearing a black coat, no tie, a nice shirt, some barbecue stains on it. His face is a little sunburnt. It was a day at the beach. He comes around to the front of the car. He's expecting a deer."

    I look at the players expectantly. One of them says, "I lie there crumpled up like I'm really hurt. In costume, with the cape thrown over me so he can't really get a good look yet." Another says, "I'm taking aim with the stun blaster." and a third says, "I'm watching from an alleyway." And the story of the ambush continues.

    Then I go back to the scene in the Roman's office and now it's Skinny Mike's turn to tell his story, but every time there's a hole or a contradiction or something where I can see the players are getting somewhat lost, Jimmy Gazzo jumps in to fill the gap, sometimes even with a new scene.

    Of course Skinny Mike really wants the Roman to think he's awesome and not a fuck-up that needs to be drowned in the bathtub. So he's really exaggerating how incredible the PCs feats are.

    I do remember I worked that into the combat system at one point.

    It was in a fight, a player playing a scythe-wielding Reaper-a-like rolled a botch (very hard to do in Adventure!), and I said (as if describing the result of the botch), "The scythe swung out in a big white curve, like lightning, and a half dozen guys go back. They might have even lost their arms. Nothing but screaming, and the guy just stands there silent...we never had a chance." and then I said, "Jimmy Gazzo says, 'Come on. That's not what happened.'" (Players laugh.) I don't think I ever actually described what the botch was!
  • Wow, JD. That's really cool.

    I've never done anything like that with the back-and-forth and the disconnect between dice rolled and description -- but now I'd like to try it. In the Immortal Tales game, we'd always start with the PCs talking in modern day about stuff -- then we'd go into flashback and jump back into the past, but once in the past we played it pretty straight. We'd flash-forward usually only at the end of the session, and then we'd have some commentary on the events. But none of that really grabbed me.

    What you describe sounds so much cooler.
  • JD, that's pretty neat.

  • Thanks. I wish that I had actually planned for that die-roll-description thing a little better, so I could have used it more. Really it was just a once or twice thing, I think it could have been devastatingly effective if I had had the guts to lock it onto the rails a little bit more.
  • It's not too late.

  • Well, the game was over nine months ago, so. :)
  • While about to fall asleep, I thought of those old Torg/Masterbook drama decks, and an application for helping with 'bad narration'. To be posted here soon.
  • edited June 2007
    The following is primarily an add-on for those old busted traditional games, you fancy hippies might be able to make a full game out of this stuff if you can stop doing bong hits off those giant hollow d12s you bought off the Interweb. 420 SMOEK EVARYDAY

    The first key to getting this to work is to draw attention to the narration. My simple method of doing this is...ta da....

    Have the game take place in the past tense.

    Instead of "I swing at him", say "I swung at him." or instead of "She says 'Unhand me!' and kicks her legs" say "She said 'Unhand me!' and kicked her legs".

    Now, you have to decide what kind of unreliable narrator you're going to have. My first is based on the Arabian Nights pseudo-Persia presented in the True20 book and is:

    The Far-Famed Tale

    A far-famed tale is one that everyone knows, but which everyone has heard differently, third-hand, from people who claim to know something about it from their cousin's barber's third wife's former divan fluffer.

    Everyone draws a card from the deck. At any point in the game, you can read what's on the card and gain the benefit at the bottom. When you're done you discard the card. You get a new card at the beginning of the next "chapter".

    Here are some sample cards.

    "You have overlooked a seemingly minor circumstance in your retelling, cousin..." A +2 circumstance bonus exists.

    "Your bias is unseemly, friend! The truth is..." Apply a -1 level penalty (as if level drained) to everyone on a "side". This should be taken into account when calculating advancement.

    "What you attribute to good fortune is actually the product of cleverness and guile!" A 'previously prepared' item, magical effect, or character enters the scene who makes the challenge trivially easy to overcome. The challenge does not count for advancement.

    "Don't gloss over the details - the situation was far more dire than you lead us to believe." Apply a +1 level bonus (as if recovering from being level drained) to one opponent. This should be taken into account when calculating advancement.

    "Don't exaggerate, come now!" Any single die roll, including die pools, is set to its average. (Round down.)

    "What? You cannot pass over such a remarkable event so casually!" Any single die roll or die pool is set to its maximum or minimum.

    " information is that this tableau did not occur where you state it did." The setting of the scene changes, including any circumstance bonuses.

    "No, no, no. This happened well before!" The scene is 'moved back' in time and actually occurred previous to a previously described scene. Continuity trouble SHOULD occur! That's what makes it fun!

