The Cost of Shared Narrative

RPGs with a shared narrative mechanic - where players and the GM both come up with interesting people, results, and situations - come with a cost. They pull focus away from the puzzle elements of the RPG, and that's my favourite element, so I can't see myself enjoying shared narration mechanics.

Let's start with an example:

A quiet shuffling sound echoes around the massive cavern. Your stomach groans from hunger. What do you do?

The shuffling sound could be an animal, which my character could eat. It's a quiet sound, which suggests the sound does not come from some massive ogre, or a horde of mind-flayers. But on the other hand, any mysterious noise in a deep cave suggests danger - any noise at all.

Players can sink their teeth into this kind of puzzle, but they often have an additional layer of abstraction to deal with. They need to think about 'what their character would do'. So someone playing a brave, curmudgeon, warrior, who always puts her pride first, may approach, with heavy footsteps, and try to kill the source of the noise. On the other hand, a petulant wizard may try to get another PC to go and investigate the noise.

This two-level thinking adds some strain to the game, and players also need to consider their real-world obligations (like how long the game will run, and when the pizza will arrive) and how to interpret this narrative through the game mechanics. However, we can flatten this abstraction with two standard tools:

  1. Give players character-based XP, so that 'bravery' is rewarded. This lets players focus on solving puzzles once again, and 'doing the brave thing' becomes just one more prize they want for their characters.
  2. Put your character aside and just do what you would do...assuming you were a 50 year old magic-man with a long beard and no pension.

Let's get back to that strange noise. The character approaches. The player asks 'what happens?'. And the GM replies like this:

I don't know. The book had a list of random events, and it says there's a spooky shuffling noise. What do you think happens? What would be narratively interesting?

At this point, I feel I have to roll my eyes. I want to say 'it's a four-course meal with legs, along with two potions of healing'. I want to say that, because that's what I had an interest in a moment ago - I wanted my character to get food, then to get out of the dungeon. Now I have to think of having that happen, but in a brave way, that's narratively interesting. I have three hats on at this point, and now the pizza's arrived.

This game seems to represent spit-balling with extra steps. The stats on my sheet once represented a character's abilities, which tell you how capable they are of doing things, but now those stats have become vestigial. Success and failure depends on narrative climax. Clever plans to capture the source of the noise will win or lose, depending on if they're narratively interesting, rather than likely to succeed.

So all in all, I don't like this method of play. I'm happy to suggest an NPC's name to the GM, when they're clearly occupied, or 'share the narrative' by tying my character's history into the local setting. But the noises behind every closed door, the activation-word for every amulet, and the location of every secret city, should have skin and guts which feel solid to the touch, before the game begins.