Making a GM Voice: Narration and story telling styles

edited July 2008 in Story Games
Ever since JDCorley's Star Wars by way of Arrested Development (an unreliable, contradicting narrator), I've been gripped with the idea of other ways to do narration that's not the typical "GM describes stuff in the present tense, Players do the same." But that seems to really miss out on the potential. If you are running a game where there's a person called something like a GM with narrative authority, I think we are falling short if that authority is essentially just used to describe the world. Director's have their vision. And yet, like RPGs, they aren't the sole creators (usually), in fact most often they didn't even write the thing, much less act it out. So, if authors and directors can bring in a style and voice, why not GMs? To stick to one method would be like having every novelist write like Stephen King and every director work like Steven Speilburg.

Some ideas for styles:
  • Arrested Narration - unreliable and contradictory to actions and dialog, turning dramatic irony up to 11.
  • How Fred Savage Met Your Mother - a character narrates from a point of view of experience, long after the events are over, with ample nostalgia, regret, and sentimentality.
  • Historical Professor (inspired by World War Z) - events are presented as interpretations of uncovered artifacts, documents, or other evidence (academic or theory based bias optional).
  • Epic Veda - inspired by John Wick talking about the primary sources for the ven in Houses of the Blooded. Homer, Beowolf, Middle English poetry, whatever your style of preference. Lofty language, repeated phrases, and if your good enough a particular cadence or even rhyming.
  • The Stan Lee Cameo - Describing scenes only as still panels, anything not visual is said as if it were written in a box on the panel.
  • The Tarantino Method - Scenes and events structured to build to a climax, regardless of the chronology (this is sort of an ur-style that could be combined with another, I think).
  • Hard Boiled - That well known Chandler style of narration now required for every Private Investigator license. Although like any first person narrative, this would be tricky with a PC as the narrator, and might need to be an observing NPC (but who? That's the tricky part).
  • The Faulkner-Joyce Gambit - Stream of consciousness, poetic, but PCs speak and act concretely. Would this even work? I'd love to try.
What else might work? Or better yet, have you tried something like this and how did it go?

Comments

  • Oy. Most of these are darned tricky to pull off extemporaneously, I'd think. But worth exploring, for sure.

    Notable that Inspectres is a pioneer again, with players shifting into a retrospective narration method in Confessionals.
  • Really? The epic, and stream of consciousness ones are the only ones that seem really tricky, and only because those are really trickly styles to do right. Hard Boiled is tricky, like any 1st person one would be, if the "1st person" is a PC anyway (but solutions can be worked out with the group). But the others are really just sticking to a particular style. I've done the comic book one running With Great Power... (and that's inspired partly from the use of thought bubbles and discussion of painting panels from the book). The rest seem pretty easy.

    Confessionals is a good one. Does it do it in a Reality TV show emulation? Something where the characters talk directly to the audience about what they are thinking is a great one.
  • unreliable narrator sounds like wicked fun
  • My comment comes mainly from the structural problem that retrospective or omniscient narration relies on a knowledge of the story-as-a-whole. Poetic voice does, too, in many cases, because the devices of repetition and reference that make it work only make sense within the context of a larger work. You can do things around that, but it's probably going to be tricky to avoid excessive constraint of future play.

    Of course, if you toss out sequential storytelling, you're probably okay, but that has its own complications.
  • Posted By: Mark WMy comment comes mainly from the structural problem that retrospective or omniscient narration relies on a knowledge of the story-as-a-whole.
    This is one of the areas where GM-runs-the-world excels - you may not know the story as a whole, but you can hit within the second ring around the bullseye pretty reasonably if you keep your eyes open.

    How about:

    Shaggy Dog story - Keep exaggerating until someone calls bullshit. (What would happen then?)
    Folksy Tale Of The Ole West (or whatever) - You know it's the narrator talking when it's in an accent

    A variation of the historian is the historian-with-an-axe-to-grind, which is kind of what my Star Warsian guy was, he depicted the PCs as being heroic and decent and the NPCs as being vile and awful, but there were times when the players were able to question both of those fruitfully.
  • Folksy Tale of the Ole West worked perfectly in The Big Lebowski, even though the story definitively wasn't a western.

    The Comic Book Stills style is always awesome. When we played Mythender at Go Play NW, the one thing that made it work for me was that I was thinking in terms of a comic book. If it hadn't been for that visual and stylistic signature, if I'd been picturing instead a movie or a radio play or whatever, it would have broken.

    As a comic though, the norse barbarian with no lips and a fairie imprisoned in his sword worked perfectly. My violinist bursting from his clay coffin to hover mid-air, swathed in holy light, as God himself resurrected him to do further battle against the Wurm... it just made sense. It was the final piece to my origin story.

