Power and Control: The In-Character Side

Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts. Perhaps the fear of a loss of power. —John Steinbeck

Following on from the surprising popularity of my article on Player Character Commanding Officers, an article that dipped its toe into the murky waters where management theory and gaming intermingle, I thought it might be fun to do a couple of follow-up articles. Let’s examine ways that the things you learned in GCSE Business Studies might be helpful as a framework to think about gaming activities!

This first piece looks at power – what it is, where it comes from, and how we can examine it around the gaming table, both in-character and out-of-character. It’s inspired by some comments from @NarrativeEscapes, one of my wonderful gaming group. I would recommend checking out his website and youtube channel.

So what is power? Very simply, it is your ability to influence the actions, belief or conduct of someone else, usually to get something done or to think in a certain way. That influence may be quite subtle or it may manifest in terms of forthright control of a situation.

But what does this have to do with roleplaying? Well, part of the special sauce of many games is where PCs are able to exert their power in a given situation, and where some situations feel hollow, PCs have been undercut by either the rules, the actions of the GM or the other players. If we understand what power a PC has, we can begin to make that power feel legitimate in the game, and where a PC has no power, we can enforce that feeling of lost agency to unearth some roleplaying goodness.

In order for someone to wield power, we have to recognise that they have a source of power in the first place. Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven suggest that there are six sources of power.

Legitimate Power
This is power delivered by virtue of a PC’s recognised right to make request actions and make demands – the captain of a starship, the ranking officer in a military unit, the elected leader of a nation etc. In many ways this is the easiest power to recognise as it has ranks, uniforms and honorifics attached to it. Many games have characters that hold legitimate power, especially in military or political games, and recognising that is crucial to fulfilling the fantasy of that person’s character.

Example: A PC is a respected Captain of the City Guard. They approach a group of guards and order them to pursue a fleeing thief. The guards should recognise the PCs power legitimate power in this situation, fire off a quick “Yes, Captain!” and be away after the rogue. If the GM asks the player to make a roll to command the guard, their legitimate power is undermined and that area of their background loses its impact. If, however, the same PC was in a different city and tried the same thing, the GM could ask for a roll, or even just go straight for the guards laughing at the PC and reminding them that they have no power here.

Coercive and Reward Power
Whilst these are normally addressed individually, I like to combine them as two sides of the same coin. Coercive power comes from the ability to punish someone who does not comply with your wishes. Conversely, reward power is rotates around someone being able to compensate someone for agreeing to their wishes. Obviously, the person being rewarded has to value the reward in some way, or fear the punishment that comes with refusal.

So if a PC offers a reward, it has to have value; protection, healing, money, magic etcl. If they offer punishment, it has to be legitimate and feared; a flogging, an oubliette or simply death. Some of MY most infuriating RP moments have come at the hands of ‘The Immovable NPC’, usually in some sort of gatekeeping administrative role, who simply ignores threats or bribes in a nonchalant manner. I find these frustrating because when a barbarian warlord bedecked in the trappings of the monsters she has killed has the accountant by the throat promising to walk into the afterlife and slaughter his ancestors, hearing “That’s as well be, but without form 13B you’re still not going to see the High Magister….” is ridiculous.

Example: In a game with a ‘favour’ economy, since as the Dresden Files RPG, reward and coercive power walk hand in hand. When you offer someone a favour – a reward – for doing what you want, you rely on two things. The first is that they actually value the things you can do to help them in the future, and the second is that you are able and willing (i.e. have the power) to punish them if they do not follow through on their side of the bargain. So imagine a PC allows an NPC to renege on a deal? They may tbink of it as an altruistic action but the rest of the supernatural community sees it as a weakness; a loss of coercive power. A precedent has been set that will require maybe a seven fold retribution to solve. Suddenly, power has become critical to the tale and the PC has some big decisions in their future.

Expert Power
Expert power is, in theory, quite simple – it is the power someone has because of their high levels of skill or knowledge in a subject. Now, being an expert has taken a bit of a beating in the real world of late, but in your games it has a fundamental part to play in delivering a well-rounded experience for the player. This is all wrapped up in genre expectations and emulation, but in general, when a PC is able to exert their Expert power, they can come across as majorly bad ass! In D&D, the gnome’s ability to speak with small woodland creatures is pretty niche … until you need someone to guide you to the bugbear lair and they speak to a local badger! Mages who can read all manner of arcane scripts merely because they are mages and that’s what mages do? Perfect. Super spies who always know the best way to infiltrate the embassy during a party? Brilliant. All expert power.

