Ultimatum games and shared narrative control

Narrative control is the degree to which fictional authority is shared between referee and non-referee players in a tabletop roleplaying game. This is one of many properties useful for categorizing and understanding games. Traditionally, narrative control is centralized in the person of the referee but can also be shared either informally based on social norms or formally using game systems. For example, in the Fate engine players can spend fate points to establish facts in the fiction of the game world.

Spreading fictional authority over multiple people can lead to greater recombinant fictional potential. However, delegating authority also decreases puzzle complexity, challenge, and potential surprise (see Zak quote below for more on this dynamic). Spending a point abstractly to make a door be unlocked does not require any creativity or lateral thinking.

At one level, moving along the dimension of narrative control in game design caters to different player preferences. Some players are more interested in being challenged and solving problems while others are more interested in formally structured shared storytelling. Given a set of clear preferences, groups can tailor systems and practices. However, authority in games, just as in the broader social world, is continuously negotiated, even when formally addressed by laws or rules. That is, there are more settings or levers available for games regarding narrative control than simply picking a point on the spectrum.

Anecdotally, while I am generally more in the traditionalist camp of centralized referee narrative control, on reflection I have noticed that I often both explicitly and implicitly delegate fictional control to non-referee players. For example, see how ratlings became part of my Vaults of Pahvelorn. However, the way I find myself delegating fictional authority entails implicit veto power. Though all players, referee and otherwise, contribute to fictional game outcomes, the referee acts as steward. The responsibilities of stewardship in my games include balancing present play against future play and attending to the engagement of individual non-referee players. While this does not mean I adjust outcomes based on what I predict will give particular players more pleasure, it does control whether I linger on a particular fictional experience or work out fictional imperatives quickly.

Based on this understanding of stewardship, as referee I might ask a player what kind of farm a character grew up on or whether they might have relatives in the current town. It is not against the spirit of the game for a player to use this opportunity to gain some present problem solving advantage. However, the player has an incentive to restrain themselves. The more ambitious, far-reaching, or obviously self-interested the interpretation is, the more likely the contribution is to fall afoul of the referee’s steward responsibilities and be rejected. To clarify, this is not at all about protecting a static, perfect setting from the grubby hands of players or ensuring that a plot conforms to a desired narrative arc. Instead, the approach attempts to harness shared creativity while not sacrificing exploratory potential or challenge.

This process works like the ultimatum game in game theory. In the ultimatum game, two players divide some resources between themselves. Player A proposes how to split the resources. Player B decides whether to accept or reject the split. If B rejects the split, both get zero. Empirically, people in the player B responder role are more likely to reject inequitable splits even though such rejection entails personal monetary cost. After all, even one penny is greater than nothing. Because of this empirical fact, proposers have an incentive to not be perceived as too greedy, even though no proposal is formally defined by the rules as invalid.

Mapping this structure to gaming, non-referee players take the proposer role while referees take the responder role. Even this description oversimplifies, as in practice non-referee players may iterate proposals following referee rejection. That said, potential negotiation is limited in practice as groups will not tolerate perpetual renegotiation. Further, once new facts settle, offhand details may lead to surprising fictional consequences, potentially both advantageous and disadvantageous to player goals. This adds to the richness of the game as players incorporate the fictional logic of more inputs. Like butterfly wings shifting weather patterns.

Comment from Zak on the effect of narrative control locus on challenge:

the problem for me with a lot of player-created content ( as a GM ) is the fact that what I then give them then has less of a chance of being a surprise and less of the character of a puzzle. If what’s there has even a 25% chance of being what they decided would be there every time then that’s 25% less fear and dread and giddy anticipation.

The problem for me as a player is that I don’t get surprised, it’s less of a puzzle, it’s less challenging for me (the more info I have, the easier a challenge is), it bores me (I can create content whenever I want when I run a game, why should I do it when I’m playing?) and it robs me of the specific challenge of “If I want something to exist in the game I have to find a way to build it”.

When I’m asked “so, Zak’s PC, what’s over the ridge” my immediate response is “all the treasure int he world and the big bad’s head on a spike”–not because I don’t like making stuff up but because when playing I am conscious that I am trying to direct all my mental energy to exploiting every affordance to get specific goals done that could take years . Asking me to then turn to Author stance is just asking me to do a much easier job with much lower stakes that is consequently less fun.

(Click this link to return to pros and cons paragraph above.)


Forber, P., & Smead, R. (2014). The evolution of fairness through spite. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1780), 20132439.

7 thoughts on “Ultimatum games and shared narrative control

  1. dwbapst

    I think the gradient of narrative control isn’t a matter of player preference, but differences among roleplaying games. How much narrative control I want as a player depends on whether I’m playing Mountain Witch, or L&L. And, in not all games would it be appropriate for the referee player to veto a player’s narrative addition; rather the social dynamics of the group at large, and wanting to encourage a fun narrative thread will keep in line, rather than an explicit ultimate veto from a particular participant.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Another way of saying that is that you do not have a strong preference regarding degree of narrative control. You are comfortable delegating that dimension to the game designer.

