One problem I have with many developments in role-playing game design is that they seem to be based on a model that does not match the groups of players I end up playing with. Games are typically designed to minimise randomness and involve the players more in the narrative process. Those mechanisms seem to work well with around a fifth of the players, typically those that would or could act as game master, and fail with the others. I don’t think that these other players are participating less in the game, or less imaginative, in fact, they tend to have more vivid and original ideas, but need to be pushed, by the game master or circumstances.
I found a possible explanation when reading Néojaponaisme’s blog entry on fake glasses in Japan. The short version is that girls in some japanese fashion movement wear fake glasses: the frame do not support any actual glass. Néojaponaisme’s argument is that such glasses would not work in western culture, because they are explicitly a fashion object devoid of functional raison d’être. Instead he reasons:
Compare this to the implicit rules of Western fashionistas, where clothing, outfits, and accessories must all be worn with plausible deniability. If someone were to comment, “I like that dress,” the fashionable individual must reply, “Oh this? This is my mom’s. I found it in the attic.” No matter how immaculately coordinated the wardrobe, the trendy wearer must make it sound like the entire thing was lying on her floor when she woke up and her random and lazy assembly of garments that day just happened to all work out for the best.
Whenever the above statement is true regarding western fashionistas is not important, what is is the notion of plausible deniability. Transposed into a roleplaying setting, this means a player can always pretend that whatever stories happen to his or her character is not of their own design, but instead something that was thrown upon them by either the game-master, the roll of dices or some other entity. This plausible deniability has two advantages for the player: this makes the stories more involving, more realistic in a sense, as the player does not need to handle any meta-gaming, second the player can enjoy stories she would not explicitly endorse. In this model, the game master is the only person responsible for the story, both in the narrative and the moral sense, the player only endorses it indirectly (by choosing the game master), responsibility can be further delegated to the author of the scenario and the creator of the game and the system.
This is just a hunch, but it would explain what I observe around the gaming table, why all those narrative games don’t work that well in practice. I’m not sure how one could design a game that would have plausible deniability mechanisms, but it should be possible.