The Man in the Black Velvet Mask

Hello, all, ūüôā

And welcome to my latest diatribe on game play and design techniques. This little essay is called:

A Study on Stances, Authorities, and Shared Narration Rights

GM: You are attacked by a man in a black velvet mask.
Player: I spin around and strike at his face, tearing his mask right off!
GM: Guess what, it’s Barnabas, the stable keeper!
Player: No kidding? Holy shit!
(Adapted from an example provided by Ron Edwards in this thread.)

Aside: Most,¬†if not all, of what I say here can be gleaned directly from that thread, by the way, so really, you should go read it. This essay is really just my attempt at explaining these concepts in my own words, as a way of fostering my own understanding, as well as that of any hypothetical persons that might still be a tad lost about all this stuff. So, really, go read the thread before you read this. ūüôā

Stances – A Quick Refresher

The Big Model and the Forge Glossary define stances as “the cognitive position of a person to a fictional character”, but really, that’s just a mouthful to describe the limits of a player’s actions and attitudes, as regards a particular character’s own actions, attitudes and motivations, when playing that character.

The model recognizes three (and only three) different stances: actor, author and director. Again, from the Glossary:

Actor Stance – The person playing a character determines the character’s decisions and actions using only knowledge and perceptions that the character would have. This stance does not necessarily include identifying with the character and feeling what he or she “feels,” nor does it require in-character dialogue.

Author Stance –¬†The person playing a character determines the character’s decisions and actions based on the person’s priorities, independently of the character’s knowledge and perceptions. Author Stance may or may not include a retroactive “motivation” of the character to perform the actions. When it lacks this feature, it is called Pawn Stance.

Director Stance – The person playing a character determines aspects of the environment relative to the character in some fashion, entirely separately from the character’s knowledge or ability to influence events. Therefore, the player has not only determined the character’s actions, but the context, timing, and spatial circumstances of those actions, or even features of the world separate from the characters. Director Stance is often confused with narration of an in-game event, but the two concepts are not necessarily related.

(Emphasis mine, and really, the only reason why this section is here in the first place.)

There’s two points I want to hold in your head about this: one is the one in bold italics above; the other is that, when I describe this stuff to people, they think that a non-GM player using Director Stance is a totally alien concept. However, in all likelihood, it’s the second stance they use the most (with the line falling roughly down the middle¬†between people that like Actor Stance first and foremost and relegate Author Stance to last, and people that like it exactly the other way around).

Compare and contrast:

GM: Your search for the thug eventually leads you to the living room, where you finally find him. He opens fire on you.
Player: I flip the coffee table and hide behind it, shooting blindly at him and hoping to give my teammates time to arrive.
GM: Ok, roll your Suppressive Fire maneuver.

Or:

GM: Your search for the thug eventually leads you to the living room, where you finally find him. He opens fire on you.
Player: I¬†flip the coffee table¬†and…
GM: Wait! I never said anything about a coffee table!
Player: Oh, there isn’t one? Ok, then, I¬†hide behind the couch¬†and…

Etc, etc… These were just two quick examples of a player trying, with varying degrees of success, to use Director Stance to describe his character’s actions. Again, I’m just doing this to show that, in mild forms, Director Stance is much more common than it would appear at first glance.

Authorities

In the thread I linked to above, read down to post n. 11, where¬†Ron explains the concept at length. If you don’t care to follow the link (or if you dislike Ron on principle, which I’m told some people do, for some reason), here’s my take on this fundamental concept.

Below, I’ll be re-quoting passages from the example above, so feel free to take a few seconds to scroll up and re-read it.

Whenever you have the right to say something about the game (whether you are the GM or not), then you generally have at least one, but really any number, of the following four authorities: content, scene, continuity and plot.

Content Authority – the¬†ability to determine independent truths within the game world, with the explicit exclusion of bits of mere color, such as the aforementioned coffee table¬†– “Guess what, it’s Barnabas, the stable keeper!”