    As anything but a comic, that would have broken my ability to "buy in", because it was just too much.
  • Cool.

    I like the idea of a noir detective game where one player describes the world and circumstances, surroundings, events, etc, one player portrays secondary characters, the third plays the main character (the detective), and the fourth narrates a constant voiceover (as the detective, looking back on the story).

    It would be fun to have disagreements between the main character and his voiceover.

    Player A: "OK, I'll go for it. We have a deal! I hand the thug the money."
    Player B: "Little did I realize, being in the folly of my youth, what a stupid thing I was doing..."
  • I tried to do unreliable narration in a LARP once.

    It works best if you make sure that the players all know, from the beginning, what the narrators' agendas are. You practically have to post signs like "wants your gold" or "probably killed Mr. Body herself."
  • Jason (Corley),

    How did you accomplish the unreliable narrator thing in your game? Were there specific devices/tricks/phrases you used to create that vibe?

    What were the challenges you had to face because you chose to do that?
  • edited July 2008
    First of all, I gave the narrator a particular character voice (self-important, long-winded, hi-falutin' language, gets high-pitched when angry). I didn't use it all the time. Sometimes the purpose of narration is to get some facts across. The players have to be able to accept the facts I'm giving them at least for the reality of the story. If I say in a non-narrator voice that there are 3 stormtroopers in the room, it's not a dead lock guarantee that there are 3 stormtroopers in the room, but it means that the players can count on my narrator believing that there are 3 stormtroopers in the room and telling the story as if there were.

    Another tactic I used was to murder the entire party in the first session, and then amend it. "And so it was they were all blown to smithereens. Or so we were led to believe. However, I actually think that they survived. Certain evidence has come to my attention that things went very differently. For you see, there was a third ship in the system. Recall their arrival in the system..." and replaying the whole scene.

    I also did a "cut scene" session in which the narrator was describing a formative episode in the career of two of the villains - passed out NPC sheets and treated them the same way as I did the regular player characters.

    I had the narrator (in his own voice) make exaggerated conclusions from the facts which we had just played through. That way the players could grin and laugh at him, and know not everything he said was completely true.

    I had him comment disparagingly about some of the conversations people were having. "She said this, perhaps forgetting that blah blah blah blah." I did this to show that the player characters were separate from him, he didn't have control over what they "had done" in any way, they were independent actors.

    *ponder*

    The only thing that was maybe a bit too ambitious for this project was that I used flashbacks. Now, I've used flashbacks for many years. It's no big deal. However, when you have a narrator who is describing the events of the game as if they've already happened, you have an inherent flashback (flash forward?) already built into the structure of the game.

    So the "real" timeline of the game might be:

    1. Characters join Rebel Alliance
    2. Characters have dashing adventures.
    3. Characters are ambushed after Empire falls.
    4. Narrator researches ambush of characters, adventures.
    5. Characters have exciting adventures.
    6. Narrator tells a New Republic committee about his findings.

    A "normal" game with your standard omniscient, non-character narrator would go:

    1, 2, 3, 5

    A game with flashbacks might go:

    3, 1, 2, 5

    But because I used "flashbacks" in the telling of the story, and didn't tell the players how the narrator knew what he know, it went like this:

    6, 3, 6, 1, 6, 2, 6, 5

    For example, at one point in the game, a player pointed out that:

    In the "flashbacks", the characters were on Hoth just before the events of Empire Strikes Back
    In the "present day", they were plotting to get out of a Hutt-run private prison
    And in the narrator's timeline, not only was he talking to the committee, but "something else was happening too", in other words, in the narrators remarks, he was describing things that had not yet happened in the PCs "present day"

    This was three timelines and very hard to keep track of.

    If I had gone straight through on the PC's timeline I think it might have been better.

    Still, as it was, I had a whole hell of a lot of fun with it.
  • edited July 2008
    Posted By: JDCorleyThis is one of the areas where GM-runs-the-world excels - you may not know the story as a whole, but you can hit within the second ring around the bullseye pretty reasonably if you keep your eyes open.
    Yes, exactly. It's precisely because the GM-runs-the-world that I started brainstorming more ways to do it (although Paul T's idea sounds awesome, it does give two players very non-traditional roles, which may or may not work for them in games where the GM holds the primary authority - though it actually sounds like a good idea for a Polaris mod).
    Posted By: JDCorleyShaggy Dog story - Keep exaggerating until someone calls bullshit. (What would happen then?)
    Folksy Tale Of The Ole West (or whatever) - You know it's the narrator talking when it's in an accent
    At first I thought you meant the Disney movie, but calling bullshit didn't sound right. Wikipedia saved me from that mistake. Risky (don't want to defuse the climax), but sounds like a fun style to try.

