“Authority.” Ever since I first articulated the concept in 2004, people have broken on the word. 

No surprise, really – anyone even calling themselves “the authorities” are openly, non-ironically declaring themselves to be assholes wielding arbitrary force. Everyone has grown up wth the hip slogans “question authority,” “fuck authority,” and memes of “respect my authori-tay.” Applied to role-playing, the widespread non-play based on “GM says” creates an instant association with dictating every interpretation and application of what anyone else says, including acceptance at all, as well as with deciding whether any outcome does anything and how much.

To the role-player trapped in a weird power-struggle over what happens and who “has to” accept things and like them, authority simply must mean nothing but the iron fist, and the only question is whether it’s wearing the velvet glove or not.

So when I say things like “distribution of authorities,” images abound of people humbly attending to what they’re told, or shoving at one another to see whose authority (as they conceive the word) will supplant someone else’s. I know why no one else uses the term or refers to it at all, walling it away with “Ron things” that aren’t important or maybe embarrassing. I know why the very few who say it do so only to call for another word.

There’s only one problem with that. It is the right word.

Authorities refer to a person saying something about something in play, which is now considered known and available for others to act upon. Robbie mentioned during a People and Play class that it makes perfect sense as authorities in play, as opposed to authority over other people. I paid some attention to this during the next time I presented that class, and discovered some very interesting, relevant things.

The first is the logical sequence/connection among these points.

  • the medium of listening, i.e., reincorporation
  • therefore the need to know which things, of all the things we hear, are actionable 
  • which needs to know how that may come about via play, i.e., how/when a given thing is made so, which also entails a who

That is “having the authority” – for the thing, how we hit a switch or signal in any what that this thing is this thing, going forward. Author-ity, directly related to authorship in the purest meaning of that term: a thing is not known/established, and now it is. It is best understood in terms of the real-live people relying upon one another to do it.

Which leads to the second point: that play can’t occur unless at least two authorities intersect.

  • when something you “hit the switch” about becomes actionable for someone else, and they do it “back” – in plain language, “the goblin runs up at you to stick you with his spear” + “I shoot him with my bow and arrow!”
  • but that is an obvious example – think instead of those times in which things are established which don’t really “come alive” until a number of them are in place, often having been put there without knowledge of how they would be relevant 
  • softness and questions are involved more often than they are not, i.e., you cannot “hit the switch” upon nothing and therefore many things must be known, often via questions, before doing so

And here is the third point to finish things off, which is related to the unpleasant fact that I do not teach about aspects of whatever people may be doing around an alleged role-playing table but which is not playing.

  • authority is not concerned with who makes something up, or when that happens
  • authority is not concerned with overriding all else when a particular thing happens upon resolution and outcomes

Misunderstanding or violating these two bullets are the toxic outcomes of non-play. Specifically, being subject to a person who overrides or basically invalidates anyone else’s authority, as the arbiter of “whatever goes in” and “whatever comes out.” I don’t care if it’s one person or a bunch of them. 

Those are what come of thinking we’re talking about authority over people

I really hope I can get your understanding and support for more dialogue and accurate applications, in that public dialogue, about authorities (plural) in play.

From the discussion about the first presentation of this point at the Patreon:

Jesse: Yeah, it’s difficult. Within just a few hours of reading this I saw someone talking about “authoritarian GMs”. Fortunately, they weren’t implying that all GMs were authoritarian. Similarly, I saw another post about how metagaming is a gateway to collaborative storytelling and that GMs who clamp down on it are afraid of having their power overthrown.

So, breaking the simple concept of authority away from the authoritarian behavior is hard. The current political climate in the U.S. and elsewhere isn’t helping things either.

It’s really obvious the first time I bring up authorities in this context everyone jumps immediately to, “so, everyone else just shut ups and takes it.” And is instantly met with push back about “collaboration”, “consensus” and “consent.” Then I take a deep breath and explain and if I’m lucky it’s calmed down to, “Okay, yeah, I see but dude you need another word.”

Don’t know how useful this is (it probably isn’t) but I’ve experimented with the phrase “right of way” because for whatever reason that still carries with it the idea of checking in around you and the concept of “yielding” if you want. I would prefer to just use the authorities language but it depends on whether or not I have the energy to go through the ,”Oh, so you’re RPG Hitler phase” of the discussion.

Helma: that reaction of not listening to how you describe authorities before accusing you of promoting authoritarian behavior is probably at the core of the problem. I really don’t understand what happens there. Don’t think it’s only because I translate everything we say anyway – and I don’t translate authorities in our discussions with the German Herrschaft (my online dictionary gives at least 30 options anyway, of which I like Handlungsvollmacht best).

