# Narrativist Gaming: How do you transition more traditionally-trained players into them?

This was obviously inspired by the corresponding question on GM-less gaming.

For the past couple of years I've become really interested in RPGs that are less about dungeon-crawling and combat and more about crafting stories, collaborative storytelling. I find games like Fiasco, My Life with Master and Dogs in the Vineyard truly exciting. However, my fellow players have been really defensive about trying them out.

That is to say they have caved in a couple of times, but they didn't seem to have a good time and try to change the subject if I ask them about it afterwards.

We started by regular D&D. Then played D&D with a focus on story, then D&D but with players narrating what they did and the GM resolved the rules, then some system-less narrating (not GM-less though), then a scene/narration/almost-gm-less homebrew system. Backstories were rarely integrated in the main storyline of the game so far. In the beginning, as a GM, I resisted players doing unexpected things but now I do that much less. Usually the main point of the game is either save-the-world or something common and personal to the characters (e.g. find the way home from some other world).

Having a background in computer RPGs, D&D and whatnot, they appear to be very cautious at the change of dynamics and shy away from contributing to the story. I think my insistence has brought a general disinterest in any RPG, traditional or not.

How should I go about making narrativist RPGs an option for game night? I don't want to make people forget about boardgames and other RPGs but I still want to play this type of games as well, without feeling everyone is just putting up with my weirdness.

• I'd be very interested to hear what you tried and how it worked out... – Alticamelus Oct 20 '14 at 6:43
• @Alticamelus. My group and I never managed to really get into narrativist RPGs. I ended up making my own system and using it to run a single-session adventure for them once every few months. – Naurgul Oct 21 '14 at 14:53

The first thing is: get a game that inspires them. Without that, you're sunk. Often, settings will inspire people: try Poison'd, Kagematsu, Prime Time Adventures, Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel or a specific Fiasco playset. If you can, get them to choose one themselves.

Particularly, try a game with a GM. This does two things. Firstly, it gives them some comfort: they aren't forced to suddenly start narrating. They can play as they usually play. Secondly, it lets you do this...

Use your GM role to encourage them to narrate. The neatest technique, here, is fishing. When a player kills someone, prompt them to describe it: "And how do you do that?".

When you do this, pick moments that are fun to describe. Don't get them to describe their feelings. Don't get them to describe the inside of a tavern they've just entered. Get them to describe how they swing across the room on a chandelier and drive their sword into an orc's head. (Also epilogues. Everyone loves narrating epilogues for their character.)

Remember to accept their ideas and build on them. If you do that, they'll come up with more ideas. For example, if they decide to question the innkeeper, then the innkeeper knows something.

Try, also, telling them what they're meant to do. It sounds obvious, but it's something we neglect. For example, in Dogs In The Vineyard, tell players "If you think there should be an inn in town, tell me". In Fiasco, say "This works better if we kick around ideas while we're choosing relationships, needs and objects". In Poison'd, say "This goes better if you go player-vs-player".

Here's a personal example. In Cthulhu games, I like players to roll for their own sanity. This makes them enjoy going mad: they try to get Sanity rolls, because it'll send them mad. So I tell them this. "This is more fun if you make your own Sanity rolls. Going mad is fun and I'd like someone to go mad before the end."

I've had good results with these techniques. I've seen traditional players yelling with delight at Poison'd. I've had Warhammer WFRP players narrating epilogues.

With all that said, you do need to respect the group. After all, that's a big part of indie games. Don't do indie-by-stealth. Don't force techniques on them. If they're changing the subject when you talk about indie games they've played...well, you know why that is, right? Get off their back (I say this in the friendliest way possible).

Better still, talk to them and see if you can work something out. What did they hate about indie games, exactly? Was it narrating? Was it the subject matter? Work out a game they might like. Or get them to do so.

• This is a great answer. As much as I think mine is practically useful (of course I do!), this one addresses the underlying principles of making a new play experience welcoming and I think is the better answer for it. – SevenSidedDie Feb 26 '11 at 21:52
• Thanks for this. I've just cancelled my question which you have answered here! – Ed Weatherup Sep 29 '17 at 13:53

I have used two games to introduce resistant players to non-traditional roleplaying games. I can't actually say what it is about them that makes it easier for traditional, sit-back-and-let-the-GM-be-creative players to get their hands creatively dirty with them, but for some reason it has been true. I know it seems like putting the cart before the horse, but there's just something about these two that make players comfortable with adding their own creative input. It may be possible to reverse-engineer why that is by looking at the similarities, but I'd really just be guessing.

