Keeping control of your game while keeping illusion of liberty


I'll be honest. I skipped the middle few pages of the article.

I gotta say though, as a player, if a GM said to me, "Hey, I know you guys want to go there, but there's stuff there that needs to be prepped, I haven't prepped it, and I don't want to run it on the fly," I would be fine with that. The players can't make the GM run encounters he doesn't want to run, but by the same token, the GM shouldn't be forcing PC's into encounters they have no interest in. The group has to work together.

As long as they think they can move freely and that their characters face obstacles when going out of the way instead of being the players that faces the limit, they will enjoy their game. Have fun!
I disagree strongly. Once players realize that the decisions their characters make have no impact on the storyline of the game, they lose interest. If every time the players want to do something different they are met with chasms, avalanches, quarantined zones, traps that damage them and force them back to "safe zones" or being captured, they're going to realize that the choices they make have no impact on what they'll be doing (other than chosing something the GM doesn't like means they'll be dealing with chasms and avalanches). When players realize that the choices they make have no impact on the game, they lose interest in making choices. And aside from rolling dice and making tactical decisions, making choices is playing your character.

I think it is almost always better to be honest with the players. I think its good to get their imput in what they want their characters to do, and I think its good to work together with them on where the game goes. If a GM is running a module, I know that the game will take place in the module. He doesn't need to surround the module with impassable mountains to keep me there. But a GM who says, "You can go anywhere and do anything you want," and then surrounds us with impassable mountains is basically lying to us about the concept of the game.


Wow, I disagree with just about everything in the article. I have no problem with a GM saying "Sorry, I didn't think you guys would go that way, so I didn't prep for that. Would you mind following this other lead and I'll have this one ready for you next session." That's the kind of thing friends who trust each other should always be able to do.

Likewise, I have no problem if a GM says "You guys have completely missed the path on this one. Do you want a hint to get back on track, or do you just want to continue as is?" Sometimes as players we get it completely wrong and we want a hint so we can succeed at our goal - wandering around session after session only to find out that we were completely off-track the whole time and the GM just let us thanks.

As for the author's "good" methods - Ouch! Many are classic railroading techniques that I'd never put up with for long. If used very, very sparingly, I can accept most of them, but some should never be used. For example, "Have the PC captured by monsters. Huh? Most players I know absolutely *hate* having their characters defeated by GM fiat. And trust me, players can tell when the GM pre-ordains the result of an encounter.

"And remember, the importance for your player is not to have total freedom in your world but have the illusion of it. As long as they think they can move freely and that their characters face obstacles when going out of the way instead of being the players that faces the limit, they will enjoy their game."

No, the importance for your players is that they can make meaningful choices. Meaningful isn't an illusion.


As with the earlier posters, my personal playstyle (as both DM and player) disagrees a lot with the article. As a player, I think it's usually quite easy to work out when a DM is trying to stop you from taking things where he isn't prepared to go. And while I agree that complete freedom is both impossible in the game and may be less desirable in some (an adventure path campaign, for example) than others, I personally prefer to play in games where my PC has a lot of freedom and run ones where PCs have a lot of it too.

I'm currently running an Eberron campaign which is in its 3rd year and just completed 70 sessions, and there's no way the players and I would have got as much satisfaction from it if we weren't all aware that they have a huge amount of freedom and that the campaign emerges from their meaningful choices. Even if that choice includes things like the PCs deciding that they were getting into too much trouble and taking a ship to a completely different continent. Rather than making up complications because I couldn't deal with it, I rolled with it and their choice (both the choice of what they did and choice of what they ignored) provided us with meaningful and interesting material for the next 20 sessions.


This DM wouldn't last a minute with my gaming group. Dense forests, treacherous swamps, haunted castles and heavily guarded fortresses? Those are crying out for adventurers to try their luck! The author might as well have said, "A pile of gold and magical items is an effective deterrent to exploration." ;)
I'd politely leave his game, and never play with him as a GM again.

I realize some people like to do the kind of stuff he advocates, and it probably even works for some people too. But I won't put up with it. This is the kind of thing I'd expect from GMs 10 or more years ago, and it's always been apparent when a GM tries to do this sort of thing. I don't like being lied to and these days I've got much better things to with my time than be an animated puppet for the GM.


I disagree with the article advice that it's better to railroad than say "sorry I haven't prepped that yet", though I think winging it is usually the best option of all. 3e can be hard to wing though; with eg 1e or C&C all I need is a rough map and some random encounter tables.

The advice on terrain limitations I think can be useful when setting up a campaign. You can create a map with features that obviously delimit the campaign area. Eg, see my Duskmoon Hills campaign map (may require yahoogroup subscription):

The campaign area is bounded to the south by a swamp and large lake, to the east by an enchanted forest and mountains, to the north by mountains and lake, to the west by another forest and an expansive plain. None of these are impossible to cross but they create natural boundaries to the adventure area.


Victoria Rules
A good GM keeps the PCs inside the plotted area...when "the plotted area" is defined as anywhere in the game universe they feel like going and can get to.

A good GM can wing it once they get there, if they don't go where planned.



I think it's far better to be honest and state when you haven't prepared something than use heavy-handed railroading.

Before using the measures there I'd use positive options to steer the party anyway - instead of railroading by having a chasm west, a mountain south and a swamp east, make it more appealing to head north. Hire the party as escorts, have something happening to the north, etc.

Of course, winging it is better.

