In our last episode, I ran down the four main roleplaying stances and gave a brief description of each. In this installment (much shorter than the first), I’ll describe how designers can use Stance Theory when making their games.
Here’s the big thing you need to take away from Stance Theory: all it does is to say who can say what when and how much credibility what they say has. Let me unpack that.
First, is “who can say what?” All the stances except Director Stance state that the player may only make statements about a character. It does not have to be “their” character. It can be any character or all the characters or a whole group of characters. Actor, Pawn, and Author are all character-centric. Director is the only stance that permits a player to make statements about non-character things such as furniture, location, geography, foliage, the weather, and so on and so forth.
Second is “when can they say it?” Each stance has certain conditions that have to be met in order for a person’s spoken words to be added to the fiction. If you want to speak in Actor Stance, you must be acting within the motivations of your character and take in-game causality into account. If you’re not in a position to do that, then you can’t use Actor Stance until you are.
Third is “how much credibility do they have?” A person who is expected to be acting in Pawn Stance cannot suddenly narrate in an open treasure chest in the middle of the room. A person expected to be engaging in Actor Stance cannot suddenly disregard the sensibility of the Setting and past fiction just to gain a tactical advantage. Stances set up expectations that assist people in communication during roleplay.
And that’s sort of how this all relates to design. Remember, that Stance Theory is meant to be used as a tool to describe play. When we design a game, we sort of turn that on its head. Stance theory becomes a way to prescribe play. A game designer helps make the decisions about when each stance can or should be used. But instead of using that terminology (it would just go over everyone’s head), the rules you create give the players guidelines for setting up permissions and expectations of how the game should be played.
The rules imbue the participants with different levels of access or “permissions” to enter fiction into the Shared Imagined Space. In a game like InSpectres, everyone is given permission to use Director Stance powers at will. The expectation then is that the players will add clues, NPCs, locations, or whatever to the game’s fiction as they play just like the GM. Conversely, in a game like AD&D, only the DM is given permission to use Director Stance while players are ostensibly instructed to remain in Actor Stance as much as possible using their characters’ Alignments as a guide. (Granted, AD&D’s texts are horribly unclear on this at times, but go with me on this) The expectations then are the players act with within the bounds of the fictional world using only their characters abilities, knowledge, and motives while the DM gets to control everything else.
As a game designer, it is your job to write the rules so that the players know their roles and know how to play. Understanding Stance Theory provides you with a foundation of knowledge you can draw upon as you write those rules. It can help you to communicate your vision of how play should unfold through the permissions of your rules and the expectations of the players.
As you write your game, you should be cognizant of who can say what and when they can say it. And not only should YOU as the designer be aware of it, anyone who picks up your game and reads it should be aware of it. Setting up permissions and expectations is not something that should be shrouded in the text for the players to discover as they play. It’s not emergent. It should explicit and upfront.
Now, like I said, don’t use Stance terminology in your game! Don’t write, “Now the GM has Directorial Powers but the players should maintain Author Stance except in the following instances…” That would be horrible! Even people who enjoy RPG theory don’t want to read stuff like that in a game. Instead, write something like, “The GM is the one who introduces new places and items, but it is up to the players to decide how they and their characters want to react to them…”
Knowing the how the different stances work gives designers an insight into how communication during play works. Armed with that knowledge, you will be in a better position to write the rules of your game. Just remember, all of the fancy Stance labels and theory talk are just window dressing. The real meat of the matter is setting permissions and expectations for communication during play. I.E.: Who gets to say what, when do they get to say it, and who cares if they do?
PS: As you design and playtest your game, don’t believe for a minute that if you set the permissions and expectations that players should always speak in Actor Stance that the players will always do that. They won’t, and it’s okay. Groups will move in and out of stances as the individual situations call. That’s part of playing the game. But, there should be a default position (read: permission and expectation) for each participant explicitly stated in the rules. This way, when people aren’t sure what to do next or what they should be doing at all, the rules are there to guide them. Lapses in Stance are often used to solve a social problem, not a system problem.