Authorities and Responsibilities - Who says What in roleplaying

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:

  1. 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… :stuck_out_tongue: ) 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?

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Interesting thread, and you know from our private chats I care about the topic—however I’d like to correct the framing a little bit, but it’s currently 3am here. In the interest of my good sleep, I’ll close temporarily until it’s late morning in my timezone and I’ve had time to think about it.

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This topic was automatically opened after 7 hours.

So, this is a really interesting topic and something I care particularly about. However, by how you framed it, I see the real possibility of this becoming a purely theoretical discussion. Given that these things have already been done plenty on The Forge and Story Games, I don’t really see any utility of replicating it.

Therefore, I’m going to use the “let’s talk about” framing method to constrain a bit what the thread is about.

Let’s talk about: how to tie back these concepts to things we have actually done and improvement of ourselves as players.

Let’s not talk about: how to write games, design currents, creation of new theory, prompted brainstorming about game mechanics.

On my end, I think this is worth talking about because I have seen directly the effects on my own roleplaying when I started actively reflecting on these concepts. I don’t think it has much to do with how the games I play were written, and everything to do with my ability to understand the medium of roleplaying and use it effectively.

You can see me struggle with this, live, in these sessions of The Pool I played with Ron in 2021. It took me a long while to rewatch them and understand what I was doing wrong. The discussion below is really good as well, and very relevant.

The important bit here is not what or whether a game in its text actively specifies authority distributions, whether you call it “authorities” or “responsibilities”[1] or whether it uses “first say” or “final say” (that seems like a pedagogy technique to me). As well, it has nothing to with right-to-speak as it’s sometimes misunderstood (you’re not saying this, but I’m specifying for clarity).

It’s whether the people playing, at any one instance of time, understand who’s responsible for introducing what element of content, as well as whether they recognize it as real (assent, as you said). If you do understand, even intuitively, who’s responsible for what and under what circumstance, then there is no requirement for them to be explicitly declared or in any way stable.

In this thread on Adept Play you’ll see that we discussed a similar issue, and the conclusion from Ron—which I do agree with—was that this has nothing to do with whether they’re stable over time, as long as there is clarity at any one moment.

The good news is—I don’t think doing this is very hard. The people that I’ve seen struggle with these concepts in practice are by the vast majority players with many years of experience (myself included) that have gathered a series of what I’d consider bad habits.

I do want to come back to my “Blue Die, Red Die” technique you’ve quoted, as in addition to having a lot of success with it, I’ve actually evolved it slightly during development of my game Inquest. But for now, I’ll leave it at that.

  1. The plurality of the concept is important, as it’s not power to be shared, but you need at least two intersecting ones to make a roleplaying game work. ↩︎

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This is very interesting! I’ve been actively trying to break up responsibility in my Pickups D&D game. My basic premise is, anybody can suggest a model for how things – whatever “things” are – should go, and we all agree or disagree. Nobody has first or last say in that conversation, but by inertia it often starts and ends with me.

It doesn’t always work out. Last session one of the players controlled a necromancer who could raise a dead body as a skeleton. He wanted to raise a skeleton that he had killed as a skeleton, and asked if he could. I responded, “I don’t know, what you do you think?” Another player responded, “But you’re the GM!”. Very clearly a different conception of responsibility there.

Next session I’m going to put forward the idea that, once all the dice are rolled in combat, anybody can narrate the results. We’ll see how that goes.

Those are good examples of how differently we can handle these things in play, Canyon. Lots of room for different approaches and playstyles!

I think the distinction between design and play is a little artificial here, as this shows: we can play around with these techniques during design as well as at the table, regardless of what’s “in the text”. Sometimes it happens very fluidly or very inconsistently (with varying degrees of success). Design, in this context, often just becomes a case of “writing down a cool thing that happened at our table”.

One thing I’m really curious about, though I haven’t seen many people do it yet, is how we can have these discussions differently in the era of digital streaming play and a post-pandemic world.