    "Wait...don't skip ahead so far." This scene is 'moved forward' in time. The next scene should play out 'in between' the previously played scene and the scene currently being played. Continuity trouble SHOULD occur.

    "That's not how it went!" Reroll whatever just got rolled - including someone else's roll!

    "No, no, that's REALLY not how it went!" Start the scene over from scratch, but have things go a different way.

    "Imaginative, but you seem to have been misinformed on a detail..." Any item described is relpaced with any other item of the same type.

    "Outrageous lies! That person wasn't even there!" Any person in the scene (character or NPC) is replaced with someone else of the same level. Whoever they replace is somewhere else doing something else.

    "You overlook a crucial subtext, cousin!" The scene takes on romantic, political, sexual, familial, or financial undertones - a swordfight now accompanies a seduction, the fate of a kingdom teeters on the turn of a card...
  • I am completely going to steal this for flashbacks for my vampire game. You are the awesome, JD.
  • edited June 2007
    Another kind of unreliable narrator is the kind with limited information. Remember the Infocom game Suspended?

    If not, go and play it now. Did you ever play Portal? Well, go and read it now

    Transit Query Terminated

    In this game, which can be set anywhere from GURPS Transhuman Space to Cyberpunk 2020, the narrator is an artifically intelligent storytelling program. (Portal's was named Heuristic Overview of Matrix Expansion and Reconstruction, or HOMER). Although it has access to exceptional information, it isn't perfect. Fortunately it has several expert systems whose purpose is to assist it in assembling a correct narrative.

    Also stealing acronyms from Suspended...

    IRIS has access to visual records - still photographs, surveillance cameras, spy satellites, nanosensors, etc.
    AUDA has access to audio records - voiceprints, surveillance devices, recorded testimony, and so on
    WHIZ has access to computer records - hacking traces, files, documents hidden and public
    SENSA has access to electromagnetic records - broadcasts, public and private, music, holograms, secret military signals and the latest teenybopper music
    POET has access to diagnostic information, the internal functioning of machines and systems, but its primary function in assembling narratives is to "feel" the situation, a pun unintentionally introduced into its functioning over many cycles of self-diagnostics

    If there are more than five players, subdivide or make up more systems.

    Each of these systems can identify a particular kind of error based on the data they have.

    Minor: "The narrative does not quite match my data. Please revise." A small change in circumstances, but the situation is very similar to how it was described.
    Major: "A major discontinuity has occurred. Reset narrative to last correct position." A re-imagining of the scene you just played.
    Catastrophic: "A catastrophic error has occurred. Reliability of future narrative below standards. Adjust." The scene just played remains - but everyone knows it's not true.

    Minor errors cost 1 point to state, major errors cost 2, catastrophic errors cost 3. Everyone gets a certain number of points to spend over a chapter. Players can replenish points by speaking up when the story crosses the "field" of their AI. When the GM mentions a broadcast, SENSA's player can state, "That broadcast was archived. Confirmed." and get a point back.

    These are the types of errors available:

    Misidentification: Something or someone described in the scene was actually something or someone else.
    Omission: Something or someone is in the scene that wasn't described.
    Inclusion: Someone or something is not in the scene that was described.
    Conclusory: The narrative AI is very good at figuring out what happened in the holes in the AI's knowledge - a conclusory error negates the conclusion without negating any of the action. "He could not have been killed - neither his body nor sufficient blood to indicate a fatal world was found by police sensors."
    Action: Something happened differently in the scene than it was described as happening.

    More errors and programs and ideas are welcome.
  • There's a couple of more unformed ideas that need some kicking, but I figure I should mention them:

    "Cross examination is the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth." - Wigmore

    This one comes from my personal experience and from Francis Wellman's "The Art of Cross-Examination". There is no greater professional joy for me than cross-examining someone who is lying or crazy. However, it's fairly rare. In this game, the GM/narrator would be a witness and the other players would occasionally be able to corner them and get them to change their story. Say, with 20 points to start, a player could:

    Spend 5 and catch the narrator in a blatant lie - something they said is flat not true and they know what actually happened.
    Spend 4 and catch the narrator in a mistake - they thought they saw something or heard something but they got it wrong because of the circumstances.
    Spend 3 and catch the narrator repeating trustworthy information they didn't personally verify - Although they're a little off because of the "telephone effect", the narration gets the basic idea.
    Spend 2 and catch the narrator "filling in the blanks" on something they don't know. This one could be tricky. Maybe for the purpose of the narrative, the element happened as narrated...but later it could be connected to a lie or a mistake?
    Spend 1 and catch the narrator giving a biased or exaggerated statement - it happened basically as the narrator said but they exaggerated for their own benefit or the detriment of an enemy...

