Who has the power in a game?

Odd topic, but power is a funny thing. In real life, those who have it typically want more. Those without want some. And it’s not always what you think.

In a roleplaying game, you’d think the GM held most of the power. And to a point, you’re right. But without players, what good is a GM? Players hold the other half of the power in a campaign or one-shot adventure. It’s a give and take between both sides. Don’t kid yourself that there aren’t two sides to the game table though. However, they’re not always in direct opposition.

For me, it’s not (always) a competition between GM and player. Sure, sometimes it’s literally a competition such as a jousting tournament or a game of chance played in the game. But for the most part, the GM is there to keep the world in motion to give the players opportunities for action.

But I digress…

So obviously the GM has some power… but it’s spread thinly between NPCs, monsters, and plots afoot in the realm of his or her control. A fair GM doesn’t let the power of the dice corrupt him or her unfairly. A fudge here or there on behalf of the players is a choice GMs always have, but in the vast majority of cases I have to believe it’s not used against the players or player characters to hasten their demise. So in my view, no GM has absolute power over their domain if they’re playing fairly.

And the players have power to exercise on behalf of their in-game characters… Choices that may benefit the player or the group at large exist in great quantities usually. And it’s easy to see when players step out of bounds through metagaming or by doing something to harm another player, for the GM or other players may rise to the occasion and combat such inequities.

But in the best cases of gaming, it’s a symbiotic relationship between players and their GM. When the relationship becomes one-sided, it ceases to be fun for the other side and bad things may occur. Hard feelings, bad decisions, and things said in anger may result in the downfall of a group and the temporary or permanent harm to friendships between members.

Has anyone seen the demise of a gaming group like this? It’s not pretty.

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2 thoughts on “Who has the power in a game?”

  1. I know this is an old topic, but I managed to find my way here via a related link from your recent post about Play Styles. Hopefully I’m not performing blog necromancy here… or if I am, hoepfully that’s ok.

    I tend to agree with your analysis but I prefer to think of this in terms of Authority rather than Control. I see games like RPGs more of a collective imagining than a versus event. Every GM has a maximum level of Authority they’re comfortable with giving the players and each Player has a level of Authority they feel is the minimum they’re willing to play under.

    There’s a couple interesting things about the Authority in games of this nature. One is that there’s a finite amount that can be “handed out” at the table. The other is that Authority cannot be taken. it has to be granted. So if a GM wants more Authority, he or she has to be granted it from the Players and vice versa. Most gaming groups have some unwritten and often unspoken framework for who has what percentage of the Authority under what circumstances.

    When a Player exceeds his or her Authority (from the GM’s viewpoint) they’re not following the story properly/playing their character correctly.
    When a GM exceeds his or her Authority (from a Player’s perspective) then the game is on rails.

  2. @Kevin – Blog Necromancy… Raising old posts from the dead… I love the analogy. But no such worries here.

    I totally agree with the “collective imagining” approach you describe. And the balance between players and GM is an ever changing thing. Without one you can’t have the other, so it definitely is a fine line…

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