Scene Authority – the ability to frame the current scene and/or dynamically insert elements into it – “You are attacked by a man in a black velvet mask.” – Note:¬†Ron calls this Situational Authority, but I think that gets confusing with regards to authoring the Situation at large, where Situation is a major concept of exploration, and really, let’s just not go there right now…

Continuity Authority –¬†the ability to state that something is happening right here, right now¬†– “I spin around and¬†strike at his face” – Note: Ron calls this Narrational Authority, but again, I think that gets confusing with regards to the concepts of Narrative, Narration Rights, and really, Narrativism itself, and, well,¬†again, not now…

Plot Authority – the ability to create plot events, which are changes in any of the following: the various characters’ knowledge bases, the relationships between the characters, the fundamental motivations of each character – “tearing his mask right off!”

There¬†is a rather large number of ways in which these authorities can be distributed around the table. At the very least, most games¬†distribute¬†Continuity Authority in a fairly equitable manner around the table in a mild, GM-veto-able way. For instance, when the GM turns to you, as a player, and asks you what your character is doing, and you reply, you are exercising Continuity Authority,¬†even though¬†the GM may veto your input in certain circumstances. (“There is no coffee table in this living room.”) However, the GM may not nullify your input altogether and openly take over your character’s actions (again, barring explicit circumstances, such as mind control and the like).

As a further example, most strictly traditional games make Scene, Plot and Content Authority the strict realm of the GM. Only he can introduce the man with a black velvet mask, only he gets to say if and when the mask falls off, and only he gets to say who the man is.

Lately, however, a number of games have been turning up with other sharing schemes for these authorities. Games with stakes negotiation, for instance, attempt to share Plot Authority around the table by having any number of players create possible (and possibly mutually exclusive) plot events, and then turning the choice between those events over to the resolution mechanics. In a like manner, games with Shared Scene Framing, like Primetime Adventures, distribute Scene Authority around the table according to a highly structured and more or less equitable algorithm.

And, of course, in games with Shared Narration Rights, the number of ways in which these authorities can be apportioned is virtually endless. But more on that below.

In the meantime, I want to point something out. Re-read the definitions for the authorities above, and realize this: there is no relationship whatsoever between Stances and Authorities. None. Zip. Nada!

Oh, sure, some combinations might feel weird. For instance, you might say that it’s hard to exercise Content Authority while keeping strictly to Actor Stance. After all, how can I determine independent truths based solely on the motivations of my character, right? Wrong. Imagine you’re playing a game based on the movie Dark City, in a world where the characters have awesome powers over reality itself, and you’re there!

Shared Narration Rights

If you recall, way back in May, I talked about ways of consciously avoiding heavily-GM-centered-play, including the use of shared narration rights. I want to revisit them now, for two reasons: number one, they are a good bridge between Stances and Authorities; number two, most Shared Narration Rights games I know of do a very poor job of explaining them.

By the way, I realize that the very concept of giving¬†players other than the GM actual narration rights is totally alien to many people. Their immediate reaction is generally one of, “hey, how can the GM be responsible for the story if the players can then just narrate it away”?

Of course, if you’ve been reading this, then, by now, you should realize that the general answer (other than that the GM doesn’t have to be solely responsible for the story, although he can, of course) is that nothing in the concept of Shared Narration Rights implicates that the players really can simply narrate the GM’s story away. Really, at their most basic, all that Shared Narration Rights¬†means is that¬†various people are¬†explicitly given¬†some¬†combination of Authorities,¬†for an explicitly¬†limited amount of time.

Explicitly, I say? Well, not so much. Like I said above, most games are fairly unexplicit as to which Authorities really come with said Rights, and that creates confusion galore.

Take Primetime Adventures, for instance. PtA does Scene Authority distribution flawlessly. It then goes on to say that “the person that drew the highest card (or rolled the highest die) gets to narrate the conflict resolution”, but then is notably silent regarding what kind of Authorities said person can use in that narration.

