Worlds of Design: "Your Character Wouldn't Do That"

How often do you, as GM, tell a player or all the players what his/her character does?


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The Mighty Jingles (on YouTube) described what he really disliked about Far Cry 5 New Dawn (video game). The game took away player control at vital junctures. I wonder how often this happens in RPGs, and offer some reasons why it does. With a poll!


I watch a few YouTube channels regularly, some about games, some about cooking. So I watched The Mighty Jingles’ review of Far Cry 5 New Dawn (video game). Jingles was dismayed that the game took away player control at vital junctures. In one particular case (there were several), the protagonist found the ultimate bad guys - and walks in without his weapons. He stands there passively and gets handcuffed and hung from the ceiling. And does absolutely nothing. (No, not magic or some kind of psychic slavery.) Later, once the villains are defeated and are making a tiresome speech, he can’t even fire a gun to shut them up.

This is closely related to player agency (which I discussed previously). How much opportunity do the players have to significantly affect the outcome of the game?

The specific question for RPGs: how often does the GM tell a player what his character does, that the player might not want to do? I’m not talking about involuntary reactions to events such as “your character falls unconscious” or “your character exclaims in surprise.” I’m talking about the kind of thing that happened to Jingles.

I recall watching an RPG session where the GM told the players that their characters were running after someone (whether they wanted to or not). I later asked him about it, and he said he didn’t normally tell characters what to do, but there was a time problem to getting the session done, so he hurried the players along in the easiest way available. I wouldn’t like it, but I see the point.

Typically, though, I think this “involuntary action” is part of telling a story. The author of any story must control what happens in order to express what they have in mind, to reach the intended conclusion. If they don’t control the action, how can they be sure they get where they want the story to go? So in some campaigns, say where the GM is telling the players a story, there might not be much player control (Player Agency) to begin with.

This depends on who is playing. Traditional hobby games players usually want to feel they control their own fate, that success or failure is up to them. On the other hand, RPGers who prefer an overarching narrative may not mind being constrained by the story. Other gamers fall somewhere in between.

I personally hate being “Led around by the nose,” that is, I want to be in control as much as possible. If I want to “consume” a good story, I’ll read a book by a professional storyteller, not rely on today’s GM. But I know of many people who disagree with that. If you want the players to write their story from your situation (as I do), you are unlikely to tell them what their characters do.

So I’d estimate that, generally speaking, the more the session is about storytelling, and the less about opposed game playing, then the more likely it is for the GM to say “your character does <such-and-such>”, the more the GM has characters do things the players might not/would not have their character do, in order to continue to control the story.

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). I have the feeling that some people will read this and say, “of course I do, frequently”, while others will say, “I (almost) never do that.” The trick is to make sure that the GM and the players all like whatever style the GM uses.

This brings up another topic, how often the GM provides hints to the players about what they “should” do, but lets them make the choice. That’s for another column.

Let’s have another poll to see what readers do.
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

SMHWorlds

Explorer
I only break that particular phrase out when a player is quite obviously meta-gaming to the detriment of the game or of another player. One of my player's was notorious for sticking their nose into other character's personal quests and stories. So, stuff like that which has zero in game origin. I might also interrupt a character if they the player lack knowledge that their character has. Using the "you would not do that" in a positive way. In effect, handing agency back to the character.

Even before Critical Role became a hit, the words "story" and "narrative" were huge fightin words in the design sphere for RPGs (and in RPGs in general). I still do not think that most people really understand the words as they are defined normally, or even how we commonly use them in RPGs. Since that phenomena broke upon us, those words have gained a number of new random momentums, such that they are almost meaningless in trying to describe play.

My gut reaction to the topic is that there are three general circumstances under which a GM will intervene in the typical rpg game by negating a player's agency.

The first is as I described above. A player is acting in an ignorant manner, though not necessarily with malice, and does not understand (or willfully ignores) character boundaries. OR the player is acting in ignorance of information that they should have had. The player might have been out of the room or not heard a specific piece of information or did not read the 545 page document on the one shot I am running. ;) Regardless, the GM can and should step in here to keep the game's integrity intact.

