The Limits of (Narrative) Control

Inspired by a discussion elsewhere, I got to thinking about narrative control in games. The discussion in question was about a Forge-era concept called the “Czege principle” (named after Paul Czege of My Life With Master fame), defined as follows:

The Czege Principle says that when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.

This is certainly a “your mileage may vary” statement, but the basic root concept seems to be that this separation of “author of adversity” (who comes up with the challenge facing a character?) and “author of resolution” (who decides how the character deals with that?) is pretty essential to satisfying RPGs.

My thoughts here aren’t so much about the principle directly. Mostly, it’s a tangent arising from the fact that the Principle is an attempt to explore the limits of narrative control – and specifically, the limits of how much that can be shared. Since the Forge days there’s been a tendency to assume that sharing narrative control more equally in an RPG group is what the cool kids do and 100% the way to go, but I am of the opinion that there are some types of narrative control that, even handed to a player briefly, could potentially ruin a game for that player.

It greatly depends on context and the sort of game people after, of course. The classic example here would be scenarios with a strong investigative component – by which I mean investigative in the sense of “it’s possible for the players to get stuck and fail to solve the mystery, because this is the challenge”, not the GUMSHOE sense of “the players will always get the breadcrumbs that lead them to the intended end of the scenario, ‘investigation’ is a pacing mechanism for the release of information”.

A player may have all sorts of motivations for not wanting to have narrative control over the answer to the mystery. It could be based on simulation or prioritising immersion and adopting an in-character perspective (“how the hell does my character know that?”), it could be based on gamism (“doesn’t that kill the challenge?”), or it could have storytelling motivations (“I’d rather have the GM have a set idea ahead of time of what the answer is, the better to ensure that what transpires in the game session is consistent with that, than have to come up with an answer on the spot and maybe contradict a bunch of stuff that happened earlier I forgot/was out of the room for, therefore yielding a story which is broken and makes no sense”). Those are all good reasons for not wanting the GM to ask you to decide whose face is under the mask when you rip off the ghost’s disguise.

This is what bugs me about the old “If the players are investigating a mystery and zoom off on a wrong tangent, just change the answer to fit whatever idea came into their head, it might be better than yours” advice that sometimes gets wheeled out.

It might be appropriate for some campaigns, especially if they weren’t billed as being investigative. But if I sign up for an investigative game, I want to have an investigation. I want the intellectual challenge of solving the puzzle. I don’t want a Potemkin Village mystery where the identity of the murderer changes on a whim because the ref liked some whimsical joke one of the players made better than their own plan – or, worse, never had a plan at all.

I have no sense of accomplishment if our prime suspect was always going to be the guilty party, no matter who we point the finger at. If it is not possible for me to fail, then successfully working out the clues means nothing, and I resent gaming time being spent on a fait accompli: if a particular outcome was always going to happen, let’s brush past it so that we can concentrate on the bits where our decisions, luck, strokes of genius and terrible mistakes actually mean something, rather than being different routes to essentially the same general outcome with the specifics changed. (“The PCs accused A, it turns out it was A, the PCs earn the rewards of success” ultimately is much the same as “The PCs accused B, it turns out it was B, the PCs earn the rewards of success”, whereas a very different outcome is “The PCs accused A, it turns out it was B, the PCs endure the consequences of failure.”)

It has been pointed out that in some types of game people are really after genre emulation, not an immersive experience – they want a game that feels to play like crime mysteries feel to read/watch, they don’t necessarily want to actually solve a mystery themselves. This is true; that genre emulation is the type of play that some later statements of GUMSHOE more unambiguously orient themselves towards.

I think the most horrible violence done to the idea of an “investigative game” has arisen from the confusion between “investigative” in the sense of “the players must feel they are actually working to solve a mystery” and “investigative” in the sense of “the characters progress through the plot by doing investigative stuff”. They’re different things, and there’s a difference between a crime story designed to be an engaging story and a crime scenario designed to be solved.

This is why I twitch whenever people recommend GUMSHOE as an investigative game without caveats. There are different flavours of investigative game and not clarifying which someone wants when making the recommendation is hideous negligence. Maybe it is exactly what they want, or maybe you have sent them down the primose path to destruction (or, at the very least, a ruined evening spent wondering why the system isn’t giving them what they want out of it).

And likewise, this is why I twitch when people advocate changing up the plot behind the scenes to suit your players’ speculation. To a limited extent, that technique can work to add elaborations you hadn’t considered or paper over contradictions you accidentally introduced. But make the plot too mutable based on what your players have latched onto in the moment and you risk destroying the reason some of those players are at the table in the first place.

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