The State of Free Will in Roleplaying

The Issue of Free Will

There’s an archetypal image of the game master (GM) as a director or story-teller figure. Popularly, the idea of the GM is that he creates and orchestrates a game or story for his players, who are never properly grateful for the immense amount of effort and heartbreak that go into this endeavor.

In this picture there’s a good reason why the players don’t feel overwhelmingly grateful. One of the few advantages that a tabletop roleplaying game still has over a computer game is the ability of the players to at least try (although not necessarily succeed at) anything – limited only by their imaginations! Computer games still can’t match that, and won’t be able to for a long time to come. In the above archetypal image of the game master, there’s an important element missing – the ability of the player characters (PCs) to create the story with the GM. Take that away and what you have left isn’t necessarily any better than a computer game. Add to that the fact that computer games have pretty graphics, and you can perhaps begin to see why it is that I’ve heard so many GMs complain about losing players to computer games.

The point of the game shouldn’t be for the players to somehow guess what the GM (or the published adventure) wants them to do. Unfortunately, this is the only “game” element to many of the roleplaying games you’ll see people running – everything else is set in stone by the GM or the adventure author ahead of time. What’s the fun of playing “Guess What the GM Wants” for five hours a night?

So how do you deal with this? What’s the missing element? How do you quantify it, look at it, evaluate it? It isn’t something that’s been talked about a whole lot, so it’s tough for GMs to know how to handle it. Many GMs script because that’s the only way they know how to run a game. Let’s start with a few definitions, to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing in subsequent articles.


Free Will:
“Free will” is defined in the tattered old American College Dictionary that I have as “free choice; voluntary decision.” So free will in roleplaying is the ability of the players and their characters to make their own, voluntary choices and decisions. It isn’t voluntary if they’re being told from on high what to decide, and feel they have no choice but to go along with it.

“Script” is defined in that same dictionary as “handwriting” or “the manuscript of a play or role.” So scripting happens when a GM writes out the story-line (the events that should take shape during the game) in advance. He then expects his players and their characters to follow what he’s written as though they’re actors playing roles in a play. Obviously the ability to make voluntary decisions could wreak havoc with this, as those decisions might not match up with the scripted story-line.

Because this is a roleplaying game rather than a play, the GM can’t just hand out his story-line and tell people to follow it. He has to find some other way to force the PCs to do what he wants them to do. “Railroad” as a verb is defined in that dictionary as “to send or push forward with great or undue speed.” So when a GM railroads his players, he pushes them into following his scripted story-line – he finds ways to stop them from making any voluntary decisions that don’t match up with what he wants them to do.

To “improvise,” according to the dictionary, is “to prepare or provide offhand or hastily,” or “to compose … on the spur of the moment.” Thus, improvisation in the context of roleplaying games is the ability to come up with game material while the game is running, rather than preparing it beforehand. This is pretty much the only way to respond to PC actions that are unexpected and outside the bounds of the scripted story-line.

The Larger Problem

There’s a larger problem at work here than just the issue of free will. That archetype of the game master pushes some very specific ideas at us. The GM in this image is expected to do all the work of creating the story himself. He’s seen as a lone figure, not as a part of a group. His players aren’t even anywhere in the picture with respect to the game – their presence, absence, and desires don’t have an effect at all.

This is where the free will problem comes from – and where a whole host of other problems come from as well. Consider a different way of looking at things for a moment:

  • GM and players are all one group of roleplayers, working together.
  • GM and players are all roleplaying because they want to have fun, and games should be fun for everyone involved.
  • Much of the unique fun of a roleplaying game comes from the idea that the events of the game are limited only by the imaginations of the participants.
  • Story creation is not the sole province of the GM – if the PCs are being allowed to make their own, voluntary decisions, then they are inherently helping to create the story.
  • The “job” of the GM is to make sure that the gaming group as a whole is having fun.

The primary consideration in a GM’s mind when creating game material should, therefore, be “will this make the game fun for my players?”

GM and Players as Adversaries

Too many GMs forget about this simple rule of having fun in the heat of trying to figure out how to make the game come out the way it’s “supposed to.” There are some phrases that I’ve come to see as warning signs when I’m talking to GMs:

“I’ve given them lots of hints, but they’re still not getting it!”

If you’re giving your players “lots of hints,” then you’re probably trying too hard to make them stick to your expectations of how the game should go. Either that, or you’ve prepared your game in such a way that it’s too easy for them to completely screw themselves over by not following your scripted story-line.

If they aren’t getting it, then there’s probably a reason why. Maybe they really, really don’t want to do things your way. Maybe they’re tired of having to follow “messages from on high” instead of just playing the game and having fun. Or maybe something that’s really obvious to you as a GM just isn’t obvious to your players – perhaps you haven’t provided enough in-game material to let the party figure out what they have to figure out. Maybe you’ve fallen into the “the players have to think like the GM in order to succeed” trap. Or perhaps the plots that interest you aren’t the ones that interest your players. Read the rest of this series of articles as it gets posted over this month, and see if any of the suggestions help.

“I need to teach my players a lesson,” or, “Help me figure out how to punish my players.”

Usually it turns out that this GM sees the way his players play as being wrong somehow, and wants to teach them that they can’t play the game that way.

Because the job of the GM is to make sure that everyone at the table has fun with the game, he can’t always give each player exactly what she wants. Sometimes this does mean that he has to use the game to teach a player to allow the other players to share in the fun. Sometimes he might decide it’s in the players’ best interests to introduce them to new ways of roleplaying, and that can be great.

However, the GM’s job is not to force his idea of a good game on the rest of the gaming group if they really don’t agree with him. And somehow, “I need to teach them a lesson” always seems to end up with a story about a group of players who, gasp!, have different ideas of what they’d like to play or how they’d like to play it than the GM does. And it always seems to end up with a GM who thinks it’s a good idea to teach the players that if they insist on doing things their way, they’ll be crushed by the will of the GM.

Ouch. Not much fun for the players in that scenario, huh?

What It Means to Have Fun

Playing in a type of game that you don’t like, or playing a sort of character that you don’t want to play, to name just two examples, isn’t usually fun. Too many GMs get so caught up in trying to make the game come out as planned that they completely forget this fact.

The key is for the GM to always remember the fun of the players. If you keep firmly in mind while you’re writing and GMing your game that the end goal is for everyone to have fun, then many good ideas flow fairly naturally from that. Things like:

  • Communicating with your players.
  • Respecting your players.
  • Customizing your games to appeal to your players and make use of PC backgrounds.
  • Improvising to take into account unexpected PC actions and desires.
  • Paying attention to your players and making sure they’re all involved in the game.
  • Not jumping to conclusions and assuming that every suspicious action is an attempt to cheat.
  • Trying new things that you have reason to believe the players might enjoy.
  • And, yes, allowing the party their free will.

Some things like communication and getting along with your players have already been covered in other articles on this site. Many of the other topics you’ll find discussed in the rest of this series of articles. I hope that these suggestions will lead to a better, more fun game for everyone – you and your players. Just remember that the game is supposed to be fun, and I think you’ll find that most of the rest of this will come pretty naturally. In fact, once your players start having more fun, you’ll probably find that you have more fun as well – it can be pretty annoying to have to out-think, push around, and struggle with your players night after night.

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