    And finally:

    Crom the Exaggerator!

    In this one, the narrator's biases would literally be displayed for everyone to see. Each PC and NPC would get a card, along with a set of literary adjectives (mundane, romantic, mysterious, paranormal, violent, suspenseful, sexual, pathetic, serene, comedic, etc.) The narrator would draw a character card and an adjective card and place them face up. All action in the game would be described in favor of those two cards. However, if the player somehow caught the narrator or forced the narrator to expend some resource, they could make the narrator change out the card and continue the game from another point of view?
  • Hmm, I thought these suggestions would set off a vast array of finger-pointing and mockery that JDCorley, MASTAR ROLEYPLAYAR had crossed over to the side he calls "dead" and actually designed game mechanics. I guess my advocacy of lying, manipulation and ignorance is too weaselly for you virtuous truth-loving morality-play hippies.

    Come on, join the fun. Throw in your own 'unreliable narration' ideas and mechanics. Maybe we can get a full game together based on this stuff.
  • Kind of at an angle, but (inspired by this and similar discussions) the setting material I'm currently working on deliberately leaves a lot of questions open about some aspects of the setting by reporting wild rumours rather than saying "This is how things actually are":
    It is difficult to pin down any word on the Underground Railroad. Most dwarves refuse to discuss it, or deny that it exists (and then refuse to discuss it). Gnomes won't talk about it to anyone they don't trust or anywhere they might be overheard. Rumours about it are rife: It's connected to organized crime; it smuggles disaffected gnomes out of dwarf holds; it's a terrorist organization affiliated with the darkly hinted-at gnome resistance movement; it's based in the mysterious Plateau; it has agents everywhere; it's just a few wild young humans; it's a cult with dark and bloody practices; it's a cult with wild and orgiastic practices; it has secret support from the Earthist mystics, the Lunar-Asterists, the mages of Turfrae, the Open School Mages, the king/queen of Hizmay, the king/queen of Riversend, the king (and/or the talking cats) of Joria, the Duke/Duchess of Salvanus, or the Protector of Salvanusmouth; the same list of people (excluding the cats) is working to bring it down; it practices assassination; it practices charity by stealth; my cousin's wife's brother said that his friend said a man he met in a pub said…
    Any, but presumably not all, of these rumours may be true, or partially true.
    I've bookmarked this thread and am watching with much interest.
  • edited June 2007
    That's a cool segue into worldbuilding...if a game was investigative of an intentionally produced hole in the setting, unreliable narration could be used in order to establish its "reality", so to speak. Or at least to figure out if it was shaped like an elephant...
  • The grand-daddy of subjective games has to be Tom Back's creation Primeval - which, since he never published it, very few people have ever seen. But here's how it works, generally. When a conflict comes up, and these are generally rare, only a couple a session, each player takes a turn telling the story of how his character overcame the conflict, with the other PCs in supporting roles in the story. Then the GM selects the one he think was the best storytelling, and that one is the one that is essentially entered into the mythological record. If your character doesn't get a win here or there, eventually he fades away entirely, lost to history.

    As for speaking in the past tense, that would be Puppetland. "And then little Kippi and Fifi went into the forest...."

    This is one of those subjects that can give you a brain-ache. If we're all aware that what's being created is a fiction, created from our own subjective narratives, how can that fiction be claimed to be objective? Well, it's true, however, that sometimes this is, in fact, the objective of the narrations given.

    In fact what Lumpley says is that the role of system is to have a method by which we agree how to establish what is going on in the game. From this POV, I don't think that objective/subjective applies. The agreement is that we will treat the narrative as incontrovertible fact, so as to keep the ongoing narrative sensible and interesting. Note that there have been a couple of games like Court of the Nine Chambers which are somewhat "post modern" here in that, in fact, more than one interpretation of what's happening in the game is not only allowed, but encouraged in play. Then there are games like, IIRC, Psychosis where what's established is merely each character's perceptions of a theoretically objective world filtered through the screen of the undiagnosed insanity from which each character suffers.

    But, even in these odd cases, there's still an agreement that the multiple POVs are what's going on, and you still work from them in some way, shape or form. That's what makes RPG play not just some people sitting around talking about whatever, but a single activity which has it's own specific sorts of rewards. This is what Vincent calls the "Shared Imagined Space." Questions to how well it's shared, or a space, or whatever aside, it's the "what we're agreeing to play on about, and in reaction to."

