Power and Control: The Out-of-Character Side
In my last article, I talked about the various types of power and how you could use them to accentuate a PC’s presence in a game or abuse them to undermine the role of the same PC. This time around I’m going to go down the more controversial path and talk about power amongst the players at the table. I’m pretty sure this is going to push a few people’s buttons, but we have to be honest and admit that gaming tables are not a balanced nirvana where all things are equal. There are always imbalances, and I would argue that we can model some of them on different levels of power at the table. So take a deep breath, read charitably, and here we go…
Let’s kick off with a doozy; every player has the power to make a great game, not just the player in the role of the GM. OK, hear me out. I’m a great advocate for the position that everyone is a player, but some people have a different role in the game. Everyone has the power to make the game great, and to make it dreadful. Disagree? Ask yourself how many times you have seen a game derailed by an asshat player, despite the efforts of the GM and indeed, the rest of the table. That’s power and it’s legitimate.
And as Uncle Ben told us, with great power comes great responsibility. I think that the legitimate power that is taken when we sit down to play creates a responsibility to be in the game, to be prepared, to listen, and contribute and build the fun. Sitting with a face like an arse, lone wolfing away whilst trying to eat some lunch and making painfully inappropriate asides? That’s not taking up the responsibility that your legitimate player power gives you – bad form.
I think this in particular is one of those subjects that we could talk about forever because denying someone their legitimate player power is a brutal thing to do in a game. When that player is in the role of the GM, but you are constantly contradicting, interrupting, or disrupting their game, you’re exercising your power to disrupt their fun. When you’re a GM and you sideline a player, or block their ideas, or ignore them, your power is obvious and misused. I think that many situations around tables are caused by the use and abuse of this power and we should be mindful of the responsibility that brings.
First off, lets acknowledge the low hanging fruit – obviously a GM has huge reward and coercion power in terms of gameplay/ That’s a given.
GMs can also exhibit these powers through in-game favouritism and exclusion. You join a game to play, and it would be fair to expect some level of equality in how much you play? The passing of the spotlight, in these terms, is an exercise of power in this situation. Now some people might think that this is the GM’s responsibility alone, but I would suggest it actually lies across the table. Sometimes, as a player, you have to step back and let other people have their moment in the sun. I recognise, for example, that I have a tendency to speak first, so I purposefully try to hang back and not leap in as others should have the chance to be the first voice.
Another interesting thing to consider is the power balance in a group when you are playing in someone else’s home? As a host, you have a lot of power in terms of the hospitality that you show, the timings that you keep to or the rules that you impose. The host’s ability to change the rules on the fly – my house, my rules – can cause tension too.
Example: The group plays in your house, and you have an unspoken rule that people can make themselves a cup of tea in your kitchen and this rule has stood for ages. If you suddenly say ‘Uhm, who said you could just make a cup of tea?’ then you are exercising your power (probably legitimate, but also coercive) and that changes the dynamic. Now, the group will have to assume that they ask every time tea becomes an issue and it’s a rule that’s difficult to walk back, as any permission to ‘drink at will’ may be rescinded.
I’d wager there’s a pretty strong correlation between roleplayers and people with deep niche knowledge. We revel in it, and we all know someone who knows LOTS about gaming things; Glorantha, the version changes in D&D, Glorantha, the way to build ships in Traveller, did I mention Glorantha? (Seriously, I am totally in awe at the sheer depth of knowledge they have for a fictional world)
This expert power can be an absolute boon for a game, but it can also destroy it. The rules expert is a brilliant resource at the table, especially if like me rules are there for other people to worry about when I’m GMing. However, when the rules expert starts to become overbearing and their knowledge interferes with the flow of the game, it can be difficult.
Similar expert power comes in the hands of the subject expert. I even split these into two sections; genre experts and real-life experts. The Genre Expert can trip off a ‘Lore War’ at the drop of a hat, and in so doing, undermine the enjoyment of the rest of the table. A Real-Life Expert can do the same, but with more gravitas and therefore more of a closing down of debate-style of intervention that some tables might find jarring.
With all of these, the trick is to respect the person behind the power, but make it plain that they need to respect everyone else. So the rules expert can help out but should temper that with the knowledge that not everyone is so invested in the rules to care about the relative value of spell components. A genre expert can be great at adding some colour to the game, but shouldn’t become the gatekeeper for everyone’s fun. A real-life expert can add some realistic detail, but should also remember that it’s a fun fantasy, not a hyper-realistic simulation.
Example: One of the best rules I have seen around a table to encourage people not to abuse expert power is the ‘Well Actually…’ rule (and it’s close cousin, the ‘I think you’ll find…’ rule). If someone starts a sentence with something like this phrasing, they have to stop. OK, it’s ridiculous, but just raising it at the start of a session is a nice reminder to the table that expert level pedantry isn’t needed in the game.
Also, however, respect that these people do have expert knowledge. Acknowledge it. Ask them to contribute and help at the right times. Don’t punish people for knowing something – that’s retrograde action at its worst.
Way back in the day, the title of ‘game designer’ used to confer upon someone a strange mystique that made them uncontactable, untouchable and most bizarrely unquestionable. They were a game designer and they were Gods Amongst Gamers. Nowadays, thankfully, everyone seems to be a games designer – or to use the modern parlance – content creator, of some sort and therefore the relationship has changed somewhat. Pod casters, vloggers, bloggers, writers, artists, streamers, editors, sensitivity consultants, layout artists – for every player there is a side hustle and with that comes, still, just a little piece of referent power. This is especially true if you are in the business of ‘featuring’ experiences from your gaming life in your content. You have the power to ‘out’ what you perceive as bad play during a game that you have played and that can easily, in our connected world, but traced back to the person you are talking about, even if you have tried to be anonymous. Is it fair that you use your position to publicly criticise someone for their play without necessarily context or feedback?
Example: Of course, it works both ways – a game designer has some responsibility when people are playing their game. One of the tensest things I have ever done is playing in a game of Duty & Honour! I was painfully aware that I was a player in the game, not the GM, and definitely not the games designer in-situ. In that situation, I would guess the GM is aware enough of your presence at the table without the designer constantly correcting them on the minutiae of the game.
Roleplaying games build on deep foundations of information and control of that information can be an exercise in power. Simply owning lots of game resources, like books and pdfs, can give someone the ability to exercise informational power. If they share that information sparsely, or worse, don’t, it can cause real imbalance issues – or conflict, if the GM decides to ban their information because it isn’t globally available.
Secrets in games are also exercises in informational power, as are players with characters who have ‘gatekeeping’ knowledge of things within the game – like Detect spells in D&D. Are you running an open game (where everything is known) or a closed game (where there are secrets between players)? What happens when a player in an open game decides to change the rules and act like it’s a closed game? They exercise their informational power AND challenge the GM (who will probably know what they are doing) to challenge their legitimate power as a player too. It’s a spicy combo!
I don’t think any of this is ground-breaking stuff, but the use of the power concept to reflect the way these things happens may explain why they can be so disruptive and painful around your table. Increasingly, we seem to be hyper-sensitive and reactive to imbalances and abuse of power, of whatever type, and also furious when our own power is ignored or negated. If we can be mindful of our own power, we can regulate how we use it, and how we interact with others and maybe, hopefully, have a more peaceful gaming environment.