April 20, 2016

Stance and the Magic Circle

I've had a lot of articles about D&D mechanics lately, so it's time for another RPG theory piece.  Today's topic: Stance.

There are a lot of different ways to play an RPG.

Ron Edwards' concept of Stance in RPGs describes three ways in which a player interacts with the game:

  • Actor stance, where the player thinks like their character, making decisions based only on game world information the character knows, using the character's motives.
  • Author stance, where the player makes decisions for the character based on what the player wants to see happen, then decides the character's reasons for making those decisions.  ("Pawn stance" is when the player makes decisions for the character, but without regard to why the character would make those decisions.)
  • Director stance is like Author stance, in that the player makes decisions based on what the player wants to see happen.  Except in Director stance, the player also has the ability to make decisions for other characters and events in the game world, outside their own character.
I think these categories are fine, but they can be improved on.  For instance, Author and Director stance both imply the same relationship between the player's motives and their character's motives.  And Director stance is a feature of the game rules, not the player's preference.

Let's re-examine stance from the concept of the Magic Circle.  Quick refresher:  The Magic Circle is the permeable membrane between the shared imagined world of the game (Gary Allen Fine called it the "Game World Frame" using Erving Goffman's frame analysis) and the real world.  Inside the magic circle is the game world.  Outside is the real world.

Wait, what?  Permeable membrane?  Things from my D&D game can get into the real world?

That's right - things can bleed across the membrane.  When something crosses from the real world into the game world, it's called bleed-in.  When something crosses from the game world into the real world, it's called bleed-out.  It's not like the Red Wizards of Thay are sneaking into Earth from Faerûn.  Ideas, relationships. idioms, and emotions are the most likely things to bleed.  Say I had a hard day at work, and I want to blow off steam.  My nerdy decker is going to be a little more likely to break out his Ares Predator in tonight's game.  Say I pull off a really cool heist in a D&D game and even though there were some hitches, we pulled it off with aplomb.  I'm going to be excited and proud when I talk about it on Facebook the next day.

We can look at stance from the lens of the magic circle and see how there are two axes of stance:  Bleed-in and bleed-out.  As I said before, GMs can try to encourage or discourage bleed in various ways.  But bleed is ultimately a player characteristic.  It's related to personality - games are a form of identity management, after all. Some players have a membrane that's more permeable one or both directions.  We're just talking about the permeability of the membrane between real and virtual worlds; self and pretend-role.

  • Actor stance implies a permeable membrane, with a lot of bleed-in and bleed-out.  
  • Author and Director stance imply a less permeable membrane, with little bleed-out but some bleed-in.  Pawn stance has significant bleed-in.
  • Power gamers have significant bleed-out:  They're players who feel bad if their characters suffer defeat.
  • Story gamers less interest in or get less enjoyment from bleed-out.  Story games often strongly discourage bleed-out and strongly encourage bleed-in:  In Microscope, for instance, what a player wants is far more important than what the character they're currently playing wants.  
  • Horror games strongly encourage bleed-out.
  • There are systems in some games to break players from too much bleed-in.  From Alignment in D&D to Aspects in Fate, RPGs have asked players to commit to strong, defining personality traits for their characters.
The step from Author to Director stance can be captured in how much of a sphere of influence the game provides players.  If you can only control your character, like in old school D&D, you're limited to Actor and Author stance.  But even in games that give players a huge sphere of influence, like Microscope, a player can still assume Actor and Author stance.  Even though games like Microscope give players a large sphere of influence over the world, some players prefer to role-play a single character, limiting how much of that sphere of influence they actually use.  Others might chafe at the limited sphere of influence in a game of D&D, constantly suggesting story ideas and NPC actions to the DM (or perhaps those people are the ones who are temperamentally inclined to be the DM).


Looking at bleed and sphere of influence as personality traits means stance is more than just a player's current approach to affecting the game world.  It means it can be used to describe a player's preferred approach, too.

Stance Revised
So that leaves us with three characteristics of stance.  A player has a current and preferred version of each:

  • Bleed-in Permeability 
  • Bleed-out Permeability
  • Sphere of Influence
Players can shift their stance over the course of a game.  

For instance, let's say we're playing a game of Night's Black Agents (see the link to the right).  The party splits up, and first I have a scene where I'm hacking some vampire gangster's cell phone and listening in on their conversations.  I might immerse myself during that scene, taking an actor stance with lots of bleed-out and a moderate amount of bleed-in.  After I'm done, the GM turns to you, and you have a scene where your character is tailing a suspected hit man through a bad neighborhood in Marakesh.  I can still experience bleed from your character into my own self -- I can be afraid for you, for instance.  But I don't.  I "close my membrane," and observe from more of a director stance with no bleed-out and a bit of bleed-in.  Without hogging the spotlight, I suggest a few cool things that the GM could throw into the scene to add to the fun for everyone.

Thoughts?  Reactions?  Let me know!