      Other players may have stronger preferences about this dimension and because of that preference may like (or dislike) games that concentrate or spread around narrative control.

      1. dwbapst

        Sure, yeah. I guess the way I see it, what games we choose to play in real life depends on a large number of variables, and I’m not sure level of comfort with narration is often a primary concern. For example, whether you think your friends will like playing this game with the space aliens or not, or how long a typical session will take, or whether you feel at that moment more like dealing with a bloody Viking family drama or solving a dungeon-lord’s preposterous puzzles… At best, you could say ‘whether players have narrative control’ is just as important, and doesn’t necessary override other factors.

        I will admit I have a few friends who dislike narrating anything, and rule out playing any game that involves players narrating anything, ever. They’d rather sit out the game.

        And so, I’d argue game choice is the causal factor, and that comfort with narrative control might not really be separable from the context of a particular game. Player comfort with narrative control might even vary considerably from game to game. For example, they might dislike the explicit-ness of using FATE points, but once you tell them to pretend its all a TV show in Primetime Adventures, then framing scenes and introducing background characters might just click for them and be fun for them.

  2. Michael Prescott

    Nice post, I particularly enjoy the connection you’ve made to the ultimatum game.

    I think there’s another factor in the traditional style, which I see as generally about deliberately avoiding OOC negotiation of game facts.

    On the one hand, the players aren’t supposed to author outcomes in the world (they stick to their character’s emotions, thoughts and attempted actions), but I think GMs have a corresponding avoidance of intimate PC details, which would presume or impinge on the emotional make-up or sense of identity of the PC. (e.g. “A man steps out of the crowd, he’s a dead ringer for your missing twin brother whom your mother asks you about every year.”)

    If the GM were to say that, suddenly the player is thrust into an OCC conversation. They didn’t see their PC as a twin, and nobody had mentioned the mother before. Now, a bunch of facts about the twin brother are relevant. Who makes those up?

    When the GM tacitly steers clear of this gray zone around the PC, they’re participating in keeping the PCs as potential murderhobos, people without strong connections to the people/groups/places they meet. That’s not a judgement (I’m fine with muderhobos), I bring it up because I don’t often hear about the GM’s role in reinforcing “murderhobo-ness.”

    My personal preference is to let players propose facts that are useful to them, but quantify the likelihood of the connection existing and being usable. (With a GM veto, to boot.)

    One of the cool things about it is that it collapses this gray zone by avoiding the ultimatum game. If you want to sneak into the Bishop’s house, it would be neat to know his washer woman and have her sneak you in. Say that happens to be plausible (your character was raised in this city district), but the Bishop is careful about screening all his hires for entanglements (or more likely, ensures he’s got a shitload of leverage on them), so the GM sets the odds at 25%.

    This is especially fun when complications are a possibility for borderline or failed rolls, such as the washer woman knowing you but being resentful, traitorous, etc.

    1. Brendan Post author


      By in-character versus out-of-character, are you thinking of actor versus director stances?

      I think that narrative control is distinct from stance in that stance can be about fictional character knowledge versus player knowledge where narrative control is not necessarily concerned with fictional character knowledge at all.

      For example, a player could have in-character-relevant narrative control (this person is my brother) or out-of-character-relevant narrative control (the door in this house that I have never visited is actually unlocked because I spend a fate point).

      I don’t think proposing useful facts with referee veto entirely collapses the ultimatum game though, it just moves the game to the proposing step. That is, the step that leads to engaging the random resolution procedure. One could also model the resulting odds as a measure of the proposal’s fairness: a less fair proposal results in the referee setting poorer odds. So there is an incentive to make propose smaller asks because that minimizes risk. I also like that approach though and think it works well. Further, using randomness as the final arbiter increases the perceived impartiality of the ruling as the player could attribute failure to the dice rather than the referee’s decision.

  3. rogerginersorolla

    The advancement of narrative stakes and their acceptance or rejection on the grounds of plausibility is a feature of the “matrix game” approach, which codifies conventions around a tradition of freeform gaming that stretches back into the prehistory of wargames.


    It naturally depends on the good faith, shared assumptions, and willingness to both be convinced and doubt of all parties. Any ruling during play has an element of this, where the player proposes something, the “digital” underpinning of the rule is not clear, and the referee and player resort to “analog” argumentation to simulate what happens on the fly.

    The James Wallis game Baron Munchausen is perhaps the earliest “story game” apart from this tradition to use this concept.

    1. Brendan Post author


      I hadn’t heard about that tradition before, so thanks for the link. In current terms, it seems like the matrix game approach removes the referee from the generation of the ruling.

      In both cases, it seems like the social norms around proposing and evaluating are central to system functionality. Good faith and so forth are certainly a part of required norms, but I wonder if we can’t identify other, more concrete elements useful for making systems that do not require comprehensive rules function better.


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