Part 4 – Author and Director Stances

By on August 20, 2011
Rich Stokes

These two Stances are fairly similar, but not terribly hard to tell apart. Both are important though!

I’m going to use the word “acting” a lot, and in this context it means “taking action” rather than any kind of dramatics or thespian behaviour.

Author Stance

This is any action where the player is acting through their character with the goal being to affect the game’s fiction. This is a very common Stance: many players act almost entirely in Author Stance.

“Acting as” vs “Acting through”

The important difference here is intent. A player acting through a character is trying to effect change on the game’s fiction. A player acting as a character is more interested in what that character would do.

While acting through, the player is using the character as a tool, a means-to-an-end to manipulate the story or to explore the setting. There might be little or no attempt or interest in the character’s personality, beliefs and outlook. This is not to say that these things are irrelevant to a player acting through a character, but they are not the focus. In short, the player is not trying to engage with their character so much as directly with the game’s fiction.

An easy example might be that a player might act as a character after thinking “What would my character do/feel/think next?”, while a player acting through their character might have thought “What would be the most interesting/enjoyable/advantageous thing for my character to do next”.

The actions chosen by a player acting in Author Stance might also happily include out-of-character knowledge. This might just be system-specific meta-knowledge which helps define a character’s options, or may be knowledge of what other players at the table want or are expecting.

Author Stance vs Actor Stance

The main difference here is that a player acting in Author Stance is acting through their character, while one acting in Actor Stance is acting as their character. It’s important to keep this distinction in mind when playing, since players who prefer to act through their character will enjoy different things to ones who tend to act as their character. The care and feeding of various Stances will be dealt with more fully in a later column, but for the time being it’s worth paying attention to what the people around you are doing.

“Dipping into” Author Stance

Even players who act mainly in Actor Stance “dip into” Author Stance fairly regularly for a variety of reasons. Whenever a change or action needs to be made in the game world which doesn’t really need any in-character thought (like re-stocking expended ammunition) most players will simply state what their character is up to in Author Stance, regardless of what playstyle they usually adopt. This also happens when action must be taken because of real life events external to the game world, like agreeing with party consensus as part of most functional gaming groups’ “social contract” not to be a disruptive twat, or respecting the table’s established Lines and Veils*.

This can be as simple as having a character act in a certain way (“Well, I was going to stab the guy, but is seems like Tim’s character might want him alive, so I’ll just rough him up a bit”) or as complex as a subtle change in the character’s outlook, history or personality (“This boy stole from me and as a cold-hearted killer I ought to kill him. That’d be keeping in character, but Tim’s really not keen on the whole murdering kids things, so maybe I have a code against killing children?”). These are obviously fairly extreme examples to better illustrate the point, but essentially most functional players who enjoy other Stances act in Author Stance to accommodate real-world issues when they arise.

Director Stance

This is any action wherein a player is effecting the game’s fiction without using their character. Traditionally, game texts have presented this as the sole province of the GM, although as discussed in the Ownership column this is a largely illusory conceit: if a player requires certain changes to be made in a game world for the game to be fun, then those changes either need to be made or the player needs to play a different game. In less extreme (and far more common) circumstances a player’s ideas might just be good additions to the game, and if they do no harm and increase enjoyment, then they are often included. A player might suggest that the previously anonymous (and hastily just generated) barman is actually someone he used to work with years ago, for example.

Another very common example is objects in the game world: “I pick up a potted plant and throw it through the window!” The plant pot hasn’t been mentioned and was not part of the GM’s description of the office, but it seems completely reasonable that there would be such a plant handy. “I go to my car and get my Best of Queen CD and hand it to her.” Again, the player has never mentioned that his character owned such a CD, but this seems reasonable and play moves along happily without anyone batting an eyelid.

Larger changes are possible as long as the consensus is in agreement, although when using systems where this is unwritten (rather than codified into the rules), most functional groups will find the “level” of input the players can reasonably expect to be accepted. “I own a Best of Queen CD” is generally a far less game-changing declaration than “I own Belgium” for example, and the acceptable level of player Director Stance input usually lies somewhere between the two (often nearer Queen than Belgium).

This player input is also sometimes mandated by a game’s system, either in the form of drama/karma/FATE points or by a game having a structure different to the traditional GM/player divide. Variations on the FATE point model are used in a number of games and are generally fairly simple: players spend a finite resource and get to contribute something to the game’s fiction outside of their character’s actions. As pointed out in the Ownership column though, any time these mechanics have the “Mother, may I?” caveat that a player’s contribution is subject to GM approval, they’re basically functionally identical to games in which such mechanics do not exist.

Games which defy the GM/Player authority divide have many different shapes. Some games have a “soft GM”, who wields authority gently with a loose hand. Hot War is an excellent example of this: the GM role is mostly traditional, but the outcomes of conflicts are narrated by the victor (player or GM), tacitly giving players a chance at Director Stance. This narration is not subject to “Mother, May I?” GM approval. Instead the text more accurately reflects the real balance of power by giving a veto to all players at the table, allowing them to block any truly objectionable input.

Other games have a structure in which there is no dedicated GM. Some have pointed out, not entirely unfairly, that this makes all the players involved part-time GMs.**

Next time

Gamer and Audience Stances!

* The basic thrust of Lines is that a group discusses openly things which the players really do not want included in a game. These topics and events will be effectively banned: they just won’t happen or come up in the game. This is particularly important with any kind of intense gaming, especially anything with morally-dubious PCs or extremely emotional situations. Common Lines will be things like rape, torture and child abuse. Veils are a softer ban: things which can happen, but “off screen” or skipping detailed descriptions. I personally have a strong dislike of torture scenes for example, and will not participate in them in any way. But I have no particular problem with the idea that evil cultists have tortured their prisoners to death; I just don’t want details of the wounds when I find the corpses.

Ideally this stuff should be discussed up-front, but it’s easy to miss stuff or forget certain topics, so players should never be afraid to raise or impose a Line or Veil during play. After all, the point of play is to have fun and that’s basically impossible if you’re feeling uneasy because the game has turned to a subject you’re uncomfortable with.

The term first appeared in Sex and Sorcery by Ron Edwards. While I’m not a particularly big fan of Ron Edwards (nor do I particularly agree with most of what he says), it’s obvious to me that disregarding everything he says because they disagree with some of his more incendiary or extreme views is ridiculous and idiotic. Lines and Veils are some of the most useful tools in any gamer’s toolbox.

** I’m going to have to play the “conflict of interests” card here and say that having designed, written and published a story-telling game which has no dedicated GM (Umläut: Game of Metal, published by Cubicle 7 and available now in all good games shops!), I’m not really in a position to talk objectively on the subject of GM-less games. From my own point of view, this distribution of power to the players is a very small step away from Traditional games: once you realise that the GM’s absolute authority is purely illusory, explicitly distributing that power to everyone is just a minor semantic tweak.

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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