Now enough of our games are starting to be uploaded online that I think we should be able to have much more detailed and specific conversations about such things by pointing to actual examples - not a story or a retelling, but actual footage. I would love to see people discuss an instance of actual play by posting a link to a video with a timestamp: e.g. “look at what happens here at 21:35, when the GM retroactively changes the position of the NPC after the roll is made - note Ralph’s narration at 20:56, leading up to the roll” or something like that.

That seems like it could be very fruitful, and perhaps some of Froggy’s links above have such moments (it’s difficult for a reader to extract one from a long video, but someone who was involved directly may be able to). That would be a fun thing to see! And very illustrative, I think.

This has been fairly quiet for a while, but I wanted to move the discussion a little further ahead:

Given the range of authorities, responsibilities, etc, that we’ve discussed so far, what are possible ways (or perhaps situations you have seen at your table) that a certain understanding or misunderstanding can create problems in play?

What have you seen at your table which might have been remedied or improved with the application of this kind of “theory”? Do you have any favourite techniques, tools, tips?

I know that @Froggy has spoken to me about a Red Die/Blue Die pedagogical technique, for example, which I haven’t heard explained in detail yet but sounds like it could be a good way to explain and demonstrate some of this in practice.

I play a majority of GMless games. I distinguish various modes, from easy to hard, according to the explicit coordination we need or not.
So the easy mode is: when it’s your turn you do what you want. There’s good manners and all, but you have every sort of “say” with suggestions offered tiptoeing and bowing to you. We’ll maybe even retcon so what you say fits with some previous state of the fiction. This is how I play with unskilled beginners, usually in person and with reassurance and recalling of how we speak by the facilitator.
The medium mode is: you point at the sheet that says you can do something (maybe yours, maybe a common sheet, that’s specific design), maybe read a line from it, or rarely, raise your hand for speech until prompted, and it’s your go. No retcon here. This is standard play.
The hard mode is: you “feel” when it’s time to say something, and you say it. And then in the future, when there’s something about that fictional element, you’re expected to handle it. Except if you can’t, then after a moment of embarrased politness, someone will go and handle it for you, very humbly and timidly. Pretty much like if that fictional element was your character. This is play with my regular group. We play online, and, like with kids learning telephone conversation, or granps when they learned to use Skype, we need some time to (intuitively) calibrate the length of our interventions and distinguish between a pause and a silence. We need the camera on for this.

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That’s really interesting, @dereel .

Do you find that you need to do this with different games, even if they have an expected “mode” of play already designed into the game? Or are you playing more freeform games/more experimental games, where the procedures aren’t set in stone? Can you give some examples of what games you played and in what “mode” and how that went?

“Rules are there so you think before breaking them”.
I probably don’t understand your questions. I know I’m bored when I see a GM telling the consequences to every play action. But with other GMs it’s ok. I only get involved into GMed play when I think the GM can handle it, like I’d go to a movie. But I get bored more often that I’d want. Look, I’ve played maybe 5 GMed games in the last 2 years. One was Burning stars with an awesome GM, and it was just “on par” with a mid level collaborative session. For the others, I liked the story gimmick (a telepath Alien that needed consent to communicate with us, fantasy creatures workers union) or the ambient (star trek). But brilliant play, emotion levels of fear, realization, etc? These classic sessions were nothing compared playing Salt traders with institutionalized teens, or Urban legend with prisoners. Or The Vicar with anyone (all this, typically in Easy mode) Having tasted this level of engagement, it’s hard to go back (or I’ll stay for the deep coach and caloric food).

We have an ongoing Venture season, where we play hard mode. BoB games give you tools to play Medium mode, but being just 2-3 and knowing each other, we know how to riff off, support a solo, etc. Writing the details of how this works down is near impossible, I won’t try.

You know what it’s like a conversation. Sometimes someone will speak much more or say horrible things, and instead of getting mad at them, everybody will cheer, because they’re telling a joke. But when someone can’t tell a joke, you grit your teeth and just want it to be over, and when they want to speak next time, maybe you try to redirect the conversation.