The second circumstance is what Matt Colville might call a cut scene. This is where the GM is telling the players what is happening (dare I say, narrating) and takes control of the characters' actions to move events along. The example given in the article is perfect for this. Real time (if I am reading it right) is running short and to move the game along, the GM lets the players know that their characters are doing what might be considered normal actions given the circumstances. Now, I have known a few GMs who will cut scene for 3 hours and 45 minutes of a 4 hour slot, lol. Cut scenes can be overused and abused as a technique, so once per game session, if that, would be my personal rule of thumb. Though depending on the system and the game, this could be used more often and perhaps even by the players themselves.

The third circumstance would be GM overreach. The GM constantly make moves and takes actions and offers feelings for a character or characters, subverting the player's choices and control. Although I in general paint this as a negative, like anything there is a spectrum. Some players simply will not act "awed" by a 40ft red dragon. Even though, there is a cultural and mechanical reason for them to be.. This is because the player does not want to ever be hindered by in world things. I know its a touchy subject, but if the actual Dracula shows up in your VtM game, your vampire would be impressed. On the other hand, players DO hate being told how to feel. And many GMs (myself included) have a bad habit of that. It is one thing to maintain the integrity and verisimilitude of the world; quite another to impose our personal will on a character and thus on the player. We are not there to create the perfect play; this is not a stage play or if it is, the actors have a ton of room to improv things.

In the end, if there is a conflict between the world and the character, let the dice (i.e. mechanics) decide the outcome.
 

AriochQ

Explorer
I almost never tell a player what their character will do. I may question their motivations if they are acting uncharacteristically, or metagaming, and let them reconsider their choice. D&D is cooperative story telling. Player agency is a crucial component and I do my best to leave it unrestricted.

That being said, when I run AL modules they need to fit into 4 hour blocks. It is pretty common for the designer/author to 'set the scene' at the start of an episode and drop characters into the situation. In those cases, we sacrifice some player agency to ensure we can fit the adventure into the 4-hour block and to keep it from going off the rails too far.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
I prefer to open a discussion when a player does something really out of character or metagaming. One of my gaming buddies' has a bad habit of doing this when DM'ing and has been told off several times. It feels like there is something of a generation gap in perception with this too... teenage boy DM'ing from 1980 doesn't go over as well with millennial players IME.
 

mmoritz80

Villager
I let my players make their own decisions. I do not take control. Usually, all I have to do is look at them and ask, "Are you sure???" and they begin to question the risks of whatever crazy action they were about to take.... or they say yes they're sure and they end up alone in a sewer attacked by a vampire because they didn't wait for the party. Whichever.
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
I never tell a character "you wouldn't do that." However, I might tell them that something is an evil act (if they're not playing an evil character) or against the tenets of their deity, and let them decide what they do with that. I'm not really in the business of telling them how to play their characters, but with repeated violations I might make them change their alignment. If that matches how they're playing their character better, great; if it doesn't, then it's on them as to what they do about it.

Also, having played New Dawn, that summation is missing a few parts. The protagonist goes in unarmed because Mickey and Lou have your ally held prisoner, and are going to kill him if you don't come in unarmed. Eventually, the protagonist rages out and throws one of them through a window, so it's not exactly doing nothing.

Far Cry New Dawn is an FPS, not an RPG or action RPG; it isn't really designed to have branching plot points and dialog.

I watch a few YouTube channels regularly, some about games, some about cooking. So I watched The Mighty Jingles’ review of Far Cry 5 New Dawn (video game). Jingles was dismayed that the game took away player control at vital junctures. In one particular case (there were several), the protagonist found the ultimate bad guys - and walks in without his weapons. He stands there passively and gets handcuffed and hung from the ceiling. And does absolutely nothing. (No, not magic or some kind of psychic slavery.) Later, once the villains are defeated and are making a tiresome speech, he can’t even fire a gun to shut them up.
 

Rhianni32

Explorer
I'm in agreement with most of you. I won't tell my players No but I will review the situation. "So you are saying you want your LG paladin kill the beggar asking for food in the middle of the market in the middle of the day?"
 

