Paradigms of Authority

In the week since I announced the release of The Game Master, I received quite a bit of feedback from various people—most of it positive, some negative. I certainly have some things to chew on, should I choose to do a follow-up or a revision to the book at some point in the future.

For the moment, there was one piece of commentary that I found particularly salient. A poster on RPG.net named Ergodic Mage had this to say:

If you classify GMing styles as Planned, Cooperative or Improvised (there are other ways to classify), most advice uses one of the styles and expands upon it. The parts I read of your work may have suggested incorporating all 3 styles in different areas. If that is what your are attempting to bring out then it is an unusual approach that could be very flexible. Take that and clarify it, coordinate it with your advice, where to use which style and so forth. You could even use this to inspire different GMing approaches and in different contexts.

After thinking about this statement for a bit (and getting some follow up clarification from the poster), it seemed to me that these were less discrete styles of GMing and more different points along a single spectrum.

On the Planning end of the spectrum you have groups for whom primary authorship of the game lies with the GM. He or she takes an active role establishing the agenda of the game, and the players react to whatever the GM throws at them. On the other side of the spectrum you have the Improvisational GMs, wherein the primary source of authority is reversed: the players actively set the agenda of the game and the GM is reactionary. Last, the Cooperative GMs lie somewhere in the middle between Planning and Improvisation. The players and the GM pass the buck back and forth in terms of authorial power.

Now, I use the words active and reactive intentionally, because what this reminded me of was another theory about RPGs titled Active and Reactive Players, although the post that expressed this perspective is about 5 years old. I was intrigued by the theory at the time, although something about it seemed incomplete. In hindsight—and in the context of this Planned/Co-op/Improv spectrum, I think I finally see what it is.

As I discuss at various points in The Game Master, the role of Author is shared amongst all of the players in a group. When a GM takes total authorial power away from the other players we call it Railroading or Deprotagonisation—both of which are rightfully seen as bad things to do. However, there are also those cases where neither the GM nor the players is able to take effective narrative control, and the game flounders. There are also those cases where GM and players butt heads, as both try to exert active narrative control simultaneously.

The thought that now occurs to me is that there is a natural ebb and flow to the authorial role, as players and GM take active or reactive positions depending on the situation, and each person at the table will have their own preferences and expectations as to how the authority is handled. To that extent, being able to articulate and demarcate one’s own preference either as a GM or a player can be very useful both when forming a group and in resolving issues of inter-party tension as they happen.

If I were the ambitious and scientific-minded sort, I might consider devising a Kinsey scale for roleplayers.

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