The way¬†my group¬†played it, that person simply took over all four¬†authorities, then narrated away until they felt like shutting up, solely restricted to the fact that they couldn’t simply change the whole scene outright. (Note that they still held a limited form of Scene Authority, meaning they could bring in a new character or expel a particular character from the scene.)

However, there are other ways to do it. If a group likes to have the¬†Producer be a bit more responsible for the story, they might, for instance, limit that person’s use of Content Authority and force them to turn to the producer whenever actual Content comes up. Or, they might even go to the extreme of restricting the rights to strict Continuity Authority, negating said players the right to even create a plot event. (The player might narrate the black velvet mask coming off, for instance, but the Producer might be within his power to force the player to narrate how it is that his identity remains secret for the time being. Or, the other way around, the Producer might force the player to narrate how it is that the masked man’s identity comes to be known.)

Now, this whole section is about one point and one point only, and it just happens to be the same point that is at the core of the thread I linked to in the beginning of the post. So, again, go read that thread, if you haven’t. But do realize this: just because you have narration rights doesn’t mean you can do anything you want!

Why Should You Care – Game Play

For the purpose of your own game play, you really only need to care about any of this stuff if any of the following are true:

  • The game you’re playing has shared narration rights, but you don’t know how to use them;
  • You like the idea of shared narration rights and would like to try it, but you are worried about stepping on the GM’s toes (or the players stepping on yours, if you’re the GM);
  • You want the players to step on your toes, and you want to set them at ease regarding what they can and cannot do;
  • You’ve had game sessions go belly-up because of conflicts regarding who has what Authority when, even though, at the time,¬†you might not have realized that that’s what all the fuss was about.

When selecting games to play, you should also realize the following:

  • Some people are strict traditionalists and dislike shared rights on principle – this is entirely a matter of taste and they are entirely within their right;
  • Some people discard the concept of shared rights because they fear their power and are afraid that anarchy might ensue – although they too are within their right, those people should have this or other similar articles force-fed to them in a feeble attempt at further enlightenment;
  • Some people dislike shared rights because it has consistently made it hard for them to connect with the game – this is also largely a matter of taste, and again, they are entirely within their right;
  • If you do have shared rights, the exact manner in which rights are shared should be clearly understood by all.

Why Should You care – Game Design

For the purpose of game design, however, you should really try to understand how these concepts work, and what their consequences are to game play, and you should try your best to make the following explicit:

  • Who has what rights when;
  • When are different people expected to use different stances (or at least which combinations of stances are adequate);

I’m going to quote Ron directly, here, because, you know, he’s¬†one smart pumpkin, regardless of how you may feel about him.

This is key. Functional role-playing requires that everyone knows who has what authority in all four kinds, and whether it switches around from person to person for any one (or more) of the kinds, and if it does, when and how. But if someone thinks narrational authority is the same as (for instance) content authority, and someone else thinks content authority is concentrated in one person’s hands, well, you’re in for some serious techniques-clash disagreements.

As Ron says, the state of the art regarding game design and these fundamental aspects of the structure of a role-playing session is completely in its infancy. Even a game as forward as PtA gets it wrong at a very basic level (and it still manages to be one hell of a fun game, and a “must play at least once” game¬†for everyone who wants to know what role-playing is all about).

So, if you’re putting together your own role-playing game, do yourself (and the industry) a favor and at least think about this stuff!

Lastly, when you’re designing your game and selecting a market for it, do keep the following in mind:

  • Some people are strict traditionalists and dislike shared rights on principle – these people will never play games with shared rights, period;
  • Some people discard the concept of shared rights because they feer their power and are affraid that anarchy might ensue – these people might play games with shared rights, but they’ll do so tentatively and they will hold back;
  • Some people dislike shared rights because it has consistently made it hard for them to connect with the game – these people will play games with shared rights with increasing levels of resistance, until they either find a game that breaks the pattern or give up trying altogether;
  • If you do have shared rights, the exact manner in which rights are shared should be clearly understood by all.

