To Choose is to Surrender Choice

by Robin D Laws

In the adventure genre, we expect characters to flirt with consequence, but then to stage  a hair’s-breadth escape. Drama, on the other hand, leads its protagonists inexorably to the results of their actions. Were Romeo and Juliet to miraculously recover from their respective suicide attempts, we would leave the theater scratching our heads, glad for them perhaps, but nonetheless wondering what all the fuss was about.

Block_NBADramatic characters retain control of their destinies until they activate them, by making crucial decisions they can’t take back. Then the narrative machinery kicks into place, carrying them toward inevitable realization. A current screenwriting practice treats these major turning points as act breaks. Standard structure calls for three acts, so this theory calls for two key, irrevocable decisions, one about twenty-five minutes from the beginning and the other about twenty-five minutes from the end.

This idea contravenes a central roleplaying assumption, that players must retain control and freedom of action for their characters at all times. In drama, freedom of action is punctuated—it remains available until it is invoked in a big way, after which point the character is indeed placed on a track to turning point or ultimate reckoning. Translated into game terms, freedom of a choice is a resource you spend and, at least for a time, do not get back. You have it, until you don’t.

How much can our emotional desire as roleplayers to retain constant freedom co-exist with the dramatic requirement of punctuated freedom? Those of us who have completely internalized the credo of complete freedom at all times might weave a dramatically airtight story arc for a character that everyone else at the table finds compelling and apt, and that they find disappointing, because executing it means surrendering control.

A common and dysfunctional player mannerism exploits this dichotomy. We’ve all gamed with players who habitually test the limits of the world by gratuitously starting trouble they shouldn’t be able to walk away from. The character hauls off and punches an NPC established as a psychopathic bad-ass. Or commits a heinous crime in public with no attempt to cover his tracks. Or strolls in without preparation to the magical land no man may ever leave.

They do this relying on the social conventions of roleplaying games—that characters retain total freedom at all time, and that the GM is there primarily to facilitate fun—to trump narrative logic. In a dramatic narrative, we expect certain choices to provoke inevitable consequences. The psychopathic crime boss sends his boys around to rub you out, and they do. The cops show up to arrest you for your heinous crime, and they do. You’re stuck in the magical land of Zar forever, the end.

huth_AS_bridgev2 300 pxPlayers making a habit of this seek the thrill of transgression, but only when the risk is false. They’re counting on theGM or system to bail them an out, plausibility be damned. They expect not only agency, but immunity from the consequences of its exercise. Inevitable results seem especially unfair to them when the decision occurs in one scene and the resolution in another.

The answer, “Your fate was sealed the moment you loudly discussed your arson plans,” plays as unjust to them because they reject the idea that PCs have a fate—even when they’re the ones who set it in motion.

This is dysfunctional not only because it damages story credibility, but because it steals focus from other players. It yanks the story from a collective journey into one where the other characters either also face the trouble caused by the heedless PC, or get sidelined into observer status while the shitstorm plays out.

Here the old-schoolers retain the ancient wisdom others have forgotten. They don’t expect the DM to cater to chronic limits-testers. They expect them to squish them. You do something stupid, you get killed. New character sheet, move along, nothing to see here.

If only the “getting killed for doing something stupid” credo didn’t lead to other problems, like players going into a group fetal crouch for fear of inadvertently doing something stupid, we could re-assimilate this approach wholesale and be done for the day.

In groups where the constant agency model has metastasized into a get-out-of-consequences free card, you might push back with a technique I’ll call Foreshadowed Inevitability. As the character hauls back to punch the king in the face, you as GM say:

“If you do that, your character will probably be killed in an upcoming scene. Is that what you want?”

This retains the player’s freedom of choice, but also makes clear its limits. What should be clear to the player is made explicit: make this choice now, and your character goes on tracks. Tracks that you, not the GM or system, installed.

If there’s wiggle room between “probably” and “definitely”, the onus is now on the player to create it. The GM’s initial warning has already discharged her bacon-saving responsibilities in full.

7 Responses to “To Choose is to Surrender Choice”

  1. John Mc says:

    That’s a thoughtful analysis of a behavior pattern I’ve definitely seen at the table. Thanks Robin!

