When it comes to my priorities as a roleplaying practitioner, the enthusiastic, zestful exercise of narration authority may be my #1.
This is a bit surprising to me, because my ability to play has vastly improved over the last year by attending to other aspects of this activity. Over the past four months, it’s been situation authority and its relationship to scene-setting: the down-in-the-mire questions of where we are, who is there, and what they are doing. During the three months before that, it was outcome authority: how what happens happens, without anyone’s blatant or psy-ops-subtle imposition of control.
Still, my favorite moments of play consistently hinge on the act of narration, and I think it’s because narration authority presents an opportunity to recognize, celebrate and deepen our commitment to the functioning of the other authorities and the fiction we’re creating. Functioning may seem like a dry word, but the other authorities, particularly situation authority, often demand discipline. It’s not always exciting to track the location of my character(s) within a situation or inside a scene, but it has to happen for genuine play to occur.
Narration authority is where we get to take a moment and say, “Look at this colorful, memorable and powerful fiction we have produced. Let's appreciate our mutual creative engagement, attention to this particular game’s instrumentation, and respect for each other’s authorities.”
I want to talk about some specific examples of narration authority in action, both to elaborate on some of the points I’m raising and also to celebrate some recent memorable instances of play.
I also think it’s interesting to see narration authority in action, because in many systems it’s more mobile than the other authorities: someone can spontaneously “step up” to exercise it without danger of murk, so long as they attend to what has already been established. How this happens is obvious and easy in the moment, even if there are a lot of creative decisions being made and instrumentation being employed on the backend.
Rod, Sam and I recently played a one-shot of The Pool. The Pool is very intentional about assigning narration authority, but what this means only clicked for me after seeing it in action. A week before we played, Sam (who was playing as GM) gave us the following pitch:
the setting is western ma, in the pioneer valley, 20 years from now. smith college and amherst college, in their biodomes, have lifted off from the ground and now hover 300 feet above the ground. the rest of the valley is completely overgrown with a massive jungle with frog people and stuff in it. also god is real, and hes punishing us because hes pissed that people weren't going to church or something i guess
Rod responded with this character:
Valium Vasquez was born with only one arm to punish his parents for insufficient humility before the Lord. He grew up shunned and scorned, and plotted revenge on God by killing an angel and grafting its arm (still holding its Theotronic Ultrablade) to his own stump. Now to kill God!
Within the first two scenes, Valium Vasquez had failed in his attempt to kill God and been blasted miles across the landscape, crashing into the floating biodome of Smith College. A few scenes later, he was enrolled in the college’s Religious Studies program, leafing through the Book of Job, wondering if he should continue on his mad quest.
This went to a roll: Valium’s determination to kill God matched against the Book of Job’s message of submission before eternity. Rod succeeded, and got to choose between getting a Pool Die or making a Monologue of Victory. Given how psychological the scene was (and how low on Pool Dice he was), I expected him to go for the die. Instead, he said (paraphrasing from memory), “I’m taking the Monologue of Victory, because I want to see Valium’s grafted angel-arm ripping a page out of the Bible and scrunching it up as he shouts: ‘This book is useless! It is only a manual for passivity!’”
This image is burned into my memory. Rod made that whole session light up for me with his narration. And I think it was so impactful not because it introduced new fictional content but because it was a culmination of the other factors of play: Rod’s exercise of backstory authority to create a scary and funny character, Sam’s exercise of outcome authority to honor Valium’s failed God-killing roll, even my earlier decision to gift Rod half of my Pool dice to help Valium survive God’s counter-attack.
The act of narration was a moment for us to recognize how far we’d come in narrative terms, and to redouble our creative engagement with the fiction.
In our latest session of Circle of Hands (same group, plus my brother Seth), we created one of the most darkly memorable scenes I’ve ever gotten to play. I find CoH really instructive in regards to narration authority: it is extremely rigorous when it comes to who can narrate what at certain steps in the “killing system,” particularly when a violent confrontation begins. At other points, it is very open, such as who narrates the results of particular attacks or actions.
In the session in question, Sam played as the GM, Seth played Oswald, a former priest and Rbaja wizard, Rod played Adelina, a High Entertainer and Wizard, and I played the aging peasant-Knight Kai, who started the session as a stubbornly mundane character and ended it as a radiant hive of Amboriyon energies with the ability to transform into a small silver dragon.
