11 Mar 2008

Premise Avoidance

A while back I voiced my concerns over our Spirit of the Century game at the Forge Actual Play forum.

Put succinctly, I was concerned that play consisted of too much story discussion and not enough actual exploration of the conflict at hand.

The discussion led me to consider that we were avoiding a direct addressing of premise, and that when premise was addressed it was done so with a light touch and with an expectation that pulp characters succeed.

My main concerns during play were firstly to introduce Spirit of the Century as a rule set, and to make clear what a Narrativist Agenda was. With both of these things I achieved some successes and some failures.

I succeeded in demonstrating how the Skills and Aspects work and the scope of Stunts, but didn't introduce enough Consequence to clearly demonstrate how failure works.

Related to this I was probably guilty of conspiring with the players over the story. In an attempt to clearly hand over story control I was openly working with them, but never successfully let go myself. Which meant I was't focusing on examples of premise to highlight and explore and I wasn't forcing conflicts.

But I have been reflecting since and have further thoughts over how premise is used in games.

So what is this Premise thing and what does Addressing it involve you may ask?

Lets use some simple definitions because these ideas can be a little high brow and as such loose some of their practical meaning.

Premise has a number of definitions, but for GNS theory the concept was derived from Lajos Egri and in this link he takes a whole chapter to define premise, both by example and by comparing other theories of play writing.

At it's heart the premise of a narrative is the key idea that the rest of the narrative is formed around, and attempts to resolve. Its the thing that moves the story forward and makes it worth telling. The underlying message that the writer is trying to convey. Premise places characters in a situation that involves conflict and demands a conclusion, and that journey is empowered by the writers stance on the issue.

But a role-playing game is not a play, and this provokes a key question that I believe cuts to the heart of the formation of GNS theories: what is a RPG from a story perspective. We have all read and or espoused that RPGs are part of the story telling tradition, but where do they fit in relation to the other forms.

Let us take screenplays for instance. Good examples are designed to involve the audience, and draw them into the story. They utilise characters that can either be identified with and/or are recognisable from real life. They take an emotive stance on the issues at hand, by provoking conflicts that hold the viewers opinions or preconceptions in question thereby provoking an emotional reaction. They drive the story towards its conclusion to heighten the feelings of involvement, adding a sense of urgency and escalating this emotive attention to the core issues.

In traditional games the GM decides what the key story elements are, and in this respect the GM is more like a writer, and his creation stands or falls based on how well his payers get involved with these ideas, or how adaptive he can be in changing or moulding these ideas to the players' play.

His goal is to carry the players with him on an emotive journey to the conclusion that he has possibly preconceived, or at the very least has the climactic scene pre-framed in his mind. To this end the premise in such games is a tool of the GM, one that helps him engage the players.

In Narrativist games the premise is the thing! If a Narrativist game is all about telling the story in the most satisfying manner, then the group have a responsibility to engage with premise, because that is the touchstone around which the story structure will form. The premise acts as a kind if measure for successful storytelling, because it's the premise that will allow the story to drive forward through conflict and rising tension. It becomes far more than a single tool in the GMs box, it becomes the focus of everyone.

But that doesn't answer the question 'who decides upon premise and how do we recognise it' and I believe this to be a stumbling block upon which many groups and theorists fall.

One solution is for the game itself to have a nascent premise that can be taken and formed by the group through play. My Life with Master is a good example, taking the single idea of monstrous dysfunctional relationships and allowing play to form this into a functioning premise. Dogs in the Vineyard does this too. By setting up a proto-premise for a town, stressing individual character judgement and placing the ultimate conclusion of the story clearly in the hands of the players, it literally begs the players to form and engage with an involving premise.

Such games do not guarantee a satisfying story but they place the idea of collaborating over premise front and centre thereby increasing their likelihood.

Which brings us back to Spirit of the Century. This too puts all of the tools on the table, and the advice throughout the book helps the GM both use and explain to the players how to use those tools. But, it is not as narrowly focused as MLWM and not as structured as DitV, so it is up to the group to define and engage with premise, and it is easy to use all of the tools without truly engaging with a premise. It is possible to tell stories without deep personal meaning or engaging conflict.

This is analogous to a screenplay that lacks a decent premise, but instead of this being a purely subjective thing that can be blamed on the GMs inability to grab his players attention, it is more likely that the group as a whole have not grasped their responsibility to the story.

So I look back at the Spirit of the Century game and see a number of things:

The story was satisfying in that it had a beginning a middle and an end. This is no small thing, as an exercise in collaborative story telling, at least it told a story.

The process of collaboration was enjoyable and often lead to some inspired and exited discussion, which was a new and enjoyable experience.

The willingness to really test and challenge the characters was muted. The competence of the characters and a protective sense of character concept by the players lead to a limited engagement over premise with no fundamental parts of character really being placed in conflict by either me the GM, or other players.

So what resulted was a form of collaborative story telling, where the players enjoyed the ability to mold the story around their characters, but were ultimately more concerned with how the characters performed and how pulp-like the action was, than forming a meaning to the story and engaging with that meaning to drive forward and escalate the plot.

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