In the case of our use of everyday terms we assign specific meanings (authorities is not the only one, think of IIEE, bounce …) I know that we (you) have developed a nomenclature that works for us and our topic, same as nomenclatures used for other topics can use everyday words and give them specific and “unusual” meanings.

Maybe you can avoid the rejection phase by first explaining what you are talking about and then add “that’s what I/we/Ron call authorities? I usually have difficulties even explaining those things – I’m simply bad at theoretical talking, I’ve come to accept the fact that I usually live my life and make my decisions by instinct which makes me a bad “teacher” and is frustrating in it’s own way.

Me: The only solution, I think – beyond the necessary requirement of establishing a good discussion in the first place – is to work from the imagined content outwards. If X is in the backstory, or in the situation as it stands, or established via an outcome, or factored in as the result of an outcome … then how did it get there?

Then the task is to recognize that all “rules-y” talk about that, e.g., the table told me what happens, the dice told me what happens, the scenario text told me what it is, the resolution rules told me to make it up, my prep notes told me what it is, are subroutines to the principle that “I have to say it and be heard, and everyone else is relying on me and no one else (at this point) to say it.” From there the substantive issues can be raised, first and foremost the topic of the post: overcoming the basic mistake that “to say” is some kind of magic status to make things up whole cloth AND to state what happens without constraint. [This is so important! It’s why people think role-playing is to sit there and chirp upon being cued.]

Topics from there – and impenetrable until then – include:

  1. The non-solution of taking turns as tinpot dictator, which for some reason is often perceived as a solution to having one constant tinpot dictator
  2. The softened/questions construction of authority, i.e., it does not mean “king for a day”
  3. The obvious-when-you-see-it point that different rules (“who and how”) apply for the four different types, even when the content is often combined into a single entity or event during play
  4. The also-obvious point that authorities by definition cannot conflict with one another and that any event in play requires input via more than one

[Italian translation attached]


19 responses to “In/Over”

  1. An example of my own misunderstanding

    I hope this is helpful and not muddies the water but it shows where my own (over)thinkig caused misunderstanding (or vice-versa). 

    In a previous post I spoke about GM authority over content outside of the game, like monster manuels and adventures and such and how this person will tell their players not read the content. Certainly that is not what we are talking about here, except perhaps in the toxic authority over people perspective, which I agree this is toxic behavior. But at the time I considered this to be in some weird GM authority land that in fact has little to consider.

    • That’s not authority at all.

      That's not authority at all, and certainly not a rule of play. That's social leadership regarding conduct. It's definitely among persons, and it's arguably necessary for at least a few variables when people do anything fun together, but ascribing even the glimmer of "authority" in the colloquial sense to it is a big tell to get out of that room.

      Knowledge of some packet of conduct isn't authority either. That's information, specifically, symmetry or asymmetry.

  2. I recalled Ron talking about

    I recalled Ron talking about a supervillain cornered by the PCs and surrounded by a ring of summoned insects in a video. But here's Ron himself on Discord earlier today:

    The game was in the group called "Shield" (not an acronym, no relation to Marvel), played in Chicago in the late 1980s; the hero was the intriguing Insecto, the villain was Raptor … yes, you are recalling correctly. Another hero, Runaround, tried to jump over or leverage his super-running into a jump across the "moat" of roaches, and Matt failed his Acrobatics roll. So Matt described Runaround's failure as not only falling into the roaches but landing in such a way that Raptor walked across him out of the roach-enclosed space.

    Note that the game doesn't have critical/fumble mechanics, so it was merely a failed roll, not numerically distinctive.

    I wonder about the authority here. I suspect it was the GM's call to interpret the failure or the villain's reaction but he or she was willing to go with the flow, i.e. accept Matt's idea and the table's enthusiasm, probably with a nod or smile, or simply continuing from Matt's narration (and with no power struggle or popularity contest involved).

    (I'll stop for now as I'm already speculating a lot.)

    • As a rule, I need specific

      As a rule, I need specific questions and statements. I don't know what to do with phrases like "I wonder about." Can you say what you want me to clarify, about the concept in general or this specific case? What about it is important?

      I'm clear on what we did in that game and at that moment, but I can't reply to you without knowing what you see and what you're asking.

    • Who had authority…

      Who had authority…

      …to describe Runaround's (or any PC's) failure?

      …to embellish details of immediate tactical relevance (i.e. obviously more than colour)?

      …to decide Raptor would use this opportunity to escape?