Of course, there are ways that we can torpedo expert power, and do so effortlessly. Here are three:

1. Calling for a roll on something that could just be assumed as expert knowledge within the character’s remit.
2. Presenting too many ‘gotcha’ moments, where the expert is proved not to be quite so much of an expert after all…
3. Oh boy, expecting the Player to be the expert, rather than the PC. This is a whole article – nay, a book – unto itself.

Example: In Star Trek Adventures, technobabble is a great part of the genre that bleeds into the game, and the role that lives and breathes technobabble is the Science Officer (Ok, the Engineer does too…) When they offer an opinion on a problem and start to spout off, it is VITAL that the GM does not undermine that spouting by claiming that, actually, it doesn’t work like that. It does, because the Science Officer has just said it does! The player doesn’t know exactly how [insert favourite Trek mishap] is dealt with, but after umpteen years at the Vulcan Science Academy and then ten years as an officer on a Federation starship, Commander Vulcan Stereotype damned well does and the game is better for recognising that. The why and how of it makes no difference, it is simply a vehicle to allow the PC to exert their expert power.

Referrent Power
In the real world, I am fascinated by referrant power. Why do people hold celebrities in such high esteem? Why does the world around you grind to a halt when a member of the Royal Family appears? Why do people care about Danny Dyer’s opinion? All of these are examples of referrent power – power gained by atrractiveness, worthiness or perceived right to be respected.

A lot of our real world referrent power is hard coded into games and game-adjacent media. Elves, as perennially attractive characters, are seen as in many ways ‘better’ than short, blob-nosed gnomes. They swan about like they own the place, whilst the gnomes don’t get a look in? How many times have you seen someone fall in love with a gnome? Be rescued by a gnome? Have a tryst with a gnome? Elves have all the fun because of referrant power.

More seriously, referrant power addresses the use of reputation in games. If dragons are a big thing in your game world, defeating one should be a moment of high consequence for your PCs. Things will never be the same again. Think about the influence that pop stars and sports people have in the modern world? Might this sort of star power not be applied to those that have driven off the dragons, defeated the giants and turned back the undead horde? They never have to pay for another drink again in a tavern, but they are also denied any private life, their opinions – even in throw away comments – carry far more weight, and there is always someone nipping at their heels to become the new great dragonslayer.

Example: Lets look at a superhero team in Masks? Young teenage heroes with a vast amount of referrant power at their fingertips as a result of their heroics. The implications of this can play out in both positive and negative ways for the characters. They can be lauded with TV appearances, sponsorships, celebrity suitors and masses of adoring fans. But they can also have their personal life dogged by paparazzi, be raged against online for not jumping one way or another in a debate, have messy public break-ups and suddenly become yesterday’s news when another young super comes along, fresh faced and different.

Informational Power
Originally, there were five power sources, but this was added later – power gained by your ability to control information that others need. In our gaming worlds, this of course, means secrets! When a PC know something that the rest of the party doesn’t, that PC has power. If that knowledge is then spread, they lose that power. So if a character is designed to be a keeper of secrets, constantly revealing those secrets before they can totally undermines the character’s purpose and will probably lead to a very disgruntled player.

Example: The party are approaching the City of Chun. The rogue is a native of Chun and understands the strange rituals that govern every day life in the city. The player has been waiting for this moment, as it really empowers their character and allows them to fold their background into the campaign. They look on aghast, however, as the GM slides a handout into the middle of the table detailing the rituals and phrases that the PCs will have to use to get about in Chun. Now everyone knows the information, that little piece of power has been removed and the player is legitimately disappointed.

So we have looked at the sources of power, and I’ve given some examples of how you can use power in a game as a way to enhance the PCs place in the campaign, or undermine it and deliver a hollow gaming experience. In the next part of this article, we go to places we only speak about in the dark corners of bars; how out-of-character power can be used to enhance, but also harm gaming sessions.

Besides being a gaming enthusiast, Neil used to be a lecturer in leadership and management and has real certificates to prove it!

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