I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the act of roleplaying is intimately involved with (often unwritten) rules about “who says what”. What are our authorities? What are our responsibilities? What are we “allowed” to say and what’s off-limits?
Let’s discuss some different ways to approach this question.
One fairly well-known principles that comes to us from the “improv” world is the rule of “yes, and”: in an improvised medium, it is the principle that we should accept the contributions of other participants and build on them.
For momentum, speed, and continuous forward motion, this is an excellent principle. In a type of creation or play where unfettered creativity is the goal and we don’t (for whatever reason) desire to pause, edit, reflect, or contest each other, it’s great. In improv theatre, for example, flow is important, as is the audience experience (I would imagine this goes for a lot of streaming RPG play, as well).
However, in the RPG world, we often value other things.
I long time ago, we had an interesting thread on Story Games about the ideal “curriculum” for people new to RPGs. What would you cover? What skills? What games? What attitudes?
I’ll link to the archive here:
Lots of interesting and smart things were said there, but I remember one bit in particular, which was an observation I posted within the thread (linked above). Of three fundamental skills or attitudes I suggested for new “gamers”, this was the second one:
- The ability to “share” the toys of roleplaying.
Knowing when to step into the spotlight, when to step back, and how to draw good play out of others. Being able to support another player when they need support (such as playing a villain when another player wants to be a hero, and being prepared to lose to them) and being able to challenge them when the situation demands it.
I believe that this may be the hardest thing about roleplaying games: our natural instinct is generally either to sit and listen (passively), or step in and take control of the entire process (like a railroading GM). For functional roleplaying/story gaming, a person needs to learn to occupy the middle space: to make contributions to play which always demand response from others - ideas which are incomplete, and require another to “fill in” the gaps. That’s where the game is born.
There is a real challenge and a real art to being able to do this. And, of course, each game and each play culture may handle this differently. Part of what makes this happen is how we actually interact with each other - the (often unspoken) rules of play. Some of our conversations are quite strictly and rigidly delimited (e.g. everyone knows I don’t get to say what the bad guy does on his combat turn), and some more fluid or unclear (e.g. we’re discussing your character’s backstory, but you don’t know anything about the “world” we’re playing in, so we may negotiate and go back and forth).
I started to understand roleplaying a lot better while interacting with people and conversations on the Forge. I started a thread back in (ahem, some year… ) which dealt with a challenge involved with improvised narrations, and during our chat Ron Edwards ended up hashing out his idea of different “narrational authorities” - basically, a taxonomy for what a player might have the “authority” to say or influence control over during RPG play.
Ron Edwards’s approach here (and the Big Model) was to visualize RPG play as an interaction where different participants exercise their “authorities” to create change within the imagined fiction (or the Shared Imagined Space, as it was called at the Forge). This means stuff like, “if I’m playing Bob, then I get to decide what Bob says, and speak that out loud to the rest of the group”. A fairly basic concept, but occasionally trips people up (especially people new to roleplaying). (It also rears its ugly head in practices like railroading, where participants might try to subvert who gets to play and make decisions in more subtle and deniable ways.)
In Ron’s view, having a clear sense of the distribution of authorities at the table is fundamental to successful RPG play (and probably one of the defining characteristics of the form). I think that his approach to teaching and understanding roleplaying tends to lean heavily on this formulation.
The Forge also had a related concept, referred to as the Baker-Care Principle (originally “lumpley Principle”), which described the process of roleplaying as one where the game moves forward based on “imagined events, as agreed upon by the group”. This, in contrast, highlights the consensus-based nature of the act of roleplaying. Things are said, and when we agree or consent to them, that’s how they become part of the process of play - as they are accepted by the group. In this view, assent or consensus is one of the most fundamental processes of roleplaying.
(These two things do not contradict each other; each, to some extent, requires the other to operate. But it’s a slightly different perspective on what happens when we are talking to each other at a game table.)
That is interesting because rather than highlighting who gets to say what, it focuses on the social dynamic of reaching consensus together - the act of hearing and affirmation. I know that before I found the Forge, I hadn’t really thought about this part, at least not that clearly. But in fact, yes, if the group refuses to honour a certain detail or narration, it effectively isn’t part of the game or our imagined reality… no matter whose “authority” may have been involved.
Vincent Baker, who is one of the people the Principle is named after (the other is Emily Care Boss) has (it seems to me, anyway) more of a background in ‘freeform’ gaming (roleplaying without any written rules), where consensus is negotiated a bit more loosely, than Ron.
He has written sometimes that it’s better to think in terms of “responsibilities” than “authorities”, which is a subtly different framing. It’s not so much that you have the “authority” to tell us what’s in the box, but that you have the responsibility to do so, in order for the game to be successful.
This is all quite interesting to consider, because if you listen to roleplayers playing an RPG, you’ll see these lines occasionally get blurred or crossed (often without anyone noticing, but sometimes very intentionally, as well). A very common one is “Ha! I rolled a 20! I chop his head off and it goes rolling, mouth open and eyes wide, down the cliff! Take that!” Or perhaps, “They failed their Morale check, so they’re fleeing for the woods! Ha! We’ll pursue…” The player in this instance has overstepped her narrational authorities or is fulfilling someone else’s responsibilities, but no one has any issue with it, and, as per the Baker-Care Principle, it is accepted and play continues.
Vincent recently posted a little bit about this on his blog, while discussing the narration as it happens in Psi^Run. I think this is an interesting nuance to consider as well, and (as he often does) he expresses it in admirably simple language here - when and how does even the offering of the narration or decision happen?
It’s an interesting way to look at this, right? As a player, as a GM, as a group, as a designer, how do you conceive of who “says” what, and is it an authority, a responsibility, or a shared process? Worth thinking about, especially if you’re looking to problem-solve or trying to design in a new direction or a new space.
Have you seen, noticed, or experienced any violations of authorities/“say” at your table lately? If so, was it fruitful and positive (or even exciting!), or did it cause confusion and trouble (and, if so, how did you go about fixing it)? Do you have any recent examples of this in your own play?