Celebrim

Legend
Basically never. The only time anything comes up like that is when someone casts 'Suggestion' on a PC and they fail a saving throw, and even then in cases of Domination and other mind control, I really try to leave the player in control of the character with only minimal guidance as to how to play the character. If I ever do find myself saying, "Your character doesn't want to do that.", it probably would be in a case where they are suffering from mind control.

First, great shout out to 'The Mighty Jingles', who I encountered during my 'World of Tanks' addiction years ago and whom I still watch for my now faded 'World of Warships' addiction and other content.

Secondly, I very much do feel that cut scenes can be devastating to the enjoyment of an RPG - even one on a computer. You should never hand wave a player through an important moment of choice. It's fine perhaps to have a cinematic scene before or after a moment of choice, but by golly the choice should be a major element of the gameplay. Good cut scenes are expository only. They help you understand what is going on without removing you from the action.

My hatred of cut scenes extends vastly beyond just that they railroad the player though. I despise any cut scene that portrays something in a way that the fiction is vastly different than the game play.

Mass Effect 1 is one of my favorite video games of all time. Mass Effect 2 on the other hand was for me deeply disappointing. The larger fan base tends to act as if the game crashed and burned suddenly and unexpectedly with Mass Effect 3, but in my opinion the writing was on the wall in Mass Effect 2. And that in part came down to expectations about game play and cut scenes. For example, Mass Effect 2's cover system meant that the gameplay largely divided into two parts - regular non-combat action and 'roll for initiative drop into the subsystem' combat action. As such, combat only occurred in Mass Effect 2 in highly defined rigid planned battles in arenas specially designed for the combat to happen in them. And they generally as a result had a puzzle quality of there being some specific tactical choices you had to make in order to make them work. By contrast, combat in Mass Effect one can and did occur everywhere - in staircases, in open rooms, in vast outdoor spaces, in tight corridors. This meant among other things that in Mass Effect 2, cut scenes were generally not tightly integrated with either environment or gameplay. The place that they were occurring was clearly not the same play you were inhabiting, and didn't abide by those rules. In Mass Effect 2, you were always cutting in and out of subsystems - cut scenes, combat scenes, non-combat scenes. In Mass Effect 1, you were always basically in the story and whereever you were, anything could and would happen.

Two examples immediately come to mind that indicate how the mindset of the developers had changed. In Mass Effect 2, there is this scene where you rescue a trope psionic girl (see Carrie, Charlie McGee, Eleven, etc.) and there is this cut scene where psionic girl is established to be powerful because she single handedly destroys several of the large defense robots that are some of the most powerful foes in the game. Except, in gameplay, psionic girl is actually one of the weakest characters in the game and would struggle to assist you in destroying one such foe, much less taking on several single handedly. That scene told me that the developers no longer cared about gameplay as much as they cared about their conception of the story.

By contrast, one of the reoccuring cut scenes in Mass Effect that garnered some derision is the elevator scene, where the developers made lemonaid out of the slow loading of levels by having the characters in an elevator carrying out small talk. There aren't choices going on, there is just characters talking about themselves. And this is mildly interesting even as it stresses people who want to get back to the action just for wanting to ride in elevators with favored characters to learn more about them, and to see how they react to each other, but the whole thing is actually a set up for the single best cut scene usage in my opinion in the history of gaming - the scene where the predictable boring elevator ride turns into an intense combat scenario. That scene when I first encountered it blew my mind, and it's probably the best example of one of my favorite table top gaming rug pulls - "Everything everywhere is the dungeon."

Cut scenes in Mass Effect 1 largely questioned you how you would behave as part of an entire game of questioning how you would behave. Cut scenes in Mass Effect 2 tended to show you how the character behaved as part of an entire game showing you how to behave - even nominally when you were in combat you actually had little or no choice. In Mass Effect 1 you could profoundly alter your game experience by chargen choices that gave you profoundly different capabilities. In Mass Effect 2, the game told you how your character would be built, and the impact of your character was limited - basically, every character had more or less the same gameplay. In Mass Effect 1, there were several choices with profound consequence, and neither were more right than the other. In Mass Effect 2, there was a funnel at the end of the game you had to go through, and that funnel required that up to that point you made every choice exactly as you were supposed to have made it or you would be punished - in cut scenes - for not having made the right choice.
 