Both are, nominally, world-building games. They're GM-less, and they give players large amounts of power without the responsibility for it to be "good". (That may be the actual key, but again, I'm guessing.)

The first is Dawn of Worlds, which has been mentioned in other Q&A on the site. It's a world-building game that is meant to be used to create a setting for a D&D-type fantasy game before the regular campaign starts. Everyone has equal say, being able to make sweeping changes to the fictional reality of the world on their turn. The rules take the group through the world's history from the earliest days of the world, the introduction of sentient species, the formation and fall of empires, and all the way up to present day of the setting. By the end of the session you have a world and many centuries of history that everyone is familiar with and interested in, which makes using myths and historical details of the setting in a regular campaign game much more relevant to the players.

The other is Microscope RPG, a game this is about creating eons of history for a particular colony world, magic empire, sector of space, etc. (It's genre-agnostic.) Like Dawn of Worlds it can be used to create a setting for another game, but it's an RPG in its own right first. The selling point for the game is that you build the history slowly over time, starting with knowing how the history begins and ends – e.g., "founding of empire" to "the dragonlords apocalypse" – but you discover how and why things happened in between during the course of play. You can skip around the timeline as players' interest takes them, destroying the golden city in one turn and the very next skipping back in time to play some more in that golden city when it was thriving.

One of the ways that Microscope differs from Dawn of Worlds is that it is a fully-fledged RPG and not just a setting-creation system, so it does have a built-in "let's actually roleplay now" part to the game. Roleplaying characters comes in when you drill down into a part of the history to find out how a pivotal moment in time actually happened. It eases players into that by having them get comfortable with the easier, less-personal history-making gameplay first, and also by making the characters disposable so there's less "do it right" imperative. It also works very well as a one-shot game or as a continuing history, making it a great trojan-horse kind of game too: get them to play once as a demo, and they just might suggest continuing the demo as a campaign.

My guess for what the key thing is about these two games that seems to hook uncertain players is twofold:

1. They have ultimate authority on their turn. Nobody can veto what a player does on their turn, which quickly makes it easy to wield that authority.
2. Their choices can't break the game. The games are set up such that no matter what the player adds on their turn, it will increase the awesome of the game. This removes a lot of worry about "doing it right", making it easier to wield the authority in point (1).

They both also give players something to do that is creative, yet isn't just "tell me a story!" Both games have physical stuff to manipulate and inspire play – the map in Dawn of Worlds and the Period/Event/Scene index cards that represent the timeline in Microscope. The trick is that the game is always asking players to do and think about things that are more comfortable than off-the-cuff narration, but which are sneakily reducing the barriers to thinking up that narration.

Of course, even if your players love one or both of these games, there's no guarantee that they will ever be willing to accept games like Fiasco and Dogs in the Vineyard, which do have that pressure to "play well" as part of their dynamic. Still, having practice being creative can't but help them get at least a step closer to that comfort.

At worst you'll end up with a nice, familiar game setting for your next fantasy campaign; at middling your group will like a game like Microscope for "weird" roleplaying and you can get your fix for narrativist play through occasional sessions of it; at best your group will like what they see and become accepting of looking at what other narrativist games are out there.

That is to say they have caved in a couple of times, but they didn't seem to have a good time and try to change the subject if I ask them about it afterwards. […] I think my insistence has brought a general disinterest in any RPG, traditional or not.

I'm puzzled as to why you continue to press the issue after receiving these responses. Their dislike of 'narrative' play is just as valid as your enthusiasm for it. It seems a bit dismissive of their feelings, imo. (As are such comments stating that those who aren't interested in 'narrativism' are motivated by 'fear'! :-/ And especially those who suggest that 'indy'-style gaming should be slowly and carefully proselytized to the players. People like different things, and that's ok.)

