Today I’m taking on another older topic- Stance Theory. This is part 1 of a two part article. In this one, I’m basically just going to define and describe Stance Theory. In the second part, I’ll try to explain how it might be useful. But honestly I think for the most part, we have left this behind as game designers. None-the-less, I am endeavoring to bring up the old ideas (old in this case meaning from the late 90’s and early 2000’s) so that fresh eyes can look at them, dissect them, and bring forth new ideas.
When it comes to Stance Theory, first and foremost, you must understand that it is describing play, not design. I think that all too often, people talk past each other when it comes to RPG theory because one person is thinking “play” and the other is thinking “design.” Play should inform design, of course, but they are not the same thing.
So what is it anyway? Well, Stance Theory is a way of describing how players (including the GM) affect the in-game events, setting, and characters (aka The Shared Imagined Space). There are four Stances that have been identified. The Provisional Glossary defines them as such:
Actor Stance: The person playing a character determines the character's decisions and actions using only knowledge and perceptions that the character would have. This stance does not necessarily include identifying with the character and feeling what he or she "feels," nor does it require in-character dialogue.
Author Stance: The person playing a character determines the character's decisions and actions based on the person's priorities, independently of the character’s knowledge and perceptions. Author Stance may or may not include a retroactive "motivation" of the character to perform the actions.
Pawn Stance: A subset of Author Stance which lacks the retroactive "motivation" of the character to perform the actions.
Director Stance: The person playing a character determines aspects of the environment relative to the character in some fashion, entirely separately from the character's knowledge or ability to influence events. Therefore the player has not only determined the character's actions, but the context, timing, and spatial circumstances of those actions, or even features of the world separate from the characters.
Okay, that’s nice. But let’s break them down some.
Director Stance is sometimes treated as synonymous with players narrating in-game events, or worse, people think that’s the only thing Director Stance does. Director Stance *can* do those things, but players using Director Stance don’t *have* to. A player can say, “There’s some brush next to the wall, my character hides there and is unseen.” That’s Director Stance. He could also say, “Gunther looks left, then right, and finally above to make sure he isn’t being watched. He carefully creeps over to a thick patch of shrubbery next to the castle wall in the dim twilight of the evening. None of the guards atop the wall were looking in his direction.” Both are examples of Director Stance.
In Director’s Stance, the player is not regarding what the character is thinking or feeling or what the character has the power to change in the Shared Imagined Space. The Player is capable of changing the environment and circumstances around the character. If the player wants a guard on top of the wall and he is operating in Director’s Stance, he can put a guard there. If he wants bushes, there are bushes. But that’s the player’s desires, not the character’s. Those two may coincide, but that’s entirely beside the point. In Director Stance, the player is disregarding character motivation.
A player operating in Director’s Stance can basically manipulate anything in the imaginary game world. It can be characters, objects, places, the weather, or whatever. Nothing is off-limits; the power is quite broad. Additionally, the Director Stance player can base these changes off of in-game considerations or meta-game (stuff outside the imaginary world) considerations WITH OR WITHOUT offering in-game justifications for these changes. In other words, what he’s doing doesn’t necessarily have to make “sense” in the imaginary world, it just has to be acceptable at the Social Contract level. Think about the space alien scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” That doesn’t make any sense in the imaginary world of that movie, but it is acceptable given the nature of the crew who made that film.
Pawn Stance is sometimes seen as the default stance for Gamists. This is one thing I hardly have to spend any time on. If you’ve ever watched people play D&D using the alignment system, you’ve probably seen Gamists operating in a stance other than Pawn. Pawn Stance *can* be used by Gamists, but doesn’t *have* to be. In Pawn Stance, the player is limiting him/herself to just deciding what the character does without any special relationship to the character. It’s just a game piece in this context. The typical GM use of Palace Guards and Barmaids or other static characters is often Pawn Stance in traditional fantasy roleplay.
Author Stance is the hardest one for me to fully grasp. It seems to lie somewhere past Actor Stance but before Director Stance. It’s sort of in the middle, lacking the buy-in that Actor demands and the power that Director gives. When in Author Stance, the player is making decisions just for a character- not for the environment, circumstances, or non-character items in the imaginary game world. That’s the biggest difference from Director’s Stance: The Author cannot affect anything except a character.