Sabathius42

Explorer
I'm probably one of the rare people to answer "More than once per session." but only because its a big grey area.

I frequently control the characters to speed the game along and keep a pace. If an adventure says that halfway up the road to the haunted castle the players can find an abandoned shack and get a rope and 2 healing potions if they check it out without there being a monster, trap, or other entanglement I just narrate that to them and give them the items. I don't pause and go to realtime while the players super paranoidly explore the shack and take up 45 minutes of real time for the equivalent of an RPG jump-scare.

Similarly I try to speed up when the party splits and goes their separate ways to interview 3 NPCs and go shopping and visit the pub. I'd rather say "After a half hour of talking to the priest of Torm you are sure he doesn't know anything useful about the vampires." than play out a 20 minute real time conversation that gives the players nothing.

All that being said I never fast forward past any scene that is important to set a tone. If, in the abandoned shack scenario you were trying to show danger by describing how food was left in a half eaten state on the table and stove and how all the occupants left behind valuables...then that's worth taking some time to establish.

Lastly, I like the concept of starting some stories In Media Res where the players start in a pickle. A lot of the old D6 Star Wars adventures were written this way as an homage to how Star Wars begins. It can be great at starting off with a good pace and I do use it sometimes for other games. Whenever I do so I always reassure the players that "if you start captured and without weapons you will eventually get your stuff back" even though i'm pretty sure they trust me enough that they aren't going to wonder about it.
 

Abstruse

Adventurer
More often than not, it's not telling a player what their character would do but what their character would NOT do. Here's an example with minor spoilers from the Lost Mines of Phandelver when I ran it a couple years ago.

The Mayor of Phandalin in the adventure is kinda sorta working with the evil company of mercenaries that's taken over the town. The players figured this out with a high Insight check and I explained the situation - He's responsible for the safety of the citizens of the town and, if he were to openly oppose them, he would jeopardize that safety. He would love for them to be removed one way or another, but he himself can't risk doing it himself or giving any support to anyone who tries for fear of the backlash on innocent citizens.

That's when the Paladin tried to murder him and the rest of the party joined in.

So yes, I told them "that is not what your character would do" because the character understood what was going on even if the player was confused over what I was telling them (assuming that "working with" meant he was part of their organization) and was so gung-ho about slaughtering this poor guy trapped between a rock and a hard place that the entire group kept shouting over me as I tried to correct the misunderstanding.

Once I calmed them down and got them to understand that he's not a bad person, he's just trying to do his best to protect the people he's responsible for when all he has are bad options, I asked them if they still wanted to murder the mayor in broad daylight and they realized that probably wasn't the best idea.
 

Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
I normally run games in the Realms where I know the world better than my players do.

I may occasionally point out that something about the character's origin means that they will probably think something about a situation but I then point out that it's up to them how their character responds. I never remove agency but I might provide some character-specific lore that might help them make a choice.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
I often run settings with rather alien cultures. While I don't actually use the wording Mr. Pulsipher uses, I'll often make certain players understand why their action is setting–inappropriate and that their character would know that. If they insist, I let them.
 

Bohandas

Villager
The scene in that Far Cry review sounds like a bit that annoyed me in the Fallout 3 DLC "The Pitt", where the main character, who by this time is basically an invincible god of battle, somehow gets knocked out in a cutscene by an unnamed mook with a truncheon who doesn't even take him by surprise
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
My hatred of cut scenes extends vastly beyond just that they railroad the player though. I despise any cut scene that portrays something in a way that the fiction is vastly different than the game play.
I use them to show things off screen for the most part, for instance to show what's happening with a villain that the PCs don't see but where I want the players to know about something. This means that they can't specifically affect it and thus it does not undermine the PCs. One needs to be OK with fourth wall breaking, though.

I very much agree about cut scenes that are way out of balance with what should be possible in game play, though. The scene you mention in ME2 with Jack is, as you say, a good example of the portrayed abilities being out of line with the actual in-game abilities.
 