The situation we entered involved a village called Brunodorf on the shore of Rolke. A group of sea-raiders from Spur, led by a formidable warrior named Erdmann, had slaughtered the previous rulers and set themselves up as the local gentry, imposing a ruinous agricultural regimen on the peasants to maximize wealth extraction from the area. They kept the village's priest imprisoned as an example for those thinking about organizing the locals to expel them.
Soon after our arrival, Oswald set up shop among the peasants in quiet defiance of Erdmann. Kai melted into the background of backbreaking fieldwork. Adelina ingratiated herself with the gentry and, through adroit politicking and deft ego-inflation, convinced Erdmann to launch attacks on towns up the coast, creating a potential opportunity for the Circle Knights change the village’s circumstances for the better.
(This led to one of my favorite dialogues of the session: Erdmann asked Adelina, “You know the Young King in Rolke, do you not?” Rod (without missing a beat): “Yes, very well. You are much like him.”)
However, before departing on the sea-raid, the gentry dragged the priest out of the longhouse to publicly torture her - a tactic to shore up their perceived power before leaving. Oswald was having none of it.
He strode into the center of the village, trailed by a grimly resigned Kai, swore an Oath to the priest to raise her from the dead as a draugr, and cast Hate on the gathered gentry and their victim, who promptly started murdering each other as fast as possible.
With a couple of soldiers approaching Oswald and all eyes on the Circle Knights, Kai swore an Oath to protect Oswald and employed his starting Gift (he’s the Knight with the lowest total Attribute scores) to address the crowd of peasants with a Charm roll, calling upon them to massacre the invaders.
I rolled with a single die, plus my Oath die, plus Kai's Charm of....3. And failed. The peasants surged forward to kill these dangerous outsiders before they could do more damage to the social fabric.
Adelina was running from the longhouse, too far away to help. Oswald only had a few points of Brawn remaining. Kai only had a couple of spells available to him, none applicable. In spite of his rather monstrous Brawn of 8, he didn’t have the necessary Quickness to escape the crowd on a single die.
Both Seth and I had our heads down looking at our sheets, racking our brains for options. I didn’t see any moves available to me as the crowd of peasants bore down, and had just about resigned myself to losing my first Circle Knight, when Seth looked up and, brilliant bastard that he is, said, “I pump a Brawn to get ahead of the crowd, grab Kai, and pull us both into the zone of Hate.”
After Sam, Rod and I picked our jaws up off the floor, Oswald and Kai leaped into the Hate-zone and the crowd spilled after them, all of us seized by the magic as we crossed the border. Sam treated the zone as a Scrum with knives, a truly horrible fucking bloodbath, but thanks to our Oath dice and some lucky rolls, both Oswald and Kai survived.
When Adelina ran up from the longhouse, she took in the carnage and responded with Rbaja, bellowing a mass of mass of black Webs into existence that stuck the crowd together like so many deranged flies. In a rather horrifying touch, Sam narrated the peasants still trying to murder each other through their entanglement, then gradually freezing in shock.
Just because the Scrum had ended didn’t mean that Oswald was out of danger, though. Erdmann made his Strength roll to tear free from the Webs and made his Wits roll to shake loose of the Hate spell. He looked around for Oswald, himself low on Brawn and hopelessly entangled.
Kai, meanwhile, also succeeded on his rolls and squared up with Erdmann, peasant’s staff in hand.
This was the first moment I’d had a chance to breathe since the scene opened, and it hit me all at once how much I was enjoying this awesome and brutal fiction we were making. I said, “I just have to get this in detail,” and described a hulking figure coated in Web-tar, tearing itself free from a pile of groaning bodies, wiping its vision clear of Rbaja-gunk and gore.
As Kai came to his senses he realized he was holding a knife, wet to the hilt in someone else’s blood, and threw it away with a shudder. Then he saw an equally disoriented Erdmann, heavy with blade and mail, advancing on the helpless Oswald. Kai raised the staff in his right hand and stepped in front of him, heedless of his lack of armor, gathering the full force of his will into his left fist as he prepared to Blast his enemy out of existence....
And here’s the thing: the rest of the session—the fight between Kai and Erdmann, the aftermath as the Circle Knights left the village—was just as engaging as this scene. But when I reflect on the session, I see it from the high vantage point of this moment.
I think the reason is that exercising a bit of narration authority let me highlight how our creative engagement and the instrumentation of the game had gelled into something amazing, and (hopefully) it let me communicate some of my excitement and appreciation to my fellow players.