I'd echo the previous suggestion about finding some people who share your current interest and gaming with them in addition to your regular group. (Check meetup.com, RPG.net, nearbygamers, local FLGS boards, etc. for potential gamers.) You are, after all, in the minority in your group relating to these types of games, and that should be taken into account, don't you think?

Good luck!

Depending on how amenable you and the group are to house rules, you maybe try easing it in one mechanic at a time. I'm very fond of the FATE system because it plays very traditionally, but has some very unique twists (aspects, fate points) as well. Find a mechanics like that which you enjoy, and import it into the standard game as a bit of a meta-game toy.

Like you might work Fate Points and Aspects in purely to "Tag for Effect." Gives the players a bit of narrative control to see how they like it. "Ooh, my fighter has the 'Motivated by Greed' aspect, can I spend a Fate point to add a huge treasure to this dungeon?" "We'll call it 'rumors of a big treasure,' how about that?"

As a longer example, a big element of Dogs in the Vineyard is how you escalate to win, but by doing so, you risk more harm. So the main key there is actually making the conflicts about something. Work that into the D&D games as a contract: "Hey guys, in this game, the monsters are going to be smarter and more human-like, and every situation that could go to combat will matter. Before most fights, we'll do a round of social rolls, and if you fail those, then the bad guys get what they want. If you want, you can escalate the conflict to a fight, but combat is going to be brutal this game."

If they like that: weighty consequences, escalating conflicts, etc, then you can pitch Dogs in the Vineyard as a game that's just like that, but cuts all the superfluous stuff out so you can focus on just that element.

If they don't like it though, you may need to try a different game or angle. I like Dogs, but its a very heavy game sometimes, especially if you just want to crack skulls and get loot. I've run Dogs in pulp cinema mode to great effect: hellfire preachers, demons tearing up the land, and so on. It may not be the game they object to, but the heavy-handed themes. Try a softer touch, let them find their own reasons to care about the setting.

• Our gaming group has added FATE Aspects to Pathfinder (7 Aspects, Refresh 3, gets you +4 or a reroll) and it's mighty easy to bolt on. I added "Infamy Points" to my Pathfinder game and "narrative change" has been by far the most popular use of them... mxyzplk.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/infamy-points.pdf – mxyzplk Feb 27 '11 at 17:12

Most children do narrative story telling without rules or reservation. They (we) can come up with amazing story lines that us 'older' people envy. What happens is we become ossified into the type person we thought we would never become. We are afraid to do some imaginative inputting because someone may laugh at it. Also we don't practice it so we are rusty.

Please read below for my suggestion on how to transition your group to a narrativist style, but take note of of my comment here.

In answering another question (See Here) in this forum I have had one other piece of info I over looked.
Every person is different and games differently for different reasons. Some people will not transition to a strongly narrative style, not because it is bad or they resist it, but because it does not fit their method of experiencing a story. They need a structured method of approaching a problem, or game. The more open-ended type of system doesn't provide them with enough guidelines to make a decision and so they quickly get frustrated with the system. For them it doesn't work as well as something with strong rules adherence. You may have to face the fact that the majority of your group falls into this category and they can't get their heads wrapped around this other style of play. They are not bad because of this they are just not wired to follow that path.
** end **

The trick to transitioning to this type of system is to awaken the inner 8 year-old. We are told make-believe is not for adults, even though we do RPGs and create make-believe worlds, we still don't want to be labeled as immature. So in defense we clam up and let the GM do all the creative work and go along for the ride. Secretly we want to inject our own thoughts, but mostly we opt out and don't say a thing. We do not want to risk rejection.

To awaken the inner child is not all that tricky, it just requires a little planning. The goal is to build trust and acceptance. Once you do this the game will take care of itself.

First - The 'rules-system' you want to use is not really a factor except that you want to do something that the group is interested in. Since you want to kick-start them do not even pick a set of rules or a system. Concentrate on the awakening process for now.

Try this for 30 minutes using your current campaign and characters using the steps below. This would be less threatening and add the cooperative story telling dimension you are looking for. Do this a few times and see if you have success.

Next - Move away from the table and into comfy chairs with no distractions. (TV, cell phones, laptops, pads, etc.) All of these are not allowed. They are the biggest crutch and killer of imagination in any session.

