Player narrative is a great tool that can be implemented into most roleplaying games. To succinctly define it, I would describe player narrative as the act of transferring narrative control over most of the story elements in the current scenario over to one or more of the players. While the Game Master is normally the one in charge of describing certain elements of the story, things such as the NPC actions, setting elements or even the execution of player actions, player narrative puts all these things and more into the players’ hands. It is used to great effect in games like Dawn of Worlds or Dogs in the Vineyard.

Player Narrative Already Happens

Everyone has seen the moment where a player gets excited about their attack or their roll and starts describing it. “So I take my huge sword and swing down hard, cleaving into the shoulder of the giant, letting out a fierce cry.” Usually these moments work very well because the player doesn’t describe much beyond their action, or the actions outcome is already decided. Players also use their narrative control when describing an action before attempting it, which often prompts a roll or other game mechanic to determine outcome.

Handing Off Narrative Control

A good part of encouraging player narrative and keeping it in control is in the structure that a Game Master gives the narrative over to the player. Setting the factor that happens, and asking the player to build around it is a good way to hand it off.
“You make the attack. Tell me how the attack happens.”
“You find some treasure in the box. Tell me how you opened the lock, and then I’ll tell you what is in the box.”
The handoff of the narrative control is where the Game Master gets to set the guidelines for the narrative elements. It is also where the Game Master can encourage the players to make the most of their narrative control. By telling the players to describe their actions however they want or that they have complete control over all of the factors, they feel less restrained by the boundaries. Picking out certain details, such as saying: “Tell me how the NPC reacts.”, can also encourage the players narrative control.

Some Good Places to hand off Player Narrative

• In combat after damage has been dealt.
• When a player completes a roll or an action in a grand way and still has that “I just did something cool” feeling.
• When finding treasure (you have decided the amount of the reward, have them tell you what form it takes)
• When the player makes a roll to find out information or tracks something down, they know they’ve succeeded, let them tell you how they succeeded (i.e. they roughed up a guy in a bar, charmed a magistrate’s wife, etc).
• Sometimes it can be used when getting players hooked into an adventure. Give them the basic hook for the adventure: “The adventure will be to go to a fishing island to find out why it is deserted,” then ask players to give you a reason why they might be doing this.

The GM “Hat”

One thing that might be helpful to the concept of player narrative and controlling the flow of the game is to have a physical representation of “The GM Hat.” While not necessarily a hat, this object serves as a way to say: “This is the person in control of the action at this time.” While the Game Master always has the game in their hands, handing this object off to a person is a good way to say that they get to make it happen. It does not matter what the GM hat is, just that it represents the person who has control of the action. Using something soft or light is a good idea since loose objects at a gaming table often find they posses the ability of short term flight.

The Really Great Things About Player Narrative

Player narrative can cause some really great moments, especially for players who have also taken their turn as Game Masters. Handing off the descriptive power to the player allows them to be more involved in the action and outcome of the game. Whereas many games take a tract of players declaring an action, rolling to determine outcome and then the Game Master describing what happens, player narrative gives the player more control over the how of the action. Handing narrative power off to the players can also give a game master an insight into what types of things the players enjoy doing.

Downsides of Player Narrative – How to Overcome

The downside of player narrative is that it can take so many factors out of the Game Master’s hands that it becomes hard to bring a carefully crafted story back onto track. Large pieces of plot might get disrupted, NPCs may act out of character or players may try to take their actions outside of reasonable boundaries. Also, player narrative is fun, but that does not mean it is what everyone wants at every stage of the game. People enjoy being players because they enjoy being in control of their character in a focused way. Their character is the doorway to the world that you, as a Game Master, are running.

So, what do you think of my take on player narrative? Have you had any experiences with player narrative as a GM or a player? How did they go? What game systems lend themselves best to using player narrative?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.



21 Responses to Player Narrative

  1. I like the idea of handing some narrative control over to players as a way of engaging them further. As a noobie DM about to start a campaign with new players (some of which have WoW/Wargames experience but none of which have any in RP), do you have any advice for introducing player narrative with an inexperienced group? Certainly I’d let them find their feet narrating their own actions first..

  2. @ Ethalias: It definitely does engage the players further, once they have gotten used to the idea. I tried this once in a D&D game at a con and people just kind of looked at me with at WTF look on their face. One even said that I was supposed to tell him how he made his action. That is where the GM hat idea came into play. I used a plush d20 and threw it at him . . . I mean to him. Yeah . . . :) I said, “So long as you’ve got that, and I can take it back at any time, you can describe your actions, anything your touching, anything in the scene that you’re interacting with. Go nuts.” then I kept coaxing for more.

    It didn’t really come together until someone else in the party picked it up and started doing it. She described how the monster dropped to its knee because of the force of her blow, and how it had a look of labored pain on its face. I told her that rocked, took the dice back and kept going. Then people started getting it. So I guess I would say having a plant in the group, someone you’ve discussed it with beforehand and maybe had a one-on-one test of it with might help. Then when you give them control, they get to act as an example to the group. I’d love to see how it goes if you try it.