Sound familiar? Who said that game play shouldn’t inform game design? ūüėČ

Well, I’ve written enough for one day. Time for me to go deal with my own Barnabas, the stable keeper! ūüôā

Cheers,
J.

5 Responses to “The Man in the Black Velvet Mask”

  1. Five stars! Great stuff, man; I think congratulations are in order because this is one excelent article, and one that gives me a lot to think about.

  2. RedPissLegion@gmail.com says:

    Oi,

    Very nice, very compilcated, very important discussion and concepts.

    I think you (RPG thinking people hehe) are on to something very important that allows for people (designers and players) understand in a better way how games are so very diferent amongst themselves, more than just ‚Äúall indie games are played in a diferent way than other games (you call them traditional)‚ÄĚ because that is saying absoletly nothing (and if you start analysing games in this way you may find that their not so diferently played after all).

    I’m going to use those definitions and this entry to try to understand a bit better how two distinct games are supposed to be played (this will be long), The Shadow Of Yesterday (TSoY) and Mortal Coil (MC):

    TSoY
    Content Authority: By reading the book I guess that this falls under the GM jurisditcion, however, I really don’t have all that much of a plot/backstory going on (but I do have one that allows me to bang the characters), that mainly happens has a result of PCs actions or stakes resolution, so I guess it’s kind of up for grabs.
    Example (this may be wrong):
    GM using Content Authority: At a Ammenite dinner party Aveline (a PC) decided to be interested romanticaly with a guy named Louis, in order to provide for conflict I had her mother be against Aveline intents and wants her to marry Lord Perrier (a fat pedofile bastard), so she and the Lord and her sister (all NPCs) are all ploting against her desires.
    Player using Content Authority: At the end of the same dinner party a … creature showed up said a cryptic sentence and the disappeared again, the point being: every PC could make a unopposed Discern Truth check to understand what he really meant, and the success and failure stakes would be what the character understood and it would be the truth. Phillip (a PC who is in love with Aveline) said that if he won the check then he would know that Phillip had some sort of shady past, he won and that became the truth and the character knew it;

    Scene Authority: No aggressive scene framing or much of the like, so it’s GM territory, but I have no problems sharing it;

    Continuity Authority: I belive it’s shared, either one can determine such things, within the stakes range previously agreed on;

    Plot Authority: From the example above (for Content Authority) I guess it would be within players jurisdiction if they had the power to make the creature appear then they would have such authority, but that isn’t the case. I don’t really know however if it’s something the players could have when setting stakes.
    Example: A PC tries to lie to an NPC and stakes are: If success then you lie to him, if fail then the creature appears and tells on me.
    If it was PTA I could see this with no problem, but in TSoY I’m no so sure.
    Either way I am more than happy to share on players request/sugestion.

    This is how I see a TSoY game, and sounds pretty darn cool to me, but I could be reading it wrong.

    Mortal Coil
    Content Authority: I guess it goes like TSoY, it’s up to the stakes. Wich brings the question, is Stakes a way to share Content Authority? And does it depend on the amount of plot/backstory the GM has prepared?
    There is also one addition Magic Tokens, witch allows you to add Magic Facts (the way magic works and what it can do) to the setting, subject only to the Popcorn Council, their for GM and Players;

    Scene Authority: There is aggressive scene framing, but the book only talks about the GM using it, so I guess no, altought I think it works better shared;

    Continuity Authority: It’s totally shared, since it’s subjected to the Popcorn Council approval only;

    Plot Authority: Mainly GM territory, but the players do have a say in it through the use of Power witch allows them to take control of the scene and do what ever they want with it.

    Any and all of this thoughts could be (and most probably are) wrong, especially in the distinction between Content and Plot Authorities is still a bit fuzzy in my mind.

    How off base am I?

    P.S.: If I’m not mistaken, in PTA aggressive scene framing you have two kinds of scenes you can call: personal (witch is for things that are important to the character) and plot (witch is for things that are important about the backstory and general story evolution), could these distinctions be used to separate Content and Plot Authority in PTA?