    Now, the question of whether or not what's being agreed to is a subjective vision of something or not is then a secondary consideration. We may establish that a psychosis character is seeing a snake. Whether or not there is some objective background reality that the GM knows where that snake is just a TV cable. So the agreed to information can be objective or subjective, and most games don't really specify which, allowing one to do both.

    In fact, in most traditional games you get quite a bit of both. For instance, you're in a dungeon, and the GM says, "You see some greenish looking muck up ahead on the floor." Well, the "objective truth" that the GM intends to reveal is that it's not Green Slime, but a flamable pool of a napalm-like substance.

    What's interesting here is that part of the challenge involved for the players is in discerning what the "objective reality" is that the GM knows from the subjective facts established by the GM's narration about the character's perceptions. In fact, this duality seems to be most of play. The GM describes things in terms of how they appear to the characters, and they always have to decide whether or not to trust their perceptions. This goes for everything in a magical world, where things could be illusion spells. To say nothing of the real world where our perceptions are, in fact, subject to being misleading. "Did you say she was a Brazen Strumpet?" "No, I said the Blazons Trumpet."

    Still other things are established as objective fact. For instance, a GM might use a technique where he does a cut-scene showing the villain far away preparing his evil plot. This can't be a subjective character perception, because it's being delivered to the player, and not the character.

    This is a somewhat key phenomenon. Usually if something is told to the player alone, something his character does not know, it's meant to be a description of some objective truth in the world. "Well, your character doesn't know this, but, in fact, Lord Malthus is a thoroughly evil bastard who likes eviscerating innocents brought to his palace." Why "lie" to the player, or create a false impression this way?

    Whereas in order to get the feeling that we "are" the character, that narration is often passed to us as subjective character perception, so that the character doesn't have any more objective a picture of what's going on than we would in real life.

    This is similar to how in fiction Point of View changes. If it's non-omniscient, it's generally subjective. If it's omnicient, it's objective (in fact is this the definition of these terms)?

    I'm not saying that this has to be the way things are done. Merely that it's how I think things are mostly done today.

    What's interesting is that "hippie" indie gamers tend a bit more towards the omniscient sort of description of actions. I think this is because these are less vague, and it makes player intention more clear. This leads to lots of authorial play.

    But, at the same time, I think there's a movement to the idea that there is no objective reality at all. Rather that it's accepted that the world is being made up on the fly in order to serve the dramatic needs of the players. And, further, so as to remove any problem of guidance that objective understanding of the world might bring.

    For instance, I run into this with Glorantha from time to time, and it's gods. There are rules in Hero Quest that seem to intend to inform the players that one objective description of Gloranthan reality is correct, and other's not (at least as a baseline, since Your Glorantha May Vary). Like the fact that Orlanth is a god, and not Saint Orlanth, as one culture suggests. This is codified into the mechanics. The problem is that, as the players know about the mechanics, they are informed about the situation to a far greater extent than any character could possibly be. For the Orlanthi character, there can be doubt. But if we use the rule in the book there can be no doubt for the player as to who is right, and who is wrong.

    That, to me, creates an odd dichotomy between player and character. Oh, I'm all for recognizing that player and character are separate. But why have a system that motivates in a particular direction on what is an interesting issue of subjectivity in play, if you assume there is no objective truth here? To whit, I don't penalize players mechanically in this case. (Though, interestingly, I'm not nearly as much against penalizing the character for something like this).

  • Continuing...

    Going back to what I said about authorial play (and "no-myth" play, meaning that where nothing is considered pre-established), there's a related issue here. And that's what I sometimes call the "hardness" of the game world. With No Myth play, the player can't feel that he is "existing" in the world in question, because there is no illusion that it exists. For that illusion to exist, there has to be an unseen objective level that everyone agrees exists, even if it's not seen by the players. It's a fiction, of course, this reality has to be created from somewhere at some point. But if it's created ahead of time (or seems to be by a GM who creates stuff so well on the fly that it may have been created before hand), then there's a sense of pre-existence, of "hardness" that says that it's something with a reality that's being discovered by the players as they play. Just as in real life, we feel that there is existence to everything in the universe, even if we don't come across it. You go left, and you see what is to the left... not something made up on the spot to carry the story forward.

    The question of the value of this unseen underlying reality is one of the largest issues between varying styles of play. Players of the "soft" style may find it hard to get engaged in some sort of "immersive" way. Players of the "hard" style may find that there's a lot of pointless discovery that doesn't lead to interesting chances to create plot. So at what level any objectivity occurs, or who is responsible for it, and how, are all critical to play.

  • edited June 2007
    Great "big picture" post, Mike. I hadn't thought about how different the result of play would be from a standard game in my above examples.

