When we came up with the Circumstances system in Becoming Heroes, I’d thought we’d hit upon a really awesome mechanic that allows for fantastic moments of awesome. And I still do. But that observation has been tempered in a number of ways in the last year, and it deserves reconsideration.

Let me fill in some blank areas. I’m male, I’m white, I’m reasonably well educated, I have a good job. I am, sort of, the canonical example of privilege. I may have mentioned elsewhere that it occupies a lot of my mind. I bring this up because during last year’s Gen Con, and recently via Twitter, I have seen people in positions of less privilege identify loss of character authority as a sore spot.

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One thing we haven’t talked much about here is character flags—things about a character that signal what kinds of story elements interest the player. For example, if one of your players has a character with lot of skill in picking locks, then probably you need to throw some locks at that character. This is a major difference between a simulationist take on RPGs and a narrativist one. In simulationist play, the challenges are all laid out in advance, and if you want to excel, you need forethought, scouting, and planning. In a narrativist model, you know what the challenges will be because they’re tailored to your characters, and you should expect that if you’re good at lockpicking, you’ll need to pick a lock.

(Caveat: I’m not a huge fan of GNS, but I find it useful in discussing larger-scale issues such as character flags.)

Obviously, I’m a proponent of looking at character flags to figure out how to structure play. But flags are just the beginning. Russian playright Anton Chekhov has an adage about guns that applies equally to characters in an RPG. That is, the characters created for a game should strongly influence the events of that game.

More specifically, when someone plays a wizard in your game, not only should you let them decipher some runes, or throw in a mystic library to explore, but magic should become a central theme to the plot of the game. Perhaps there are people tampering with the structure of magic, or the old magic is returning, or magic has gone wild and uncontrollable. The point is, the story is about these characters because these are the characters that matter, which we know because these are the characters that were created by the players. They matter because of who they are and what they do.

In Becoming Heroes, we do this mechanically, because each character has an arc and the arc points are specific events that you should expect to see in the game. In Piece of Work, we’re using a system we call Clocks that allows a player a more freeform way to specify what they want to see. But every system has some way for the players to shape the story, if you’re listening for it.

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We’ve been talking a bit about games without GMs, particularly as we work up Lucid for the con. (Quick teaser: it’s an RPG about lucid dreaming. We think.) In so doing, it’s exposed an interesting point. The idea of what a “game master” is depends on the system you’re playing. Adversary? Guide? Prompt? All plausible roles. All different in how they play. The part that has me going is that this is a different distinction than who has control over which elements of the story. It’s not concerned with how, but why. Why has always been a more interesting question to me, if a bit troublesome.

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You’ve gotta do more than one thing. It really helps feed your brain. In my case, I’m a linguistics doctoral student. Right now, I’m taking classes at the LSA 2011 Summer Institute, which happens to be in Boulder this year.

One of the classes I’m taking is about working with endangered languages, and particularly about responsibly and respectfully interacting with the communities that actually speak these languages. One of the professors, B’alam Mateo-Toledo, was talking about his experience working with a Mayan-speaking community in Guatemala.

He was recording speech in a number of contexts, including some ritual and ceremonial ones. He had the full consent of the speakers, with their full understanding of the uses to which the audio would be put. But at a certain point, other people in the community realized that they were not comfortable with the idea of ceremonial speech being archived in a way that would allow anyone outside the community to access it.

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Just a reminder: we’re not going to be posting as much until we get In a Dragon-Guarded Land out the door. We’re aiming for the first of April, but that release date may be a joke.

I’m a big fan of Bully Pulpit’s games. Lately, we here have been playing some Fiasco, and dissecting it a bit. It’s caused me to do some thinking about what a GM is and does. This is particularly timely for me, as I am trying to decide whether Et in Arcadia Ego needs to have a GM. Both of the other games we’re working on clearly do—In a Dragon-Guarded Land because someone needs to represent adversity and the temptation of evil, A Piece of Work because someone needs to represent the target of the heist. But Et in Arcadia Ego is a game with much more room for player-versus-player interactions, and may not have a role for a GM as such.

Some months ago, Robert Bohl started this interesting thread at Story Games that got me thinking about what I like to call GMderfuck, or GMderqueerness. He talked about breaking down the GM-ful/GM-less binary and instead talking about how GM-ly authority gets distributed[1]. I think a lot of games that are “GM-less” actually have done this. Let’s look at what are, to me, the classic examples of GMderqueer games: Polaris, Fiasco, and The Shab-al-Hiri Roach.

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  1. Ben Lehman recently commented on this subject, too. I think he’s right, authority is the question. Resolution systems are one place to put authority. []