GM Lessons #3: The Importance of Free Will

28 May GM Lessons #3: The Importance of Free Will

The Importance of Free Will - Immersion RPGFree 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).

Related:  Story in Combat : GMing Tips #23

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!

Free Will:

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

6 Comments
  • Jesse C Cohoon
    Posted at 05:39h, 28 May Reply

    Out of curiosity, what do you think the difference between that and the standard “you meet at a bar” or “you are hired on as guards for a caravan” routine as the opening where the PCs meet each other?

    • oliver
      Posted at 00:05h, 29 May Reply

      Yeah for sure, the adventure needs to start somewhere after all! I think it really does depend on the way it’s done. And still…there are ways to do it that immediately provide a sense of free will. Giving choices, and allowing rolls straight away. Of course leading to the same result.

  • Rob Bush
    Posted at 23:29h, 28 May Reply

    I can see a GM wanting to start a game “In Media Res”, with the PCs starting out imprisoned because that’s a common opening trope for films and video games (Elder Scrolls, I’m looking at you!)

    I think your points are valid, however, wrt player agency.

    If I was GMing a game starting that way, I would maybe start out as listed, but then follow up with flashback scenes?

    • oliver
      Posted at 18:15h, 30 May Reply

      Yeah I think that’s a very legitimate way to start a game actually. And it makes me think – there’s no truly “right” or “wrong” way to run such a thing, so long as you give the players the feeling that they are in control of their characters’ destinies. That’s really the only point worth mentioning!
      When I think of it in that light, perhaps the first example was not such a good one – except for the way it was delivered by the GM. It wasn’t merely a disappointment, because I still enjoyed the game, it was just the feeling that the adventure had certain things that were simply “going to happen” regardless of my character and the way he played them. And to be honest, most adventures are like that – they have a storyline and the players follow it. Personally I far prefer the players to make their own storyline, and see how the respond to the various factors that are part of the adventure area.

  • Vb Wyrde
    Posted at 23:31h, 28 May Reply

    Interesting point – especially given that we recently started a new campaign where the GM did exactly that. We started out as shanghaied on an Imperial Galley Ship on our way to the New World. Frankly, I just took at as a dramatic introduction to a harsh world in which such things are common. Along the way we back-storied the events that lead up to the capture, but that was glossed over. Honestly, I didn’t mind. My focus has been on what do we do now? The free will part came in as soon as we started actually playing. I don’t mind, I guess, the GM setting up the story with this kind of thing. As long as Free Will kicks in at the moment we start playing, I’m ok with it. Of course, if it turns out we’re on a Railroad Train and there is no Free Will to speak of, well that’s totally different, and I think a high percentage of players will reject that.

    • oliver
      Posted at 18:18h, 30 May Reply

      I agree! And yes absolutely, the free will part does come in when you start! And the storyline leading up to that point can be anything at all. A harsh intro can be awesome. I just prefer to make it seem like something legitimately happening in a fluid environment. I think the way the GM delivers it, and the way he then conducts the game (.i.e. true free will or not) will tend to give that “suspension of disbelief” and will create a story that seems utterly real to the players.

Post A Comment