Fishbreath Plays: The History of Narrative RPGs

But first, a report Fishbreath the Web Lackey: there are some problems with the VPS on which Many Words runs, one of the symptoms of which is intermittent kernel panics on heavy network traffic. Not a great problem for a web server to be having, right? We are, by which I mean I am, working on it. If you notice any instability, blame the kernel grognards. And now, we return you to Fishbreath the Correspondent for today’s article.

You may know us primarily as defense affairs nerds, gun nerds, and occasionally video game nerds, but really, we’re multirole nerds. Full spectrum nerds. Joint nerds. So, on those grounds, and on the grounds that parvusimperator hasn’t scheduled anything for today and therefore has no basis for complaint, herein I will briefly review Masks: A New Generation, a tabletop roleplaying game from Magpie Games (n.b. affiliate link).

Except I’m now about a thousand words into this post and haven’t made it to actually reviewing the game, so we’ll make it a two-parter instead.

Masks belongs to the narrative game genre. To understand what that means, we’ll have to take a little trip through the history of the hobby, and of the tradition that narrative games are distancing themselves from. That’s what we’ll do this time out.

The year is 1974. For some time now, miniatures wargames have been popular. Some enterprising nerds asked themselves, how can we raise the stakes? First among these nerds was Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons1. The answer was simple: what if, instead of controlling a small army of guys with very little detail, you controlled instead a single guy with lots of detail?

D&D was the first tabletop roleplaying game. It was played very differently then than it is now: the older you go in the D&D tradition, the more lethal fighting is, and the less there is to do outside of what is today referred to as the loot treadmill2. There are islands of civilization. You venture outside those islands into a vast, dark sea of uncaring wildnerness filled with vicious monsters, whack the monsters until they yield their stashes of loot, and return to civilization to sell it all, enjoy your wealth, and prepare for another trip. Many of the early D&D adventures don’t make very much sense outside of this framework.

By being first, D&D cemented its place at the center of the RPG ecosystem. Settings grew more varied and left more room for intrigue, the degree of combat-centeredness in the rules ebbed and flowed (and ebbed and flowed), and modern live-play podcasts and web video series pushed the storytelling aspects of tabletop roleplaying to center stage3, but at its core, D&D’s DNA never changed. It’s a miniatures wargame4 with a dash of improvisational theater.

The two aspects, however, don’t always play well together. Oral storytelling has a rhythm to it which is easy to interrupt. Questions like, “How much taller can I make myself with Disguise Self?” or “Am I able to cast Teleport from here, or do I need to be in a teleportation circle?” slow you down at the least desirable time: moments of high drama. If that’s bad, combat is worse. Effectively, it’s a second mode of play, where the roleplaying largely cuts out and the focus switches to fight tactics5.

That’s the tradition narrative games aim to break away from. If D&D and its family tree are miniatures wargames with improv theater shoehorned in, why not write games as improv theater with rules shoehorned in?

Narrative games are in vogue at the moment, but they aren’t a recent trend. Apocalypse World, one of the major English-language trend-setters, was released in 2010. Ryuutama, a Japanese storytelling RPG with many of the genre’s common features (gamemasters with intentionally limited power, for one), came out in 2007. You can even make an argument that old versions of Paranoia belong more nearly to the narrative tradition than to the classic RPG tradition6.

So, what’s the difference? Narrative games are, not to put too fine a point on it, all about narration. Apocalypse World and its rules engine Powered by the Apocalypse are the archetypal examples. On your character sheet is a list of moves. These moves have fictional triggers. When (and only when) the ongoing narration matches the trigger, the move happens7.

Other features you might find include a collaborative worldbuilding process, a ‘session zero’ plan which involves building up the party and its history, and gamemaster moves which limit (or at least indicate the intended boundaries of) GM power.

What’s the upshot? Less staring at character sheets trying to figure out what to do next, more storytelling; less mode-switching to rules-heavy contexts, more natural interplay between story and rules.

Masks in particular does a few things very well. It also illustrates some of the shortcomings of narrative games better than I could describe them. I’ll cover both topics next time.

  1. Trademarked ampersand intentionally left out. 
  2. This image isn’t a perfect fit, but eventually you get to the point where the world itself trembles before you. 
  3. To the point that it’s entirely feasible to play a long and satisfying campaign of Dungeons and Dragons without encountering either dungeons or dragons. 
  4. Whose complexity has varied over the years. You could probably play a fighter-rogue-wizard party in 5e solo. It would be much more difficult in 4e, and you probably wouldn’t even make it past character creation in 3.5. 
  5. Don’t read this to mean that I think crunch or tactical combat are bad. In fact, I enjoy them for what they are, and my own game system, RPJ, uses moderately crunchy rules and combat. 
  6. It’s easy to miss this with Paranoia 2e, because it predates the modern narrative trend by three decades and therefore doesn’t use the same language, but it fits on several counts. Super-simple combat rules which the game more or less encourages you to ignore? Check. A focus on ruling consistently and fairly, within the constraints of the setting where the gamemaster is mostly playing an insane computer, rather than in perfect alignment with a Most Holy Rulebook? Check. (Put another way, it fails gracefully.) Ingenious use of in-character incentives to drive player behavior? Check. (Attempting to rules-lawyer out of character is taken as some expression of treason in-character, and traitors deserve the same treatment as mutants and commies.) It’s not a perfect match, but it’s closer to a modern narrative game than it is to D&D in a lot of ways, 20-sided dice notwithstanding. 
  7. There are variations on the theme. Blades in the Dark, another very popular entry in the genre, gives players a list of broad action ratings (Consort, Prowl, Skirmish…) rather than moves (‘engage a dangerous threat’, ‘assess the situation’…), and gives players more agency both in choosing which action rating they’d like to use and in shaping scenes to make a given action rating fit. 

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