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?