Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Narration Rights

A recent blog post from Troy Costisick has me thinking about narration rights in games. A while back I talked about including an Inspectres-style narration approach in my Back to Basics game. This went over wonderfully. It was embraced so well, in fact, that my sons have started doing it in our 3.5 edition of Eberron. All in all, this is great, but when we had an encounter in our most recent B2B session, I'm rethinking the whole thing.

Here's a little background. I'm running B2 Keep on the Borderlands, a Gygax classic. Since it came in my Basic boxed set of D&D I felt the need to run it. I never really understood D&D well enough back in the day to do it justice. I wanted to run it even more now as a way of sharing a bit 'history' with my boys (like explaining LPs and introducing them to Canadian rock legends Rush, much to my wife's chagrin).

I'm playing it as part of the B1-9 In Search of Adventure mega module. This adventure is just one stop along the way, but one I thought worth spending time on. It is very different from most of the other adventures in B1-9. Being released in the early years of D&D it lacked any 'boxed text' descriptions (more on this in another post). Its style is also more 'sandbox' oriented than story driven (again, more on this too in another post). Suffice it to say that B2 is more setting based rather than encounter or event based.

The event that triggered all this rethinking stems from the first set of caves they've been exploring - the kobold's lair. Specifically, when the hoards of little, scaly, dog-faced creatures started swarming the party the players wanted to describe their successful attacks. This had the effect of really slowing the game down. I felt the urge to keep the action moving and was chafing at their descriptions. I had thought that they could only describe their finishing moves when dispatching a kobold, but since almost every one of the little buggers dropped from one hit this didn't help to speed things along.

Let me state for the record that if our B2B group gets to play a total of three hours in one session that is rare. With the younger players, life and work schedules, we generally only get about two solid hours of play in any given week; it will take a total of three play sessions just to get through the kobold's lair. You can imagine how slow progression is in this situation.

At its roots, the issue is a battle between my gamist - tactical combat, problem-solving, room clearing, treasure grabbing - and narrativist - why are the characters doing what their doing, story telling - sides of me.

After reading Troy's post I see that the problem lies in trying to add narrative control to a task resolution system rather than a conflict based resolution. To highlight the difference: conflict based - characters wish to defeat or drive back the kobolds attacking them; task based - character swings his sword at the kobold in front of him. Since D&D deals with every swing and strike, it is inherently task based. Adding elaborate description to each swing adds a lay of detail that may smother play.

For now, to keep things moving, I'm planning on limiting the successful descriptions to make key encounters more special. This may tip my hand at 'boss level' encounters, but that is something I'll worry about after I've tried it out for a while.

Follow Your Bliss,


  1. One thought that comes to my mind is the concept of packaging up monster groups as single units in low level / tedious encounters, so they can be defeated (or not) in a few roles instead of many. By averaging up the entire group, and summing their collective hit points, and doing the same for your player character group, you wind up with two characters to combat instead of many. Then play it out as a regular combat, but in short form. You narrate this as "The kobolds surge forward and lay some heavy blows!" "The party deflects their attack and smashes them backward toward the wall." "The Kobolds regroup and attempt a rally, but fail." "The party surges forward and defeats them" ... so that combat got reduced to four rolls, instead of twenty four. This could work for certain kinds of encounters where you feel the stakes don't merit a full on tactical level combat. Anyway, just a thought.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It does sound like a a great way to handle things. One of the reasons for exploring the game that started it for me was to critically examine what in the game makes me excited. There are so many ways to play d&d in general and exploring it though published adventures helps me feel like I'm recapturing part of my youth.

    That being said I'm not above tinkering with the system. I look at what I'm doom now as 'practicing my scales'. As a kid I didn't look at GMing as a skill that could be improved on. I was just playing around. Now I want to build those base skills so I can really improvise on a theme.

    I'll probably play this adventure as written to try to capture that old school feel. It's surprising how much fun this old module turned out to be. I'll be sure keep posting my observations of the play.

    Thanks again, your comments are always welcome.

    Follow your bliss,