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Narrativists — A new breed of Munchkin?

By Max Cairnduff


First a disclaimer, not all narrativists are as described here. Some I honestly believe are looking for a new type of gaming. I'm not persuaded yet that people like them are typical though of many self-described narrativists.

Munchkins like to win. They min-max characters and exploit rules in order to maximise their in-game advantage. That hoary old cliché of RPGs, that there are no winners or losers, is not a philosophy to which they subscribe.

Such as Adventure! Ed.

Over recent years there has been a trend, exemplified by many games over at the Forge but also found in more mainstream games, toward giving players greater control over in-game events. Metacontrol. Also, there has been a trend toward emphasising the importance of story over trying to simulate "reality".

Many (though of course not all, I'm talking trends here) games of the 1970s and 1980s emphasised realism even in the most unlikely genres. An appeal to realism was an appeal to the ultimate court, if a rule was unrealistic that in and of itself was a problem unless that rule was specifically and intentionally unrealistic of necessity (as in Gamma World mutations).

That philosophy of game design is out of favour. Now we increasingly see appeals to story as the ultimate court. Rather than asking whether something would happen in real life games tend to ask whether it would happen in the underlying genre fiction or movies.

The trouble is, nobody ever loses in the underlying genre fiction or movies. And here's where it starts to go wrong.

Many people, in arguing for narrativist gaming, argue against what is termed the "whiff" factor. Having this image of your character as this cool guy and then reconciling that with his failure when you make a sucky roll. In genre, heroes don't fail. They win. So, when the emphasis is placed on genre emulation many players take that as meaning their characters should never fail either, that they should win. Every time.

Thus we see drama mechanics in which whenever something goes wrong for the PC the player can edit the scene to ensure that no failure occurs. Rules mechanics in many intentionally narrativist games, particularly Forge-style games, in which the PC of definition cannot fail, the worst that can happen is they succeed wildly but something else comes along to keep the threat present.

What this is about for many gamers in my view is not really story, it's not really about creating great fiction at your table. It's about your guy always being cool, about your guy never losing, about all the stuff which we used to associate with munchkinism until the munchkins came up with new and better terminology.

As I said at the outset, not all self-described narrativist players are like this, but I think many are. Many, I think quite possibly most, are really interested in the same stuff they always were. In control, in making sure that nothing happens which is against what they want to happen. In ensuring that the game is exactly as they want it with no setbacks and no failures. To win.

Here's a quote from Ron Edward's review of Godlike over at the Forge, he's discussing an option in the book to play commandos instead of grunt soldiers:

"It seems bizarre; you can play TOG characters with a huge-ass extra bag of skill points or ... for some reason ... not do so."

Now, this never struck me as odd. You may not be playing or want to play a commando campaign, if not then you don't use the TOG characters (the ones with loads more skills). From the munchkin perspective* the point is why would you ever play a weaker character?

And that's the other limb, it's not just about not failing, it's about being seriously kick-ass and not failing. About being incredibly powerful and cool and not failing.

So, uber-characters who always succeed and always look cool while doing so. That is what much of narrativist gaming really seems to be about. It's about control and about winning, this is why in many narrativist games a good roll passes control to the player and a bad roll to the GM. Control is key, control of how cool your guy is and how badass he is. Getting control is good, and allows your guy to suddenly be incredibly cool again. Losing control is bad, a failed roll means the GM decides what happens - you don't have total control over the game anymore.

octaNe, Wushu, Adventure! in some respects, games about being badasses who never really lose and where the player can always ensure their guy looks cool all the time.

Go to for Paul's games, including My Life with Master, Ed.

There are people like Paul Czege who are genuinely innovating, genuinely creating real narrativist games which really are about creating a shared fictional experience. One in which winning all the time is not the point, in which there is arguably nothing even from a character perspective to win at. But Paul is not particularly typical, what he's doing does not seem to me reflective of most narrativist design**. For every Paul doing something genuinely new there are a dozen guys for whom narrativism is really about playing an uber PC who is protected by the game rules from ever failing, from ever not looking cool, for ever not winning.

Munchkinism in other words, just now with added drama points.

* No, I don't think Ron is a munchkin, the quote is used because it's illustrative of what I'm getting at here.[back]

** Frankly I think it would be insulting to call Paul Czege simply a narrativist game designer. He's a good game designer and as such I think creates his own categories which are uniquely his.[back]

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