Fiction, Naturalism and RPGs

Playing Ironsworn recently, I’ve noticed an interesting tension. Like its cousin Apocalypse World, Ironsworn is, mechanically, a game that emphasises narrative tension. Each action fits into a sort of dramatic funnel. When a character tries to achieve something, they might succeed, or fail, or succeed with consequences, using a procedure that is basically arbitrary — the game doesn’t try to give logical explanations for why everything happens, it just gives players dramatic prompts and lets them sort out the details. This is all par for the course for so-called ‘story games’.

However, Ironsworn does two other interesting things. Like Apocalypse World (and most of Vincent Baker’s games), it emphasises direct engagement with the game’s fictional world. So, you don’t make an attack against the bonewalker, you cut the bonewalker’s head off, which then triggers a ‘move’ that requires you to roll dice to determine the outcome.

Unlike Apocalypse World (in my opinion, anyway), Ironsworn encourages a very naturalistic engagement with this fiction. The rules say, explicitly, that if your character is fighting an enemy whose weapon has more range (they have a spear and you have a sword), they enter combat with the initiative. No roll necessary, no dramatic funnel — a naturalistic interpretation of the fiction trumps arbitrary drama. Without the initiative, your character will be on the defensive until they can find some way to regain it, which basically means you have to describe defensive actions or counterattacks until the dice say they pay off and you can seize the initiative.

Oddly, this reminds me of the ‘rulings, not rules‘ dictum that is associated with the ‘Old School Renaissance’. I’m going to be more charitable than Justin Alexander, and say that I think some of the OSR’s emphasis on GM fiat is a poorly articulated preference for fictional specificity over mechanical procedure. What else does it mean to say that consequences should flow from the group’s interpretation of a situation, rather than how it should be parsed according to the rules, except to say that fiction takes precedence over process?

Here’s a provocative question, then: wouldn’t OSR-style play be better facilitated by a system that was more like Ironsworn or Apocalypse World? Not in the broader sense of providing a dramatic narrative structure, but in the small-scale sense of keeping events tied to the fiction rather than abstract process, but in a way that doesn’t require fiat. It seems to me that pen and paper RPG design is yet to really grapple with the issue of naturalism (I think this is a better term than the loaded and polyvalent ‘realism’).

I’ve actually been toying with a hack for 5th edition D&D that would incorporate the kind of insight Vincent Baker illustrates here to create a more naturalistic, fiction-oriented game that would in no way be ‘narrativist’. Hopefully, I’ll have something worth posting at a later date.

In other news, it seems that this is now becoming an RPG blog. The truth is that I just don’t have a lot of time for or interest in digital games at the moment. I haven’t forsworn them completely, but regular readers will just have to make do with whatever I feel like scribbling about.

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