You’ve probably seen me grumping about people using the term “narrative” when asking for tabletop RPG recommendations. I thought it’d be useful to unpack that a bit, and outline why it’s generally not useful to describe a game in this way.
Basically, the problem is that, in the context of tabletop RPGs, the term “narrative” is applied to a lot of things. An incomplete list of things I’ve seen people mean when they describe an RPG as “narrative” might include:
- A game that’s low on combat
- A game that lacks a formal rounds-and-turns combat framework, without reference to the actual frequency of combat
- A game that doesn’t expect you to manage an inventory or otherwise track resources in any detail
- A game where character creation doesn’t require any particular knowledge of the rules
- A game where players get to define their own skills or traits when creating their characters
- A game where the authority to define the scenario and/or describe the fictional world is shared between the players and the GM
- A game where the rules treat players as narrators telling a story about their characters, rather than as actors playing a role
- A game that focuses on social drama or conflict between player characters, as opposed to fighting some external threat
- A game whose rules focus on producing interesting story outcomes, without attempting to simulate anything in particular
A game that’s “rules light”, for some unstated value of rules light
- A game where the outcomes of actions or conflicts are not decided by rolling dice
- A game that relies heavily on freeform RP, in which the rules are invoked only in specific and well-defined circumstances
- A game whose rules adhere to some particular set of baked-in assumptions about what kind of stories it’ll be used to tell
As you can see, there’s quite the range of possibilities. That a game possesses one of these traits doesn’t imply that it possesses all – or even any – of the others, and there’s no way of knowing which subset you have in mind. And that’s without getting into the issue that some of these criteria depend on specific benchmarks; “rules light” compared to what, for example.
There’s also a more subtle problem: going down the list, you probably noticed that many of the things folks might mean when they say a game is “narrative” are describing that game in terms of the features it lacks, not in terms of the features it has. It’s hard to be precise when describing a game in negative terms (i.e., in terms of features it doesn’t have), and doing so usually relies on a specific set of assumptions about what a typical tabletop RPG looks like. What you think a typical tabletop RPG looks like may be totally different from what somebody else thinks a typical tabletop RPG looks like, based on your respective experiences with the hobby.
This doesn’t mean you can never describe a game as “narrative”; it can be a useful shorthand when speaking with a group of people who’ve agreed on a definition. It’s almost entirely useless when talking to strangers on the Internet, though; at best, when you tell a stranger you prefer games that are “narrative” you’re communicating nothing at all, and at worst, you’re communicating something totally different from what you thought you were. You’ve gotta be explicit about what you mean when you say a game is “narrative” – and if you’re trying and you find that you’re not actually sure what you mean when you say a game is “narrative”, well, that’s something to think about, too!