28 May GM Lessons #3: The Importance of Free Will
Free will of players in a game controlled by an all-powerful Game Master may sound like an impossibility. After all, at any point in time the GM can simply decide that something happens, and it will! Your character is happily walking along, and then a group of orcs jumps out and thumps the hell out of him!
But free will is not only possible in these games, it is vital!
Let me explain with an example.
No Free Will:
I played a game as a player a little while ago, and just everyone had finished making their characters we were told by the GM, “You’ve been toiling under the lash now for several days. The orcs who have enslaved you are brutal masters and overseers!”
Woah. What the? How did we get there?! One minute I had created a character with armour, weapons, allies, powers…and the next minute all that was swept away and I was a slave. But how?!
When we asked, he told us that we were each separately ambushed in the middle of the night, and got us to make a roll to see how well we fought (which in my case was pretty hard – got a couple of the buggers).
Now, in many ways there’s nothing wrong with this sort of an intro. But for me I instantly disliked it. Why?
Because there was clearly no free will. Me getting captured by the orc slavers had nothing whatsoever to do with the way I played the character, with his (or my) wiles and smarts, with the tactics that I employed, or anything else. Whereas in a real world I would be constantly going over in my mind what I did wrong and what I could do next time to not get into such a situation, in this case I was just hoping that the GM wouldn’t do that again next time!
It could also be called the illusion of free will. But for me, when I am the GM, I prefer to give the pc’s as much free will as possible. If orc slavers are in the area, then they will have to track the pc’s down. It won’t be pre-ordained that they get captured. It will depend on what the players roll on their skill checks to hide tracks, as well as their tactics. If they’re bumbling idiots, the orcs will ambush them and the odds will be stacked against them. But if they play their cards right they might even get away.
But then what about my carefully constructed slavers’ maze?
Forget it. Bin it. Or save it for later. To me it’s far more fun to see how the adventure will go now. They’re on the run, and they’ve no doubt killed a few orcs, so they’ve upset the tribe. Now there’s fifty angry greenskins coming for them. Horns blare on the hilltops, and scouts dog their steps. Now if they end up getting caught, they will be beaten bloody and dragged back in a state of near-death. They might even lose a hand each, or an ear as a trophy (ouch!), depending on the rage of the orcs (and also what you roll – remember that).
Now imagine the scene you’ve set for your players, and the emotions that are surging in them. By the gods they led those orcs on an epic pursuit, and how galling and humiliating their defeat! They’ll also think twice before attempting to make their escape – because they’ve suffered such a beating already. The second time they might not escape with their lives – and they know they might not outrun them! And this is not some set “story” or “adventure.” There are serious ramifications here. If they make the wrong move, their head will be decorating a pike!
Another example, the opposite way, was when a friend and I as players were smashing about in an archmage’s castle, and decided to take a rest in the knife-sharpening room (it seemed like a good idea at the time!).
Now, there was no set encounter that was supposed to take place there. The adventure had the monsters and the guards all stationed at certain points, ready for us to slash and hack our way there in our own good time.
But our GM was not like that. This world lived and breathed. He rolled for random encounters…and three horrific rolls later the door opens and who walks in? The Archmage himself. Needless to say, we did not come off from that encounter very well!
But it was awesome. Because we felt like we had free choice, free will, and like everything we did had definite ramifications! How cool is that!
But What if I DO Want to Start the Players Off As Slaves?
So now, what if you wanted to have your players start off as slaves, and didn’t want to go through the hassle of having to capture them all and so forth? Well, personally I would tell them that that is the backstory, then have them work out their characters accordingly. They would work with you to go over who they were before they were captured, and how they were caught. It could make for some awesome plotlines. This way they’re also being causative and are able to help make the story!
What do you think? Try this out in your own games and see if it works for you!
And of course, if you like what you see here, try having a look at our new game Immersion RPG! It is available for a free playtesters’ download here.
That’s all for now!
Oliver R. Shead