Narrative progression is the advancement of the story as a result of the player’s actions. Whether a sandbox or a theme park, whether events advance at the pace of the players’ activity or whether time moves forward even while the players discuss their next course of action, narrative progression provides an answer to “and then what happens?” during the course of play. By its nature, narrative progression exhibits the fruits of player autonomy (since the players decided on the course of action that will affect the game world) and should result in relatedness as well (as the game world changes to account for their actions, and other PCs and NPCs can be affected by their deeds, which may color their interactions with them).
Narrative progression follows an identifiable or at least understandable pattern of cause and effect. Your game doesn’t have to have a conventionally defined plot to have narrative progression. All it needs to do is present the outcomes of the players’ actions, to let them see the results of what they did.
For almost every player, some sort of story reward helps frame the experience, because without some amount of narrative framing, the game is just an abstract comparison of values or states. While it may seem like a “soft” reward, especially to more systems-minded players, narrative progression packs a punch when used in tandem with the mechanics. (Remember the essential experience: The game is the story its players tell by using the rules within the construct of the game world.)
Some examples of narrative progression:
- The party defeats the marauding dragon and saves the kingdom.
- The coterie finds the Sabbat spy and brings him before the Prince.
- The bard takes the bones of his father to their ancestral lands and lays him to rest.
Elevating Tension via Narrative Progression
One good GMing technique is to build on the players’ successes and use those to introduce the troupe to the next challenge. Stories rarely depict only a single point of conflict, and instead bring their tension from a simmer to a boil across multiple points of conflict and resolution. A progressive series of narrative “checkpoints” can build dramatic tension by escalating the stakes of the story. For example:
- The heroes destroy a key enemy stronghold, discovering later that the enemy has regrouped at the stronghold and rebuilt it to be even more perilous.
- The party “disappears” the crime boss, only to see the boss’ lieutenant assume control of the operation and begin a reign of terror.
- The players help fortify their community against a harrowing storm, but in doing so, they anger the denizens of the nearby forest…
- …and in placating the forest tribes, earn the ire of the unhallowed lord who considers the forest his domain.
Escalation shouldn’t always be the outcome, however. Allow your players the chance to genuinely enjoy success. If the players feel that every victory comes with a greater punishment attached, or believe that their accomplishments only pave the way for worse misfortune, they’ll disengage. Think of narrative progression in terms of story: Every story has an end, and a satisfying conclusion should accompany every major conflict. Sometimes an exploding Death Star is just an exploding Death Star.
A Satisfying End
Narrative progression doesn’t always have to be tied to victory. “Accomplishment” isn’t always a “win.” Remember that the players are the main characters of the story. Even if they don’t survive to the campaign’s conclusion, a dramatic end can be its own memorable narrative reward. Examples of particularly satisfying ends:
- The paladin sacrifices herself holding the Gravemaker at bay so that the rest of the party can escape with the Book of Lost Saints.
- The Toreador uses Celerity to sprint through the fire, revealing the treasonous elders’ identities to the pack as the flames consume him.
- The engineer opens the airlock, taking the launch codes with him into the cold depths of space as he explosively decompresses.