Next - Give each player a piece of paper with a name, class/role, and single sentence that describes them. Pick something for each person that they like to play, maybe their favorite class or type of character. They may have a pencil and eraser but no dice.

Next - Have a short paragraph that sets up a location and a problem. Have only the most basic of information.

Now - Throw out a response to this and ask each player one-at-a-time to respond with one sentence what they will do. Your persona should do this too. Expect resistance from your group at this point. If you have 5 people expect only 2 responses, but be sure to ask each person anyway. IMPORTANT -- Make sure to repeat back to each person that responds a restating of what they said. This is called active listening and is the number one way of disarming a person and making them feel valued and accepted. -- This gives them permission to engage the storyline without that 'adult' fear of being called immature. Their input is now considered valuable and acceptable, which are 2 of the key items needed for having fun.

Finally - Weave these statements together into a narrative and speak it back to them. Inject a villain/problem at this point that must be handled. Something that directly conflicts with at least one of the statements made by the group. Make it urgent, something that cannot be ignored and has a benefit. The benefit should advance the story. If someone interrupts at this point, LET THEM. Now you have once again confirmed that input is rewarded and desirable.

Repeat.

After a few rounds you should see something in their eyes or their posture. Make sure on the second or third round to lean forward in your chair and stay there. If someone leans forward they are excited and engaged in what is going on.

People want to be involved in something bigger than themselves and something exciting. If they have permission they will make it that way without you doing much.

Good luck.

• I like this but I'm afraid it's so removed from anything traditional gaming stands for that they'll become very very defensive. Just by reading your answer I imagine someone from the group saying "Hey, isn't this like that other thing, the one that didn't work out very well?". – Naurgul Feb 24 '11 at 16:51
• True - They may say that. At that point you have a decision to make. Fight for it or drop it. That is the reality of fear. Sometimes you can not over come it. I wish there here a golden answer, but there is not for something like this. – Acedrummer_CLB Feb 24 '11 at 17:07
• A thought... Try this for 30 minutes using your current campaign and characters and then move to the table with the dice. This would be less threatening and add the cooperative story telling dimension you are looking for. Do this a few times and see if you have success. – Acedrummer_CLB Feb 24 '11 at 17:10
• Or play Roll For Shoes, which is usually so freewheeling and ridiculous on first plays that saying "yes" as a GM is easy, which is key to making them relax. – SevenSidedDie Feb 24 '11 at 17:18

Speaking from experience, you may need to accept the possibility that some players just don't want to try new things. Consider finding new players and making a new group. This does not necessarily mean leaving your existing group, especially if you're still enjoying the games you're playing with them.

Embrace their backstories. Yes, this means you'll have to convince them to write backstories, or at the very least verbally brainstorm with each of them. Take what the players give you and put that into the game. And I don't just mean devoting a session or two to Joe the paladin's sidequest. I mean focus the entire game on the story the players gave you.

This works for me because the players get enthusiastic when they see their own ideas promoted into the game. When players write something into their backstory, they automatically care about that thing. When you put it into the game, they've already bought into it and you won't have to convince them to care. Just take what they give you and let them run with it. Usually if a player writes something into his backstory, it's because that's something he wants to play.

-edit-

As noted by SevenSidedDie, this does not directly address getting players interested in the systems you mentioned. It's the first part of the process. Doing this will get them to play a game they already like, but with a narrative focus. They'll care more about the plot than about the monsters they have to kill. Once you've gotten them there, they'll be more open to a game that addresses and encourages the narrative with its mechanics.

First off, it's important to realize not all players like all things. Maybe they're just not into it and that's fine (you'll find other people to play those games with, if that's the case). I generally prefer to give people 1 shots or maybe 3 session runs so they can decide if they like things or not and it lets them try it without having to make a major commitment.

That said, there's two possible answers based on what you mean by Narrativism.

If you mean "narration trading" and world building...

Not everyone gets into this equally and it can be "creatively taxing" if you have to do it too much, and not everyone has the same amount of energy for it. An easy way to ease people into it is to allow the world building/narration, but in very limited ways.

For example, "When you score a critical hit, you narrate". "When you score above a 20 on a Knowledge check, you create one fact about this thing." This lets players use it, and get more comfortable with it, without making it a majority of play.

