Player owned threats

I want to ask about Authority distribution in play. What players are entitled to say without playing “Mother may I …” And I want to ask about Auhtority on the Opposition.

Most games I like allow Players to not only raise stakes, but right out initiate Conflicts. And many games I don’t like do that, too !

In this day and age, many games let players chose the Consequences of conflicts, or at least default to Harm or some kind of resource to reject Consequences they don’t like. I see that as, in a way, picking their Threats, in that the Consequence of today can easily turn into the Threat of tomorrow. That’s not Authority proper, but clearly a way Players can frame initiating Conflicts.

In some games, like Champions (a major inspiration for Ron Edwards, it seems), Players have a lot of power to Frame Conflicts. For example, they can roll for Hunters to be on their tracks or their Loved one to be among the hostages, etc. Of course, the GM has Authority on how it happens, and can by pass the requirement, but the idea is there.

What games let Players handle Opposition in original ways that don’t infringe the Czege principle ? Or more precisely, what PvP games are not a war of all against all (I am looking at you, Capes…) ? I know Polaris does, I love BoB for doing that, I am reading Strange Gravity could do that. What else ?


If I understand this, wouldn’t Apocalypse World count?

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I’m not sure if this is what you mean, but some PbtA gama have playbooks with threats they introduce. The Unicorn in Monsterhearts 2 has Unicorn Hunters, the Dragon in Urban Shadows the Ordo Draconis. These threats are controlled by the GM, but the player has say in who they are, and what they’re like.


Rereading your post, I’m not quite sure I understand it through, despite my previous answer. Especially the end. What does PvP have to do with players’ authority over threats?

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Some Apocalypse World games do at least use the “Champions way” : Players ask for certain Threats, and the GM plays this Opposition.

But let’s look into it to see whether that’s original or not :
Do the Players get to declare Unicorn Hunters presence in a scene ? absence ? props ? backstory ? goals ? conflicts ? actions ?

The more Players have authority on a threat, the more it looks like either :

  • infringement of the Czege principle (the player describes the villain and how it gets punched and how it is disposed of)
  • PvP : the players describe all about the villain, but the villain can only complicate the life of a character not its own (Bob)
  • total PvP : players characters are the threats.

What I am after would look like Players GMing for each other, as in GM-less Ghost/Echo, Polaris, Dream Askew’s “You also play the…”.


This is the text of the Unicorn Hunters move:

Some side characters are hunters in disguise. If someone is, or you say they are, your friends mark experience when they chase the hunters off.

So what players get to do is declare a character a unicorn hunter, everything else is up to the GM. In practice, I find GMs tend to ask questions like, “Why do people hunt Unicorns?” “Are they organized, or lone wolf type hunters.” So they let players have some control over who they are and their motivation, but the final control remains with the GM. A player can declare a hunter’s presence in a scene, by declaring an NPC a unicorn hunter. (The text of the move is kind of ambiguous about whether the player can actually control the fiction this way. It may simply be that the other PCs get XP for fighting off any character the Unicorn says is a hunter, whether they are or not. In my experience, GMs usually let the declaration be true, but I don’t think they have to necessarily.)

RE: the games you’re talking about, I think reframing some of the terminology might be helpful. Like, those aren’t GM-less games, those are games where the all the players divide up the classic GM role between themselves. It’s why they’re often referred to as GM-full games, unlike, say, For the Queen, where there is no GM role at all, and threats are arrived at through conversation and negotiation through the responses to question prompts, but there’s nobody with the sole authority to declare a threat. Kingdom and Fiasco both work like this as well, in that threats, such as they are, are negotiated between players as scenes are set, rather than created by a player with authority, as in GMed and GM-full games. And yeah, those games violate the Czage principle and they do so deliberately because they’re just not interested in players overcoming threats and challenges, it’s just not what the games are about.

So coming back to your question of authority division, in GM-ful games, everybody has some level of GM authority, where they can declare certain things, usually opposition, to be true. This thread, linked below, has an intersting conversation around some of the issues you’re talking about, as well as lots of examples:

This comment here, by @BeckyA, is especially on point:


Archipelago does this in a couple of different ways, if I understand the OP.

