Who Owns the Problem?


I’ve been thinking about two different types of premises in Narr games. The distinction is subtle and not a matter of this way OR that way, but more like a spectrum of emphasis. One of the key points of Narr design is that there’s a difficult-to-solve problem. On the one end of the emphasis spectrum the problem belongs primarily the PCs/protagonists: “There’s something wrong with me.” On the other end, the problem belongs primarily to the world: “There’s something wrong here.”

In My Life with Master, the emphasis of the gameplay is on the minion’s relationship with the Master and the townsfolk. His stats represent the state of his fragile psyche. The problem belongs to the minions: “I”m in a horribly dysfunctional relationship with the Master.” This isn’t to say that there’s no problem with the world in My Life with Master, it is, after all, terrorized by a meglomaniac and his More Than Human lackeys. But the problem with the world is not the focus of the play.

Most Dogs in the Vineyard play that I’m aware of sits pretty far on the other end of the spectrum. “There’s a problem with this here town and we’re aiming to mend it.” Although the “I am a Dog” traits, and the fact that one or more Dogs generally have kinfolk in the town certainly complicate matters, the focus remains on the town’s problems. I imagine the personal angles would come up more in long-term, multi-town play.

Personally, I’m more fond of the personal end of the emphasis spectrum. WGP… falls there, with the world itself as an expression of the superheroes’ inner Struggle.

I actually realized that I’m not overly fond of the worldly end of the spectrum thanks to Thor. In his last blog post he praised the Conan story Red Nails as great for Narr purposes. I read it and found it dull, because the emphasis is heavily on the “problem-with-the-world” end of things. The only “problem-with-the-protagonists” is that Conan wants to sleep with Valeria and she doesn’t want to. So Howard has to have all this nasty stuff happen to her so the buff warrior woman can be worn down to the shrinking violet that will fling herself into Conan’s rescuing arms. All the crap with the inhabitants of the ruined city bored me because I didn’t care about any of them.

Ron Edwards’ designs are interesting because the pull very strongly from both ends of the spectrum. Trollbabe is set up to run like a Red Nails-style story, and if the PCs weren’t Trollbabes, it would be farther to the problem-with-the-world side than Dogs. But they are Trollbabes. They’re these things that don’t quite belong anywhere. And with the gathering of Relationships through play, I can see the emphasis shifting more toward this type of issue as time goes on.

Sorcerer does the same thing. Relationship maps (and the detective novels that they’re drawn from) are heavily on the problem-with-the-world side. But smack-dab in the middle is the “I’ve summoned and bound a Demon” problem. Very personal. I think Sorcerer and Sword, with it’s Pacting rules and option of not starting with a Demon shifts the game heavily toward the problem-with-the-world end.

Ben, before you ask, I’m not real confident in my classification of Polaris, ’cause I still haven’t played it. But, I’d say that like an Edwards game it has strong elements from both ends of the spectrum. The Mistaken and all the crap they pull is the problem-with-the-world. However, the whole Zeal-Weariness corruption thing is very much a problem with the nights themselves.

The Burning Wheel convention games that Luke runs “Inheritance,” “THe Heist,” “The Gift,” lean toward the problem-with-the-characters end. I haven’t really talked to Luke about what BW was like before publication of the Classic edition, but some stuff in the text leads me to think it was more slanted toward the problem-with-the-world end.

Is one type of emphasis better than another? No. They will just appeal to different sorts of people. Thus, it’s something to keep in mind. And possibly leaving room for the play group to customize their own emphasis (as Sorcerer does) is a desirable goal, as it increases the games’ potential audience.


14 Responses to “Who Owns the Problem?”

  1. I think that’s an astute observation. I would add another axis: “There’s something wrong with someone else — who I care about in some way.” Do any games do this, though?

    • Isn’t this a bit more on the “problem with me” side of the spectrum? Your relationship with the person is why you care about the problem. The love mechanic in My Life With Master makes you care about another person that the Master then threatens.

    • Ben,
      I’d say that problem-with-a-Relationship is just going to tend toward one end of the spectrum or another, depending on emphasis in actual play.
      A Sorcerer kicker like “an evil cult is trying to kill my ex-wife” is either more heavily about the tension between me and my ex-wife with the cult just providing pressure on the problem-with-me end of things (see True Lies or Mr. & Mrs. Smith for movies) OR it’s more about the evil cult and how vile, nasty and resourceful they are, with the fact that the victim is my ex-wife as a minor note (I’d suggest most movies by Steven Segal, Van Damme, and possibly The Rock, except I don’t watch them).

  2. I’m curious, since you have played it, where do you think Mortal Coil falls in this spectrum? I think it tends more toward “problem with me” play because passions are personal, but you can have passions that involve world-type problems.

    • Well, you’ve set Mortal Coil up to be very customizable in all aspects, including this. I’d say that the Arthurian thing we did was toward the problem-with-me end of the spectrum (not surprising, considering that I was using my not-inconsiderable personality presense to push it that way).
      OTOH, what I’ve heard about the gods-in-the-bar scenario is that it was more on the problem-with-the-world end of things. The problem: “Who stole the beer?”

      • Yeah, that’s true. Of course, the second session of that game ended up with the problem: “Can I show up Jove and impress Proserpine,” a very personal problem.

  3. Ummm… not to be contrary, but isn’t “there’s a problem with the world” only interesting in so far as “there’s a problem with the world that’s important to me“? I guess what I’m getting at is that a good situation has to have the protagonist meaningfully tied into it. Either the problem is MY PROBLEM or the problem is THE PROBLEM ONLY I CAN SOLVE or the problem is an obstacle that needs to be addressed in order to solve MY PROBLEM.
    If you’ve got a relationship map and no immediate, intensive, demanding NEED that ties the protagonist into it, you probably don’t have much of a situation.

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