I was playing GURPS Traveller with the Saturday online group as a favorite character of mine, Haank, a half-Vilani polymath, and the PCs’ ship’s loadmaster. He was in a spaceport bar with a couple other shipmates when an altercation started between his PC Vargr crewmate and another alpha Vargr in the bar, attempting to establish dominance for…reasons. When Haank got involved, I actually had a story in mind to tell within the scope of this encounter, a “narrative” that I mentally played out as I decided to contribute, and how—not something I did consciously, just a normal part of the decision-making process. In this case, the picture in my head had Haank stepping up and casually putting the alpha into an arm-lock submission hold, and intimidating his followers to back down. That’s not how it went down, of course. Before it was over, Haank ended up getting punched hard in the face, having been entirely unsuccessful; we “won,” in the end, but a bit messy.
Though I failed to achieve it, I had a mini-story I wanted to tell at the time, through the character’s actions; I’m calling it “the Narrative.”
I think the above is a process everyone goes through when they figure out how their character will respond to an encounter. I suppose one could try to focus on this encounter-level Narrative consciously, to better organize their actions throughout the encounter, but I really don’t see much “extra” benefit from doing so. No further consideration is necessary.
That said, what could be beneficial is to “scale” this process up, to consider the character’s Narrative with respect to the entire (or partial) campaign—this is something I do not believe regularly occurs on a conscious level. Using Haank as an example: when I created the character, I didn’t fully consider how I wanted that character to grow and progress after the campaign started, or what kind of story his would/should be. As a result, I’ve been waffling over how to improve the character over the course of the campaign, and if I were asked, I would have a hard time providing the GM any Haank-specific story guidance. It should be easy enough to figure out a proper Narrative during the creation process—essentially, the reverse of a back-story. It would probably be best as something brief, like a one-liner, but could be as detailed as the back-story. Like the above encounter, this Narrative would never be expected to survive the campaign’s events, and should change along with it, but a vague direction to press toward would be helpful for suggesting later character improvement, and other story-related elements along the way. This benefits the GM as well, and possibly also the other PCs’ interactions, if made available to them, though it need not be.
In Haank’s case, I’ve decided to make his Narrative this: that by the end of his life-story, he should become the Most Interesting Man in the Galaxy—it’s suitably vague, enough to survive for a while, but still gives me something to work with. I might change it, or refine it as we go, but there it is.
Additionally, as I considered these things, I realized that my Terra Nova campaign lacked a Narrative as well. It’s probably common for an open-world/sandbox campaign to lack any kind of story focus—in some ways, it’s the point—but it can help, I think, to have an idea what kind I want to tell. For example, a Narrative like “Survival against all odds” can flavor the campaign differently than “Wilderness of Mirrors.” That Narrative can suggest mechanics, antagonists, encounters, which can reinforce it—“Survival” might suggest a lot of disasters, while “Mirrors” might suggest a focus on subterfuge and spies. I’m still trying to decide where I want to go with that one, and with the other campaigns in my active queue.
So, there you go. Try to tell a story, and even if it fails, the overall experience will likely be better for it.
As a side note, I want to give a shout-out to Extra Credits. I’ve lately been watching a lot of their YouTube videos about game-design philosophy—they’re talking about computer games (or in some cases, CCGs), but the philosophy is the same regardless of the medium. The videos are really entertaining and informative, and have been a big inspiration.