Part 2 – Stances In Play

By on 20 May 2011

In Part 1 we defined six “stances”, which can be thought of as jobs we do to generate fun while roleplaying:

Actor Stance
Character Stance
Author Stance
Director Stance
Gamer Stance
Audience Stance

It’s very misleading to think that players are dedicated to one Stance or another. Generally players will flit between Stances from moment-to-moment almost instantly. In a typical game for example, it’s not unusual for something like this to be heard:

The Troll runs at you with it’s Axe held high! (Author Stance)1

Shit! I’ll ready my sword to parry the blow. (Character Stance)2
Player looks at character sheet and grabs some dice to make a Parry roll.

That Axe looks awfully big and heavy, the Troll has a Strength of 22, you have a Strength of 14. You’re looking at a -8 penalty here. (Gamer Stance)3

Hmmm, As the veteran of many fights with Trolls (Director Stance)4 I’d know that in-character, so I’d try to dodge out the way instead (Gamer Stance)5. Actually, there’s a door nearby (Director stance)6, I’ll put that between me and the Troll if there’s time. (Gamer Stance)7

Fair enough, I’ll let you make a Dodge roll, with a +2 for the door (Gamer Stance)8
Player rolls some dice, gets a crit or whatever

Cool! I dodge! That crit Dodge gives me +4 to my next attack! (Gamer Stance)9 As the Troll’s Axe comes down, splintering the door, I roll under its axe and between its legs and strike quickly at its unarmoured calves! (Author/Director Stance)10.

Lets break that down a bit:

  1. The GM is using the Troll. The Troll has already been established as existing, so this is pure Author stance. He’s manipulating a fictional element which belongs to him.
  2. Here, the player is talking “in character”: he’s acting as them.
  3. Clearly Gamer stance, since the GM’s crunching numbers.
  4. Here (4 & 5), the player realises that he’s being silly and that the idea of parrying a Troll’s massive axe using his character’s puny shortsword is pretty much a non-starter. He uses Director stance to suggest that his character has had many fights with Trolls in the past. This is a newly established fact about his character’s past, one he’s establishing right now. Obviously everyone thinks it’s reasonable that he might have fought Trolls in the past, because nobody objects. The important thing here is that while the GM technically has authority over what happens here, he chooses not to exercise it to veto the player’s comments. In brief, the GM understands that the player is someone living in contemporary England and working with spreadsheets, not an adventurer living or dying by the sword. The player is tacitly allowed a “do-over”; adding this touch of narrative colour is just for fun and adds to everyone’s Audience stance enjoyment.
  5. Mechanically, it makes more sense to dodge; this is clear Gamer stance.
  6. Again, the player is throwing something into the mix. The door wasn’t explicitly there before, but it kinda just makes sense for there to be a door there.
  7. This is typically cheeky Gamer stance: the player is clearly fishing for a bonus…
  8. …and gets it!
  9. Interpreting the result of the dice roll is just plain Gamer.
  10. Here, the player’s interpreting the outcome of the dice rolls and mechanics into fiction and colour. A hefty bonus to his next attack is gained by being particularly agile: it seems appropriate that he’s out manoeuvred the Troll and found a vulnerable spot to strike at. Again, while he has no explicit authority to announce that the Troll has no armour protecting his calves, everyone thinks it’s reasonable and enjoys the narration.

As discussed previously, not all games offer an opportunity for all Stances. For example, as written, most older, more traditional games offer (non-GM) players exactly zero Director Stance opportunities. Newer traditional-style games (like Buffy) have a half-hearted attempt at allowing Author and Director Stances for players in the form of “Drama Points” or similar mechanics, but these have the Mother, May I? caveat that “as long as the GM says it’s OK, you can make something up”. This, it could be argued, is functionally identical to not having such mechanics. Someone demanding Author/Director Stance either needs to avoid those games, play them only as the GM, or play them only in groups which have social contracts which permit players to “bend” the rules and adopt Director stances occasionally.

It’s worth noting though, that almost every vaguely functional gaming group has developed such a social contract. Also, with reference to the last column, despite asinine comments in a bunch of rulebooks tacitly giving absolute authority over everything to the GM (often with an explicit encouragement to break or ignore the rules), most functional rpg groups actually delegate some of the responsibility and authority to the players, and decisions are reached by consensus rather than dictate. GMs who openly ignore the desires and opinions of their players lose the interest of said players, and the group either becomes deeply dysfunctional or breaks up. This is not to say that any group which has a GM who “rules with an iron fist” and allows the players no input beyond the actions of their characters is inherently dysfunctional, because some players actively want that, just like some players want to be railroaded through a linear, pre-written adventure.

As I said earlier, the important thing here is not to think of people as fitting into one Stance or another. These are not types of gamers, they’re activities. Someone is not “a character stance player”. They may like and enjoy Character Stance more than any of the others, but it’s a very extreme case indeed that someone only likes one stance. The vast majority of gamers enjoy all these stances at least a bit, but most gravitate towards some and away from others.
A simple way to figure out which stances are important to a player in an RPG is to consider whether they would most like to:

  1. Pretend to be a character in a fictional city
  2. Experience a story about a character in a fictional city
  3. Play a game about a character in a fictional city

This triumvirate will sound familiar to anyone who’s read any “forge-y” RPG theory. That’s because, no matter what you think about that lot, a lot of what that stuff says is basically accurate.

Interestingly, if you flat out ask that question to anyone regarding RPGs, they very rarely say number 3. Most people will reply that what they want to do is to tell a story about a character (or bunch of characters). While this is undoubtedly true of a lot of gamers (possibly even a majority) it’s worth considering that there has been a lot of pressure over the years to think that this is the correct answer. “RPGs are about telling stories” is a phrase you hear a lot and read in the introduction of many, many books, but fundamentally it’s not actually always true. It really is beyond the scope of this article to delve too deeply into this, but basically a lot of RPGs are published with advice in them about what they do which is in no way accurate. Certainly most “Traditional” RPGs published in the last 25 years claim that they’re all about telling stories, while quite comfortably supporting all three styles of play to a certain degree. In fact, most support “playing a game” rather well, “pretending to be a character” to some degree and “tell a story” hardly at all. So people are often taught to say that what they want is to tell a story, when really what they actually enjoy most during sessions is either playing in character or interacting with the rules. Over the years, I’ve played numerous games with groups who said they were running a “story based, character driven” game. Sometimes they actually are, and sometimes they’re running a series of combat encounters with very little else going on. But they’ve been taught to say that they’re running a character focused game with an emphasis on story because that’s what the book tells them to do, while providing mainly mechanical assistance for gunfights and car-chases. So it takes a bit of thought to take a step back and examine what you’re actually doing and what you’re actually enjoying.

To get the most out of gaming you have to game in the stances you enjoy the most, and to do that you have to know what stances you like!

The next three columns will delve in a bit more depth into the stances individually. We’ll start with the Character and Actor Stances next month, then look at Author and Director and finish up with Gamer and Audience after that.

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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