I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anybody because I tried to be nice, even though it was the wrong choice. Should have gone for helpful instead.
Lately, I’ve watched a plethora of YouTube videos with tips and tricks for Game / Dungeon Masters that will engage the party and give the players the hooks they need to latch onto the adventure. So many words spent on ways of ensuring the players will not go and destroy your carefully planned campaign. And before you think I have a bone to pick there: they’re not wrong, and their advice is helpful.
But their advice is mostly applying patches to a system I find inherently flawed.
The Game Master is not the only person responsible for everybody’s fun.
So let’s talk about player agency and responsibilities on both sides of the table.
Player Agency and You
I do not doubt that you’ve heard the term. It’s a big one, and a part of the discourse in tabletop roleplaying since the beginning. And yet, many groups struggle with it. It was just a couple of days ago that I’d been told, in the most helpful and innocent manner, that I can let the players roll on the random encounter table, so they feel like they have some control over the world!
No, thank you. This is not what I’m talking about. Let’s try to define, so we’re on the same page here.
Player agency is about having meaningful choices. Notice the meaningful part. This is not about the players being allowed to roll for something, or letting them choose the path because we’ll just put the city we want them to go to at the end of whatever way they choose. This is not a matter of Quantum Ogres (please, don’t do those).
Let your players make decisions. Let them have brilliant ideas that cut the adventure short. Let them be dumb and offend the essential NPC who will now not give them the vital information they need. Let them spend the whole session in the tavern if they decide they don’t want to go searching for an adventure. Let them win a battle by pulling off a clever trick. Let them get lost. Let them adopt every pet they encounter.
Let them make choices, then serve them consequences.
But This Isn’t How I Planned It
Well, that’s rough, buddy.
Apologies, back to being helpful. The point is, there is little point in planning the resolutions. It’s my main problem with pre-written modules – they usually assume the players will just follow from lead to a lead, from an encounter to an encounter, sometimes stopping to ask for a name of absolutely insignificant NPC, so here’s a handy random table of names.
And then you need YT videos on how to unscrew the campaign because your players have decided to skip the village or not look inside this wolf’s den where the only clue about the murderer is hidden. Which usually ends with: well, if they didn’t go into this village to save it from cultists, place the same encounter in the next village! Maybe they visit that one!
Consider this: what if, instead, the village did not get saved from the cultists? What if, instead, the villagers got kidnapped/sacrificed/eaten and the players have learned about it later? On their way back? In a nearby town? You won’t need much to have them connect the dots and compare the timestamps, then realize oh no, we messed up so bad.
Let the world exist outside of the characters. Let it progress whether or not the characters are looking in that direction. Let the player choices matter.
Plan the problems, not the solutions. Let your players figure it out themselves. If you think whatever your players came up with is good enough, consider it the correct answer – if there even is such a thing. You’re not writing a book, you’re not making a movie – you don’t need to have an ending already planned to make sure all the subplots get resolved and all questions answered.
And if that means some imaginary people have died because your players did not give enough attention or care to what you’ve been telling them, so be it. Toss a grieving sister at them later or a newspaper clipping. If you want, we’re not being prescriptive here.
But unless you show your players that the world exists without them, how are they supposed to know?
Put the ‘Master’ in the Trash
I don’t hate the terms ‘Game Master’ or ‘Dungeon Master.’ But words have power, and these are about as bad as the ‘Storyteller.’ We don’t need Storytellers to tell us a story; we want to play a game. And we need no Masters.
But let’s roll back a bit. I’ve started typing up a list of classic GM’s responsibilities and ended up with twenty-something items. Then I checked what others have been saying about the responsibilities of the players’ and, well, have fun and don’t be a dick to others!
I call bulldrek.
I love the idea of running the game. I hate the ‘standard reality’ of it. I hate spending a month preparing the world, then doing lore drops on the unsuspecting players. I hate being the only person responsible for getting the session going, keeping up the pacing, making sure everybody is comfortable, everybody got enough time in the spotlight, everybody got the chance to use their abilities and contribute to the story…
No. You do it. Keeping players entertained at all times is not the GM’s job.
Have you ever had a party who just sat and waited in the tavern waiting for the NPC to appear and offer them the quest?
I say: Let them sit. The characters are supposed to be the active party in the world. They’re supposed to be adventurers. They’re supposed to be the heroes of the realm (or prime shadowrunners, or professional mercs, or learned investigators, or brave explorers). Make them work for it.
There’s nothing we can lose if the players are pro-active.
Let the players be a part of the worldbuilding. Let them make their own bloody backwater villages and major cities. Let them choose if the local baron knows them and likes them. Let them have an arms-dealing buddy. Let them come up with custom spells, backgrounds, and legends. No matter what decisions they make, you’ll find a way to use it against them if that’s what you like doing.
Let them decide what their characters want to achieve. Discuss the plans, short-term and long-term. Let them choose objectives for the scenarios and the campaign. Let them learn things they want to learn, let them scout the dungeon before delving, let them open the tavern if that’s what they wish to do. So the kingdom is losing the war with the undead, but the players just want their PCs to run a bar in the capitol? Let them. Consequences will be delightful.
Let them worry about being useful in the party. Let them figure out how to use their skills and abilities. Let them make sure other players have the time to shine too. Let them make sure others are comfortable at the table. Let them contribute to the game and the story.
If Only It Were That Easy
If it were supposed to be easy, there would be no need for this post. (There might not be a need for this post, but I’ve already written it, so it now exists.)
But consider how nice it would be to have a party of adventurers who make their choices, decide on their own volition to go investigate the village where the evil cult grew rampant because they know that if they don’t do it / if they don’t convince the baron to send their troops there / if they don’t learn who is behind it / if they don’t do anything, the world will be much worse.
Or maybe it won’t. Perhaps another group of adventurers, which was going down the same road a day later, investigated the village, liberated it, and the party just watches the nearby town celebrate the heroes. The world doesn’t revolve around the PCs, after all. Right?
Get to the Point
Let the players make choices. So what if they’re wrong? Life doesn’t operate on black-and-white successes and failures. The choices we make might not take us where we want, but they will take us somewhere.
Otherwise, it’s not an adventure and not any verisimilitude of life.
It’s just a bad, awful and disappointing choose-your-own-adventure book where every path leads to the same bloody solution. Death.
And we got enough of this in real life.