    If we play a game about the "Algerian Incident of 1918" told from the perspective of the gangster, then the detective, then the alien spacecraft pilot, then the shepherd, we may not ever know if a specific detail is accurate, exaggerated, or just flat wrong. This is in great contrast to the mass of roleplaying, both traditional GM-style and player-narrational.

    The fact is the "shared imagined space" (among the most awkward and near-worthless phraseologies ever constructed by the hand of man), is not the same as the setting of the action of the game. The shared imagined space contains the different narrators and their different points of view - perhaps disembodied, perhaps in a specific place (an interrogation room? a courtroom? a deathbed?) - but the action itself is just something that they're telling us, no different from if an NPC says "the key to the dungeon is hidden under the welcome mat" - it's just a point of view. The difference is, nobody gets to go and look under the mat. (Or at least not in the ideas I did above...more thoughts?)

    Some discussion of "the chorus" in another thread sparked some more thoughts on the role of narration in story games. (That other thread turned out to have nothing to do with my thoughts...)

    Here I am thinking of the Victorian narrator of Dickens and Hugo. Take for example the opening 'stave' of "A Christmas Carol":

    "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

    Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

    Who is talking in this piece of narration? Certainly not any of the characters. Nor, exactly, is it God, or even Charles Dickens. The narrator is hardly omniscient, yet he knows far more than the characters might.

    And what, factually, is set up in these paragraphs (and the two that follow) - basically nothing but this:

    1. Scrooge had a partner, Marley.
    2. Marley is dead.

    What is the rest of it? Well, there's dark humor, yes - establishing a tone and so on. But throughout the piece (and indeed throughout Dickens' writing), there is a point of view. By that, I mean the narration passes judgment upon the characters' actions, beliefs and identities in various ways, approving here, disapproving there, uncertain over there, and cagey over here.

    The Greek chorus from ancient theater often fulfilled a similar function: they told the audience not just facts about what was going on, but passed moral judgment on the characters (and sometimes on the audience, going so far as to describe how an ideal audience would react to the action of the play) and even interacted with the characters.

    From Oedipus The King:

    "Oedipus: I, Oedipus, who nothing knew, and slew her,
    With mine own counsel winning, all untaught
    By flight of birds. And now thou wouldst expel me,
    And think’st to take thy stand by Creon’s throne.
    But, as I think, both thou and he that plans
    With thee, will to your cost attack my fame;
    And but that thou stand’st there all old and weak,
    Thou shouldst be taught what kind of plans are thine.

    CHORUS: Far as we dare to measure, both his words
    And thine, O Å’dipus, in wrath are said..."

    What am I getting at?

    Well, most of the time when a GM in a traditional game is describing something, it's factual, it's based in the situation and action of the setting and characters. But what if there was a point of view to a game? Another player who was designated to supplement narration in some way - perhaps in a very specific way, to reinforce a particular point of view. Sometimes the point of view might not even be one that the players agree with.

    There is probably more to this than I've put here, but here are the thoughts I've identified about the "chorus" narration function:

    1 - It comments on the factual action
    2 - It makes judgments, based on some kind of social, political, religious or moral point of view
    3 - It is not the same as setting up tone or "color"

    More ideas?
  • You could call this the "voiceover" (since "narrator" would be potentially confusing, given other terminology that's around).

    It's a bit like the role of the Prologue in some old dramas (Romeo and Juliet, for one), which tells you what the setup is and what the play is "about". Except the voiceover continues throughout.

    You could use the voiceover to foreshadow:

    "Little did he know that the Forces of Good were in the next room. And they were armed."

    "If only she had realized that she would need that later..."

    You could use it, as we've talked about, to undermine the characters' interpretations of their own actions:

    "At least, that was how Ralph justified his actions to himself, but really, he had been out for the main chance."

    You could use it to bring out significance of which the characters are unaware:

    "But what seemed to be a trivial action of helping an old lady across the street was, in fact, Jeff's salvation."

    I'm sure others can think of better examples, I'm just babbling off the cuff here.
  • Babbling or no, you've nailed exactly what I was trying to aim for.

    The "Little did they know" thing is actually a very specific and therefore a very good example.

    There are future "little did they know"s - an action just taken has different significance because of what is going to happen in the future. (Hey, is it deprotagonization to reduce the significance instead of increasing it? "Little did he know that the archfiend he had spent years hunting was the least of his worries...")

    There are past "little did they know"s - an action just taken has different significance because of something not previously known that happened in the past.

    There are character-based "little did they know"s - an action just taken has different significance to one character than to another.
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