Authority and context: quantity and quality

It’s been a while, but I haven’t forgotten the topic at hand. There’s plenty more to say about authority and context.

Some of you might remember this pair of threads from the beginning of the month. Both started by Joshua BishopRoby (Full Light, Full Steam available for preorder now!). First, over on Story-Games was Bangs and Illusionism, and then over on the Forge was Bangs&Illusionism – in which Ron beats down Confusion. While all this discussion was going on, Joshua and I had a brief email exchange which is part of what sparked this specific post.

So, on with the topic at hand. The paradigm case of the authority and context discussion so far has been that of single players with single characters. Going all the way back to my first post on the subject (Aurhority and context: two types of power), you can see in my example of Harry and Bob with Sally and Frank that there’s a form of power imbalance that context brings to the table when someone controls a context-rich fictional component and someone else does not. But there is another way in which context imbalances can arise.

Specifically, a player can control a dozen components of play that all hold a medium level of context and still have access to more power than a player with control over a single high-context component. This really gets us into the realm of authority (who controls which components), with context (how much power does each component provide) being a secondary consideration. Still, considering the context of components is an important step in understanding at least some of the ways that authority matters.

On to the point: in traditional play, the GM controls effectively unlimited context by controlling an unlimited number of components.  The GM can introduce new elements as needed.  Now, while each element is going to tend to be relatively low in context (and almost assuredly lower in context than a Player Character), their aggregate context ends up being greater.

When the GM is tasked with ‘playing the world’ (as is the case in many roleplaying game designs), the GM is given not only the authority, but the responsibility to affect the game through the use of numerous low and medium context fictional components.  This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, but it does raise some interesting concerns.

First, by giving the GM control of this theoretically unlimited amount of context, control of the game is passed into his hands.  The GM can keep throwing more and more bad guys at you until you lose, for instance.  This isn’t that big a deal because most instances of actual play have numerous points of social pressure to prevent this sort of behavior (or in some cases, the players do not mind at all that this happens).

Second, and to me far more interesting, this expectation reduces the ability of the GM to develop high-context components.  I take it to be a major function of context development that the more time you invest in a component the greater its context.  The more we’re ‘shown’ about it.  Since the GM traditionally has the responsibility of managing dozens of components simultaneously, and often needs to introduce new components, he has far less time to focus on any single component.  This tends to result in the players who only have a single character to focus on developing them into extremely high-context components while the GM has, at best, a handful of medium-to-high context components scattered among his many low-context components.

Since I take it (and hope to cover this in a later post) that there are certain certain techniques that may be employed in play that require high-context components, this tends to bar the GM from utilizing those techniques.  Of course there are also plenty of techniques that require the control of multiple fictional components, so the GM also has access to a number of techniques that the other players can not utilize.  The point here is that the traditional GM role, in making the use of certain techniques difficult, is uninteresting or un-fun to players who derive a great deal of enjoyment from the use of those techniques.

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3 Responses to “Authority and context: quantity and quality”

  1. Rahvin says:

    I agree absolutely, and am eager to see where you’re going with this idea, especially regarding the outlining of particular techniques which might be suitable for low/high context characters and encounters for game design purposes. It’s an interesting area of thought.

    But I’m still not sure I buy the whole authorship = context thing. I grant that an increased opportunity for authorship (such as players playing a single character over time) grants increased opportunity to increase context (by capitalizing on pivotal situations or gradual build-up over time). But I still don’t buy that there’s a one to one relationship.

    You’ve also discussed that there are various levels of the qualities of context, most notably those of showed and told contexts, but you haven’t yet explored their relationship to each other (other than to say one is superior) or their relationship to this master agenda you describe above about finding suitable techniques of interaction between components of different context levels.

  2. Rahvin says:

    To provide a small example to contradict the authorship=context thing, you’ve talked about borrowing context. It’s possible to borrow the players’ (including the GMs) combined context with that of the setting and genre to provide components that immediately conjure a context within the participants. A spooky old abandoned house for example, suddenly thrown into a western setting that has had supernatural components previously, takes on a whole different context than one than the same house that is described in a medieval victorian england setting filled with court intrigue. The description may be exactly the same, but each sentence within that description may take on a different meaning, a different expectation, based on genre conventions, past experience, or the participating components currently involved in the situation.

    In this way, the GM has some pretty powerful tools for inserting context that are denied to the players, simply because of when these components are generated. Since the GM can introduce these components at a later time in the game, after previous context has been established, the GM is in a better position to use this context-inducing method than the players who generated their components prior to the context-establishment, but had just as great an influence in establishing the current context.

    Also, because the GM can introduce more than one component at any given time, a method of reinforcement could be use to lend context to another component. A player with equal authorship rights may have the ability to say, “Hey look, that house is haunted.” but a GM (with the authorship rights that most games reserve for the GM) can instantly spring up a whole town, filled with low-context characters that are built around enforcing this idea of the haunted house that the GM reveals. Even if the player has said “that house is haunted” for several weaks now, it may still not have the context that a GM could put it through with only an hour and all the authorship tools at his disposal.

  3. Ian Burton-Oakes says:

    There is something I just don’t quite agree with in this post. I think Rahvin has touched on some of it. I think part of it, for me, lies with the idea that the GM doesn’t get ‘high context’ elements, only an additively more significant number of ‘low context’ elements.

    For one, most GM-centric games do not necessarily facilitate ‘high context’ player characters–oftentimes they hem in those tendencies by encouraging players to ‘go along with the plot’ (i.e. GM context). For two, I have run and played in plenty of GM-centric games where there are high-context non-player character elements–from the maguffin everyone is trying to get their hands on to the the nemesis that challenges the party again and again. The more tightly focused the setting, the more the case this ends up being, as the players encounter again and again the same cast.

    Also, context seems like a ‘distributed’ feature of the game. It isn’t in a single player or character but in the sum total of interactions around that element. A good GM can weave the same elements into a game over and over, from a number of angles, enhancing its interconnectedness, its context with each go round. She can drop an element with clear connections premade, so it comes onto the scene with a lot of weight. Contrariwise, A bad GM can leave the players largely out of this process so that their characters remain largely ‘unconnected’ and so are denied a lot of context-power (which is starting to sound like a better way to describe a certain kind of railroading).

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