Ideally, if you’ve prepared your roleplaying game (RPG) well, the players’ characters (PCs) will make their in-game decisions based primarily on in-game circumstances. While you can find adventures that tell the gamemaster (GM) to baldly give hints to the players or convince the players of things, you really want all of the convincing to go on in-game. This means that you need to shape the game in such a way that the PCs will make the decisions you want them to make–of their own accord.
Don’t think of yourself as giving hints to the players. Think of yourself as providing a world in which it’s possible for their characters to find out whatever it is they’re supposed to find out. Think about how you can construct the world to bring the characters to the conclusion you’d like them to reach. The point isn’t to give hints until the players reach the end-point you’ve specified–it’s to do your best to provide enough information for the characters, and allow them to bring the story to their own unique conclusion.
Contextual Clues and Shameless (But Subtle) In-Game Manipulation
For all that I tell GMs not to script the ending of a story, you often do need to plan things out to a certain extent. After all, you’re trying to come up with an exciting story for your players. Because of this sometimes you do want to steer the story in a certain direction. There are acceptable ways to do this.
If you created a world that didn’t have any influence at all on the PCs’ choices–well, there really wouldn’t be anything going on in that world, now would there? You can’thelp but shape the game to a certain extent. Accept that how you shape the world will guide the PCs’ choices, and use that to make the game fun, not to push your own agendas or your own idea of how the plot must turn out.
Rule #1: Manipulation should take place in-game.
Manipulation should take place within the context of the game. There are some exceptions to this; most of them involve mood-related preparations, such as keeping the lights low to try to invoke a spooky mood, playing music, or sitting close around a table to keep things exciting. By and large, however, you should be using in-game contextual clues to guide the PCs through the story. To use a simple example, if you want the PCs to get interested in a particular plot, find ways to make it interesting! Appeal to the likes, dislikes, and interests of the PCs rather than heavy-handedly hinting that this is the plot they’re supposed to look into.
Rule #2: Manipulation should be subtle.
You are simply creating a world in which the plot you have planned is more likely to happen. If your players are rolling their eyes and grumbling about how you want them to do thus-and-such then you’re being too obvious about it. If it helps, think of how you’d plot out a story for a book. You’d want to fill in any “plot holes” — any inconsistencies in the plot, anything that makes your written events seem unrealistic, ridiculous, or unlikely. In a book, you have to set up a world that makes your plot seem reasonable. In an RPG you also have to set up a world that makes your plot seem reasonable, but since your party is likely to try things that you haven’t dictated, you have to be more thorough about it. This is the context that you use to influence the party.
Obviously this is something I can’t give you hard-and-fast directions for. It’s something you have to play around with a bit and learn for yourself. The difference between subtle contextual manipulation and obvious direction is different for every group. Play with different levels of clues and influences, pay attention to your players, and see what works and what doesn’t.
Rule #3: Manipulation should not be an iron rule in disguise.
Here’s the real sticking point: the contextual manipulation that you provide shouldn’t be an iron-clad scripted story-line in disguise. There’s a difference between setting up a situation in which your plot is reasonable and likely, and cutting off all avenues of creativity and free choice for the players. In other words, when I tell you to set up a world in which your story-line is more likely, I’m not telling you to set up a world in which your story-line is the only possibility.
Rule #4: Manipulation should be logical.
Whatever choices you make about in-game events, they should make sense for the world you’ve created. Don’t have utterly ridiculous things happen just because they get you the result you want. There comes a point where you just have to say, “well, it makes sense for the PCs to succeed at this, so I guess this plot just won’t come out the way I wanted.”
Subtle Forms of Scripting
What I tend to refer to as subtle forms of scripting are really just some smaller, less obvious ways in which GMs railroad their parties. Here are a couple of examples:
#1. Descriptions that include PC value judgments or actions.
When you include PC value judgments and actions in your descriptions, then you’re making their decisions for them. A certain adventure I read once specified how the player characters viewed and responded to an offer by an NPC — the players I had just laughed when we got to this part of the adventure because the author’s idea of what they’d do didn’t in the least match up with their ideas. So the “description” came across as not only restrictive, but ludicrous. You can’t always predict the myriad of factors that could go into a character’s assessment of a situation.
This is where contextual clues come in. If you want the party to investigate something, then make it interesting and appealing rather than telling them that they investigate it. If you want them to accept an NPC’s offer, then make sure the offer is appealing and reasonable. If you want them to believe that an apparition is benign, then describe it and its actions in such a way that it seems benign (or pull on background knowledge that a character has to convey that they know the apparition is benign). You’ll note that all of these clues take place in-game, and still leave the party room to disagree if they really want to.
When you’re writing up your adventure and you say something like, “the only way into the castle is through the old servants’ entrance,” then you’re scripting. You’re completely disallowing the idea that the party might come up with something clever that you didn’t think of, and requiring that they think like you in order to succeed at the plot.
Try to avoid words like “only,” “must,” “never” and “can’t.” Avoid absolutes. Instead, seed knowledge of the old servants’ entrance into the game so that the party is likely to find out about it. Then try to think of some of the other things the party might try to enter the castle. What about going over the walls, disguising themselves and going in through the front entrance, or using spells to teleport or levitate themselves in? Don’t just single-mindedly find ways to crush any other bit of cleverness they might try simply so that they’ll do it your way. Instead, think logically about the situation. Is their idea likely to succeed? If so, how will it work out? If not, why not? Is there a reason why you needed them to enter via the servants’ entrance? If so, how will you fix things if they go in via another route?
Any time you have a clue, encounter, or discovery that depends upon an absolute, make sure you can move it in case the party doesn’t do what you expect. Absolutes are plot holes in disguise — if your story can’t hold up without that absolute, then that’s a problem you need to fix.
The Appearance of Free Will
As the talk of subtle contextual clues and in-game manipulation may have suggested to you already, it isn’t so much free will that matters; it’s the appearance of free will. You can manipulate shamelessly as long as the party doesn’t notice that they’re being manipulated. The key to this, however, is that you have to be willing to stop manipulating them if they’re determined to do something other than what you’d like them to do.
Some people unfortunately interpret the “as long as they don’t notice” guideline to mean that they can set up a world in which every option is accounted for, and no matter what the PCs try, the story will still come out as planned. This isn’t the case. I guarantee you that if your players make just the right set of decisions, there’s always a way in which they can realize that their decisions don’t really affect the game, and then the appearance of free will has been destroyed.