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  • Writer's pictureJames Kerr

Fight to Survive & The Meta-Narrative Problem in RPGs

The development blog of table-top role-playing game "Fight to Survive: Martial Arts Meets Heart" by James Kerr

The Meta-Narrative Problem

I’m going to heavily paraphrase and extrapolate on what fantasy author Ed Greenwood once told me during a long, long car ride to a Montreal book signing where it was just the two of us and me picking his brain for old TSR office stories as he drove. Ed said - I'm paraphrasing heavily - he noticed among novice writers that if they get stuck for what happens next they tend to add more and more to worldbuilding, until the content is too fully realised for anything to actually happen in the setting. Reader interest dies, because they can’t be involved in that world. It has been effectively completed, and more than that - it’s stuck, in a static state.

This advice weighs on me. I think the same can be said of GMs, and even ttrpg designers. They get sunk into the detail of the world they want you to fall in love with and there’s little room left to actually play in that space.

Too Much and Too Little

The meta-narrative for a ttrpg system is a balancing act. A wrong move in the meta narrative effectively killed Traveler, Vampire, and Cyberpunk at different points in their respective histories. People clearly care about that meta narrative - but it’s hard enough to get people to read the rules, let alone read what is nominally a companion novella adjoined to them.

If, when designing a ttrpg, you go too far the other way and provide no lore or meta narrative at all, the reader impression (and potential player impression) is that your game is unimportant, lacks flavour, and generally that your system is a structural template and not meant to be taken as fully realised content, and therefore not to be taken seriously. You need something of an operative story in there or it’s accused of being a party game.

Fight to Survive's Meta-Narrative

Here’s my clever plan, and we’ll see if it works. In Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart the design challenge was that individual PCs influence so much of the in-game world by their choices of Comforts (the people, places, and things that are important to them) and those Comforts act as a pivot for all the action, and are so key to the rules - that there’s no real room for other key important people, places, and things, to be too important to the in-game world. In other words, the PCs are building the structure of a lived-in Metro City by virtue of playing, so even if there was an all-encompassing meta-narrative it would probably have to be ignored just by using the rules properly. So, where’s the meta-narrative?

Fight to Survive buries the meta-narrative in actionable-content. Hints are sewn throughout character bios, examples of mechanics, call-out boxes, and pull-quotes, and photo-captions. Photo-captions are under used in ttrpgs and I think they can be an interesting creative space. Pull-quotes are almost never used, but there are prominent examples like Cyberpunk 2020 where it effectively dragged the meta-narrative in front of you without you having to read a page wholly dedicated to lore. This is how Fight to Survive will approach its meta narrative.

The point is, everything has to spring board into actionable play. We'll see how that works.

As an addendum, Ed Greenwood is a very nice fellow and any and all horrible rumours you've heard about him are absolutely true.

The Kickstarter for Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart starts March 24th. You can sign up to be notified of its launch here:

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