Second, a player engaging in Author Stance makes his or her decisions about a character based on the meta-game. In-game/in-character motivations and conditions can be (but don't have to be) ignored at the player's choice under Author Stance. However, that doesn’t mean a player using Author Stance can go willy-nilly all over the place, making decisions for a character as he or she pleases. These decisions must make sense in-game. So, even though the player is using knowledge from outside the imaginary world as the basis for decision making, he/she must justify those decisions using logical fiction inside the Shared Imagined Space. This is another break with Director Stance. The spaceship from the Monty Python example above can only happen under Author Stance if it had been previously established that aliens existed in the Setting and were watching over the main character.
Last, but not least, is Actor Stance. It’s been my experience that Actor Stance is occasionally and wrongly associated with Simulationist Play. As if, Actor Stance was the only “right way” to play using the Simulationist Creative Agenda. It is also sometimes treated as the same thing as talking in-character or “Immersion.” But Actor Stance is SO much more.
First, Actor Stance does not care what Creative Agenda you are using. In fact, none of the stances do. One can use Actor stance as the situation demands. Second, Actor Stance prioritizes the character much more than Director and Author Stance do. Decisions made using Actor Stance are made in accordance with what the character’s motivations are AND take into consideration in-game knowledge, conditions, and events. The player is not manipulating the scenery or objects in the imaginary world, just the character from the character’s own perspective.
It is in Actor’s Stance that motivation is brought to the forefront. Actor’s Stance pursues this motivation and tries to carry it out. This is where character knowledge and player knowledge are split, and meta-game considerations are disregarded. It requires the player buy into the character as a living, breathing, free-thinking individual. The character is not a game pieces or a means to an end, but it becomes the focus of attention. Actor Stance is the expression of an intimate relationship between the real life player and the imaginary person that is being portrayed by that player. GMs often play significant NPCs (for lack of a better term) this way. That’s the most common example I can think of.
Some people define Immersion by saying it’s engaging in Actor’s Stance as often and as much as possible. I don’t really have a good definition for Immersion. A lot of talk about has gone on over the years. I don’t think Actor’s Stance is a handy synonym for it, but you should be aware that some (not all) people think of it that way.
Over the years, several problems associated with Stance Theory have arisen.
One common error that was made in the early days of hashing out Stance Theory was that it related only to “your” character. It doesn’t. It relates to any character. You can be an Author, Actor, Pawn, or Director anyone’s character or characters. The emphasis is not on the character, but on the player- i.e. what stance the player is taking toward the fiction being created in the imaginary world. Some people mistake Stance Theory as character-centric. It isn't. It's player-centric.
Another error that was made was that Stance Theory didn’t apply to GMs, or that all GMs were, necessarily, by default operating in Director Stance. This is, of course, totally untrue and can be observed in actual play. Any time the GM operates the NPCs (for lack of a better term) based solely on that NPC’s knowledge- and not his (The GM’s) knowledge- that GM is operating in Actor Stance. This happens all the time and is usually seamless during play.
Third, some believe that all roleplaying is stance. Meaning, that everything said at the table comes from one of the four stances. That’s not true. When talking about Stance Theory, we are talking about character actions and the way the imaginary world reacts to the characters, nothing else. The damage from a sword thrust is not stance. The death of a character is not stance. The effects of drowning are not stance. A majority of the things said at the table are said from a stance but not everything. When examining a piece of roleplaying for stance, look for player decisions, character decisions, and changes in the imaginary world. Don't get hung up on mechanics.
Finally, the last common mistake I want to highlight is the assumption that people do or at least should maintain a consistent stance throughout play. As if idealized play is when everyone is operating in Actor Stance or in Director Stance. This is rubbish. Players are constantly moving from one stance to another as the needs of the situation arise, and I can see no benefit (or at least, very little) from rigidly maintaining only a single stance. I’ve played in campaigns where the Social Contract strictly enforced Actor Stance (talking in character, using only character knowledge, following the character’s alignment to a T). Anyone who broke Actor Stance was immediately penalized socially if not mechanically. Play devolved into a game of “Gotchya!” and those sorts of campaigns never lasted long for me.
Well, that’s all for Part 1. In Part 2, I’ll delve into how this is relevant to RPG design (Hint: it’s really not so much anymore). Until then, take care of each other.