I’m can already hear lots of people out there sharpening their knives after reading that title, or at the very least raising their bullhorns, ready to shout me down. But I urge you to hear me out.
I’ve read lots of articles about the importance of player agency, and about avoiding the cardinal sin of “railroading.” There are also a host of articles and essays out there about how to be better at improvising, and articles full of advice for what to do when your players go off in an unplanned direction. There are a lot of great things in these articles -a lot of great things that I agree with. Railroading is a cardinal sin, improvising is important; players will go off in unplanned directions.
But there are some folks who put forth as sacrosanct the idea that players have a right to completely ignore plot hooks and adventure threads as they see fit. Because these things limit choice, and limiting choice is anathema. This is where I start to take issue with the argument for player agency above all and at all costs.
“Railroader,” I hear you cry!
“How dare you limit my freedom,” you scream!
And you’re right. I, the dungeon master, shouldn’t limit your freedom. But sometimes you, the player, should.
Now, I’m not talking about limiting freedom when it comes to how players choose to overcome obstacles, and I’m certainly not advocating any sort of predetermination of outcomes without accounting for player choices. No, I’m talking about the game in much broader terms, pulling all the way back to the level of social contracts and the meta-game.
Imagine if you will this scenario. A group of friends gets together and decides that they would like to start a new Dungeons and Dragons campaign. One guy volunteers to be the Dungeon Master, because he’s had his eye on that new “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” adventure and thinks he would like to run it. Everybody thinks this sounds like a great idea. So the newly-elected Dungeon Master goes out and plunks down $30 for his nice hard-backed adventure book, and over the next week or two he reads through the adventure, and talks with his players about the characters they want to play so he can bring everyone together at the start of the adventure and sprinkle in personal details and hooks based on the backgrounds the players chose for themselves. Finally, the big day comes. Characters have been rolled up, snacks have been procured, and the players are all assembled at the table, ready to start their adventures together. The characters gather in a tavern, some roleplaying ensues, one thing leads to another, and in short order all of the characters agree – with their players citing the supremacy of their agency and their right to ignore any plot hooks or adventure threads – that they would like to charter a boat so they can go hunt dinosaurs in Tethyr.
Personally, I think that’s a dick move.
Sure, that’s an extreme example, but I daresay that it’s not without precedent. And, extreme or not, it would be a perfectly acceptable outcome to someone who honestly subscribed to the aforementioned school of thought. I should mention here that it’s also an acceptable outcome if the players and dungeon master agreed that they wanted to play a “sandbox style” game, and everyone knows from the start that very little or nothing at all has been planned.
But if it was discussed beforehand that your group would be playing a published adventure, or your dungeon master pitched his own idea for a campaign and everyone thought it sounded like a good idea, then you as a player should put forth an effort to limit your choices to ones that will lead in the general direction of the agreed upon adventure. I mention agreement several times, because that’s crucial to the whole process. Well before everyone is at the table ready to start the adventure, there should be plenty of discussion and consensus about what game your group will play and the shape your adventures will take. And then once you’re at the table, everyone owes it to the group to generally stick to that plan.
I say “generally,” because once the game starts things can and should be allowed to change organically. But even with that being the case, I feel like players are always better served by expending their creative energies to come up with reasons why their characters would make choices and act in ways that forward the current story arc rather than coming up with reasons why their characters would make choices or act in ways that radically depart from the current story arc. In a good adventure, there should be plenty of ways your character can exercise freedom and make choices that enhance the story and synergize with what the dungeon master is doing. As a rule, put more effort into thinking about why your character would act on a plot hook rather than why he would ignore it. In all but the rarest of cases, stating that your character would ONLY act in a manner that makes continuing the current storyline impossible is, in my opinion, a cop-out.
Either that or it’s a conscious rebellion against a terrible adventure in which you actually are being railroaded, or a passive-aggressive way of expressing dissatisfaction with some other aspect of the adventure. And if your problem falls into one of these categories then it requires an out-of-game solution anyway, and you’re just swinging at fences. If your problem is a bad dungeon master, or a bad adventure, then nothing you do in-character is going to fix your problem.
But, you might be arguing, if you have a good dungeon master, she should be able to handle whatever choices the characters make! That’s true. If you have a good dungeon master then she is probably great at improvising, and could probably improvise one hell of an adventure about chartering a boat to hunt dinosaurs in Tethyr.
She could probably run an even better adventure if she were running something that she’d put a little more forethought into.
Again, I can’t stress enough that I’m not advocating railroading here. A good campaign should be able to flex like a rubber band, and accommodate plenty of player agency without “breaking.” And sure, a great dungeon master can stand on his head to spin the most non-sequitur of choices into his game, but a great player can help a great dungeon master out by not putting her into that position very often.