We bandy about a lot of pretentious terms when we’re talking to each other. One is this idea of narrative authority. When we say narrative authority, we’re talking about who is allowed to say what happens in the story. One of the things about indie RPGs I find most compelling is the way responsibility for the story gets divided up among more people than  in classical RPGs. But it’s only been recently that we’ve been talking about interpretive authority.

Again, terminology gives me hives so I’ll clarify what I mean here. When I say interpretive authority, I’m talking about the ability for someone at the table to re-interpret something in the story. It’s not creation whole-cloth. Rather, it’s when a previously introduced element is recast to have new properties or meaning. Unlike with narrative authority, which is concerned with “what is?”, interpretive authority is concerned with “what does that mean?”. When a bridge across a chasm is later determined to be a rope-bridge and consequently turned into a bunch of rope to tie up villains, or the combination to a safe ends up being the birthdate of a character formerly unrelated to the safe owner, the person who decided this new property exercises interpretive authority.

Okay. There’s the theory of it. This originally came up when describing successive versions of AD&D. Part of the progression of the system has been to clarify fuzzy rules and provide systems which are unambiguous. In so doing, the room for this sort of reinterpretation has lessened. There are still GMs that bend or break the rules in order to tell a good story but since there are fewer questions overall about how something should work, there are also fewer opportunities for a creative GM to breathe life into a game. I’d long been confused about why there was such a staunch refusal by so many gamers to play 4th edition; while I feel the situation goes beyond any one cause, I’m now of the opinion that at least one factor is the lack of interpretive authority. It may be a better game, but it’s not strictly better as an RPG.

Other systems play a bit more directly with this concept. Much like Kit talked about in his post about setting, World of Darkness has long supported the interpretive authority of GMs. The voice of the systems has been characterized as an unreliable narrator—are Malkavians truly as crazy as they seem? Are the Technocrats really all that evil? These are questions left to the table. Leverage has a particularly neat take on interpretive authority – during character creation, players describe a flashback for their character as a way of providing Distinctions (a kind of character trait). But the other players describe what the Distinction is based on scene—this explicitly separates the interpretive and narrative authorities in Distinction creation. Likewise, Lucid is practically built on this separation.

Interpretive authority is valuable. It allows for a more improvisational game. Parts of the story are allowed to start vague and gain detail later. This allows for a genuine sense of surprise when everyone at the table suddenly realizes how two things fit together or when they learn something new about the world. And now that I’m aware of it, I’m constantly chewing over the distinction when reading games.

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  • Bill Burdick

    Cool!  My game (Death of the Vele) totally depends on the players interpreting and expanding on partially fleshed-out descriptions, but I never thought of “interpretive authority” as a separate thing.  Now, I’m going to have to think about this and probably put a section in the rules about it.

    • Love hearing about new games. Thanks for the heads up, and I’m glad it’s not just me. 🙂

      • Bill Burdick

        Added your post to the credits, it’ll be in there next time I push out a version 🙂

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