So far we’ve touched on quite a few issues related to free will in roleplaying! We’ve talked about definitional issues, underlying problems, the difference between railroading and keeping control of your game, the problems that making value judgments can cause, issues of plotting, how to deal with unexpectedly creative players, and more. Now we’re going to cover a few last issues related to free will before we finally get to our last topic in the next article: improvisation.
Winning and Losing
Don’t decide ahead of time whether the characters should win or lose the plot. Too many GMs come up with cool story ideas or themes that require the party to either succeed or fail at the plot. Or the GM simply thinks that it would be wrong to have the heroes fail at their big save-the-world plot.
Don’t get tempted to do this. Don’t script the type of ending, just as you shouldn’t script the way the ending will happen. I happen to think that it’s good to make sure that the party has a reasonable chance of succeeding at most plots, and in some cases, to make sure that it’ll be a close call (for those tense, down-to-the-wire plots). This is different than pre-determining the outcome.
What’s wrong with making sure the PCs win? If you do it too often, it cheapens the victory. They’ll probably figure out eventually that they’re only winning because you’re making them win. This is frustrating; it means that their “real” victories are meaningless. It also means they might start to feel as though they can do anything and you’ll still make sure they’ll win. They’ll have their characters take chances that they really shouldn’t take. They’ll stop caring about the plots because the plots don’t matter — either way they’ll win, right?
If you force the PCs to lose it will similarly frustrate your players, but for different reasons. Sure, a dramatic loss or death can be amazing. But a loss where the player feels like no matter what they do they’re just screwed isn’t usually fun. Again, why should they care about the plots if they know you can just make them lose at any time and they can’t do anything about it? Why should they put any effort into creating interesting and three-dimensional characters if they know you could decide to kill those characters off at any time?
“Fudging” results means altering them. This happens when you roll the dice in combat for the monster that’s attacking the party, note that it’s going to slaughter them, and mentally decide that really, the die rolls didn’t come out that way after all. The players didn’t see the dice; who’s going to know, right?
#1. Know your group
Some gaming groups think it’s wrong to alter results at all. Others don’t mind as long as it makes for a better game. Be sure you know which viewpoint your players have so that you don’t frustrate them. You may think your players will never figure it out if you alter things, but they’re likely to notice long-term patterns of monsters not doing as much damage as it would seem they should, or monsters doing more damage than it would seem they should, and so on.
#2. Use restraint
Only alter die rolls (or other game results) now and then, here and there, to make for a more fun game. Don’t do this regularly. It’s too easy to get used to altering rolls, and you can end up having long-term effects on the game that you’re not expecting.
#3. Change results to make up for mistakes or alter probabilities, not to script endings
There are situations where it might make sense to alter die rolls. For example, you set up a combat encounter for the party. You try to balance it so it’ll be dangerous but they stand a decent chance of surviving it; then the battle happens and things don’t work out that way. You mis-calculated something, or someone rolled a result that unexpectedly screwed the party over, or you forgot that the party didn’t have their spiffy magic item with them this week. You’re thinking, “Oh no! I’ve set the party up to die, and they don’t have a chance!”
This is the sort of situation where it might (assuming you checked and your party is okay with occasional alterations) be okay to muck with things a bit. After all, sending the party into certain death isn’t usually much fun for the players. Altering the probabilities a bit or making up for mistakes, however, isn’t the same thing as altering results to make sure that your plot comes out as planned. You don’t want the players to end up feeling that the PCs only lost or won because of something you did, rather than what they did! Otherwise, why should they care about the game?
A Fluid World
A different sort of alteration is the use of a fluid world. By a fluid world, I mean that anything your players haven’t “seen” yet in any way is still “fluid.” It hasn’t been set in stone. This means that you can change it around to account for the unexpected ideas and actions of your PCs. Did the party unexpectedly lose a member just before going up against your surprise monster encounter? Then slip a different monster in. As long as they haven’t seen or definitely heard about the monster yet they’ll never know. There are many other ways to use this to your advantage; I’ll go over them in more detail in the improvisation article.
Letting the PCs Make Their Mark on the World
One of the great joys for players is being able to have an effect on the world that goes on around the PCs. One of the great problems caused by scripting is the need to prevent the PCs from having an effect on the world around them, because often that’s the only way to be sure that your plot comes out as planned. Or at the very least you end up having to prevent them from having any effect other than the one you dictate.
Don’t be afraid to let the PCs have an effect on the world. Spend a little time between sessions thinking about the effects their actions might have on the world around them:
- How will the common people around them react to what they’ve done?
