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
    107
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

Planewalker777

Villager
Challenging the player's decisions based upon what has occurred in the past or what seem to be logical is part of my job as GM: "Your fighter would not casually accept a touch heal from some unseen person from that direction; yes, it is an invisible ally, but you never knew she could turn invisible or that it is a heal being bestowed. Tell me why you would not strike at this sudden attack!"
Discuss, as a GM, do not dictate! Ultimately, I have everyone else in the world at my disposal, I do not need to destroy the player "agency" unless it actually hurts gameplay.
My even worst issue here is when miscommunication allows me, as a player usually, to do something that I would not have done if the situation had been properly presented. In this case, I wish the GM had actually said: "You would not do that, let me redescribe this."
As for "Cut Scenes", I never use them if player characters are involved, except to quickly resolve boring stuff in the way the players desire. That's GM metagaming!
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Not if the players/PCs have the option of igniring said BBEG. Most won't, of course, and once they're in a particular adventure the logical thing is to see it through; but to call this GM control over the PCs is stretching things more than a bit.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Not if the players/PCs have the option of igniring said BBEG. Most won't, of course, and once they're in a particular adventure the logical thing is to see it through; but to call this GM control over the PCs is stretching things more than a bit.
In a sense, everything that the DM does with the setting asserts some control over the PC's, in the sense that the DM is giving shape to what they choose. But I think the test as to whether this is a problem is can you do anything about it? And I think that the answer is, "No, not really." If I choose to use a reoccurring BBEG, then that sets up one sort of structure that the PC's are steered respond to. But it would be equally true if I had an episodic structure with a villain of the week, that that structure establishes a basic outline of play.

In my own case, in my recent campaign with a reoccurring BBEG, I have noticed how this framework sort of demands that the PC's not get too far off the beaten path compared to the more sand box play that I'd done before. However, it's not like I didn't put hooks out in the sandbox, and more to the point - in Session 0 the players asked for a linear AP so the complaint that a BBEG establishes a basic outline of play very much ignores the possibility that the player's decided on that outline of play in the first place.
 

pemerton

Legend
Not if the players/PCs have the option of igniring said BBEG. Most won't, of course, and once they're in a particular adventure the logical thing is to see it through; but to call this GM control over the PCs is stretching things more than a bit.
I'm not sure in what sense an ignored being, who therefore plays no antagonistic role in the events of play, is a BBEG. BBEG isn't a concept that belongs to a natural history or sociological taxonomy - it's a term that describes narrative structure and dynamcs.

There are other ways to establish antagonism in the context of RPGing. (And I'm not thinking of "villain of the week".)

The poster was explaining why he doesn't like BBEGs. Not why other people shouldn't.
And there's also this.
 

Don Durito

Explorer
I think a big part of what irritates me about the whole idea of 'BBEG' (apart from the jargon), is the fact that it often seems to be assumed to be a universal structure. All D&D games, it appears, in the mind of many, must have a BBEG.

Of course the fact that it's jargon just compounds this issue, because it's difficult to be certain about what in fact is being assumed to be universal.
 

pemerton

Legend
Are you guys STILL talking about BBEG's? What does that have anything to do with the topic of this 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.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I don't consider it taking control of their character when I have to tell them "Your character wouldn't do that" or "Your character wouldn't know that". These are two things that I frequently deal with or have to nudge a player about. So yeah it happens frequently with some gamers who can't appear to separate themselves from their characters.

I'm sort of confused that it's not a more common occurrence for those posting here and who voted. The large number of "never or nearly never" votes surprised me. I'll speculate that it's due to how they're reading the question. ((shrug))
There are two different things going on here.

In your first example, the DM has no right to tell me what my character would or would not do. That's 100% up to me. He can have opinions on it, but if he tries to stop me then he is in the wrong. For example, let's say that I'm playing a LG PC and have been steadily roleplaying him along that vein. One day we come into a town and hear a commotion coming from a large house. Inside we find several dead children and a man standing over them with a bloody blade. He sees us come in and throws down his weapon and surrenders. I announce to the DM that I draw my sword and hack him down. You might be tempted to tell me that, "Your character wouldn't do that." However, it's not up to you to decide that. It's up to me, who knows that my character has a soft spot for children undergoing hardship, to decide that my PC snapped and hacks him down in an uncontrolled rage. If a DM ever told me that "My character wouldn't do that, " I'd tell him to stuff it and walk out of the game.

In your second example, what a PC knows or doesn't know is primary the DM's decision. It's not playing the character to let the player know that his PC doesn't know something.
 
I only do it during a montage or maybe as a brief segue. Never does it interfere with the character's previous choices. It is always reactionary as well, meaning, after the player tells me their character wants to do something.
For example:
Player: "I am going to spend my two days off sitting around the tavern, listening for rumors, drinking, and reading the book we found in the tomb."
DM: "The next two days go by in a blur. At one point you overheard a patron you've never seen before rattling off to the barkeep about a shipwreck to the north. As you sat and read the book, you gained no new information. But you could tell the author was rushed. The only information that really stuck out was the coastline he described during the pirate scene. It was as if he had been their; detailed to the point of absurd. And the ale, well, it was delicious and paired nicely with your three meat pies and cheese board."

If the player wanted to pursue any of the information, I would then shift into rp mode.

I do have to admit, I am very shocked more DM's do not do this, especially when time is being considered.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
There are some things that I find objectionable to have a player character do no matter which side of the screen I am on because I find them morally reprehensible and I will establish firm boundaries on, but that discussion does not take the tenor of what your character would do. It's mostly that a game where a player character does those sorts of things is not something I want to run or play.

In all other cases I am a firm believer in what Apocalypse World calls Explain The Consequences And Ask. Basically when a player declares an action that might result in fictional consequences that the player might not be aware of, but their character definitely would I explain what might happen if they go through with it. I do so only as an advocate for the fiction. I am not trying to deter them from their declared action. I just want them to make it on an informed basis.

Count me as someone else who is not really a fan of villain and hero terminology. It's not my place as a GM to determine how the players choose to interact with any scene or scenario I have framed or to decide what their goals or motivations should be. I view the player characters as protagonists. It's my job to place adversity and antagonism between them and the things they want, but how they go about overcoming that is up to them.
 

pemerton

Legend
It's not my place as a GM to determine how the players choose to interact with any scene or scenario I have framed or to decide what their goals or motivations should be. I view the player characters as protagonists. It's my job to place adversity and antagonism between them and the things they want, but how they go about overcoming that is up to them.
This is one of the more exciting things as a GM - finding out how the players will respond to the characters whose interests they collide with.

I've had PCs ally with Vecna. And with Kas. Make bargains with demons. Ally with a banished god. In our last session (a week ago) one of the players was updating another who had missed a session or two, explaining how his PC was now married to the noble lady who (the PCs had discovered in a previous session) had bricked up her brother in a ruined hunting lodge, so that she could succeed her father as (somewhat brutal) ruler of their Duchy.

It's all good stuff!
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
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.
Compulsions need to be used very sparingly in my experience, just like capture scenarios or other similar things that involve violations of player autonomy.

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.
I've heard DMs say "there was a lot there but you guys just didn't explore it". However, that relies on the shared understanding that heavy and thorough exploration is expected and necessary so I think it violates their trust, just as you say, but kind of sneakily.
 

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