Naming our Narrators

Naming our Narrators

Here’s a thought that I can’t guarantee will leave us in a productive place: I can’t believe that meta-fictional narrators in RPG texts are neutral.

As I was working on the write-up to the drau, it occurred to me that the strongest part of the article was when the drau got to speak for themselves. The third person description in the first part was less compelling. And why was that? I didn’t know who was telling you about the drau. If I don’t know who talks to you about these people that I’m describing, how can I give you the proper perspective? How can I understand what this person is saying to you? I feel when the drau got to speak for themselves, they gave you a very biased outlook on who they were. The tension that the explicit bias creates is part of the appeal in the write-up.

The third person description, being neutral and meta-fictional (I don’t in anyway frame it as someone who lives in the same world as the drau) is bloodless and not as compelling, though I think it had some interesting details. But who is telling you all this detail?

Is it a drau historian? Is it a high elf? A human? Is the person a traveller who has seen all this, or someone who is getting a lot of information secondhand?

It’s not that there is no precedent for fictional narrators. Many books have and currently use it. Really what I want to do is call attention to it so I can use it explicitly with some of the content that I’m creating. Some of my favorite setting books were old school Shadowrun books. Bug City is to me a masterpiece of setting work. While long narrative description of setting is something I’m trying to avoid, that book is one heck of a good read, and a lot of that is because it represents so many viewpoints of the world. Enough that you never buy an objective timeline of events, but become engaged in the process of learning who to believe and how to interpret the events as reported. To run your own Bug City game, then, was to immerse your group into these events and to decide what is actually true. You want to know what things are really like, who is telling the truth? Play to find out.

Here’s what I’m thinking: What if we borrow a page from 13th Age (I’ve borrowed a lot of pages from 13th Age :)), and have narrators as icons? they won’t be prime icons, of course, but maybe a writeup of a few historians and travellers will give us a way to frame information that is at once more grounded and more interesting. Knowing narrator A is telling you something as opposed to Narrator B forces you to do a little guesswork if you know about their biases and prejudices. These opposing narrators might say completely different things about the same set of events…and that is great!
So as I’m doing more of these fantasy write ups, & I working more on revising my strategies for world building, I come into problems like this. And my first tendency is to question my assumptions. I know that the first answer to this question is because we’ve always done it this way. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I want to know what happens when we do something else. I want to know what happens when we don’t take these things for granted and then we try something else.

At this point I think I’m rambling, but I will put it out to you: what do you think of the history text approach to describing fantasy fiction? Are things fine like they are? Am I really just staring at my navel too intensely?

I think this is something worth talking about, and will probably be up a conversation on my Twitter

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One Response

  1. This is a problem I noticed in 4E supplements, which were the first supplements I read. “The gaming omniscient narrator” can fire up the GM’s imagination, but it aims it in the direction of more background for background’s sake. The potential PC hooks are addendums rather than the heart of the write-up.

    I think there’s lots of room for improvement here. The 5E followed The One Ring’s lead in providing in-character opinions of other player races, but establishing consistent persPHBpersonas provide perspectives colored by experience runs the risk of annoying players. Neutral text is safer, but ultimately less helpful and nuanced.