Any Game Master worth his dice knows that an RPG is not a story that the GM tells the player, it is an interactive experience, where both parties participate in telling the story. The question I want to address today is how much should the players be telling the story?
In most instances, the player will be in control of what their character does and how they do it. The GM will give a scenario that the players need to deal with, then the players take control of their characters, and deal with the issue (Usually in the complete opposite way the GM expects.) A lot of GM’s will allow their players to narrate a little bit more than just their character, but there is always a limit to the players control of anything that isn’t their own character. What I want to discuss is how much control the player should have over the world around them.
For many GM’s, letting a player control more than just their character seems ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t do it. When a player suggests that they take a course of action that was not planned for, you are letting them change the world when they try to use a backdoor that you hadn’t created before. Sure the GM is describing it, but the player created it, when they suggested it in the first place.
“Can I do ____?” Almost every GM has heard this question, and as long as the request is reasonable, the answer should be “Yes,” or “If you roll well enough.” The players power over the world will often end here, but should it? Often, the GM will explain to the player how they would be able to pull off such a feet, but I believe, depending on the game, this should still be in the player’s jurisdiction. It should be noted that if the goal of your game is for it to be very gritty, or a horror game, where players aren’t supposed to have a traditionally fun time with laughing and excitement, limiting the player’s control is probably for the best, but if you just want to have a good time, and create a fun, crazy story with the players, they should be allowed to control the world however they please, as long as they don’t break the game.
The normal answer to the player saying “Can I build a shield from the remains of this wagon?” is to require a roll then if they succeed, the GM will start describing how the player player’s character pull a wheel off the wagon, then starts covering it with boards, or other materials. I suggest instead that the player describe what they do, and how they do it with (near) complete freedom. This does two things. First, the player now becomes more attached to the item, since the player made it instead of the GM. Second, the GM can now use his creative thinking for something other than describing player actions. The player should be allowed to describe the wagon, and what is on it that it can make a shield out of.
Player backgrounds are often ignored by GM’s in favor of what is on the character sheet. If a PC wants to distract the guards with an epic saxophone solo because they played the saxophone in high school, but they don’t have any bardic abilities on their character sheet, they should still be allowed to play the saxophone. Why? Because it is more fun. If you want you can require a roll, but it should still be allowed. If there isn’t a saxophone around, then let them find one, and for the most fun you should let them describe why a saxophone was left in the dungeon.
Earlier, I mentioned that the players should be allowed to affect the world in any way they want, as long as they don’t break the game. What I mean by that is that they shouldn’t be allowed to call in a nuclear missile to destroy their enemy. You may allow it, but it will likely make for a shorter, boring session. The secret third option is to let them break the game, and then try to one up them. When the players do something ridiculous that is potentially game breaking, make it a game of bigger fish, and find something to break their game breaking creation. When done properly, this will give the players an even more difficult situation in the future. When your players called a nuke to destroy the city, the players find out they had been training wizards to ward off incoming attacks. Now they not only have to deal with whatever was threatening them from the city before, but now they have an army of wizards to deal with too! This will make for a fun session.
I believe that players should even be able to manipulate the past, just like the GM can, as long as they can explain why. If a player wants to dress like a rabbit to avoid suspicion, (I don’t know why they would try that but let them) all they should have to do is explain why they have a rabbit suit in their pack, even if it isn’t on their character sheet. These are Role Playing Games, not combat simulators. Who cares if they change things, as long as everyone is having fun.
When the players are allowed to contribute to the world, they are more likely to have a good time, because their contributions are what they want to see. GM’s are not all knowing, and can’t perfectly cater an experience to a group of players no matter how hard they try, so why not let the players make the world into what they want it to be? And when the players are having a good time, the GM will also have a good time. Next time a player asks if they can do something, I urge you to get them to tell you how they are going to do it, and even better, why the situation is set up so they can make this attempt.