This comment from Bankuei (author of the Deep in the Game blog) on Matt Wilson’s site (The Dog Blog) really got my wheels turning:

Unfortunately, there is not a single mainstream game that solidly lays out the idea of framing conflict outside of physics (even cinematic, anime, cartoon physics).

We have zero mainstream examples to point people to in terms of reconsidering that resolution, and more importantly, conflicts, might be about something other than who can hit who, move faster, or carry more.

This kind of post is exactly why I link to design blogs here on TT: because I think looking at game design can make for better GMing. Let’s take a look at Bankuei’s point as applied to to the grandaddy of mainstream games: D&D.

As Tony Dowler (of attacks of opportunity) points out in that same comments thread, mainstream RPGs have been offering one mechanical system for exerting player control for years: a pool of points, generally hard to replenish, that allows a player to step in and change the way the dice fell. (I’d also add drama cards, from TORG, as an example — but I’ve never played TORG, and I don’t know that much about it.)

In D&D, the most mainstream of mainstream RPGs (and by mainstream I don’t mean “bad” — just “popular, and shapes the industry”) these are called action points, and they first made an appearance in the Eberron setting. But by design, action points don’t really do what Bankuei is getting at: all of the things a player can do with an action point are mechanical in nature.

In other words, you can’t spend an action point to take the story in a different direction (for example), except in the sense that, say, your PC avoiding a death blow takes the story in a different direction. In a nutshell, at least as far as D&D goes, I think bankuei is right: the rules don’t really get into ways for the players to change the story that’s being told around the table.

Sticking to D&D as an example, then, what would rules for exerting player control look like, and how would they fit into the game? In my time on both sides of the screen, I’ve seen a few things that jump out at me as examples of collaborative/player control — neither of which are part of the rules.

The first is using PC backgrounds as a direct source of campaign elements. A simple example would be a villainous NPC described in a PC’s background: the GM then develops that villain, and brings them to the table once the game begins. In my experience, this is actually pretty common — but it’s not really quantified in the rules.

The second is also more of a “hack” to the rules than an actual part of them: round-robin GMs. I’ve never played in a round-robin game, but it sounds fascinating. The idea being, of course, that the GM is more likely to vibe off previous ideas, making for a more collaborative experience, and less likely to arbitrarily kill characters (since her character will be among them).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t bring me any closer to answering my own question — then again, I don’t think there is a quick answer to this one! What do you think — do mainstream RPGs need rules for exerting player control? If so, what form might those rules take? And what examples of these kinds of rules are already out there in indie games, or elsewhere?