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With the Dominions, I understand in theory. I don’t know how it works in practice.
In what other way ? With phrases like “it might not be so easy” ?

You may find it interesting to hear that some people play Pocket Danger Patrol this way (I did, the first time I played it, and it worked out OK).

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Which way do you mean ?

  • adding threats with “Not so easy” goes against the maths, as it makes success more likely.
  • playing gmful otoh suits the game nicely if the table can coordinate their contributions.

I’m not sure what you mean by the first part, but the second part is what I was referring to. Some people play the game GMless, with each player taking “control” of one or two Threats. The first time I played it, we did it this way, and tried to frame our scenes so that the PC of a player wouldn’t be challenging the Threats that same player had control over. It worked fairly well, although it lacked the coherence or guiding vision we’re getting in our current game (for which a single GM helps).

In short, if I’m responsible for the Amenhotep threat, I define it, only I know its secret Weakness, and I “talk” for it in play.

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I’d say that while most rulebooks say that the GM is the one that preps and handles conflicts, as any actual game is a conversation from which a fiction is created dynamycally (no matter how much you railroad), conflicts actually arise naturally from the consequences of PC actions. It’s difficult to point a moment, a combination of words or a silent agreement between players and the GM, because it’s totally different from party to party. It might even be their silence that triggers the GM into framing a conflict in a certain way, delay one already prepped in favor of a new interesting one or jump steps in their prep to get straight to the conflict.

I’d say that in more than one way, players are usually driving the story into conflicts they are interested into and crash into conflicts they want to avoid because the GM manages to bring together the requirements to trigger it. And that’s one of the reasons why there are so few books whose rules advocate for player owned threats. The main reason we jump to is of course, Czege principle, but the need for games with player owned threats would be higher if this weren’t already happening at every table.

However, comfort guides our interests and today more designers are starting to think if there could be more ways to make GM easier by having the players come up with more stuff. Definitely, they can come up with their own conflicts, they already do. It’s just that they aren’t so vocal, explicit or detailed about it.

Take for instance the usual “I don’t think this guy is telling us the truth”. There’s the seed of a conflict there that any GM can feel and escalate. Sure, you can try to stop players in their tracks, but once the seed is planted and other players show their support it becomes harder, so the GM just rolls with it and improvises a conflict, if it isn’t anything already prepped that they can use.

Now, this side has been handled by the “follow the players” and “use the consequences” advice (I can’t even remember where I read them first and how they were written but I can bet it was before AW), as well as but there’s another venue I can think from the top of my head, which is character creation.

At character creation there’s usually a lot of wasted data that by tradition designers and GMs let go untouched: player expectations. Historically it’s been wasted because players will either be too vocal and expand on what they want for their character or too polite and afraid to tell. Nonetheless they all have expectations, even if they don’t know exactly which they are. But when they take a choice for their character they are already imagining stuff they totally expect to see in the game. And if you put that in the game or make it better, they will respond to it, or dislike/despise it if you do poorly or too different in terms of the feeling they expected.

Like, if they choose to be an elf but they wanted Warcraft elves instead of Tolkien elves, or if you paint elves as forest rastafarian, some players will dig it and some don’t. Because of expectations.

So if the GM makes some simple questions about player choices for their character and uses that for the game, players get invested sooner and are more willing to contribute, at which point the GM only needs to moderate, limit their input and take notes. Totally applicable to conflicts too. Like, if they choose certain type of class feature/special power/skill, they believe it will be useful against something. You can easily imagine what from their choices, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

And then there’s the fishing tank, which can be used at any point in the game to generate additional conflict. Just brainstorm it with the players. It already happens on some sessions when a player jokes about what could be the worst thing to happen at some point and the GM’s eyes illuminate and wham! it’s already on the table and worse than the players expected.


Interesante… I come to this thread with a GMful mind and your GMed perspective gives me lot of useful useful information of GM “micro tasks”.

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