Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Players' Job is to Screw Up Your Plans

Following on from my previous post, which generated far more discussion than I anticipated, I played in my regular d20-modern based sci-fi campaign yesterday afternoon. I like the group and the game, but our GM is a palette-shifter, fudger and illusionist of the most inveterate kind. His campaigns have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you can be pretty sure that whatever you do you will always kind of, sort of, end up where he wants you to end up. This doesn't mean his games aren't fun; he's very good at creating puzzles and challenges and making play interesting that way. It just means they're a lot less fun than I think they could be, and I sometimes contemplate near-suicidal actions during the game just to see what kind of genuflections will be carried out to keep my character alive.

Anyway, yesterday's session only confirmed in my mind what I like in RPGs and what I suspect most of the readers of my blog like too: player creativity. Not GM creativity. Player creativity.

This may sound strange coming from me, the arch-setting creator, but for me a great deal of the enjoyment in our hobby comes when the players get set loose on the game world that the GM has created and start, for want of a better term, fucking it all up. They go where they're not supposed to. They start fights with people they shouldn't. They do stupid and dangerous things. They decide on courses of action you never could have dreamed of. They squabble with each other. And 99% of the time this leads to a good time had by all.

It can even happen, as it did yesterday, in the most rail-roaded game. Four of us, with the help of an insider, infiltrated a base run by a rogue corporation who were using time machines to plunder from the past. We were masquerading as new recruits, and the insider insisted we lie low and do absolutely nothing to cause any trouble for at least a few days while we oriented ourselves. So what happened? Within 5 minutes we'd found a locked door, tried to find a key, created a disturbance to distract a security guard while one of us tried to steal the key, whereupon three of us got arrested while the other got trapped hiding in the air ventilation system for the facility. The sole free member of the party ended up on a long, quixotic voyage through the base, trying to pass herself off as a member of the corporation, while the three of us in prison plotted our escape. This set off a chain of events which resulted in an invasion by laser-toting time-police who levelled the entire base, and the party being split into two units at entirely different points in time with apparently no hope of reunification. The GM was utterly aghast.

My point? None of us, as players, were being dicks and deliberately trying to ruin the game. All of us were behaving in character and doing what we probably would have done in our characters' positions. The GM, to his credit, went along with us entirely and followed through on what the consequences of those actions would have been - he never once told anybody 'no'. But simply by exercising our agency we created bedlam with the 'plot' of the game and probably had 10 times more fun with it than we would have done if we'd stuck to what he would have preferred we'd do.

(He may have been palette-shifting, of course. But I doubt it. I know him and I know his games, and I have a good palette-shifting detector when it comes to him.)

The lesson of all this takes us back here. The OSR way of playing the game works by giving the players agency and consequences in a sandbox. Narrativist story-games work by giving the players agency and consequences within the 'plot' - because they create it. Somewhere in the middle you have the rail-roading illusionist GM, shifting palettes and playing around with quantum ogres, and this poor fellow is missing out, caught between two stools, trying to make the game fun and interesting for the players while failing to realise that you achieve this in spades simply by putting the power in their hands.


  1. I find it odd that the idea of the DM as plot-bringer is still around. Your DM, for instance, won't he learn from that time scenario? "Oho, maybe I shouldn't have presupposed what they will do!" Or will he blame you players for "doing it wrong?"

    The only reason I can think this is a recurring problem is that examples of story are all around us-- movies, sitcoms, comic books-- but examples of rpg play are rare indeed. And it really is a new genre, a new kind of play. Gygax was right about that.

  2. Telecanter: I think you hit the nail on the head about story being all around us - I've talked about this before: the problem of the GM as failed novelist.

    There are some other reasons too. I want to write a post about them tomorrow.

  3. I buy into a lot of what your saying, but wondered what your take is on the potentially 'fun damaging' consequences a DM has to deal with from this (depending on player attitudes and expectations)
    The party is split - each will have to be dealt with separately, which isn't ideal and could leave half the players twiddling thumbs whilst the others are dealt with.
    Then split parties lack the group resources, so the risk if death us higher. Then you have half the players that you need to work back in with new PCs. Not a unique situation but exacerbated bt player actions?

  4. @wyrin

    There's a difference between "a challenge to run right" and "a situation that wasn't fun and didn't work".

    The PCs made it more challenging to run, but until the GM actually fails to live up to that challenge, it's not any kind of problem.

  5. I try my best to give my players options and not force them into any kind of 'plot' but it can be tough because sometimes their are cool things I'd really like them to do.

    But I find that if you start giving players options they'll be more likely in the future to take an obvious epic quest hook. It may still not turn out how you plan, but I've come to accept that.

  6. Wyring: On the contrary I think it's more fun for the DM this way - he has to exercise a bit of creativity now in response to what we did. As for problems arising from it for the players - it's our own fault and we're adults, so we'll deal with the consequences I guess!