If you mean Narrativism as player driven protagonist focal play...

There's a lot of relatively traditional games that do this. Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World, Riddle of Steel/Blade of the Iron Throne, Sorcerer etc. Players do not actually have to have ANY narration trading powers to play Narrativism - they only need full control over their characters, and characters driven to deal with conflict and hard choices.

The trick a lot of these games do, is tie rewards to pursuing these things. Here's a hack for D&D that changes the reward system to ideals/goals to pursue. Or a hack for HeroQuest that puts you at odds with your local society. As you can see, aside from a few initial set ups about motivations, nothing says players have to do much in the way of narration trading or world building at all. In fact, the strength of this kind of stuff is that if you have a setting you're working in, it can be very easy to create characters who are aligned/against various factions in the setting already.

Here's a thought coming from another angle... I'd embrace the idea that the story IS the game, not the game mechanics and go from there:

Cast the new narrative-only game as a new way the exact same world, genre, characters, etc. a currently highly visible version of this is Wil Wheaton playing Cal & D - a more narrative-focused house-version of D&D.

Offer it as an experiment - a skill challenge-like system you'd like to try. Run a single encounter in their current game using these new rules. If it works out, you might use it for future encounters, sub-plots, or entire campaigns.

I guess my advice is bring the things your players like to the new mechanics, and they'll feel more a part of the process.

I would go for a game that supports both. In my case I've found Dragonlance 5th Age to handle it well. My girlfriend takes to narrative games like Zorcerer of Zo quite easily, but traditional games like HârnMaster not so well. In contrast, my brother has quite a lot of experience with traditional games, and plays Diablo and Guild Wars quite a bit, but had a hard time wrapping his head around Zorcerer of Zo.

Dragonlance 5th Age was a game that both of them understood equally well, and while it didn't help my girlfriend understand traditional mechanics any better, it certainly helped my brother understand narrativist conventions by way of easing him in rather than throwing him in to the deep end.

Various other systems might support this as well, but as I don't have personal experience bridging two different types of players with other systems, I won't name anything else.

Some players are not interested in narrative role play. There is nothing you can do to force them to like it. Well, there is plenty of things you could do but should not do if you do not want to become a despicable scum bag. Finding the right players is important. That said:

Get ride of all the rules!

While system matters, rigid rules do not and generally get in the way of role playing. I say generally because some game systems (Fate/Fudge/Other The Edge) deal with just that.

Run a few short games (few hours) that use no rules whatsoever. The players and referee must then describe all they do and potentially their results. Have one guidline as a referee: what makes for a better story goes. You could even go further and have any controversial decision by the referee vetoed by the players. Conversely, if one player does something over powered, have the rest of the players veto it. Because they are short games, any arguments and whine should not surface much.

Such games plot could be picking a short time frame movie and re-doing it -- Cabin In the Woods, or Evil Dead (the old one, not the modern aberration), Solaris, etc... -- so that all the players are familiar with what the characters can do. Although you could characters from books, TV series, and any other media you wished. Grimm's Faerie tales would make interesting games...

Characters first, plot second

Another thing you can do to address your back story is get the characters and their background first. Then modify and extend your plot so that the character back story is an integral part of it. Most good writers do that and there's millions of examples of that. See my own question about just that. As a referee, you can encourage players to come up with things like that. Ask them to write (as an author would) some bits of their background. Then use those in the game plot.

I have been doing this for decades now and I have run whole sagas using said systemless "system".

Well it seems to me that it has very little to do with how you run games and more to do with the fact that your players still feel they need the crutch of a GM. What you have done so far seems to be pushing them in the right direction.

Try changing the game plot: key it off the backgrounds of the characters, or have the story itself be more driven by the party. Encourage juicy backgrounds that can be integrated into the story; let the players help you make a better story by using the ideas they throw at you in back-stories and character history. That involves them more in the story creation process and opens up their creativity.

SevenSidedDie already pointed out that world building games are DM-less story builders that everyone can easily get into. They are also great for exciting players about new worlds, and therefore new game systems can be introduced more effectively. Instead of throwing them into a new gaming system head first, try building the world they will traverse before introducing the game itself.