- What will people in distant lands hear of the party, and how will they react?
- How will the party’s exploits change the way things are done in their society, or other societies they interact with?
- How will law enforcement react to things the party has done? What about governmental bodies?
- How will the PCs’ actions affect the lives of the people they care about?
Some GMs and adventures make certain that the party will end up where expected by having them handed off from powerful character to powerful character and told where to go and what to do. To a certain extent this is okay; sometimes the party gets told what to do. No problem. But if the party gets handed around this way through the entirety of the adventure, then they’re passive. They aren’t getting to make any of the big decisions. They aren’t getting to do anything of their own accord.
Instead of over-using this technique, go back to the article on shameless manipulation and make use of that instead. Use the context of your game world to shape the adventure. Allow the PCs to make some of the decisions and figure out some of the plot-parts for themselves.
Leave Room for the PCs from the Start
Don’t create your world in a vacuum. Have copies of your players’ character sheets with you at all times. You need to know what their backgrounds, interests, foibles and fears are if you’re going to work them into the world and allow them to have an effect on it. I know this doesn’t really seem like a free will issue, but I do see it as one. If you take the time from the start to involve the PCs in your world, and to tailor the world to the party, then the party is more likely to get involved with the world. If the party is more likely to get involved, then you’re going to feel less like you have to railroad them.
Personally involve the party in the events of the game world. Help them to get attached to NPCs, towns, and so on. The more connected the PCs feel to the world, the easier it is to get them mixed up in everything that goes on around them. The more you tailor the world to the party,the easier it is to make use of the shameless contextual manipulation I talked about in an earlier article!
Fun for All
I’ve mentioned this subject a little bit already–the idea that your job is to make the game fun for your entire group of players, not any one single player. Sometimes this means you have to deny someone something they want, or try to push them in a direction they don’t want to go in, in the interests of making the game fun for more people. Do try talking to the player in private and calmly explaining what the problem is; sometimes the two of you can come up with a solution together. If that doesn’t entirely work, do your best to make use of the shameless manipulation techniques to keep things well-balanced.
A related problem is the group of players that prefers one type of gaming, but tends to get easily sucked in by other activities. Sometimes it’s okay to find ways to push your players in a certain direction if you know it’s something they prefer. You might find your game getting bogged down by administrivia, for example, such as divvying up treasure, arguing over things, or dealing with other small boring details, when you know that your players prefer the exciting parts of the game.
In this case sit down with your players at the beginning of one of the sessions. Explain what you see as the problem and make sure they agree that it’s a problem. Talk together about what you can do to encourage the game to move in a better direction. After all, you know that if they’ve agreed to certain measures, then they aren’t likely to see them as railroading.
#1. Talk to your players about what they like and don’t like in a game.
Talk to your players often, and particularly at the start of your campaign. Ask them what sorts of plots they like and don’t like. The more you know about their preferences, the fewer things about your game they’ll dislike. Pay attention to their reactions during game-play, and talk to them further before and after each game session. A question here and a question there will do a lot to make sure that you know what sort of game your players want to play.
#2. Pay attention to your players’ characters.
Pay careful attention to your players’ characters. Often you can tell a lot about what a player likes by how he designs his character. If a player designs a very political, charismatic PC that doesn’t have much in the way of combat skills, this tells you something valuable about the type of plots he probably prefers. If his character has a lot of lovingly-crafted non-player character (NPC) contacts and allies in the game area, then he might not be entirely happy about leaving them behind to go on an extended quest in another part of the world.
#3. Ask before throwing something strange at them.
If you’re tempted to throw something really unusual at your players (like sending them on an extended quest away from their usual campaign location), then ask them first whether or not they’d enjoy that. If you don’t entirely want to give things away, then phrase your request in general terms (“would you guys be interested in a change of scenery?”) and ask several sessions ahead of time, so it won’t be fresh in their minds when it actually happens.
#4. Put hints in-game and see how the PCs respond.
If you want to send your party on that quest then drop hints about it into the game ahead of time. See whether it excites your players or not. Use that to help you decide whether or not to send them on that quest.
#5. Use alternate plot solutions if you really mess up.
If you unveil that distant quest and your players seem really unhappy and determined to find a solution to the plot closer to home, then go with that. Let them do some research and find that a viable, although perhaps more difficult, plot solution can be found closer by.
The overall theme here is that you need to communicate with your players. Talk to them, ask them questions, and listen to them. Sound them out on things, whether directly or indirectly. It’ll head so many problems off at the pass! Worst case, remember that you have a fluid world and you can use that to fix things.