Accounting for Free Will in Roleplaying Game Adventures

Many players and game masters (GMs) dislike roleplaying products, particularly adventures, that trample all over the free will of the players and their characters. These are adventures that “railroad” or force the group into taking or avoiding certain actions, or otherwise script aspects of the adventure.

How can you avoid trampling on the free will issue? How can you write an adventure that supports GM improvisation? Well, to be honest, it’s almost impossible to avoid problems completely in a commercial product, just because you can’t anticipate what all the different roleplayers out there will think of. However, you can certainly do a lot to minimize the problems. Here are a few places to start.

Read-Aloud Text

Many adventures provide “read-aloud text.” These are usually scene descriptions, set off somehow visually so that they’re distinct from the rest of the text. Sometimes these include bits of conversation that the adventure author expects to take place.

Never include party member actions, observations or judgment calls in these bits of text (e.g.: “The spirit is obviously benign,” or “You turn to investigate the noise”). You can never be certain that party members will act or think as you expect them to, so bits of text like this just read as though you’re trying to force-fit the party into your idea of how the game should go. Instead, provide concrete sensory detail that supports the conclusion you’d like the party to draw.

Avoid writing up conversations as part of read-aloud text boxes. I’ve never seen a single conversation go exactly the way an adventure author thought it would. Instead, write up pertinent conversational points in list form and let the GM work them in as appropriate.

Passivity and Having an Effect on the World

Some writers try to avoid the whole problem by creating a plot that the party can’t have a real effect on. They want the story to end in a very specific way, and the only way to assure that is to make certain that the end doesn’t rely on the player characters (PCs) doing the “right thing.” Sometimes they at least go to the trouble of trying to dress things up such that it looks like the party is having an effect on what’s going on. (Trust me on this one: I’ve never seen an adventure that could totally hide this sort of cover-up. There’s always at least one way in which, if the PCs do just the right set of things, it becomes clear that their actions don’t matter.)

Ugh! Would you really want to play in a game that you couldn’t have any effect on? It’s like being led through an elaborate display and told to keep your hands off of the pretty objects. One of the whole points of roleplaying is that the PCs get to do things. They get to be clever (or not) and succeed or fail on their own merits. They help to make the story.

So how do you avoid this? Pretty simply, actually. Don’t pre-determine how the story should go! Allow for the possibility that the players might be more or less clever than you imagine, and that their characters might choose to do things differently than you would. Instead of writing up “the ending,” write up some suggestions for directions (note the plural there!) in which you imagine the PCs might take things, and how the GM can bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. Let the players help to write the story.

Similarly, make sure that your adventure doesn’t just consist of the PCs being handed off from powerful character to powerful character, all of whom tell the PCs what to do and how. Allow the PCs to make decisions that affect the world around them.

Avoid Absolutes

Try to avoid absolutes like “only,” “must,” and “can’t.” They only serve to restrict player creativity. Saying “there’s no way to do X,” instead of explaining what the deal is with X and allowing the players to try to be clever, is just another form of railroading the party. Instead of using absolutes, describe why and how you think things should or shouldn’t work out in a particular way. Provide enough detail about the situation that the GM can make a judgment call on the matter if his players come up with a crazy scheme that you weren’t expecting.

Think about why you want to insist on your absolute. Is your entire plot “ruined” without it? Will the party miss your gorgeously-crafted battle scene without it? Then think about re-writing the rest of your material instead. If your entire adventure is ruined without that absolute, then that’s a plot hole you should fix! If the party would miss that scene then so what? Help the GM to move the scene to a different place in the story, or write the plot so that the party can still do interesting things if they miss it.

Background Material: Flexible vs. Fragile

Face it–you just can’t perfectly predict what every roleplaying group will do when faced with your adventure. Because of this, elaborately-detailed scenes and speeches or conversations are almost guaranteed to be obsoleted by the actions of many PCs. Providing wide swaths of fragile material might make the GM feel as though he has to force the party to stick to the game as written; otherwise that adventure he bought is useless.