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Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I'm probably one of the rare people to answer "More than once per session." but only because its a big grey area.
Agreed. I marked myself as rare, but I had a hard time deciding how I should rate myself. I tend to be a bit more directive to keep the pace going, although it may sacrifice some player autonomy in the process.

Player autonomy is good but there are times when allowing too much of it can be a fast road to boredom. Some players, for instance, seem to be unable to resist going off on their lone agenda that does not involve the rest of the party, whatever that is, and need to be pulled back. Others seem to have an uncanny ability to misunderstand what's going on. Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, but most meta-gaming needs to be curb-stomped.

I frequently control the characters to speed the game along and keep a pace. If an adventure says that halfway up the road to the haunted castle the players can find an abandoned shack and get a rope and 2 healing potions if they check it out without there being a monster, trap, or other entanglement I just narrate that to them and give them the items. I don't pause and go to realtime while the players super paranoidly explore the shack and take up 45 minutes of real time for the equivalent of an RPG jump-scare.
Agreed, exploring everything can get really, really tedious. I think some players tend to assume that everything the DM presents must somehow be relevant and others use it as an opportunity(?) to exercise/indulge in rampant paranoia.

Similarly I try to speed up when the party splits and goes their separate ways to interview 3 NPCs and go shopping and visit the pub. I'd rather say "After a half hour of talking to the priest of Torm you are sure he doesn't know anything useful about the vampires." than play out a 20 minute real time conversation that gives the players nothing.
That's another good example of a way to cut to something more consequential. Some players are much better at avoiding the kind of time sinks than others, so they don't need it, but there are players who just seem to fall into every time sink imaginable, be it checking for every possible trap or talking to every possible NPC.

Lastly, I like the concept of starting some stories In Media Res where the players start in a pickle. A lot of the old D6 Star Wars adventures were written this way as an homage to how Star Wars begins. It can be great at starting off with a good pace and I do use it sometimes for other games. Whenever I do so I always reassure the players that "if you start captured and without weapons you will eventually get your stuff back" even though i'm pretty sure they trust me enough that they aren't going to wonder about it.
Yes, this is a good use of the kind of narrative technique and can open up things in a useful way. I've used "In Media Res" quite a bit as it can be very effective to bring the group of characters together right away. It's pretty much the only way to run a capture story, for instance, because in my experience PCs pretty much never, ever surrender, so I'd want to start things off with that out of the way.
 
IME ive only ever done this when someone was metagaming. Which happens so rarely i cant even put a reliable 1/x (where x is number of game sessions) on it. I tell all players who've never played under or with me or dm'd for me before at the beginning of when any of those 3 happen for the first time that if i ever find out they metagame on purpose they will never sit at a table with me again. Its one of the few things i give no second chances on. The moment i identify a metagamer that i believe knows what they are doing (and due to the previously described context assuredly knows its not tolerated) i eject them from the group with no chance of return. It has worked excellently for me as i have had few such players ever pop into existance and getting rid of them quickly has prevented the rot from ever taking root in any of our tables. Scorched earth policy on that one has resulted in a very happy unblemished circle of rp'ing friends. I just dont give it a chance and voila! Prevention is the best protection. The rare instances i have done the thing the OP describes of course only apply to the accidental metagaming that is somewhat inevitavly going to happen occasionally. Everybody makes mistakes. Its only when its intentional or repetitiously negligent at least that it becomes a completely hateable and preventable blight.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
The scene in that Far Cry review sounds like a bit that annoyed me in the Fallout 3 DLC "The Pitt", where the main character, who by this time is basically an invincible god of battle, somehow gets knocked out in a cutscene by an unnamed mook with a truncheon who doesn't even take him by surprise
The end of Fallout 3 was like that too. My PC had gotten to 100% Rad Resistance between items and perks. He could literally not care about rads! Yet, evidently, not so.
 

Tonguez

Adventurer
I'll say "do you really think X is a good idea?" or "may be you could..." or for the wayward player "yeah, you go do that - now what are the rest of us doing?" but never outright usurp control of the PC
 

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