Episode 122: Pretentious? Moi?

This month, Roger and Mike wonder why Roger doesn’t get narrative games, and then contemplate the criminal life.

We mentioned:

Alternatives to D&D at the Bundle of Holding until 8 February (this is the one with Chivalry & Sorcery in it), Blades in the Dark, Primetime Adventures. Fiasco, Ars Magica, Powered by the Apocalypse, Masks, FATE, Dramasystem, Genesys, GURPS Action, Dogs in the Vineyard, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Leverage, Mission: Impossible, Torchwood, and Hell’s Rebels.

We have a tip jar (please tell us how you’d like to be acknowledged on the show).

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com and other royalty-free sources.


Back in about 1991 @gisborne gave me a little book called How to Write a Damned Good Novel, by James N. Frey, which I found very interesting, though its complete focus on dramatic stories with dynamic characters at the cost of absolute lack of attention to procedural stories and iconic characters limited its applicability to RPGs.

In that book the author explained that one of the necessities of a good story is that the characters be consistent, that they be steadfast to a core motivation, and that that always act at their appropriate maximum capacity (given condition and circumstances). To the extent that that is right it makes any attempt to have a character do something that is out of character in order to make a better story is self-defeating. A story that turns on a major character doing something out of character is not a good story.

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That sounds as if it could also describe an iconic character: I’m X, my major motivations are Y, the problem-solving techniques I reach for first are Z. Is it simply that the dramatic character is facing mostly interpersonal problems rather than procedural ones?

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As I understand it, a dramatic story involves a dynamic character resolving conflict through change (character development), whereas a procedural story involves an iconic character setting right a disorder in the world by the execution of an heroic schtick.

Holy flashback, Batman!


Further to that point, manipulating tokens and game mechanics that represent abstract story elements may be effective at replicating the forms of hack writing, but it doesn’t replicate the experience of improvising a story on the strengths of its internal causes.

Heh, considering what I just posted. But also, and I may repeat myself because this feels like a thing I always say, I understand the idea of in-world resources, even if they’re a bit abstracted like willpower or hit points; I can work out how a character’s feeling as they run low on them. Even something like story points (variously named) can be reflected as “I really care about this, so I’m going to exhaust myself trying extra-hard”. But when those tokens have no direct diegetic equivalent, like Fiasco’s black and white dice, I find it difficult to take them as seriously as I’m supposed to. (I can do it in a boardgame, of course…)

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First, you have to define “out of character”.

I remember when I first read the issue of Sandman with John Constantine guesting, I was impressed that Gaiman had made Constantine “break character” and yet made it work; he showed vulnerability, dropped his facade of cool, and implicitly accepted an open-ended debt of gratitude to a powerful supernatural being. But really, when Constantine is being written well, that kind of thing is in character; his cool facade is sometimes fragile, and stress visibly gets to him from time to time. Good characters are complex, and when they “break character”, it may be because the reader hasn’t previously understood them properly. “Maximum capacity” can certainly vary a lot, too.

The more nuanced version of this rule that I’ve heard is that, when a character breaks character, the writer should acknowledge it; readers will forgive a lot given a well-positioned lampshade. The quoted example I remember is from Casablanca, when Ferrari tells Laszlo that he can’t help him with exit papers, but then adds “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but Rick Blaine might be able to help you”. Ferrari is a supposedly amoral crime boss who is always looking out for number one, but he breaks that character there - but he points out this oddity, so the plot works and the audience doesn’t complain.

(Of course, there are several possible reasons for Ferrari’s actions. Maybe Laszlo is just so damn charismatic that even a ruthless crime boss sides with him, or maybe Ferrari is really just a chill sort of guy who enjoys doing the occasional good deed when it doesn’t hurt his image too badly, or maybe he wants Laszlo out of town so that the Nazis will leave and he can get back to whatever cozy relationship he has with Renault, with a lower heat level. Or maybe the scriptwriters just wanted to establish that even a ruthless crime boss is nicer than the Nazis, who are the actual villains of the piece. Or there’s the really extreme reading; Ferrari is a brilliant speed chess master, who realises that this move has a chance of getting Rick out of town so he can take over Rick’s Cafe; perhaps the entire plot of the remainder of the film is just Ferrari’s plan coming together.)