      Furthermore, …

      >… did Raptor's escape involve an out-of-turn action (ignoring initiative order) or, somewhat similarly, was it initiated without anybody contesting it?

      …would it have been possible for Matt to make the same statement regarding another PC ("Behemoth steps on Runaround to get across to Raptor!")? Why or why not?

      …would it have been possible for Matt to make the same statement to garner an advantage for the PCs ("Runaround groans, 'Quick, use me as a bridge!'")? Why or why not?

      …was authority temporarily transfered at any point, and if so, why and how (i.e. how did the recipient know)?

      I fear that these questions seem incredibly nitpicky and negative — but it's a beautiful instance of play and I'm envious and eager to understand how you guys did this. The larger issue is probably how you guys played in a way that seems deliciously loose and creative to me without stepping on one another's toes.

      Or maybe I am misunderstanding authority. In any case, you don't necessarily need to answer these point for point — feel free to cut through my misconceptions in one fell strike!

    • No problem, these are great.

      No problem, these are great.

      The difficult part of replying is that although we were certainly playing with rules concerning authorities, no one had any idea of exactly what they were. Clearly some sort of standard was in place, but I don't think I can describe precisely what our rules were for every possible contingency like some kind of manual.

      Sometimes we found them out the hard way – for example, when another player had self-authored a lovely "bit" following an imagined upcoming outcome, and when it went a different way and I described the results, he complained that I'd ruined it. That's a good example of misunderstanding that authority to describe is not authority to write XYZ into play as an override. Or, I can think of other times when for some reason it was very important for everyone to see what I would say about some outcome.

      Anyway, to answer:

      We practiced strikingly open narration of outcomes. Anyone could speak up, and occasionally it would be someone who wasn't directly involved. I think technically we would have claimed that anything stated was "just a suggestion," but the group became pretty comfortable with it as common practice.

      Again, the legal what-ifs and only-ifs of this practice are not clear to me because I think we hammered them out through sheer application.The key factor seems to be whether a given description was valid within the constraints of the known outcome, aspects of the player-character which might be involved, other details of various rules and procedures (like the turn/order you mentioned), and potential unknowns. So I as GM or the player of the concerned character would often be checked with, to be sure about those things, but I think we accepted that one of us would essentially say, "I got it!" and describe the outcome.

      As a detail in this case, Matt was strongly concerned with Runaround's coolness and general image, and this was reflected in the character's own vanity and attention to branding. I am quite certain that he would have objected strongly to anyone else, GM or not, describing any such thing happening to Runaround. So the fact that he chose to do so at all, ever, was super-extra hilarious, intuitively known to be a one-time thing.

      To continue with these questions, any descriptions like this, by anyone, typically included both the basic description and details which could play into tactics. Think of it as "how this turned out exactly and a bit of what came of it." First-generation Champions as a system provides ample opportunity for each, especially concerning nearby items or whether a character was disoriented by damage or not.

      I remember thinking that Matt's description in this case went pretty far, as usually we did not see quite so much "business" associated with a rolled outcome, especially one which didn't involve inflicting some effect like damage or knockback or mind control or what-have-you. Even forcing his character to fall due to a failed Acrobatics check, while perfectly reasonable and probably would have been said by anyone considering it involved slippery bugs, wasn't actually mandated in textual terms. Therefore adding the part about Raptor walking across him was really past the point where we usually went – which I think could have been, out of all of it, more closely conceived as "suggestion" rather than "he does it."

      I also remember thinking that I should limit that last part since such things as walking across anyone or anything, and when, follows really strict rules in this game … but this little hitch in my mind was actually saved because as it happened, Raptor had a saved action, so using it right then to do exactly as described was coincidentally valid in order/movement terms. If it hadn't been, would I have said, "hold on, he can't move yet," albeit logging it as the next logical thing to do as soon as he could? I'm not sure – as I say, I know I specifically mentally checked the ordering rules right then, so I might have.

      Regarding another player-character, yes, such a statement would be consistent with how we played – subject in that case to whether the other player actually wanted to do it, i.e., they might have said, "No I don't." And I think it probably wouldn't have been stated as raw description of what the other hero did, but maybe it would have, more as a preliminary "it would be cool if you did this" statement.

      Your next question, as to whether Runaround could have suggested such a thing to an ally diegetically – yes, absolutely, and indeed doing so is favored by the textual rules. Spoken dialogue takes no time in early Champions, and it is not constrained by action/turn order at all. This kind of talk went on all the time, constantly, whether tactically, emotionally in the long-recognized comics tradition of sloppy soap opera, or in the similar long-recognized tendency of comics villains toward Too Much Information.

