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?


  • Total voters
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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

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
1) It's unneccessary jargon. Why use jargon when "villain" means the same thing.
2) It encodes and assumes a particular structure.
Well, I don't think that villain means the exact same thing. A Big Bad (or BBEG) is a villain, but a villain isn't necessarily a Big Bad.

I do think that your second point is accurate; in fact, that's the whole point of the origin of the meta-reference; the idea that each season of Buffy had its own "Big Bad" at the end of the season.

I think that the idea of a Big Bad (the concept of one over-arching villain that is part of a larger plot, or narrative, or series of adventures) is helpful; I do think that the term gets watered down a lot through misuse, e.g., "Yeah, we killed five kobolds, but the kobold chieftan was a tough BBEG ..."
 
Well, I don't think that villain means the exact same thing. A Big Bad (or BBEG) is a villain, but a villain isn't necessarily a Big Bad.

I do think that your second point is accurate; in fact, that's the whole point of the origin of the meta-reference; the idea that each season of Buffy had its own "Big Bad" at the end of the season.

I think that the idea of a Big Bad (the concept of one over-arching villain that is part of a larger plot, or narrative, or series of adventures) is helpful; I do think that the term gets watered down a lot through misuse, e.g., "Yeah, we killed five kobolds, but the kobold chieftan was a tough BBEG ..."
I use permutations involving "g" and "v" like EG and BBEG, V, RV, and ApRV to refer to npcs respectively to differentiate refer to things when talking from a fight or plot perspective respectively where g's are for fight and v's are for plot. So BBEGApRV is "big bad evil guy who is an apex recurring villain".

This two part system has really helped organize stuff for me. I dont recommend most use it. Too many letters. If you are fine with a ton of acronyms then fine. I find a lot of dms make do with just writing out and shortly describing "villain" though.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
1) It's unneccessary jargon. Why use jargon when "villain" means the same thing.
Problem is, "villain" can more or less refer to any halfway-intelligent opponent. BBEG specifically refers to the "boss" of the opponents - the one individual around whom everything they're doing runs.
2) It encodes and assumes a particular structure.
If by this you mean it encodes the structure of the party's foes in a given scenario having a leader or boss or key individual (or even key group of individuals - 'BBEG' can refer to a star chamber or cabal or similar as well), you're right. Rare, however, is the situation where this is not the case.

EDIT to acknowledge lowkey13's ninja skills. :)
 

Don Durito

Explorer
Problem is, "villain" can more or less refer to any halfway-intelligent opponent. BBEG specifically refers to the "boss" of the opponents - the one individual around whom everything they're doing runs.
This is why it's better. The things that need further definition get further definition.

If by this you mean it encodes the structure of the party's foes in a given scenario having a leader or boss or key individual (or even key group of individuals - 'BBEG' can refer to a star chamber or cabal or similar as well), you're right. Rare, however, is the situation where this is not the case.

EDIT to acknowledge lowkey13's ninja skills. :)
This is the assumption that is the problem. And I've certainly never understood it to refer to a group - so that's another tick against using jargon. It creates the appearance of understanding rather than the reality.

(And if the BBEG actually refers to a group of people then it shouldn't be given the definite article)
 

Celebrim

Legend
1) It's unneccessary jargon. Why use jargon when "villain" means the same thing.
2) It encodes and assumes a particular structure.
Well, the "BBEG" is a particular sort of villain. Unlike in fiction, gamers rarely find themselves confined to a particular villain, but instead face off against many villains. If you are not familiar with Rich Burlew's "The Order of the Stick", then you should reserve a few hours and acquaint yourself. It's quite good and surprisingly deep and thoughtful.

That done, there are many many villains in 'The Order of the Stick', but there is only one BBEG. Nale is a villain, but he's not the BBEG. Tsukiko is a villain, but she's not the BBEG. Tarquin is someone's BBEG in someone else's story, but he's not the BBEG of the party. Even Hel the death goddess isn't the BBEG of the story, despite being nominally the most powerful antagonist the party has faced off against. It's been safe to assume through most of the story that Xykon is the BBEG, but lately I'm wondering.

The campaign in "The Order of the Stick" has had a complex and evolving story, but Xykon has been for the longest time the driving force behind the party's motivation. It's Xykon's plot that brings the party together and which drives most of the action by Team Good. Along the way there are many side plots and side quests, but ultimately it's all about getting back to that confrontation with Xykon.

Is this the only way to construct a table top RPG campaign? No, of course not. But it is by no means a bad one. If a campaign has a structure at all, it's likely to have one or more BBEGs. For my campaign, the BBEG has been "Archmage Keeropus", and along the way there have been a huge number of other villains.

Even if you have a more sand boxy episodic structure, you are likely to end up having BBEGs. If you look at most classic D&D adventure modules, they have a BBEG in them somewhere: Acererak the Eternal, Lareth the Beautiful, Zuggtmoy, Lloth, Strahd, etc. If you have an adventure of the weak, it's likely to have a villain of the weak, and if that villain has a cunning plan, and is behind the event that is driving the player actions, then he's not just a villain but the BBEG.

Note that B2 doesn't have a BBEG, but it might be a better module if it did. Instead, it just has a bunch of mini-bosses with no clear overarching structure. As such, it has no narrative, just tactics.
 

