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GMing: Broad Authority + Clear Directives

April 11, 2010

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately that has the “Less rules free your imagination!” kind of thinking to it. It seems to basically be a shorthand phrase for the philosophy of preferring broad authority over formalized rules to resolve a major part of action in play.

Where a lot of this stuff goes wrong is in thinking that broad authority alone “naturally” produces functional play with it. Stuff like The Primer for Old School Gaming exist as ways to fill in the missing parts which have been oral tradition, learned through play, because it doesn’t exist in a lot of the game texts which assume it’s use.

It’s not enough to just give authority and responsibility to someone to resolve action in play- you need to give a direction of how they should be using it.

Vincent had this nice post about rules in the book vs. “principled decisions” – that is, things the rules didn’t cover, but the group makes choices that fit in with the spirit of the rules, that follow the same principles of the rules. When you decide to grant broad authority as a major part of play, you need to also make sure you’re communicating the principles of how this authority should be used.

The three things that make broad authority work well in a game:

1. A Directive

Is the point of the authority to pressure and challenge the players? To herd them into a specific choice? To force them to choose between a few things? A lot of games use this very well. Vincent’s thoughts on authority and judgment are worth considering.

Primetime Adventures tells the GM to challenge characters’ Issues, Burning Wheel does the same with Beliefs. Sorcerer tells GMs to constantly put characters into situations to force them to make choices about Humanity. The Drifter’s Escape has two GMs; one’s goal is to get the Drifter to commit antisocial acts of violence, corruption and evil, the other’s goal is to get the Drifter to commit socially enforced acts of violence, corruption and evil (and, at least obedience and submission).

2. How to think about it

HOW should a GM use their authority? What kinds of process should they use in applying broad authority? When you lack this, you end up with stuff like “Roll the dice to see if you can walk down this empty, totally safe hall – oops, looks like you fall on your face!” etc.

This is where things like the Old School Primer really stand out- it provides examples, a bit of the thinking behind the choices, and even some alternative ways things could have gone. Showing the thought process gives some kind of direction to work with broad authority instead of letting it be a guess in the dark, or falling back to whatever familiar methods the player has.

3. How should the other players interact with the authority?

Is a tough challenge merely a tough challenge, or is it a clue that you’re going the wrong way? Part of giving the directive and a methodology to using authority- it not only tells the person who has it how to use it, it tells the rest of the group playing how they should be working with it as well.

For example, My Life with Master tells the GM to be generous in rewarding bonus dice for Intimacy, Desperation and Sincerity. If you’re a player and you’re not getting a reward for these, you know either a) you’re being really weaksauce with it, b) you’re not communicating clearly enough, or c) the group needs to remind the GM about the rules.

Even though this isn’t a step-by-step process as most people consider rules, it’s absolutely crucial in terms of system.

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