RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 4 (part 1)
Posted by Nathan P. on September 28, 2008
(previous posts collected here)
Chapter 4: Authority & Credibility
You are probably familiar with the basic split between “the GM” and “the players” in an RPG. While there exist many games that either blur or entirely get rid of the GM role, the majority have some kind of division between the majority of the players who (usually) play a singular character, and one player who is responsible for most of the other elements of gameplay.
This chapter is dedicated to exploring the reasons behind these split roles; talking about what exactly a GM is and does; and discussing the notions of authority and credibility as a framework for making design decisions about who is responsible for what in play.
How Does This Apply to Design?
At it’s most basic level, roleplaying consists of a number of people talking to each other. The purpose of the interaction is to explore a certain kind of fiction, but that exploration is done via description, narration, and integration of systematic elements into that shared fiction through conversation.
Game design, as discussed previously, is the creation of a framework to organize and direct these interactions towards a desired goal. While often expressed in mechanics, statistics and game-related fictional material, the most basic act of game design is to say who says what and when. This is where the concepts of “authority” and “credibility” come into play.
Authority concerns where the buck stops in any given interaction on the table. Who has the ability to say “this conversation is over, we’re moving on”? Who has the ability to introduce something into the fiction without being challenged? Who is able to make declarative, definitive statements, and about what? Authority is about adding and ending. In many traditional games, the GM has authority over the actions of NPCs, events in the game world, and so forth, while players each have authority over their characters actions and their characters responses to the situations they find themselves in. In a game like Polaris, on the other hand, which has no singular GM role, each persons authority in each scene changes depending on what character the scene is focusing on.
Where authority is about who can say what, credibility is about how much weight those statements have in relation to one another. Again, in a traditional game, a player has authority over their characters actions, and also an enormous amount of credibility in declaring those actions. The GM can rarely tell the player that their character acts or feels or thinks in a certain way without the player invoking his authority over the character to overrule the GMs statement, for example. In general, many resolution systems are about apportioning credibility to statements made about the outcome of a conflict or challenge.
We’ll come back to authority and credibility after talking about the GM role in roleplaying. But for now, here’s the important things to keep in mind:
Authority is answering the question “Who gets to talk about X?”
Credibility is answering the question “How is a disagreement about X resolved?”