Quick note up front: I wrote this as last month’s Patreon-first post, so it’s ready to be unlocked for the public this month. I’m holding off on producing new pieces until we’ve had a good stretch of time to hear from black creators, black designers, black artists, and black players. I’m sure you’ve read and heard this a lot lately, but black lives really do matter, even if you’ve never met a black person. (And if you haven’t, wtf, it’s the 21st century.) “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as the reverend famously wrote, sitting in a jail cell. Fighting injustice is a moral imperative because our lives are interconnected. How is this controversial?
On to the post!
Been thinking about this one a while. I have the sense that the word authority has a bunch of baggage attached to it that is IMO unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because hardly anyone talks about credibility, authority’s more attractive sibling. Thing is, roleplaying needs both (and they reveal a third).
Let’s Define Terms (Oh Boy!)
My least favorite part of talking about games but in this case I think it’s necessary. I’m gonna do my level best to keep this in the realm of natural, normal English and not jargon.
Authority has a couple interesting definitions if you Google it:
1) the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience; and
2) a person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative, sphere.
That second one seems more game-applicable, but the verbs buried in both are where the juice is: Power. Right. Control. There’s a really deep rabbit hole one can go down – there are entire college degrees on it! – regarding whether authority is granted or seized, and by whom, and for how long and so on and so forth. For our purposes, let’s go ahead and embrace the icky-feeling words (power, right, control) in as un-icky a way as possible. There must be a final transfer of non-canonical ideas into the common understanding of your game’s canon. One player might have that authority (granted by the other players). The player(s) might defer to rules, or commonly understood cultural norms, or precedence.
Credibility is much more straightforward:
1) the quality of being trusted and believed in; and
2) the quality of being convincing or believable.
I bring these up together because you can have one without the other, but you need both together.
Authority without credibility is the abusive Dungeon Master clinging to his screen and Viking helmet. The Viking-helmeted control-freak DM is a caricature, sure, but having done this very thing in my deep bad past (I’ve been playing for more than 40 years, kids), I can say – with authority, oh I slay myself – it happens. If you wield authority without credibility, it’s all bad news. Why do players allow this? Who knows.
The Rules might assert that a disagreement be resolved with a procedure (roll dice, flip a coin, draw a card, pick a bullet point, whatever), but the players might look to a more-credible player and wait for them to weigh in. It’s messy, it happens, it’s weird. Human interactions cannot be constrained by procedures. Unless, of course, everyone agrees to grant authority to those procedures, feelings be damned.
There is some baseline amount of authority necessary and useful to convert table talk, suggestions, descriptions and general navel-gazing into a form the table will accept into their common understanding of the fiction. There’s alchemy that moves player input from that liminal “just talking” moment to “yup, that happened” in a game.
Credibility without authority is less harmful: the player everyone likes, overwhelmingly earnest, always supportive, unwaveringly honest. You just know when a player is coming at the game in good faith. They are credible as human beings. But barring rules and procedures that explicitly grant authority, all these players can do is bring their credibility to bear. Other players may very well grant a credible player ad-hoc authority, certainly. But that thing that happens when everyone would rather listen to Credible Player rather than Authoritative Player? That’s another kind of bad news.
Things can get weird when authority and credibility clash. The rules say X, but the player using those rules (probably a GM-type facilitator for most purposes) has not proven themselves credible executors. A non-credible GM runs a real risk of their players simply not accepting their authority, and then the game grinds to a halt.
A major difference between roleplaying and boardgaming is that at some point, the humans at a TTRPG table must accept authority from somewhere: the agreed-to GM, the rules, cultural norms. If GM is not credible – or maybe not credible enough among enough of the players, it’s a sliding scale – then even pointing at explicit rules text or appeals to norms may not be enough. Deferring to the authority of the rules themselves is kind of litigious, sure, but it also means a GM-type player doesn’t need to cultivate as much credibility while still executing their job.
This is one of those big cultural gaps between conventional GM-heavy tabletop roleplaying and more distributed-authority storygaming. When the GM has (notionally) total procedural or cultural authority, they must be credible. Lots of our games are incomplete, or open to interpretation, or specifically require rulings absent rules. Rulings handed down by someone who has harmed their credibility by ruling in bad faith, though? I will ghost that table.
Meanwhile, the past couple decades of indie game design have largely been designers questioning these previously unquestioned assumptions. What if we normalized and standardized how/when dice got rolled? What if we distributed authority over certain aspects of the game? What if rulings could be made based on clear priorities, and not just what that GM thought was cool or whatever?
There are lots of ways to administer people. Benevolent dictatorship and democracy can both have a place at tables. Best you know what regime you’re living under, though.
Here’s a concept I don’t really hear much about in roleplaying: the responsibility that come with authority (power/right/control). It’s hazy, so once again to Google!
1) the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone.
2) the state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something.
3) the opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization.
Ooh. Those are all good.
Responsibility is in my head right now because I feel like folks are eager for authority and don’t really think about the work. Or the work goes unaddressed, with designers assuming folks will take on responsibility. I mean, yeah, sometimes you’ll read a rules thing like “the GM is responsible for preparing for the session” or “the players are responsible for tracking their spells” or whatever. That’s like…the barest-bones bit of responsibility. I’m thinking instead about being responsible for addressing disputes (if you’re a GM), being responsible for your own fun (if you’re a player, including the GM), being responsible for the safety of everyone at the table.
Authority without responsibility is a dictatorship. Responsibility without authority (particularly the third definition) is a wage-slave job. Authority without credibility is a failed state (or a board game).
Credibility without responsibility? Pretty great, but also potentially disruptive. And finally: Responsibility without credibility is grounds for distrust. And if you don’t have trust at a roleplaying table, what do you have?
Authority + credibility + responsibility is what we all should be striving for. It should come as no surprise that damn near any interpersonal badness that arises in roleplaying can be traced back to the failure of one or more of those things.
Photo: Napoleon’s empty throne at the Louvre