This is Faith in Play #67: Stance, for June 2023.
Periodically I ask for topic ideas for this series, and most recently someone replied
Player Agency. I hear a lot about it in the OSR world, where a lot of the focus is on giving the player freedom to choose what they do outside of just rolling skills.
Not being connected to discussions in the OSR world, I had to ask for clarification. Ultimately I decided that the question was really about what is elsewhere identified as stance.
Stance refers to the way players use their characters within the game world, and is usually categorized very generally as Pawn, Actor, Author, and Director. To summarize briefly, Pawn stance means that the character does what the player wants regardless of whether it makes sense for the character; Actor stance means that the character does what the player believes that character would “really” do in that situation; Author stance blends the two, that the character does what the player wants but the player creates reasons why this is what the character would choose to do; and Director stance means that the player gets to create aspects of the world that are outside the control of his character so that his character can interact with these. You can read more about this in Theory 101: System and the Shared Imagined Space at Places to Go, People to Be (also available in French)–but this series is not so much about explaining game theory as about considering the interaction of our faith with our games.
OSR stands for Old School Renaissance or Revival, role playing games returning to the roots of the hobby. There is at least the perception that in those early games players said what their characters were going to attempt and then rolled the dice, and that was the sum of their input to the shared imagined space, the referee then describing the outcome. As I understand it, what players are seeking is something closer to Director stance, the ability to create within the game world what is beyond the power of their characters, not merely to roll for success but to describe events and objects within the scene. They want narration rights and a bit more, creation rights.
As I suggest in the aforementioned article, there is some degree of this in almost every role playing game; it is defined by the level of “credibility” that the players have, that is, the degree to which they can define objects and events in the shared imagined space. If the referee says that characters aboard a sailing ship have entered the navigator’s room, in most games players are justified in stating that they are looking at the charts, the sextant, possibly the compass, as objects that the referee did not mention but which they reasonably placed within the scene. With a bit more credibility, they could read the navigator’s notes or the captain’s log or ship’s manifest. They might, given enough credibility, create information about the ship’s destination or cargo or port of origin or crew contingent. With less credibility the players would have to ask what is in the room before they could interact with any of it.
At some point, though, the exercise of director stance begins to give the player something akin to magical or god-like power within the world. He can control what exists within the world and what happens. The challenge, then, is do we want our characters to be gods, our players to play gods?
Of course, arguably the referee does that constantly. Some say that the referee is god within the game world, and in “old school” gaming that was readily apparent. Indeed, an illusionist referee can completely control everything that happens in the game and cause the players to believe that their characters have free will and are directing the events around them. Some referees exercise more of their power than others, and there are stories of referees who seem to be power-mad, abusing their position.
Thus someone gets to be god-like within the game, and while we might think that a bad aspect of role playing games it’s a natural part of play: someone makes the rules and the ultimate decisions. Whether some of those decisions are within the purview of the character players or all reserved to the referee does not really change the issue.
Yet is it an issue? I have noted elsewhere that in the first chapter of Genesis before we are told that man was created in the image of God, most of what we are told about God is that He created, that He spoke all things into existence. Thus when we, too, create, and particularly when we speak things into existence, we are most expressing the image of God within us. In that sense, being god-like is a good thing, whether it is the referee or the character players.
On the practical side, though, in many kinds of games director stance has to be limited. Most old school games are about overcoming challenges, and they lose much of what makes them fun if the players can simply create what they need to win.
So the question of the amount of credibility to be given to the character players to create things within the world is ultimately a matter of finding the sweet spot that works for a particular game and gaming group. If a group works well with more player input into the scene, that can make for better play; if players tend to use it to derail the challenges set by the referee, perhaps they are playing the wrong kind of game.