Archive for May 3rd, 2008

Are We Ready to Lead with the Fiction?

2008 May 3

This is largely a response to Brand’s post about fiction being part of the rules which, I think, came partially out of our conversation about Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age.

A Super Brief History of Roleplaying

  1. There was D&D (among others), and we followed the rules; the fiction was secondary.
  2. There was Vampire (among others), and we ignored rules that didn’t jive with the fiction; the rules became secondary.
  3. There was the Forge (among others), and we made the rules generate the kind of fiction we wanted, so we could follow the rules all the time; fiction became secondary largely because we assumed that fiction and the rules always operated in sync.
  4. There was In a Wicked Age (among others), which attempts to, as Vincent says, “lead with the fiction.”

What Does This Mean?

I’m not sure we really have a consensus yet. It’s become clear to me, from talking to Brand and Vincent about how they play IAWA, that Vincent sees “leading with the fiction” as potentially much more rules-based than Brand does. But I’m going to try to talk about it anyway, though I think I lean slightly towards Brand (just so you know) [by which I mean, when playing in a “fiction first” style, I tend to be more comfortable when the rules really take a back seat, instead of backseat driving].

Generally speaking, the basic idea seems to be to allow the narrative of play to come first, allowing it to lead players along until they have no choice but to engage the mechanics and, even then, placing the narrative first and foremost in any mechanical resolution (or not even having resolution, but simply structure for the fiction to work itself out). By contrast, a lot of recent indie design relies on the mechanics to generate interesting narrative or allows players to engage the mechanics as a way to complicate the narrative, so the mechanics lead the fiction instead of the other way around. Sometimes you can even engage the mechanics when you’re not quite sure where the narrative is going (the equivalent of having goblins attack if the characters are just standing around) in order to find or force the players to choose a direction.

Leading with the fiction seems, in many ways, like a natural outgrowth of the Forge (and others)’s focus on making the rules of a game uniquely suited to the kind of play you want to create and the Lumpley Principle. The LP (credited to Emily Care Boss & Vincent) defines “system” as including all the processes by which players make decisions about what happens during play. So it seems natural that design and play would eventually come to focus on the larger elements of system exposed by the LP, including elements of the narrative itself, as a source of structure for play.

To me, it’s not surprising that interest in “leading with the fiction” is coming from folks like Vincent, Emily, Mo, and Brand, who share in common a long tradition of post-Ars Magica, troupe-based, freeform play. Interestingly, this background is also shared by Rebecca Borgstrom (author of Nobilis) and, by way of Amber, Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue (authors of Spirit of the Century). Rob’s been one of the folks most excited about Brand getting into “leading with the fiction” stufff, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Trends That Are Now Apparent

While the buzz over indie design is only starting to shift towards “leading with the fiction,” elements of this have been around for a while. Honestly, I’d dub some of these the “rules lite” or “system doesn’t matter” strains remaining in a largely “system does matter” subculture. Primetime Adventures is probably the best example, which has very minimal rules backed up by pages and pages of text about how the narrative might be structured. Even then, in play, most of what makes the game work is the simply act of brainstorming TV show ideas with the other players. The Screen Presence rules help structuring a bit, but everything else is largely icing. Mortal Coil is another great example. There are several indie games in which the minimal rules force players to focus on the fiction, because the mechanical foundation isn’t very robust or doesn’t reinforce specific play styles or themes as much as other cases.

As Brand said, sometimes these leave players wondering “is this me, or it the game?” That is to say: how much are the mechanics of the game contributing to the fun that is had when the game is played? Under the Forge (and others) model, the rules should be responsible for a sizable amount of the fun, because they structure player contributions to the narrative in a way that makes a more interesting or thematically appropriate narrative than the players could improvise on their own. Even the minimal structures of PTA channel input in this way. But the “leading with the fiction” model seems to place more trust in the players, allowing the fiction they independently generate to have a more central place in the fun, while still trying to find ways to more indirectly channel input towards desirable themes (Poison’d is all over this) or specific structures (the “anthology engine” at the heart of In a Wicked Age).

It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.