  2. Nevrose says:

    A very well explained and useful sentence. Many thanks

  3. Michael Hagen says:

    Very interesting and insightful, but my main issue with the failure of the dramatic experience in an RPG’s is when players expereince the inability to change what has a become a predictable narrative course set for them by an inflexible or unimaginative DM,”I guess we have to follow this map we found clutched in the dying hand of this old man, again…” – players breaking social conventions is either because they’re bad players (and they don’t get invited back) or they’re bored with an obviously leaden handed refereeing. I would suggest that this ‘flirting with consequence’ is in fact players losing faith in the reality (or inded fantasy) of their fictional universe and, to borrow a phrase, becoming aware of the Matrix. Reminding players that their actions will have consequences is always a good idea but it doesn’t address the issue of why anybody feels the need to egregiously test the laws of causality in any given game. In my opinion (and it’s only that I’ll grant you) it’s usually the result of inept or inexperienced refereeing.

  4. Aaron McLin says:

    I think that you’ve put your finger on something, Michael Hagen, but it’s important to remember that everyone was inept, inexperienced or both at some time. After all, everyone’s a newbie at some point.

    For me, the issue is twofold – one is that the bad habits that players pick up with one group don’t vanish when they move to a new group, and two is that many GMs are unwilling to expel players who cause problems, for whatever reason. So while the point that bad GMing creates poor players is valid, the idea that I have a poor player in my group becuase I am a poor GM can’t always be assumed from that. As in any large community of people, problems can ripple far from their origin points.

  5. Peter says:

    This is treating a symptom and not the real problem. There are two things you’re ignoring about this sort of behaviour: First, the fact that when the player of the dutiful Paladin punches the king in the face, he’s not playing his character.

    This is a more fundamental problem than a lack of realistic consequences. It’s easy to behave in ways that don’t lead to catastrophic in-game consequences but nevertheless totally destroy any sense of the PC as a character with their own personality and motives.

    Second, the reason for the player’s actions. Players don’t simply punch the king to ‘test boundaries’ as an end in itself; they test boundaries because they’re bored and chafing against the GM’s control. Players don’t, as a rule, muck around when they’re interested in what’s going on.

    So the solution to this problem is to recruit the players into telling the story, to make it their story as much as yours, and to make it clear they have the same responsibility as you do. As the GM you could at any moment have Space Moose show up and violate their characters in some grotesque and implausible fashion, but you don’t because it would be horrible and ridiculous. When your players decide to punch the king or collect the ears of elf children for laughs the same is true. If your restraint is adequate to prevent that sort of thing, why act as though theirs is not?

    This approach of punishing the players or warning them with “if you do that, you’ll be sent to bed with no supper” just infantilises them, which is a great way to start if you want them to behave like infants.

    But if you eschew allowing, punishing, or threatening this sort of behaviour, then getting the players engaged in the game and feeling responsible for it is no longer optional. You and the players have a single choice: to play properly or not at all.

  6. Greg says:

    This is serendipitous as I just had a player do this very thing. In a urban fantasy game he ran from the FBI, assaulted gang members and alienated the other player characters. But he took the results in stride: arrested and plead guilty when caught, shot at in a drive-by, and unsupported by the others. Was he stupid or playing out a character?

    I think the problem are those dramatic narratives that fundamentally kill cooperative play. A drug addict spiraling out of control does not work well in a group no matter how it is played. No matter how interesting a story might be, if it cannot work with the game as a whole it shouldn’t be tolerated. Better that it would be discussed and dismissed before playing but there must be limits for any group to function.

  7. I’ve seen this behavior. And I like Robin’s suggestion of a warning before the hammer comes down.


    On the other side of the GM screen, when you as a player are left with no good choices, and the scenes drag on and on, it’s very tempting to go off the rails.

    A few minutes of narration about how the party has been captured and forced into servitude can work fine. One or two bits of roleplaying just to show how far down we’ve all fallen will make our escape or tragic failure that much more dramatic.

    But roleplaying a whole session where the party is helpless and we just have to put up with it gets old. After half an hour I’m zoning out. I hit bottom 20 minutes ago.

    And that’s when I’m ready to do something very stupid. The game has gotten boring, dull, and left me with no choices but to listen the GM tell us how boring our lives have become.

    Time to be stupid. At this point, both the character and the player have nothing to lose.

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