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Part 1½ – An Interlude Regarding Ownership

By on April 15, 2011
Rich Stokes

Before I plough on into the whole “application of stances” thing, it’s probably important to spend a moment to cover the important topic of Ownership.

Whose Game is it Anyway?

An important concept in this or any discussion of RPGs is that of Ownership. In this context, it applies to which players claim Ownership and have control over which elements of the game’s fiction.

Historically, the GM has had ultimate ownership of everything in the game’s fiction, including the players’ characters. Older or more traditional game texts often grant the GM total and utter godhood over the game’s fiction, giving the GM permission to over-rule pretty much anything the text or players say and just have things go their way.

I’m going to grab the nearest 4 books on my gaming shelf:

Aberrant: Page 101, “The Storyteller”

As a Storyteller, you create the environment in which the characters are placed

Shadowrun 4th: Page 17, “What is a roleplaying game?”

The gamemaster describes the world as the characters see it, functioning as their eyes, ears, and other senses. Gamemastering is not easy, but the thrill of creating an adventure that engages the other players’ imaginations, testing their gaming skills and their characters’ skills in the game world, makes it worthwhile. FanPro publishes game supplements and adventures to help this process along, but experienced gamemasters always adapt the game universe to suit their own styles. In roleplaying, stories (the adventures) evolve much like a movie or book, but within the flexible storyline created by the gamemaster.

Ex Machina: Page 14, “What is roleplaying?”

The GM’s job is to act as rules arbiter and describe the action to the players. He also handles playing all the other characters in the game – usually the antagonists, but sometimes the friends of the players’ characters – and sets the environment in which the characters exist.

Serenity: Page 5, “GamesMaster”

The GM creates the basic outline of the story that the crew will follow and plays the part of all the NPCs – all those people the crew meets during their adventures. The GM is the players’ window into the ‘Verse.The GM tells the players what they see and hear (and smell and taste and feel). But the GM needs to remember that the crew are the stars of this tale. The players have to make their own choices in the story – meaning they’ll get themselves into trouble all by their lonesomes! The GM has to think on his feet and adjust the story when the unexpected happens. (And it will happen!) Another role the GM plays is that of arbiter. The GM will be the only person who knows all the facts in the game. As there will probably be some disagreements, the GM settles any arguments over the game rules or questions about character creation or how the story develops. Final decisions rest with the GM, but he should remember that his chief job is to help everyone have fun.

That’s just the 4 I’ve grabbed first. So far we’re four for four. Let’s look at probably my favourite example.

Deadlands: Marshal’s Handbook: Page 13, “Running the Game”

You’re the Marshal.

Remember that. You’re the fellow who makes all the decisions and keeps things moving. It’s your job to make the posse afraid of the dark while still dying to know what’s in it. You have to run scenes full of high-action and drama, then turn around and do a little romance and comedy.

[...]

The rules in the Weird West Player’s Book are fairly detailed.

[...]

Characters need all that detail because they can’t cheat. But you’re the Marshal. You can do whatever the Hell you want to, and that’s official partner.

The books are fairly clear: the GM is in charge, all power to the GM!

The Illusion of GM Authority

So in “traditional” games players are given control and Ownership over their own character and their own character alone. Even then, it is often the case that the GM acts as “gatekeeper” as to the players’ characters. For example, if a player wanted his character to be married to the baron’s daughter, then the GM needed to approve this. Since the only thing the players actually had Ownership of is their characters, their characters are the only vector they have for interacting with the game and the fiction.

It’s widely accepted that this “GM as all-powerful godhead” philosophy came about so that the GM could simply beat players with differing Creative Agendas (or who were just acting like dickheads) into submission. That is, if a player was behaving in a way that the GM didn’t approve of, the GM had the authority to stop them within the framework of the game and its fiction.

A slight aside:

Some argue that handing the GM absolute authority helps to preserve the in-game immersion in Character Stance that many players enjoy, but it’s hard to see how this type of passive-aggressive nonsense can possibly lead to a better experience for anyone at the table than just calmly and politely explaining to a troublesome player that their behaviour is problematic and asking them to modify it.

Players who have a disruptive behaviours “corrected” by GM fiat (“I stab the king!” is countered by the GM rolling a bunch of dice behind a screen so that the players can’t see them and saying “The king deftly dodges your attack, disarms you and continues explaining the political situation in the western provinces”) might feel that they are being unfairly treated. They might think that the king is clearly the GM’s favourite NPC and that’s why his attempt to stab him was subject to veto, or that the GM is just trying to force the plot along one particular linear path, or that the king is secretly some kind of ninja master.

If the disruptive behaviour is countered with a clear indication that the way he’s carrying on is just not acceptable to the rest of the people at the table, (“I stab the king!” is countered by the GM and possibly one or more other people involved saying words to the effect of “Mark, your behaviour is inappropriate. We all agreed that this would be a mainly political campaign. Please respect that, or leave the game.” or something less polite like “Mark, stop being a twat!”) the player is left in no doubt that they should behave differently in future.

More on this in a future column, when we’ll tackle Immersion and its pitfalls.

In practice though, GMs who exercise too much of this control to veto or block the actions and ideas of the other people at their table will alienate the rest of the players. They usually find themselves losing players the same way a haemophiliac loses blood in a skip full of broken glass. The important thing here is the old Spider-Man notion that “with great power comes great responsibility”: if a GM wields this kind of power, he must bear the players’ desires in mind at all times and act in a way that the other players at the table will enjoy. Because, regardless of what’s in the game text about who gets the final say, ultimately players who aren’t enjoying the game still have the power to not turn up to the next session (or just pack up their stuff and go home in extreme cases). So a GM with absolute power is ironically not really in charge at all, he’s actually pretty much the players’ bitch.