  3. Just a quick warning, if you need to “bring a carefully crafted story back onto track” you aren’t actually using Player Narrative; You’re railroading.

    As I’ve written, Player Narrative is crucial to a long-term game. Incorporating Player Narrative into a “carefully crafted story” is a abhorrent contradiction.

    If you have a “carefully crafted story”, it would be much better if you simply wrote it down (like any worthwhile author) instead of passing it off as a role-playing game.

    Fang Langford
    Playtesting for the Scattershot Role-Playing Game starts next month!

  4. I’ve recently come off a multi-session game of Hero’s Banner, wherein the mechanic explicitly requires and encourages player narrative. Basically, a player decides what they want as an outcome, and then rolls their dice. Succeed or fail, the GM gets narrative rights, and can add in any nasty details that seem appropriate. On a failure, however, the player gets the option of a re-roll, and then, succeed or fail, the player gets narrative rights.

    It’s great because the player can lose on a re-roll, but since they have narrative rights, it’s great to see them scramble to salvage some kind of ground despite having explicitly lost their stake.

    In our D&D games, we’ve been encouraging good player narration, even if it uproots the GM’s plans, by rewarding good description or interesting twists with poker chips which can be spent for d20 re-rolls.

    I personally think player narration is a huge benefit to a GM, since it allows you to steal the players’ ideas. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone into a game with only a general idea of what’s going on, and then listened to what the players had to say when it was their turn to talk, and adapted that to my story, thus making sure the in-character guesses were close to the mark, and also allowing the players to shape the world they are in, even when I’m shaping the plot.

  5. Excellent article. I’ve been using player narration in pretty much every game that I run. I’ve also stopped using what Fang calls a “carefully crafted story.” in any of my games. The nice thing is that giving narrative control to the players really makes the game about their characters, rather than the plot. Eventually, if your PCs have good personal motivations, the GM doesn’t have to do any work at all – the players will run the game for you.

  6. I’ve player narrative primarily in combat, as it saves me from having to continually come up with round after round of descriptions.

  7. My new try with player narrative is to let them tell me what happens when one of their enemies critically fumbles. I narrate the players’ fumbles, so it’s only fair; besides, I’m biased, so it’s hard for me to come up with good fumbles for the monsters.

    If you want a lot of player narrative, Wushu is great. It’s all about player narrative – how you describe your actions is the mechanic that determines how many dice you get to roll.

  8. @ Fang: You’re right that player narrative isn’t the sort of thing to inject into a carefully crafted story that is more about following the tracks. It is highly scalable though. As a GM, you can give the players control over combats with their own narrative, or give them a much wider aperture and let them take over whole elements of plots. Guidelines for the level of control are what needs to be established.

    @ Deadlytoque: The rewards for player narrative are an awesome idea. I’ve shied away from doing it in my games when I had a player who definitely took advantage of the system. He would pull anything out of his ass and try to narrate it with gusto, to the point of spotlight stealing. Rewards are a good tool for most situations though.

    @ Shaun: Thanks. I’ve noticed that too. The players become the focus and tend to weave the story themselves after getting just a taste of it. I usually start my games off with a beginning set piece and a BBEG motivation, then inject the players into the situation. Once they get into it and start finding their own ways about the sandbox the storyline kind of resolves itself.

    @ Kameron: That is an incredible benefit of Player narrative in combat. Trying to describe the same sword thacking in different ways gets tiresome. I’m going to write a future article on a thing that is closely related to Player Narrative: Cinematics. The idea behind it being that once the players are describing things let them take full control and describe whatever they want. You roll, deal your damage, but the player can describe it in any way they want, they just can’t change the outcome of the roll. They still deal X # of damage, or they can’t knock the enemy out or kill him, but they can hit him first, block a punch, kick him and push him back. So long as that is all in the Cinematic realm, it happens because the player described it.

    Disclaimer: I should put in a disclaimer that Player Narrative and Cinematics (as well as Thematics and Unlimited Character Creation) are 2 of the 4 pillars of a roleplaying game that I’m the head of the design team for. I hope to write more on Cinematics and Thematics as concepts in themselves, and a bit of the writing is actually a reworking of what is in the book.

  9. @ Swordgleam: That is an awesome way to do it! Wushu sounds awesome, kind of like Feng Shui. I may have to check that one out. The brief research I just did makes it sound perfect for pulp style games.

  10. I tend to follow the lead of the specific system, though I do bend toward handing over more player control, as long as it serves the overall game. Your warning about the downsides of player controlled narrative are good– some players are interested in staying focussed inside their character’s head.