    Syrus: Being a DM for me is about killing your babies. You might have all kinds of grand ideas about what you want from a campaign, but you just have to accept the players aren't going to like the same things as you. Nowadays what I aim for is a game world and setting in which the players will latch onto something (hopefully more than one thing) that they really like and run with it, and it'll spiral into something bigger.

    I just don't like "epic quest hooks" unless it's player driven. If I have a PC who wants to become king of such-and-such land, more power to him, and through his actions he might get to that point and we can look back and say "that was an epic story". But I don't want any of that to come from me imposing my idea of what I want the game to be on him.

  7. There's nothing wrong with setting up a plot in a railless game. The key phrase is "setting up". You create characters and motivations and macguffins, set up all the pieces; the only thing you don't do is try to predict how it will all happen at the table, because really, that's absurd. It's impossible to predict what four or five other people will do, and to try to force the players down a certain route to match your expectations is unfun for everybody. Just let them loose on that big batch of moving parts, and allow events to proceed naturally from cause and effect and the various people and factors involved. That's how every story works, when viewed from the inside.

    The PCs are ostensibly the protagonists. In a novel, the protagonist's choices matter, they influence the plot. If the protagonist of a novel was treated the way some people treat players, being lead around by the nose never given any choice of any consequence, it wouldn't make a particularly compelling story. They have to make meaningful decisions. That includes the decision to stay or to walk away from their situation - i.e., they have to have their own motivations to follow, otherwise the story doesn't make sense.

    Railroaders think they're making a better story by forcing the players to stick to their predefined plot, but they're not. RPGs are a separate type of fiction to books. An RPG involves free agents, whose actions can't be known ahead of time. The story only becomes clear in retrospect. Failure to account for that, and trying to build a plot the same way you would write a book, is just bad storytelling. It's like trying to write a book the way you'd film a movie. It's crap. Your game will probably still be fun, but it's in spite of your inappropriate plot-building, not because of it.

  8. What I realized in my last game is that the players themselves have a bit of a hard time accepting to be in charge of the drive. They realize they can, and that the game doesn't crumble if they do, and they're slowly taking more risks but it's not as granted as I naively imagined.

    When you're born in chains, you somewhat think they protect you, or that they're part of what living is about. They got used to play in games where being a successful player was about managing to get what the DM had planned through ESP and second guessing, and when they hit my Mind Blank, they sort of panic in a joyful way.

  9. The DM shouldn't "make plans" the plan making is for the PCs. If you've got a good campaign the players will have no trouble coming up with plans.

  10. in my mind a players job is to do whatever it is he wants to do. while this sometimes causes a mess and might screw up a dms plans (if there are any. if you play the osr-idealised way the dm shouldn't have any in the first place, right?), but if causing a mess was the players intention i seriously doubt it was a fun game.

    but you just have to accept the players aren't going to like the same things as you.

    do i? in my experience the best games have happened when players and dm wanted the same things.

    i wouldn't want to dm a game for people who like completely different content/style/setting/whatever. either i would force a game upon them that they'd be unhappy with or i'd be forced to create stuff for them that i wouldn't be into. neither scenario sounds very enticing.

    There's nothing wrong with setting up a plot in a railless game. The key phrase is "setting up".

    very true. this is how i do it. the players can choose to get involved and if they do, their actions will change the plot and create something new and unique. if they don't the plot is quite happy to run its course in the background.

  11. John: I agree with that pretty much 100%. All of what I say assumes that the sandbox is set up correctly, with NPCs who have motives and historic events taking place.

    Kabuki Kaiser: Nicely put. I agree with that. You need to tell the players beforehand: you are free to do what you want to do, here. Of course, it's always best to give them pointers about what they could be doing.

    JDJarvis: Yep.

    shlominus: I didn't say that players should be intentionally screwing up plans! Just that they will, because you can never predict their behaviour.

    in my experience the best games have happened when players and dm wanted the same things.

    This depends on what you mean by "wanting the same things". If you mean the same kind of theme or atmosphere, then yes I'd agree. But I was using it in the more specific sense: I might like it if my players would go to investigate a wizard's tower that I think is a really great idea. They might not think that place is interesting at all and go off somewhere else. They might not like the same individual elements as you, basically.

  12. After years of DMing with a stable group of friends, I reached some kind of style of play in witch me, as a GM, only narrate the story as it is unfold, completely improvised. In fact, the end of some of my campaigns surprised even me. My preparation are only limited to create some key PNJs, and to speculate some interesting scenarios. Of course, this is only possible since we play heavily homeruled 2Ed, where you can easily improvise the most complex PNJs.

  13. Mandaras: What do you mean by 'PNJ'?