      As for transfer, well, given that the rule seemed to be "I got it!" more often than not, one can't really speak of transfer … I'm trying to argue against myself and imagine that all these instances were just me having narration authority as GM and permitting others to have it a lot, but frankly, that wasn't the case. This composition of people was quite solid about at least one person having something to say (me as GM being a candidate too), and everyone in a state of acceptance, "well, if you really think you've got this one, we are all ears."

      I hope that helps or makes at least some kind of sense.

    • You trusted each other (to

      You trusted each other (to deliver on "I got this!") — a relationship which you had to develop and which allowed you to play that way. Awesome! Thank you for these illuminating answers.

    • Two things to be super clear.

      Two things to be super clear.

      1. Trust isn't an abstract quality or independent behavior. We didn't "have trust" and then we could play like this. We played this way, or developed doing it pretty soon, and then it's accurate to say we trusted one another. It's very misleading to imply that a group would have some weird metaphysical quality first in order to be able to do a thing. [I find similar misleading problems in discussions of love and self-esteem.]

      Perhaps counter-intuitively, the presence of distrust is indeed a real thing, so if that's the case, then what I'm talking about is not possible. So instead of saying, "trust each other, then you can do X," the proper sequence would be, "play in the absence of distrust [i.e. without people in that state], do whatever it is you all like, and then we can talk about trust being present."

      2. Regarding the authorities: the critical point to this entire post is that authority doesn't mean taking anything away from anyone. You don't swipe things which are "mine," or vice versa. It has to do with a given phase of play and who is responsible for nailing down the facts, as it were, about which things at that time. It's not that Matt "took" Raptor away from me. In the case of this example, what we inadvertently found was that this responsibility for the distinct window of narrating an outcome, as it pertained to any character involved in it, was more open than we had realized. 

      But there's an even more precise aspect of this point to nail down for you specifically: that any such narration does not suspend other constraints. It is not "freedom to override anyone and any rules we have been otherwise abiding by." That's what's important about my other examples – we'd already established or learned that these narrations should not cancel or bypass procedures. In this case I even had to give a little thought to whether it did so and was surprised to find it didn't. 

    • I understand, both about

      I understand, both about trust (see below) and about authority.

      I remember a discussion with my friend Carl about how characters can be deprotagonised and even humiliated by GM force. We had played some of the same (railroady) modules particularly guilty of that (e.g. one that required the GM to provide a PC with a precious artifact and then take it away again later). We shared our distaste, establishing rapport in this matter.

      A couple of weeks later, I ran an RPG of mine emulating action movies. I started the session in medias res, with the PCs ambushing an illegal arms deal in a dockside warehouse. I set the scene and then called for initiative (precluding any maneuvers before that).

      That night, a new player was with us. He had created a PC and I explained that he had been captured by the arms dealer and was to be turned over to the buyer …

      Carl raised an eyebrow but also smiled — he was curious to see what I would do. A measure of trust given.

      … but had already freed himself without anybody noticing: "You stand at the back of the open truck, next to open crates of M-16s and LAWs. There's a goon with an SMG next to you, oblivious to the fact that your hands are free behind your back."

      Carl's smile widened into a grin. Trust earned.

      (The new PC did not need saving, did not sit out the first round of combat etc. I don't remember if I softened his earlier capture or asked the player for input, though.)

      My discussions with Carl helped build a little bit of trust, but play was the crucial thing.

  3. Someone’s gotta do it

    It's weird how oftentimes when reading Adept Play I find the topics correlate to things I'm dealing with, or that I've dealt with and am consolidating or explaining to others (oftentimes as part of the same process). I shouldn't be surprised, really, given that this has increased in frequency the more I've participated at this site. 

    In any case, I found myself explaining these things, in very similar words, a few hours ago. Which signals to me that the process of consolidation is close to complete.

    I think when I started out reflecting more about games I had a similar misunderstanding of authorities as "who speaks when" and didn't pay too much attention to them, considering them part of the Big Model's more exoteric parts — everything was really about the Creative Agendas, good "modern" games were "coherent", and all you needed to do to play well or make a good game was understand what Creative Agendas you were applying.

    Really, it was the other way around, and the authorities are the fundamental part, and what makes the game even function. I understand why you've put them very early in the Adept Play coursework. The game doesn't move forward without them.

