Peering Nearsightedly At Something Vaguely Cow-Shaped: Authority

edited November 2007 in Story Games
Posted By: Me, in the sacred cow thread* Whether someone has all of it, everyone has some of it, or it moves around, Authority is always in there somewhere.
I don't know if there's really a cow there or if I'm just jumping at cow-shaped shadows, but it seems to me that there's some variety of assigning authority present in any roleplaying game I know anything about (which, admittedly, isn't very many), whether it's one guy at the table being explicitly given total authority over the rules and the setting or everyone sharing (or trading off, or competing for, or whatever) narrative authority.

Can you have a roleplaying game where no one has any authority at all? I mean, gaming is mostly a social activity, and there are plenty of other social activities that don't require authority (no one's in charge of hanging out on the back porch drinking beer and arguing about politics... are they?), but a game? Is that even possible?

Part of me says "Duh! Of course not! Even if none of the players get to wield any kind of authority, the rules themselves have authority... at least as long as you choose to follow them. As soon as you stop following them, the rules you make up in their place get the authority and if you don't make up any in their place, if there are no rules at all, then you can't possibly be playing a game. Or if you were, you wouldn't know it, because even 'you know you're playing this game when...' counts as a rule. So ha!"

The other part of me says "Duh! Of course you can. Just because I'm not smart enough to figure out how doesn't make it impossible. Now go fire up the grill, 'cause that's one tasty looking cow!"

Comments

  • Posted By: Ron Hammackand there are plenty of other social activities that don't require authority (no one'sin chargeof hanging out on the back porch drinking beer and arguing about politics... are they?)
    If it's on my porch, I have the authority to tell you to get out of my house, or to not drink the good scotch. So, sure, authority's there.

    But here's the trick: authority existing doesn't mean authority is being exercised, or even has to be.

    To be honest, it feels like to me that, outside of typical authority that occurs in any social group (like "that dude is the group planner"), a game could lack all authority -- but it's be purely academic.

    Also, authority isn't necessary taken. Authority is given -- like "damnit, I guess I'm the group planner." You can take authority, but it only works if the folks you take it from let you, because otherwise there's a struggle.

    I think.
  • Does everyone have authority in a board game? In a game of freeze tag?
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarDoes everyone have authority in a board game? In a game of freeze tag?
    I'm inclined to say that no one has authority in those kinds of games. The authority is given by the players to the rules themselves when they agree to play by them.
  • Posted By: Ron HammackThe authority is given by the players to the rules themselves when they agree to play by them.
    Can't that be replicated in a roleplaying game? Isn't it?
  • The authority is given by the players to the rules themselves when they agree to play by them.
    What happens when someone breaks the rules? Don't people argue over it and eventually confer authority on some person(s) to decide how to resolve it?
  • Or reach consensus, right? last night Joel and I were playing some wack Avalon Hill Napoleonics game, but we couldn't be bothered to read the rules first. So at one point I was attacking his guys, and he said, "wait! You can't attack me across a river!" and I disagreed, so we decided my attack was halved as a compromise.
  • Would requiring universal consensus (everyone has a free veto on anything introduced to the shared imagined space at all times) mean everyone has maximal authority, or no-one has any authority?
  • Posted By: cydmabWould requiring universal consensus (everyone has a free veto on anything introduced to the shared imagined space at all times) mean everyone has maximal authority, or no-one has any authority?
    Hmmm. Both? Neither?

    It kind of seems like authority doesn't "count" unless one party has more of/a different form of it.
  • I think it's pretty clear, if you watch how groups form consensus, that people have varying amounts of authority, based on how assertive they are, how charismatic, and the social relationships involved.
  • Wait a minute. Consensus and authority are two different things.

    You're not gonna have a game without consensus. You'll have a bunch of games, one for each player. No one is reaching that meeting-of-minds with anyone else. You can't even have a freaking conversation without some kind of consensus.

    Only once you have consensus, then it makes sense to talk about apportioning authority. Authority is just a kind of consensus where a group agrees to give greater weight to the yammerings of one person over the rest of the group. In other words, authority is always granted -- nay, recognized -- by consensus.

    Case in point: Let's say you're a pimply-faced teenager who just bought the rulebook for some hot, new game. You take it to your friends. "Let's play this!" They agree. Then you start going all GodMaster on them and they choose to ignore you while you rave, "But the GodMaster Guide says ...!" But they thought that rule was stupid and ignore you. They don't recognize your authority, even if the GodMaster Guide says right there on page vii that because you dropped $29.95 on that hallowed tome, you are hereby invested with the Power of Right by the Esteemed Author. Game over.
  • Well in the view that you start off doing everything by consensus and can add Authority later... then doing everything by consensus always is a version of no Authority. So it seems like the cow might be slayable...

    ... unless social groups inevitably (as a fact of life) move away from Full Consensus and begin allocating authority. Then the cow would be in theory defeatable, but in practice invincible?
  • It seems to me like there are three forms of this metaphorical cow:

    One is the idea that RPGs need to assign authority to one or more players, or to define the roles of players at all, as part of the game text. I think that cow is pretty much already cooked. Freeform games pretty elegantly defeat this idea. There are lots of examples of games where, textually, all players have equal authority (is this the same as no-one having authority? That's a semantic debate maybe), or have undefined roles (for example "pretend").

    Another cow is the idea that groups will inevitably form a hierarchy, that people will assume different roles in a game. This cow seems pretty much iron-clad. It may be the case that such a group could exist, but I think it's a question thast goes beyond a roleplaying forum. This is a philosophical, biological, or anthropological question (and there's no consensus on the subject).

    Where I think things get interesting is in the intersection between the two (The cow metaphor is really breaking down here). Can we have games that actively prevent authority from being excercised? Games that expose underlying hierarchies?
  • Can we have games that actively prevent authority from being excercised? Games that expose underlying hierarchies?
    Well, one approach I've tried a little bit is intentionally give the high-mechanical-authority positions in a game to low-social-authority people. A very minimal form of this is to make sure the highest-social-authority player is NOT the GM in a traditional game.
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