Regarding criminal characters and character ruthlessness - Roger and Mike probably need to catch Andor, which addresses a whole stack of these issues, with protagonists at virtually every point on the moral spectrum - the criminal with a conscience or at least a code, the resistance leader who is deliberately trying to provoke the fascist state into worse and worse repression to bring on the revolution, the establishment figure who’s trying to work within a set of rules that mean less and less every day, and so on. Don’t worry about it being a “Star Wars Story”; that just gets it a decent budget. Oh, and it still has vehicle chases, a heist, and a prison break.


Also - surely, an example of a setting in which a “secret service” is running the world is almost any conspiracy game; the successful conspiracy is in charge, but is by definition secret.

In particular, you get settings like the earliest version of Mage: The Ascension, in which the Technocracy apparently controlled the horizontal and the vertical (don’t ask about the vampires), but was a complete enigma even to the mages who had special deep insights into reality; they just knew that something monolithic and powerful enforced static reality, and if you crossed them (not that you could be 100% clear how to avoid that) your bank account would freeze or your car would stop working or faceless men in black would come round and disappear you. Of course, the problem is that truly secret overlords (a) preclude effective resistance and (b) can’t be played by people who think that being a man in black could be cool (and isn’t modern science sometimes a good thing?). So now, we have How to Play the Technocracy sourcebooks.


I think this is our blind spots showing; as far as I know, Mike has never played Mage, and all I’ve played of it was the version you were running, which I think it is fair to say is not exactly the conventional approach.

Having played a lot of 5e with a lot of core 5e players, many who have only played 5e, there is exactly the same question: just what do you use at your table GM? It’s more about classes, not the rules. However even then there are a very small handful of choices, there are optional rules in the DMG. Not many but they subtly shift the play style. Some radically shift the games, but I have never seen them deployed.

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Interesting, thanks - the people I’ve seen coming into the GURPS forums from the D&D-5e world certainly seem to find this concept new and surprising.

It is very very pronounced in GURPS. Plus there is a lot of social negotiation involved in such discussions in all RPGs so some folk will just try and blag it! D&D 5e just isn’t that standardised that a GM may want to exclude a race or class or feat for reasons of tone, balance or avoidance/acceptance of complexity.

Indeed I wish more GMs read and used some of the rules in the DMG ( all are familiar to experienced role players ) to adjust style or tone.

I am reading GURPS Discworld right now and I wondered how Roger coped with “narrative causality” in that?

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I don’t believe that Roger has ever run Discworld, though I know that he’s played it once.

Anyhow, “narrative causality” is largely smoke and mirrors on the Discworld. Some characters talk about it, and witches exploit it occasionally, with caution, but the fact is that Discworld characters mostly act like anyone else. Just because you’re aware that you’re in what might be a story, doesn’t mean that you know which story, or what your plot function is, let alone that you can sit back and rely on the story to favour you.

You’ll find some rules in there for witch magic exploiting stories, and a slightly longer version of the above comments, but giving that setting an ultra-narrativist ruleset would have been missing the point on an heroic scale.


Hi Phil. Roger is credited as Assistant Lead Playtester for the book. But I wasn’t trying to stir it… I thought it appropriate to the podcast discussion.

Is GURPS a good fit? Would it work with another ruleset? Of course it would, especially with your witty writing and in-style footnotes. Would it be most appropriate… not for me, I think Discworld has a little more heft than some systems. However I can see it working with Blades in the Dark for some styles of story (Guards in the Alley?) but not others. So for me a broader trad RPG is appreciated.

Still getting my head back around GURPS though. It’s crunchier than I remember, but of course no more than many games.

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The “playtest” process is mostly a review, particularly checking fiddly bits of the book; the timescale isn’t long enough for more than a test session or two.

Look I am really not trying to do anything other than discuss the curious connection between the episode and the idea of narrative causality in Discworld as a concept.

Sorry. I’ll get me hat.

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It’s an entirely legitimate point, but I haven’t played more than a tiny bit of Discworld and I’ve never run it. So the answer is “I have avoided it, I think not deliberately but because having run Paranoia I’m wary of games in which the GM should be funny as well as everything else”.

I think when you discuss criminality then Mike’s admirable lawful good alignment was on display. Whilst LG myself IRL, I do enjoy playing villains.
Gets the darkness out of one’s soul. Most of my playing friends are much the same.

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