Stances 101

August 31, 2011

I’m rereading Sorcerer and the Sword, and reminded how much good stuff is in that book. I figured I should write a 101 post to point friends to.

Actor Stance

I will only play my character with motivations based on what my character knows and from my character’s POV

This is the default for most rpgs, and often lauded as the only “right way” to roleplay.

This has a long history in competitive dungeon crawling games where a lot of play depends on poking around and getting information to get an advantage. In these types of games, this specific stance has value.

Thing is, it also got championed as the right way to play for games aimed at making good stories… which it’s not so great at for two reasons.

One, because the default assumption is that you don’t know anything unless we show it in play, a lot of play ends up revolving around poking around to get info (and often, wasted on investigating useless or boring things), and then repeating this info back and forth to various characters.

Even if you skip all that, the second issue is that of all the choices a character could reasonably make, only a subset are actually going to be good story material- many will be boring, safe, non-dramatic choices, or, foolish, stupid, non-dramatic choices – a lot like we do in real life.

Let’s compare it to Author stance.

Author Stance

I will play my character to choose to do the entertaining, but still plausible choices, motivated on what I, as a player, think will lead to a good story

Notice that this shifts the primary motivation from “who my character is and what she knows” to “What I think would be entertaining and still plausible with who my character is and what she knows”.

Also notice this doesn’t mean the choices need always be “good” for your character.

Example #1: You decide that your character, Alice walks in on Bill and Clarice at the end of their conversation, which, taken out of context sounds like they’re having an affair! Misunderstandings and hijinks abound.

Example #2: You decide that your character Alice walks in at the end of Bill telling Clarice he’s been using you this whole time. A long built up series of lies and manipulations, which you, the player knew about, but your character didn’t, comes tumbling down.

Basically, the motivating driver is, “What would be the most awesome thing that could happen right now?”

Author stance more consistently produces better stories in play, because the group as a whole is all aiming for “better story” instead of the confusion that “my guy doing my thing with what I know” creates.

Director Stance

I will create/describe events, actions, or facts about the game world beyond just my character

This somewhat scares some folks. If you’re playing a competitive game, this kind of stuff would need serious restrictions to avoid destroying challenge completely.

But if you’re playing a game based on creating fun stories? It means everyone has that much more input to work together.

And this input can be very mild (“When he disarms me, my sword goes flying and lands in my family crest… still dripping blood!” “Cool!”) to very significant (“My gun fires wildly, I miss, but I accidentally hit the zeppelin above us, setting it ablaze!” “Oh shit.”).

The range of significance will be different depending on the game and what’s appropriate. Some games give specific restrictions, and some are more loose about it.

How to use these

My suggestion is to consider Author Stance in whatever game you’re playing.

Some games make this a part of the mechanics, usually by putting some kind of motivation mechanics or Flags in use- “My character has ‘Needs to prove himself’, so I’m not going to do the cautious smart thing, I’m charging straight in!”, so those are good to go with. The Shadow of Yesterday, Lady Blackbird, or Burning Wheel, for example.

If you want to play with Director stance, and haven’t done so previously, I usually recommend the sorts of games that offer “narration trading” mechanics: The Pool, Prime Time Adventures, Universalis, for example.

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