    A good system that gently introduces player control is Spirit of the Century. By spending a fate point, you can introduce elements or coincidences to a scene. (Adventure has a similar technique, Dramatic Editing.) In both places players are encouraged to contribute to the narrative, but the scope is agreed to in advance and the cost of a player point helps clearly bound when it’s being used.

    If your group gets more into player empowerment, systems like Primetime Adventures draw them in more consistently– even to the level of almost co-GMs. Figure out what level of contribution you want from the players and there’s probably a perfect system out there for you.

  11. Both 7th Sea and Scion have mechanics that encourage player description of actions and interacting with the scene as laid out by the GM. In such games, I tend to create a “chain of events” – that is, what would happen if the PCs did nothing. Then, as the PCs interact with the environment, I adapt, adjusting NPC reactions and encouraging enemy parties to mess with each other.

  12. Personally I LOVE player narrative, it is the greatest way of encouraging entusiasm I have ever known. I used to have one player who was the resident Comedian, he would not only describe but almost act out his actions, with appropriate funny walks, gestures and expressions, used to have me and the other players in tucks! Conversely I have mentioned the PBM players I had recently, one of whose idea of a “move” was to describe a speech by one NPC calling another “Queer”, without touching his own character or even referring to him, let alone using the first person. The other wouldn’t have anything to do with description or narrative, that was MY job, he used “Bash it!” to describe combat moves and “Check out the….” for anything else, for instant deniability if the chest was trapped, etc. Challenged, he answered, “Oh, I can’t do it like THAT!”, as though affronted that I was asking so much of him. “I can’t take it THAT seriously, after all it is a mere childish pursuit!”
    Which was where I lost my rag! I have now, fortunately, found a cou;ple of decent players, our second meeting is tonight!
    Ian
    PS,@ Fang Langford, are you the same guy who used to write those excellent articles for White Dwarf, pre-GW??

  13. Ethalias;

    The best way to introduce narrative control to a new group is to just do it. The entire concept is only difficult for experienced players not used to having it. New players don’t have such limiting preconceptions about what roleplaying really is.

  14. @ John Arcadian:

    How we avoid spotlight hogging is that you can only have a max of 3 reward tokens awarded per game. So if a player is hamming it up for rewards, then they get a treat the first three times, and then they tend to step back. Over a few game sessions, everyone is chiming in semi-frequently, and you can tighten up the conditions on which you’ll reward.

    At the end of three game sessions with this in place, we had it so that everyone was getting an average of one token per session.

    Oh, and to make sure people didn’t worry about spending the tokens: they “expire” at the end of the session.

  15. The reroll token idea is awesome! Thanks for the tip. Will definitely use it.

  16. The suggestion of allowing themm control over their backstories is par for the course in gaming in my household, something I learned as a GM from my parents as GMs. Here’s a couple of the ways I did it:

    In my main campaign, a tale about characters riding the first-ever airship to explore a new world, I set up an NPC with a registration stand and told them, “How do you get here? Where did you come from? Describe and introduce yourself to the other players in line.”

    That worked better for some than for others. Most of them just chatted with the secretary and signed up; however, our group featured a thief character who had in her backstory that she was wanted by the law for a few ‘misunderstandings’. In her introduction, she’d received a letter from a contact informing her of the situation, saw some guards coming, and ducked into the nearest building – and ended up on the adventure completely by accident! “Hmm. Adventuring. New continent. No guards. Sign me up!”

    Though I guess that’s more roleplaying than descriptive narrative. The next one’s a better example.

    As an offshoot of the main game, I’ve done a few one-shot type things in the same setting. One ended up becoming a full adventure on its own…

    Basically, I started the party with pregen characters, and the standard format – you all meet in a bar. But I wanted to do something a little different. So I gave themm teh background (you all know each other) and told them that they were here to celebrate a milestone achievement for their team. Then I said, “Alright, guys. You need to help me out here. Describe to me, in as much or little detail as you want, what you’re doing now.”

    Best descriptions ever. Best segment ever. The first few hours was pretty much just them describing the gigantic party they’d decided to throw in this little bar. It was a huge success.

    Back in the main campaign, one more example, but not necessarily on starting characters or anything. The group had decided that, en route to this new, unexplored continent, they’d spend some time teaching classes about what they knew well so everyone could cross-skill a little bit, as a way of passing the time. I told everyone to describe their class and mostly, I got “I teach them a little bit about herbs” or “I have them all build radios”.

    Not the thief. The thief pretty much took over and ran her own little session (I refereed, of course) of her class, which was on searching and finding hidden objects.

    The description?

    “Jay walks into the room, clutching a bottle of the healer’s painkiller potion, stumbling a little. She looks around and says, ‘Alright, class. Last night, I got roaring drunk and managed to lose five very important items! I’m supposed to teach you how to find stuff. You have two hours. I’m missing two rolls of duct tape, a bracelet,a diamond necklace, and my left shoe. Person who brings back the most wins. Go.’ Then she drinks the potion.”

    Other. Best. Session. Ever.

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