Some game texts take the trouble to explain this but many don’t. You’ll note above that the Serenity quote ends by touching upon this sentiment.

What really happens at the table during play is that the game runs by mutual consensus of everyone involved. Yes, even the most trad game! Consensus doesn’t mean everyone getting what they want though, just that there is agreement from everyone as to what is going on and how it works. For example, often there will be an argument or disagreement over what a character can or cannot achieve and these are usually resolved pretty quickly and painlessly.

Here’s a more extensive example from a Star Wars game I ran recently using the Savage Worlds system:

In one scene, the PCs (a pair of bounty hunters) are following a guy out of a bar to see where he’s going. I say this would require a Notice roll from the players, vs the Stealth skill of the guy they were following. Claire suggests that, in fact, her character’s Tracking skill should be used instead. I don’t really need to think about this, it was obvious to me that Claire wants to use a different skill and that it’s reasonable of her to use Tracking. So we agreed that Tracking can be used instead. Dave, the other player, who has created a character which is basically a murderbot with no Tracking skill, still wants to use Notice, which we agree is perfectly fine too. I ask if they were trying to be subtle about it and follow him without being spotted. Dave suggests that murderbot isn’t really into subtlety, so no.

They roll, both beat the guy and they follow him into an alleyway where they see him mounting his swoop. They confront him and he panics and tries to ride the bike past them and out of the alley to escape. Dave decides that his character is going to have none of this and is going to try and knock the guy off the swoop with his electrostaff. Another negotiation begins: I suggest that murderbot is basically trying to hit this bloke with a stick, so it’s a Fighting roll, just like a normal melee attack. That’s opposed by the defender’s Parry stat. Murderbot has D10 in Fighting, the guy on the bike is pretty typical and has 5 in Parry. But hitting a guy on a moving bike should be harder I suggest. There aren’t any specific rules for knocking a bloke off a moving bike, so Dave suggested that -2 seems about right. The system helps a lot here, doing somethng which is a bit hard is usually -2, while doing something very hard is usually -4. We agree that this should be a bit hard rather than very hard, so we give murderbot a -2, meaning he need to roll a 7 or more to hit.

He rolls, he hits. This pleases Dave. I suggest that the guy is knocked off the swoop and Claire suggests that he might not be, or might be seriously injured. Again, since there are no specific rules for this, I suggest that Dave should roll damage as usual, and we’ll use the result of that: no damage means the guy doesn’t even fall off the bike and rides off, Shaken means he falls off and is winded, but not seriously hurt, and wounded means the guy is properly hurt. Everyone agrees to this, but Dave suggests that since the bike is moving towards him at great speed, he ought to get a bonus to his damage roll. Before I can agree to this, Claire pipes up that, honestly, the electrostaff does enough damage already and any bonus will make smearing the guy far too likely. Dave seems happy with that, and I don’t really care (I can see murderbot might be pulling this blow in a rare case of kindness) so we don’t apply any bonus damage. Dave rolls damage and it’s small surprise to see that the guy is shaken. He falls from the bike and is winded, but unhurt.

The negotiation process is mostly unwritten and rarely discussed, but it’s almost always there. It usually takes a matter of seconds and often people don’t notice that they’re doing it.

(Arguments of this nature which last are usually a symptom of a deeper dysfunction, which is beyond the scope of this article.)

This is not to say that the GM is in any way powerless. He still wields a certain amount of power, although exactly how much power varies from group to group and from GM to GM. For example, in most groups the GM is usually looked to as the person who understands the game’s mechanics and setting best, and is understandably regarded by the other players as the authority on these things. Players often defer to the GM in such matters because he’s regarded as the expert and the one most likely to make “good” decisions.

In summary then, it’s fair to say that the GM usually wields more authority than any of the other players individually, but this power is far from absolute. Which is good news, because neither is responsibility for the success or failure of the game: that’s shared among everyone at the table too.

Who Actually Owns What

The issue of who actually claims Ownership for which parts of the game’s fiction is a complex one. On the surface it’s the “GM, the whole GM and nobody but the GM”, but once you dig even a little into functional actual play experiences you see that because of the the consensus it might appear that everyone owns everything. To a degree this is correct, but this isn’t really quite right, because actually it’s more useful to assign Ownership of different things to the different players.

Generally, players have ownership of their characters, and are usually solely responsible for their character’s thoughts, actions and feelings. The GM generally speaking, has ownership of everything else, and even claims occasional ownership of some aspects of the players’ characters. But the GM’s Ownership is only by permission of the players, on the understanding that they use it constructively and do not abuse their authority or the players.

So we’re back where we started? Well, yeah, but we now (hopefully) understand a bit better exactly how Ownership actually applies in play. Understanding this will be important to the next column, where we’ll discuss the fact that the GM often “lends” some parts of the fiction to the players and lets them play with his toys!

Next time: “You promised to tell us about how those Stances actually work at the table!”

About Rich Stokes

Rich has been gaming for over 25 years and during that time has played or run more-or-less everything. Having spent his early years as a recruitment consultant, web designer and videogames reviewer, Rich eventually settled down and got a proper job in the IT industry. More recently, he's responsible for writing Umläut: Game of Metal and running semi-annual Pubcon events, as well as writing for Cubicle 7's Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre. He clearly spends too much time thinking about this stuff because he's writing this column. He currently lives in Southampton with his partner, Claire and an elderly cat called Charlie.

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