  3. RedPissLegion says:

    Sorry for yet another eager-response-reply but this subject has definitly stroke home with me.

    In the same way that Scene Framing is an excelent tool for Scene Authority, can one identify other tools that could be related to any kind of the other authorities? (Stakes Negotiation seems to fit nicely with Content Authority, but I don’t know…)

    Shuttin’ up… for now

  4. joao-mendes says:

    Hey, ūüôā

    Mmmmmsort of… I’ll address those in reverse order:

    PtA: No. Both personal and plot scenes can embody all sorts of authority, depending on how the scene goes. If another character learns something significant about your character in a personal scene, then you have created a plot event. For some groups, there may be a higher likelihood of generating plot events in plot scenes, but that’s about as far as it goes. In fact, some other groups do away with the distinction altogether.

    Mortal Coil: I am thoroughly unfamiliar with the game, so I can’t give you an answer at all, except to say that stakes negotiation can be a way to share any of the authorities. Also, I like the term Popcorn Council! ūüôā

    TSoY: Well, that’s not how we play it. Reading your post, I get the feeling that you may have misunderstood my (Ron’s) definitions of the four authorities, but rather than just state that out loud, I’m going to simply assume you play it differently than us! ūüôā

    So, how do we play it?

    Content Authority is strictly the realm of the GM. He’s the one that creates game world locations, NPCs, their intents and motivations, and their relationships to each other and to the PCs. Sometimes, at specific moments, the GM yields Content Authority to a specific player, but yielding is not the same as sharing. In order to yield something, it has to be yours to begin with.

    Plot Authority is equally shared by the whole table, and it ultimately rests on the resolution system (the dice), through the process of stakes negotiation. I tell the game master what I want to have happen, thus creating one potential plot event, and the Game Master tells me what may happen instead, thus creating another. We tweak until we’re satisfied, and then the dice make the choice between the two.

    Scene Authority is totally, completely and unrelentingly the realm of the GM. He may frame scenes according to the actions of the PCs, or he may frame them according to some other thing he wants to have happen (such as Key Scenes or bangs or whatever), but it’s his, all his, and nothing but his.

    Continuity Authority is shared around the table in the same model as for traditional games. Players have Continuity Authority regarding the actions and attitudes of their characters, and the GM has it regarding everything else, including a mild power of veto if the player happens to overstep his bounds, as described in the main text above. The general task of “narration”, as I used to understand it before all of this, is included in this authority, and it falls within the purview of the GM.

    I should note that your example of the creature and the cryptic words sounds like a perfect example of what I’m saying about the GM yielding (as opposed to sharing) Content Authority.

    Here’s hoping to have made some sense! ūüôā

    Regarding tools:

    Scene framing is a way of exercising Scene Authority, and yes, shared scene framing is a way to share it.

    Stakes negotiation can be an excellent tool to share any and all of the authorities, but I’ve seen it most used for Plot Authority.

    Continuity Authority is generally exercised subconsciously by all the players, but at the techniques level, theorits point to stances to explain what’s happening. It can be shared by mechanics like those in PtA, where the higgh roll/card “wins narration”, which can include any of the authorites, but which, at the very least, includes Continuity Authority.

    Regarding shared Content Authority, you have games that use Story Tokens and other such techniques.

    These are all just off the top of my head. I’m sure there’s lots more to talk about, here. One thing is important, though. To date, and to my knowledge, no one game text has even recognized the existence of these authorities, let alone try and formalize their usage. So, all these techniques and tools work, but they work in an empyrical fashion. (“Hey, let’s see what play is like if we rotate the scene framing around the table. Yay, it works!”)

    Cheers,
    J.

  5. RedPissLegion says:

    Oi,

    I’ve moved my answer to the AbreOJogo portal, has promissed: http://www.abreojogo.com/forum/teoria_e_sistemas/2006/10/respect_my_tsoy_authority.