Authorial boundaries

Many story games widen the scope of authorship beyond traditional boundaries. In Apocalypse World, the MC can turn responsibility for decision-making over to the players, asking them questions in a reversal of the more usual approach. In Microscope there is a highly defined process through which everyone playing the game can author almost any element in the fiction. But it is quite common to take a far less structured approach, leaving everyone to invent everything as and when they feel like it, and often blurring the lines between In and Out of character speech.

So for example, in a game of Fiasco I could start a scene by having my wannabe gangster tell his cronies “The plan is to knock off the Royal Bank of Scotland on Spencer Street.” Right there, I created a bank and a street – I didn’t need to tell the group about it Out of Character in the way that a GM might, my IC speech made it so. (Someone might reply “but there is no bank on Spencer Street”, which would confuse matters – improv actors would call this “blocking”, which is not a good thing at all.)

But my experience has been that when things are left unstructured and informal, not everyone will have the same ideas about where authorial boundaries lie. For instance, say I’m playing a character named Fred, in a scene with one other character, Lucy, while the third player character, Alf, is absent from the scene. I say “it’s such a shame about Alf’s drug abuse, he really is going off the rails”. Lucy might reply “yes, and that business with the prostitutes was unfortunate as well.” Maybe Alf’s player was expecting to play a rather puritanical, moral sort of guy. Now he has to decide whether to “block” these suggestions (which, because they were delivered In Character, means implying that Fred and Lucy are liars or mad or misinformed) or roll with it and change his character. Alf’s player will probably roll with it, but may not feel too happy at having his character – not his character’s situation, but the character himself – unilaterally and arbitarily changed from the character he had in mind.

Is this reasonable? There is no right answer. It comes down to violated expectations, something which is to be avoided. Story games thrive on the ability to introduce unexpected, unplanned fictional elements which each player can build on and riff off; but having a clear understanding of what we can and can’t do is vital to enabling everyone to participate fully in the authorial jam session. Your regular group probably has built up just such an understanding, through a mix of formal discussion and informal convention, and you may not even realise it until a new player joins or you play with a different group.

Some games provide useful ways to register an objection to content you aren’t happy with; Archipelago has its ritual phrases, Witch has “the alarm”. That goes some way to helping, and is a necessary tool in my view, but can be quite jarring (and in my experience not everyone likes having their creativity shat on in this way, either). For my money nothing beats having expectations clarified up front.

So what are the boundary questions we need to answer?
– Who can create fictional elements like characters, locations, objects?
– Who can make changes and elaborations to existing fictional elements? Is it only the person who created them, or anyone?
– To what extent can we author retroactive events e.g. “cut to a hill outside the city, which is now a nuclear waste” without us seeing the nuke get fired.
– Are any fictional elements privileged in the way that Player Characters are in a traditional game? Are there any limits on authorship?
– Who can set scenes, and within what parameters?
– How are the above done? Can we author stuff in-scene, or during set-up?
– What do I do if I don’t like what someone else authored? Do I have to roll with it, or can I challenge? How are disputes settled?
– Whose role is it to enforce the answers to the above questions?

In my experience a lot of games elide these questions, leaving it to you to decide. In turn, a lot of groups elide the decisions, leaving it to be settled through play – “let’s just start playing and we’ll work it out as we go”. Maybe I’m just stuffy and over-formal, but I find it helpful to have these questions clear in advance.

Author: rabalias

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

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