A while ago, I wrote about the difference between power and authority. Basically, power is something you take by threat of force. It doesn’t really pertain to something like a game. Authority is something granted either by a person or a group. So, to be pedantic, my original inclination to call this entry “Player Empowerment” would have been inappropriate.
But who cares about terminology? I don’t want to get bogged in semantics. The point here is giving players some ability to affect the outcome of the roleplaying game. Of course, they’ve always had that ability by making choices. It’s the primary engine upon which an rpg runs.
- GM presents a situation, asks, “what do you do?”
- Player tells GM what he wants to do.
- GM helps resolve outcome.
But what if players had more authority than that? Some games grant that authority to them concerning the story and even the setting. A player might be able to decide something about the world or interject something into the story from outside his character. These are interesting ideas, but for my own tastes, I would want the GM to at least be involved in these kinds of situations. For example, a player, as part of his character creation, says, “I have a contact in Morinville that works as a fence for stolen goods. He can help provide information.” Now the GM may not have prepared any fences in Morinville (in fact, it’s quite unlikely), but given the player’s desire and initiative, the GM agrees that there is one there. Then, she and the player work together to create some details (if needed), the GM making sure that the player knows everything his character would know about the NPC and his operation. (You’ll find that I’m a big proponent of “the GM and the player work together to…” kinds of situations.)
So that’s all great, but there’s also a different kind of authority, and that’s authority over mechanical elements, rather than story elements (although they can be closely tied). Some games do this too, but it’s usually in the form of some kind of “fate point” or “hero point” that sort of allows a player to override game mechanics when he really needs to (often to save the character’s life). Again, I am a fan of these as well. However, what I’m even more interested in is integrating that kind of authority into the mechanics rather than having it override mechanics.
In the game system that I am experimenting with now, each character has a limited resource pool (actually three of them) upon which he can draw to affect the likelihood of an outcome or in some cases the intensity of the outcome. Any outcome. In most (but not all, I know) games, the player is limited by what the dice say and some flat modification based on his character. In most flavors of D&D, for example, for an attack, it’s a d20 roll plus a character’s attack modifier(s). It doesn’t matter if the D&D fighter is swinging his sword at a kobold who was probably going to surrender anyway or the lich king who will end the world with his next action, it works precisely the same.
What I’m interested in experimenting with is different ways for the player, recognizing that those two situations are different, can react to them differently. So, for example, if we call one resource pool “Might” and say that the character can add more damage to the attack by drawing on that resource, we’ve accomplished that. But resource management is interesting, because if “Might” is also what governs your ability to smash down a door, the player that depleted his pool with many, many powerful blows in the big fight with the lich king can’t get out of the villain’s castle when it collapses. Maybe he should have saved a few points for just such an emergency. (Oh well, he can still get lucky with a die roll–or perhaps pull out a larger “authority” mechanic like a hero point to get through the door. I don’t know yet.)
This kind of personal player authority (as opposed to story authority) is interesting because rather than make things harder for the GM, it actually makes things easier. Because much of the time, the GM wants the players to really be able to “pull out all the stops” when it’s important. It gives the GM more freedom and flexibility. In a system without it, by accident a GM can make an encounter too hard and wipe out the party. And while some people like that kind of sandbox play, others don’t. But if you design the system so that one little stat change to an NPC won’t completely throw everything out of whack, both kinds of games are served. And if the players have the ability to manage their resources better, you get exactly that.
Of course, resource management comes with it’s own issues. First off, it’s got to be simple and fun. Not everyone wants to play a Vancian spellcaster, or even a mana point caster. Second, there are issues that, if designed poorly, adversely affect the flow of play. If a character is able to use all of his resource right away, and recovery for the resource is easy, then players will do this every encounter. In other words, there needs to be a reason to manage the resource.
But these are details, and they’re not problems without solutions. There are a few games out there that already take this approach, but not quite in the way that I’m envisioning. In any case, I believe players given authority on a personal level could be a really fun way to play a game.