There are other types of material that are much less fragile than:

  • Speeches and conversations: write lists of conversational points instead and allow the GM to work them together into actual speech. This allows him to respond to unexpected conversational directions on the part of the PCs. (It also sounds more natural. Not all GMs can read something verbatim and make it sound natural.)
  • Elaborate scenes: provide a loose outline of the scene instead. Explain the tactics that relevant NPCs might use, or what they’re trying to achieve, instead of specific actions. This allows the GM to alter NPC actions based on what the PCs do.
  • Detailed plot write-ups: plot backgrounds (with notes on some of the directions they might take in game) are much more useful than specific in-game timelines. These allow the GM to alter things on-the-fly. These also allow him to respond to totally different party tactics than the ones you were expecting when you wrote the adventure.
  • Future actions of NPCs: NPC backgrounds, personalities, reasonings and tactics, combined with some notes on possible or probable future actions or reactions, are much more usable. From these a GM can construct what will happen in-game.

In short, flexible material that tells the GM the background of the plot and possibilities of what will happen in-game is much more useful than set-in-stone scenes, plot arcs, and speeches. It allows for improvisation in a way that fragile material does not. You want the material that you provide to be able to react to unpredictable PC actions.

You’re also better off providing plenty of relevant information on the situation. The more that the GM knows about what’s happening, the more he can improvise based on his party’s actions. In effect, I’m telling you that adventures should be part setting-book as well as a straightforward adventure.

One-Act vs. Longer Adventures

There’s a problem inherent in multi-act adventures: in order for the author to design act 2, he has to make sure that act 1 ends at a pre-determined end-point. I hope you can see the problem with this; we’ve already talked about why pre-determined plot endings are bad. They often require the party to be railroaded, one way or another, into acting as expected.

This can be dealt with in one of several ways:

  • Provide later acts that don’t rely on earlier acts ending at a particular end-point. This is difficult, but in some cases possible.
  • Provide only one-act adventures. If you have the word count, provide plenty of loose plot hooks that the GM can use to expand on the adventure.
  • Instead of writing specific later acts, provide loose material that allows the GM to construct later acts himself based on what the PCs have done–a sort of toolkit, if you will.

Contextual Clues and Shameless Manipulation

Believe it or not, there are ways to push the party into doing what you want them to do without violating all the rest of these tenets. You have to rely on contextual clues and shameless (but in-game) manipulation. This involves writing up in-game circumstances such that the PCs are more likely to do what you want them to do.

Note that repeated phrase: “in-game.” You don’t want to tell the GM that he has to make his players do something without giving him in-game support for convincing them. This tends to lead to GMs (particularly the inexperienced ones) believing that they’re supposed to give heavy-handed out-of-game hints to get the players where they’re supposed to go. I really have read adventures that tell the GM to “encourage,” “discourage,” “convince,” or “remind” the players of things, without providing any in-game material to convince the characters of those things.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the mark of sloppy plotting. If the adventure were constructed well this wouldn’t be necessary. If the material were flexible, the GM wouldn’t have to be heavy-handed. If the plot didn’t have holes, if it allowed for unexpected PC actions, if it allowed the PCs to have an effect on the world, there would be no need for blatant GM intervention. If you feel that the GM will have to intervene to get the players to actin certain ways, then this is a sign that your plot is too fragile to survive real play in the hands of an unknown group of players. Keep the following things in mind as you write and you’ll probably be just fine:

  • Never give the GM directions that require him to influence the players rather than their characters. Everything should take place in-game.
  • Think about how you can construct your world to convince the characters to do what you want them to do. Try to use some subtlety: your details should make sense within the context of the game; they shouldn’t be heavy-handed signs from above.
  • Try to account for the fact that despite your best efforts the party might do something else. That’s what free will is all about!
  • Don’t insist on your plot working out exactly the way you want it to, and you won’t need to push the players around.
  • Provide flexible adventure material in plenty of detail and, likewise, heavy-handed tactics will be unnecessary.