Don Durito

Explorer
I don't know why everyone thinks this is something I want to derail the thread by arguing about. I mean obviously if I cared to I would have actually put forward my position in detail - but that's at the very least another thread - or more likely a blog post (the best place to question things that have become orthodoxy).

All I'll say is the fact that people think they need to explain to me what a BBEG is - is a good reason to use natural language. Especially when those understandings contradict other usages of the term that I have seen. (And I've been given three different explanations in the same thread.)

Again, jargon tends to create the illusion of shared understanding rather than the actuality.
 
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TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
In my game I'd never force you to sit through a cut scene with the villain monologuing.

But don't be surprised to find that INT 20+ super villains only start monologues or otherwise initiate conflict when they feel they are well prepared and secure from 'surprise' attack. They aren't going to assume that you are going to sit there and listen to them talk either.
This (and other posts in this thread) made me think of Ozymandius from the Watchmen.

"I did it thirty-five minutes ago."

 

Hussar

Legend
Ok fair enough. But those are plural terms. The problem is the lack of a way to communicate plurality.
Sorry, the English teacher in me won't shut up.

No, those are not plural terms. They are uncountable nouns - there is no mafias or illumianatis. It's just an uncountable noun. And, since these are titles of groups, they must have a definite article in English. Same as The United Nations. Singular or plural has nothing to do with using a definite article in English.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
If I encounter a situation where I think the player is “off base”, I generally don’t TELL them they’re doing it wrong, I ask why the PC would choose that course of action.

If it’s a case of violating an oath or something equally serious- something that could deeply change the PC or campaign- I point out the probable consequences of acting as initially described.

So far, I’ve only seen one player barge ahead through such a warning, but I wasn’t the DM, I was another player. Despite DM’s cautions, the player pursued a course of action that resulted in the PC getting exiled, which ultimately derailed the campaign.
 

Don Durito

Explorer
Sorry, the English teacher in me won't shut up.

No, those are not plural terms. They are uncountable nouns - there is no mafias or illumianatis. It's just an uncountable noun. And, since these are titles of groups, they must have a definite article in English. Same as The United Nations. Singular or plural has nothing to do with using a definite article in English.
Yes. I know all this. I didn’t think it merited the level of thought it was have taken me to notice my lack of technical precision.

In fact reading back I thought I’d edited that post to change plural to “collective”.
 
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I have never told a player that his character wouldn't do something, not once in 41 years of gaming. Although I may ask them if they're sure about their actions.

If anyone ever did that to me, I would leave the game at that moment and not return.

As a player, no one gets to control my character but me, unless some sort of compulsion is in effect. That's why I would never do this to a player in my game.

When it comes to the scouting and narrating examples listed above, I ask the table if they want to play out an hour or so of exploration, or if they want me to narrate it. My players trust that I won't abuse the opportunity by putting their characters in terrible situations, or causing them to miss important stuff.
 

pemerton

Legend
I don't know why everyone thinks this is something I want to derail the thread by arguing about. I mean obviously if I cared to I would have actually put forward my position in detail - but that's at the very least another thread - or more likely a blog post (the best place to question things that have become orthodoxy).
I'll explain why I don't like the notion, in RPGing, of the BBEG. Which is relevant to the thread.

If the GM establishes a BBEG, then s/he is deciding who it is the PCs will confront in the context of play. In many contexts - eg modules that I've read - this establishes the basic outline of play from the get-go. Which is certainly a form of GM control over the player characters.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
I never tell my players what their character does, that is their territory. I will however tell my players what feelings or suspicions their character might have. But what they do with that information is up to them.

If one of my players is about to do something really stupid, and I feel that this decision is based on a misconception or misreading of the situation, then I will clarify. But I would never block my players from taking an action, or force their character to take an action that they didn't agree on.
 

Celebrim

Legend
In my experience they’re frequently used interchangeably.
Possibly. And the BBEG is often also the boss monster as well, so sometimes using the term interchangeably is fine.

The truth is though most of us happy to use the term are happy with how the other people using the term in the thread are using it. The agreement we have over what the term means is much larger than the differences we may or may not have in our understanding of it.

More to the point, pretty much all of your complaints could be made against the term "villain" as well. The only stories where the term "villain" is unambiguous are stories that have a particular implied structure. In the more complex universe of stories, the term villain becomes ambiguous enough that different consumers of the story will disagree over whether the story has a villain or who the villain is.

Take a story like "Whale Rider". Is the Grandfather Koro the villain of the story? Well on one level maybe, in that Koro's decisions are in many ways driving the conflict in the story, and in particular the story is largely about the conflict between Koro and Paikea. But how do you reconcile a claim that he is with the protagonists great respect and affection for him? In fact, the protagonist is trying very hard to be more like Koro. This defies easy characterization. So is the villain here the son who has abandoned Paikea and the rest of his responsibilities and is spending his life in selfish self-expression? Is the villain the members of the tribe that are engaged in drug use and indolent behavior? Or is the villain a system that both Koro and Paikea are in their own way fighting against, and if that is the case what does it mean to call something that isn't tangible much less personified a "villain".

When you start looking at the universe of story villains, you start realizing that "villain" is an inadequate word and that you need more language to describe all the different types of bad guys, antagonists, and villains that can populate a story. Yes, it is true that these terms will imply a certain story structure, because a villain drives the conflict and thus the story. But the fact that we can label the sorts of villains that appear in different story structures doesn't negate the utility of those terms.
 
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