Also, geographical control is often not really a problem. Tips for DMs how to handle it when their players suddenly want to build up a trading house, or found a nation, or pledge their swords to a holy war instead of acting like the usual mercenary adventurers running after the next treasure might be more important than working out how to control their geographical choices (of which the easiest way often is to simply move the prepared location to where the party is going.)
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While I don't like the advice personally, I could see how the DM saying "Sorry, you can't go there" would ruin the game for some people.

I don't think the solution is to limit their actions, however. I think the solution lies in two parts:

1. Get the players to tell you, in advance, what their character's goals are. That way you can prep for them.

2. Have a set of techniques that will allow you to run a successful game for those times you don't have the right information prepped.


Hobbit on Quest
If the author doesn't like fences and ponds blocking movement in computer games, then I don't really understand why he spends most of his time coming up with alternative forms of those impassable barriers.

That said, I really don't like saying "Sorry, I haven't prepped that yet" except when we're already within a half-hour of the session breaking up for next time. If it's early and they're soldiering on, I will throw up delaying encounters and other minor obstacles to give them a good time for the evening and buy time for me to prep for the next week.

I also like to have segments of the overall plot be modular enough that I can put them in the PCs' path whatever path they take. Now THAT'S the illusion of having total freedom while still being on some kind of track (albeit a somewhat different path than the originally assumed one).

atom crash

I usually have a few stock encounters in mind for when my players go in a direction I didn't plan. That way it buys me enough time to prepare what comes next. Before they get to the nearby ruins they heard about in the marketplace, they come across a brigand camp or stumble upon an owlbear cave or encounter a couple hippogriffs out hunting -- since the rumor about the ruins was just something I tossed out for flavor, intending for them to follow up some leads on court intrigue I've been building up. But if they want to do a dungeoncrawl in the ruins, then that's what I'm going to give them.

I also always keep several options open. And I keep a stack of published adventures on hand to adapt and steal bits from as needed.

My play style is to dangle mutliple hooks in front of the players and let them pick which ones they want to go after. I keep a handful of adventures in mind so I can quickly prepare for whichever direction they choose -- at any crossroads I'lll know vaguely what lies in each direction and have a few "random" encounters planned so I can deal with whatever the players decide to do. Of course, at a crossroads with 3 choices they're just as likely to set off across the open field and ignore the road altogether and create a 4th choice I never anticipated.

My biggest challenge is, once they choose a direction, I have to quickly run ahead of them to build some scenery along that path so that they feel that this is the adventure I've been developing all along, while in reality I could very well be just a few steps ahead of them.

When the session is over, I have enough time before the next session to more fully develop the adventure and tie it all back in to the metaplot. And I always stay flexible enough to tie their choices back into the metastory. If all roads lead to Rome, I like to offer my players the opportunity to pick whichever road they want to take.


So... I don't get why the author hates water that the player can't cross and then suggests having water that the PCs can't cross.

I have no problem with my DM saying "I didn't prep that". That's the trust I have with my GM. We usually don't end up having that problem by having us players decide what the next session is going to be at the end of the session we just finshed. If we as players have the choices of A, B, C and D we decide we want to do C and give our DM time to prep option C.

In return for givingus the adventures we want we don't suddenly off on a tangent on a whim. Sure, my DM may railroad us for the session but we get to choose what the piece of track is. That gives us "complete freedom" while letting the DM build the plot he wants around the stuff we find interesting.

Oh... and our group would find Haunted Mansions, Guarded Areas and Dragons Overhead as great big neon signs saying "Adventurers Wanted: Apply Within".


Community Supporter
I usually have the opposite problem (they want to be railroaded so I provide them the illusion of contstraint while having a dozen options to pull out of my bag of tricks). It took some effort but I think I have finally got my group interested in wandering off the beaten path a bit more.
Andre said:
Wow, I disagree with just about everything in the article. <snip> Meaningful isn't an illusion.
Amen Brother Ben.

It is disappointing how many GMs believe that they need to lead they party by the nose, by hook or by crook. The notion that having the players run in perpetual circles is the best qualifier for a “good game” is insulting to the players in that it at best is a tacit statement that they are present primarily to serve the whims of the GM. I doubt many players go to the trouble of showing up to a game thinking they are supposed to be tools for the GMs to amuse himself – I doubt that many players believe their ability to enjoy a game should be dependant on fulfilling roles assigned to them by the GM.

On some level the article the article (and the cancerous philosophy behind it) acknowledges it and so it encourages lying and deception to that the GM can achieve his emotional satisfaction at the expensive of the players… and if they don’t like it, they can lump it.

It’s an ugly and vulgar way to treat people.


Good DMing requires giving PCs interesing choices while nudging the overall campaign in the direction that he thinks is best, or at least to the next part of the adventure, as subtley as possible.

Let me put it like this. The DM decides, we are going to do modules A, then B, and then C. To the extent that he tricks his players, it is to get them to believe that they decided to do modules A, then B, then C.


I think the best advice I ever got was to let the players come up with the plot that way they are less likely to stray.

And yes I am serious. The players tell me what is important to their characters and want to do and everything evolves from that.


Keeping control of your game while keeping illusion of liberty? My GMing style could better be described as keeping liberty in the game while giving the illusion of control. :p


OK, that was an idiotic bit of DM'ing advice.

"Telling your players the truth is bad. Why do you try using these player-control tricks that years of video games have proven to annoy the hell out of people instead?"