Player Character (PC) Possibilities

One of the harder things to account for is the fact that every adventuring party (or whatever is appropriate to your game world) is a little different; some of them are a lot different. Some adventures account for this by stating that they’re only appropriate for certain types of parties. Some fail to account for this at all.

I think it’s fine to restrict your adventure to certain types of parties, as long as you don’t carry this to ridiculous lengths and don’t use it as a crutch to avoid fixing plot holes and other problems. There’s a difference between saying “this adventure expects a party with reasonably upright morals,” and saying “this adventure expects a four-person party of strict lawful-good alignment, composed of one priest, one thief, one mage, and one fighter-dude.” I know that latter one sounds ridiculous, but there are plenty of adventures out there that really are this narrow, whether or not they admit it up-front.

Instead, try to take parties of varying types into account. Here are some of the things to think about:

  • Morals: Some people play nice guys; some people play selfish mercenaries; others play real creeps and bad guys. What would happen if these various groups went through your game? Provide some suggestions for GMs on how to handle this.
  • Number of characters: I know that some consider the standard to be a 4-PC party, but that’s hardly what every gaming group consists of! I’ve seen parties that range from one lonely little character up to a horde of twelve. Think about the effects on your game and provide notes for the GM on how he might adapt for these situations.
  • Types of plots and plot solutions: Some players and characters approach plot solutions through politics and manipulation. Others go for the straightforward combat solution. Still others do things even more differently. You never know which sorts of parties will end up in the middle of your adventure, so don’t assume that the plot will be approached from only one direction. Provide enough details about the plot to allow the GM to respond to varying tactics.
  • Types of PC abilities: You can’t assume any sort of “standard” assortment of characters. Provide hints for the GM on how and where he can personalize the adventure to account for his own group’s spread of abilities and resources.

A related topic is how the GM is supposed to introduce his party into the adventure. A good adventure will provide a handful of flexible possibilities; a not-so-good one will provide only one (if any!) and expect the GM to force-fit the party to it. Give a few guidelines as to where in the plot motivation might be found, and how it might be personalized for the GM’s group.

A Few Additional Thoughts

If you haven’t played a game in a while, then run out right now and find someone to run an adventure for you. There are a gazillion little $5 modules out there; grab one and hand it to someone who GMs. In fact, preferably get a bad one–there’s nothing like frustration to make you remember something. Too many adventure authors only take the GM into account. You also need to be able to think like a player in order to write a good adventure. Would you really enjoy this adventure if you played it? Try to put yourself in the mind-set of a player who uses different tactics or plays a different type of character than you. Would you still enjoy it? Make sure to play another game every once in a while. If you lose touch with the mind-set of a player, you’ll have trouble writing games that players enjoy.

Just because your playtest group had no trouble with the adventure doesn’t mean it has no problems. Even the adventures with the most egregious free will violations seem perfect to the gaming group that makes all the “correct” choices. Where possible, run your adventure past multiple playtest groups; this probably won’t catch everything, but it’ll help. In particular, try to run it past a group or two that you aren’t familiar with. You usually know your own group well enough that your adventure will be tailored to the way they play. At the very least, pay attention to free will issues and develop a keen eye for them.

I know this seems like a lot, and to start with it might very well be a lot. Once you learn to think about the free will issue habitually, though, it becomes very easy to spot where it’s been stepped on. Besides, believe it or not, thinking about these issues requires you to be a better writer. It leaves you with fewer crutches to prop up sloppy plotting and lack of forethought. It forces you to work out more of the kinks in your adventures ahead of time. This should leave you with a better adventure that appeals to more people, and that can only help you!

In the interest of giving you examples to illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ve added links to a few reviews of adventures that did a particularly good or bad job with the free will issue. Warning: some of them are rather long. If you want, skip through them for any sections labeled either “free will,” “customization,” or “flexibility.”

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