    Actually, it makes me think combining the two might be good. If someone calls bullshit in the Folksy Shaggy Dog, switch narrators. Turns out, it's a story being recounted around the camp fire. "Naw, that ain't how it went at all...."

    Which makes me think of broad ways of telling stories. Who's telling the story, and why? Each answer seems to produce its own style.

    Princess Bride, anyone? We have a parent (or other respected relative) reading a bedtime story. The kid could be the players collectively.
    Big Lebowski was a good call from Joe. A cowboy (or other sterotypical storytelling type) in the characters' hang out place who knows them personally.
    There's also:
    Scarey After S'mores - Campfire ghost story
    This is my Homework - A kid reading a story in front of class (or even doing a book report)
    Courtly Presentation - A bard before royalty
    Rock Opera - Only if you are musically inclined, or perhaps if your players will put up with bad ad-libbed lyrics (I think mine would).
    Under your Window, telling a Tale - A man impressing a woman (or vice versa) with a story
    Verbal Recount - A witness (or even series of witnesses) reporting events to a police officer.

    Also though of:
    Welcome to Grover's Corners - A completely self aware narrator who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience (players) directly. Although, it would have to be a "character" otherwise you end up with what the GM does anyway.
  • edited July 2008
    Can't believe I forgot to post this earlier thread:

    Fiction of Objectivity, includes the story of my first ever unreliable narrator, in a Gotham City game. The purpose there was to show the players how the superstitious and cowardly thugs saw the player characters.
  • edited July 2008
    Posted By: Z-Dogunreliable narrator sounds like wicked fun
    How about this one: the player roll the die; a 6, and smiles. The narrator looks at the die, and dryly tells him: "Ah, you rolled a 2. You miss the target"!

    I did this in a game back in 1991: all die-rolls where pre-generated. The players still rolled the dice, normal fashion, but I then told them what the result was from my hidden list. Notched the numbers off as the play proceeded. The list was done by rolling the dice beforehand. No system to it. Freaked the players bigtime!

    Believe I've been an unreliable narrator all my life ;-)
  • Tomas -- wow, that's like, Calvinist gaming or something. I'd have to *really* trust the GM in order to be willing to try that, but it sounds very interesting.

    Matt
  • edited July 2008
    We were 4 gm's doing it at a convention (using the same list, in fairness). One of us had players so worked up about it he had to give in and let their dice count at face value. For the rest of us it was a great experience in "verfremdung". The players were baffled and mystified. None of us knew the players from before.

    The game was Orianna, a forerunner to my FRPG Fabula (published 1999).
  • edited July 2008
    Another one, with Fabula. In 2003 I made a RPG-tournament on witches called Eburanja (named after a living castle). In that tournament we used something called "the impressionistic method". It was fairly simple: we the GMs would set a scene and play it as normal, but at some point before the conclusion of any conflict we would cut to a new scene, at a inn or back home, the same night or the day after. The characters where gathered in safe surroundings, discussing the "outcome" of the conflict (the players had to imagine an outcome and make it up during the conversation).

    This method made for some very strange and sometimes beautiful scenes. The players (once more strangers at a convention) were baffled and confused at first, but they grew into it quite fast. Some of them had the game of their life.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyFiction of Objectivity, includes the story of my first ever unreliable narrator, in a Gotham City game. The purpose there was to show the players how the superstitious and cowardly thugs saw the player characters.
    Great stuff in that thread for this. The Gotham one reminds me of general propaganda. From a bragging thug to the inspirational speech that comprises 300. Also the inexplicable first person of Christmas Carol. Thanks for linking that! The quote that starts it from Joshua really opens up a cool way of think about it, and part of what I want to do. Running games in the "this is how we say it happened" style instead of "this is really how it happened".
    Posted By: Tomas HVMHow about this one: the player roll the die; a 6, and smiles. The narrator looks at the die, and dryly tells him: "Ah, you rolled a 2. You miss the target"!
    There's potential there for narration styles. Could you do Calvanist, or other philosophical driven narratives, as Deliverator suggests? What uses might this have besides alienation?
    Posted By: Tomas HVMThe characters where gathered in safe surroundings, discussing the "outcome" of the conflict (the players had to imagine an outcome and make it up during the conversation).
    Very cool. Very cinematic. How often has we seen an action movie, where after its been established that our hero is a bad ass, but facing the bad guy is still far away (narratively speaking) that we just see the beginning or part of the fight, or one that's presented without any tension for the outcome but to show us cool stuff? My answer: often.
  • Jason,

    Thanks for the description and links! Very cool stuff.

    Tomas,

    Wait... did the players _know_ that you were using a different set of die rolls, or did you just announce "success" and "failure"? What was the idea behind this experiment?
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