I tried introducing a lot of the narrative specific systems to a friend of mine, and while he didn't like a lot of what they were like (or didn't want to learn them), he DID pick up on the best parts of them and wrote that into his own variant of D20 that fixes a lot of the problems I, he, and many other players had with the system, including a lack of character variance, customization, identity, and roleplaying.

Count your victories, however small. Remember that when you introduce parts of a narrative system into their consciousness, they might stick and they may get implemented as core parts of their future games, regardless of the system they're actually using.

And if they don't, well... Remember that some people prefer wargaming and only are in RPGs for the progression and dungeon crawling... Either enjoy what you get out of that or find another group if they aren't willing to accommodate.

--Edit Addition: As a thing, you could try the second paragraph in reverse and sneak character plot things like virtues, vices, goals, failings etc. into play. If someone does something that makes them resist one of these things, offer them the chance to reroll and take the worse of the two for a "destiny point", which is used when reinforcing these things to reroll and take the better of the two rolls. (Yes, this is just the aspect alphabet system from strands of fate mixed with WoD's vices/virtues/willpower thing. I know).

The end result should be that players initially will be eager to try it, but that's on paper and it may not hold up in play.

• Welcome to RPG.SE! While a great comment, and a great anecdote, in the end, this is not an answer. Review the help for more information about how the site works and how its different from forum-type sites. And again, welcome! – Chuck Dee May 17 '14 at 13:30
• Hello and welcome - this answer doesn't seem to do much to directly answer the question posted, however. – mxyzplk May 17 '14 at 13:30
• Also remember that some people enjoy in-character roleplaying, which is not "wargaming and only... progression and dungeon crawling", but is also not narrativist gaming. – Dave Sherohman May 17 '14 at 13:46
• To be honest, I was trying to point out that he was adding narrative mechanics to the system he turned d20 into without completely revealing how they worked, and I think part of the problem of trying to post in these places is you don't want to let everyone know what your friends are working on. Did I mention that when I was trying to introduce narrative play I was the one trying to host? The last part is mostly frustration with another group I'm having that is manifesting itself. They're only really playing wargames and games with increasing die types or dice pools. – user1524705 May 18 '14 at 17:00

A drastic suggestion: continue playing D&D, but announce that you will no longer award experience, but that level advancement will occur only when prompted by the needs of the game narrative.

Your players are likely to hate this suggestion more than the positive ideas you have tried, but since you are just dropping something that you do, there is no change they have to make to their behaviour, and they will be working with the same old D&D system they relate to best. If your players are motivated by levelling up, as I guess they are, then their appetite will be best served by focussing upon the story part of the game.

If that is no use, then it may just be that your tastes have diverged, and you are finding it harder and harder to find games to suit all of you, so meeting up has a bit of a kill-joy tussle over what direction the game takes. If it's still fun meeting up, try meeting up without role-playing for some time, maybe to watch a film together, saying that you want a break from GMing while you figure out what you want from the game, and chat about what was best in the games you've played & what new things you find interesting. I'm guessing you will find something that works for you all in time, once the immediate conflict over what is the next game going to be about has gone.

• I've given this -1, I'm afraid, because I think it's counterproductive. That thing about the players hating the suggestion? I think they really, really will. – Graham Feb 25 '11 at 18:08
• @Graham: maybe, but this is the simplest solution that could possibly work, and I think your answer sees this as a problem that must be solved by the GM doing a lot of work that I think the players likely will not appreciate. – Alticamelus Oct 20 '14 at 6:41
• I've used the narrative/XP hybrid you're suggesting, and we liked it, but I fail to see how it will help with the problems the question describes. If you can explain why and how you think this technique will be useful, that'd vastly improve the quality of the answer. (Of particular concern is that you're suggesting a relatively minor change to a D&D system when the querent is asking about using non-D&D systems: it feels like you're providing a single step on the road and expecting us to figure out the rest on our own.) – BESW Oct 20 '14 at 8:03
• @BESW: Well I could edit in words to the effect of "The problem is maybe that your players are responding to the anti-narrativist incentives built into the XP system, so removing that might help", but this diagnosis is mentioned by others, so I doubt its lack in my answer explains the downvotes. – Alticamelus Oct 20 '14 at 15:00