I like to think that when I play a roleplaying game with other people, we are working together to tell a story. We surprise each other—developing new twists and turns in the narrative as we go. Or we delight each other—playing into hints and clues left earlier to create a bitter conflict or a smoochful romance. Regardless of how the story goes, we act together to create it. And we do this by sharing narrative authority.
In this article, I will discuss why you should be mindful of sharing narrative authority in your games, and how you might do so.
What is narrative authority?
Narrative authority is the ability of a person in a game to say what happens and describe things in the story. When characters enter a new location, who gets to decide what is happening there? When the giant centipede is struck down with a fatal blow, who gets to describe what that looks like?
Narrative authority is not the same as the spotlight
It’s important not to confuse narrative authority with the spotlight. Narrative authority refers to a person’s ability to make decisions about what is happening in the game. Spotlight refers to the time they spend actually speaking. If Gurr and Snark live in the same castle, the players of both might be able to determine its description and contents. They both have narrative authority. If Gurr’s player is the one who actually gives the description, Gurr’s player has the spotlight.
It’s also possible to hold the spotlight without holding very much narrative authority. For example, the GM might ask Gurr’s player— “tell me how Gurr falls over, hits their head on a rock and is knocked out.” While doing so, Gurr’s player will have the spotlight, but not much control over the narrative at all.
Sharing the spotlight is important, but it’s not a substitute for the ability to make decisions about the story.
The traditional approach to narrative authority
Traditionally narrative authority is broken up like this:
The players have the say over their character, and decide what their character attempts to do.
The system determines the success or failure of the characters.
The GM has the say over everything else.
It is often said that players control individual characters, while the GM controls the world. This hands nearly all of the narrative authority to the GM. The GM can then give bits and pieces of it away by asking questions like “what does…?” and “how does…?” But it still remains a commodity they control. Most GMs will delegate out narrative authority subconsciously to some degree—generally by asking questions.
As an example, imagine an adventuring party is in combat. Consider who gets to answer the following questions:
- What does the cave look like?
- What is happening in the cave?
- What does the enemy do?
- What does Gurr do?
- What happens when Gurr does it?
- What does Gurr’s cousin (a helpful NPC) do?
The traditional division of narrative authority is attractive because it’s easy. It’s clear who gets to say what. But it can also be very restrictive for players, and very burdensome on the GM. As I have wanted to be a better player and contribute more to games, I’ve found myself butting heads with this approach. And, after trying the alternative of sharing narrative authority, I’ve found it to be much more enjoyable.
Why is it important to share narrative authority?
There are three main reasons why it’s important to share narrative authority.
The first reason is that sharing narrative authority is how you tell a story together. People are wonderful, imaginative, and emotional. When everyone gets to contribute, you get to capture all of that in your play. The traditional approach expects one person to be responsible for nearly all the good stuff in the game. An analogy I’ve heard many times is that the GM creates the playground for the players to play in. The heavy burden this creates is the reason why there is such strong pressure for GMs to be “entertaining”, “descriptive”, and “evocative”, standards that are often not expected of players. However, there is actually no reason why all this responsibility has to sit with the GM. When you work with others to tell the story together, you access the combined wonders of your imaginations, which is better than what any one person could produce.
The second reason is because sharing narrative authority creates more control over the game for each player. Players vote for the future content of the game with their description and input. They can work collaboratively to create an experience that interests all of them. Not only is this usually more fun for players, it also ties in closely with my final reason.
When narrative authority is shared, players are more invested in the game. They feel like they have helped to build the story, and as all authors do, they become very attached to their creations. When you give players control over the story, their care factor increases substantially.
If you’re still not sold on the benefits of sharing narrative authority, I’d recommend giving it a go and checking in with whether everyone enjoyed it. It can take a couple of sessions to get used to, but it’s worth the investment.
How much narrative authority should I share?
Share as much narrative authority as you feel comfortable with. Then share a bit more. There is no limit to the amount of narrative authority that you can share as long as everyone is ready. But as this kind of sharing can be unusual for a lot of groups, it’s fine to make the shift slowly as well.
A lot of GMs have reservations about sharing narrative authority that go along the following lines:
- The story won’t be consistent if it’s shared
- The players won’t enjoy the story if there’s no mystery
- If the players can just chip in whenever they like, who will drive the story forward?
- But I had an awesome idea of what should happen next
Try sharing and see is my answer to most of these. But it’s also important to remember two things. Firstly, players will surprise and delight each other—there is mystery in how other players will react. Secondly, roleplaying is a conversation, and a lot of these difficulties will be overcome by people simply listening to each other and building on what has already been said.
How can I start sharing narrative authority?
Today’s the session you’ve decided to give sharing narrative authority a go. Great! Remember everything won’t fall into place at once, especially if this is alien to the way you usually play. But you’ll get a much richer game for the effort.
Step 1: Tell the players that they have narrative authority and can decide things
You might say something along the following lines:
Hey, so you know how I’m normally the one who describes things and plays all the other people in the world? I reckon it would be pretty fun if you guys get to do those things too. That way we can all tell the story together.
This means you get to describe stuff and make stuff happen whenever you have a good idea. And it doesn’t have to be just about your character either. You can describe stuff about anything. If you want to, you can make up people, places, and complications—be as self-indulgent as you like! As always, we’ll share the spotlight and make sure everyone has an equal chance to indulge.
You may also want to throw in a few examples for clarity that reference events in your game.
Step 2: Encourage players to take narrative control during the story, and give positive feedback when they do
Ask players questions to help them take on narrative control. But push them a bit further than you ordinarily would. Ask them to describe the cave, but also ask them for the secret that’s hidden inside it. Ask them to describe the bartender, but also ask how that bartender knows one of the other characters. Then make them play the bartender!
Give lots of positive feedback. A great way to do this is via the o-card (link).
Step 3: Move the narrative authority as appropriate, and help players avoid playing against themselves
As players are getting used to working together, you’ll have to conspicuously move the narrative authority to help people take turns. At a key moment, use a question to shift the focus. So, if one player describes a hidden box, ask a second player what’s inside it—and why it’s is so important to the first player!
One key reason you’ll need to move the narrative authority is to avoid players taking on the role of their own antagonists, or challenges in the world. A player should never describe a dangerous situation if their character will also be the first one to enter it. And they should never take on the role of their own arch-enemy.
One way to avoid this situation occurring is to allow players to hand off elements of narrative authority during the game. So a player might say “aaah, this box is really important to my character I don’t want to decide what is in it. Ravi, can you do that?” or “Samantha, can you play Gurr’s cousin in this scene, I want to have a chat to him.”
Step 4: Chat about it during debrief
Chat about how it went! Do people have feels? I bet they do. How can you improve and learn to work together better? Try it next time.
Sharing narrative authority and creating a story together is for me one of the greatest joys of roleplaying. I hope you get to enjoy it too!