    In my own conversations, I've gotten to framing them as 'responsibilities' — not really avoiding the A-word, but adding some additional context. As in "this is your job to do and the game doesn't move forward unless you do it". I don't particularly avoid the 

    I had a conversation with an acquaintance about "a player being too passive" and I discussed authorities with this person, and whether this player understood their job. Turns out that when the player did nothing, the GM or the others just filled in or started suggesting aggressively to make the game go forward — which I'm sure the player internalized as being how they were supposed to play. I think especially on the GM side there is this widespread terror of the game stopping or not being entertaining for others, and any pause is potential boredom for the people that they are "entertaining".

    As Vaesen's rulebook says, "the story must go on". I don't think it's a coincidence that "fail forward" mechanics emerged as a fundamental misunderstanding of conflict resolution. Rather than "every roll must resolve something, the situation must change" it became "we will make the 'story' move forward somehow, no boredom allowed".

    And I have kind of understood why that type of experience doesn't really happen to me anymore. If I'm playing with someone with that problem, I don't fill in — I just tell them "This is your job to do. Do something, anything, the first thing that comes to mind is good" and I wait until they do it.

    I've had a big improvement in play experience since figuring this stuff out.

    • I don’t particularly avoid

      I don't particularly avoid the 

      This part was obviously a copypaste mistake

  4. Translating

    Would you mind me translating this post in Italian and posting it on La Locanda? I can also send you a txt file to attach, as has been done before here on Adept Play. I think a few people need to hear this.

  5. Word choices, Italian/English

    Regarding "authority" vs. author-ity/"authorship", I think a similar misunderstanding happened in the Italian forums due to the slightly different semantics of "autorità", which has a correlation with the Mussolini bullshit, or in the most charitable interpretation with the police.

    I believe the most correct word for authorship in Italian would be paternità autoriale or simply paternità, meaning literally "authorial fatherhood", i.e. who is responsible for a work being created.

    There's also autorialità, which I understand as equivalent to English "authoriality", i.e. the condition of being an author. I'm not sure if that'd be more appropriate.

    • I just asked my dad (in

      I just asked my dad (in Italian), an eloquent man, about what he thinks these words mean, trying not to feed him the answers. 

      • paternità — "The responsibility of raising a child."
      • paternità, but you're not talking about children — "The responsibility of inventing something."
      • autorità — "Command over other people."
      • autorialità — "This is a complex word. I'm not sure, something related to being an author"
  6. The Big Other in the Room

    I do have to wonder at the extent to which the automatic resistance or opposition is due to the concept versus the word used to label the concept. For example, drawing from this part of the Patreon discussion:

    Then the task is to recognize that all "rules-y" talk about that, e.g., the table told me what happens, the dice told me what happens, the scenario text told me what it is, the resolution rules told me to make it up, my prep notes told me what it is, are subroutines to the principle that "I have to say it and be heard, and everyone else is relying on me and no one else (at this point) to say it."

    I do strongly suspect that for a number of people, the "rules-y talk" exists as a kind of Lacanian Big Other, a symbolic order that removes consciousness from the equation- this has been ordained by "the system", "the dice", etc. I don't want to speculate as to why this would emerge psychologically or sociologically, but if it is the case, I think it's probably an underlying difficulty in acknowledging that everything which happens in play happens because someone spoke with authority, and someone else spoke with a different but complementary authority. Which manifests, perhaps, as discomfort with the term "authority". But simply naming a possibility doesn't produce a means to circumvent it, alas! 

    So with that in line, authority and authorities are very valuable to articulate, of course. I've been contemplating the beginnings of a game drawing upon the homoeroticism of action movies and comics and pulling that in with intentionally kinky power exchange dynamics, and being able to put that in terms of "players start out with resource-based high narrational authority over their character, and once it's out, refilling those resources means temporarily exchanging situational authority with another player" makes the basic, well, mechanical loop much more clear to me. 

    • I think you’re right. The

      I think you're right. The issue is compounded by the misconception that "talking"/"saying it" overrides other procedures like dice rolls. When a person is tangled up with that misconception, then they will not be able to process what I'm presenting about authorities.

      So far, I've found that only the step by step, activity-based, dedicated coursework experience is effective in overcoming this degree of resistance or confusion, and (of course) not guaranteed even so.

  7. It’s the right word.

    I’ve been talking to several people recently and measured how they feel about the word “authority” and it’s application to role-playing games.

    After some thought I have to say I agree with you. There’s a population of people that have no problem using this word. In my experience this is not wholly correlated to being an Adept Play frequenter — there’s plenty of folks that I spoke to that play regularly, don’t read this site, and caught on to the concept immediately. Most of the people that have a big problem with it are simply struggling with the medium itself.

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