Ask Angry: Stealing Agency

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Captain Foxbutt asks:

When can/should you take control away from a player?

Again with the wacky names. I mean, do you seriously expect me to believe your name is Foxbutt? And that you’re an officer in some military, peacekeeping, or other government organization? Why the f$%& can’t people just use their actual names?! Why do you always insist on making type out this ludicrous bulls$%&?! And then you want me to take your question seriously?!

Well, fine. But only because your question is short. Though the answer is complicated. Because, honestly, this is one of those things that has no good, universal answer. Though there are some GMs out there who will say “never; you never take control away from a player.” Those GMs are dumba$&es. Never, ever trust any GM who puts the word “always” or “never” in any of their advice. Never. Good advice never has the word never in it. It is always too complicated for an absolute. Always.

First of all, we’re talking about agency here. Agency is the word we use to describe the fact that players have control over the decisions their characters make. And because role-playing games are, at their core, all about choice, it might seem like agency is super important. And honestly, it is. A sense of agency IS important. Players generally need to feel as if their character’s choices are firmly in their hands and no one else’s.

But, the thing is, agency is kind of a tricky kettle of fish. Or whatever analogy makes sense. The truth is, there are all sorts of limitations on agency. In most of my campaigns, for example, I place restrictions on certain types of characters and behaviors. One example is that I don’t allow evil characters in my game. When you get down to it, that’s a pretty hefty limitation on player agency. And, when you get right down to it, most games involve an unspoken agreement that there are constraints on player agency. If I’m running a game in which the players have to destroy the evil ring before the big bad can use it to take over the world, and we all agree ahead of time to play that game, the players really can’t later choose to abandon the quest and become pirates later on. That’d wreck the game. And most players just understand that. Then, too, most players understand that there is an assumption the players are working together and that the group won’t break up during the game. The PCs are basically stuck working together. And then, too, most GMs try to limit the amount of backstabbing, intraparty theft, and other such dickery to avoid the group devolving into a PC on PC last-character-standing bloodbath.

So, there’s already a precedent for constraints on player agency. And almost all of those constraints exist to make the game work and ensure everyone is having a good, fun play experience. And that’s fine. We accept those as necessary for the good of the game.

But, I suspect those aren’t the sorts of things you’re talking about, Lieutenant Wolfrump. Because those things aren’t really about taking control away from the players. Not completely. Those place constraints on the decisions a player can make, but ultimately, the player is still free to make the actual decisions. You aren’t answering for the player, you’re just removing certain answers from the multiple choice test. And there’s a “good of the game” motive behind that that all players agree to. It’s no different from a baseball team agreeing to actually play by the rules of baseball.

But there ARE times when a GM can end up in the situation in which they are making choices FOR the character. That is to say, the character is presented with a choice of how to act and the GM tells the player they must act a certain way.

Probably, one of the things you’re thinking of, Rear Admiral Coyotetail, is mind control. There’s all sorts of magical and supernatural and drug induced effects in RPGs that can literally take direct control of a character. Vampires can force characters to bend to their will. Brainwashing and hypnosis might have the same effect. Or the Force. Whatever. In those instances, you, as the GM, are taking control of the character.

Except, you aren’t.

See, that’s the thing. In those situations, the GM isn’t technically taking control of the character. Instead, there is an external factor WITHIN THE GAME that is somehow forcing the character to act AGAINST THEIR WILL. Notice the two key points. First, the external factor is within the game world. It isn’t the GM taking control of the character away from the player. It is a character in the game taking control of the character away from the character itself. And the character retains their will. What they have lost is the ability to act according to their will.

Now, that might sound like a semantic technicality, but it’s actually remarkably important because it respects the sovereignty of the player over their character. The player still represents the will of the character. It’s just the character’s own will has been subverted, not the player’s control over the character’s will.

That’s actually remarkably different from the GM saying “well, your character, as a lawful-good paladin, must make this choice.” Which is another way, Commander Dingodingus, that you might be referring to a loss of control. There are occasions when a GM will interject because they feel the player is somehow making a choice that the character shouldn’t make. Usually, it comes down a veto (“a paladin would never stab an ally in the back”), but it can come down to a firm statement of a course of action that must be taken (“a paladin must obey the orders of their superior”). And, regardless of how good or bad the reason, in those cases, the GM IS subverting the player’s control over the character’s will.

And, honestly, it’s rarely necessary for the GM to take such a strong tack. GMs are usually better off informing the player of whatever it is they are overlooking in the choice they are making and then warning the player that the character will suffer consequences if such a choice is made. “A paladin who stabs an ally in the back might offend their god and lose their divine powers” or “a paladin who refuses to follow orders might be reprimanded or even excommunicated and branded a fugitive.” The difference there is that, ultimately, the player still gets to make the choice. They just have to decide if their character would risk the consequences.

In extreme cases, the choice the player is trying to make might be a violation of one of those “good of the game” type constraints. And, in that case, the GM has to inform the player that the choice is one that would be detrimental to the game and is something that everyone has tacitly agreed on (“that would be considered an evil act, and because you aren’t allowed to play an evil character, if you make that choice, you’ll have to retire the character.”

Apart from good of the game constraints, the character being forced to act against their will, and the player making a poor choice, another way in which a GM might take control away from a player, Right Honorable Major-General Dog-A%&. And that comes up when a character isn’t robbed of their agency, but they are robbed of their memory. I know this is a weird one, but it does come up. Lots of GMs eventually run a game with the premise that the PCs were involved in an event they don’t remember and have to piece together what happened. The sort of “Dude, Where’s My Longsword” scenario. This can happen for lots of reasons. I once ran a game ripped off of based on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the PCs had to solve a problem and then had to have their memories erased to prevent the problem from resurfacing. The adventure began with weird déjà vu and the consequences of the events biting the amnesiac players in the a%&. And that required me to ultimately decide a few things about what the PCs would have done. Not to mention deciding the PCs would willingly have had their minds wiped. And then, of course, there’s the adventure where the PCs wake up after apparently having been drugged or poisoned and finding themselves accused of a crime they don’t remember committing. Adventures involving loss of memory, weird time travel, drugs or poison, or even simple flash-backs and flash-forwards can involve assumptions about how the characters acted “off camera.”

Off camera actions can also combine with loss of agency. We all know that lycanthropes, victims of possession, victims of certain mental disorders, and victims of certain types of brainwashing will commit acts against their will and then forget them. Who HASN’T dealt with lycanthropy in the party by having the victim wake up in the woods, covered in blood, and apparently, the perpetrator of a grisly murder. For real fun, by the way, follow the adventure that involves defeating lycanthropes with the “framed for a crime and drugged into amnesia” adventure to really f$&% with your players.

And finally, there USED TO BE an odd sort of mind screw that occurred in D&D every now and then. In early editions of D&D, traps and magical effects could actually change the will and personality of the PC. Alignment reversal – turning a good character evil or vice versa – was just something that could happen. Traps and magical curses could change your personality. Magical artifacts could twist and corrupt you. And so on. Games that have corruption or sanity mechanics can also include effects that change the mind of the character. These sorts of effects subverted the player’s control by forcing them to make decisions for a completely different character. In essence, the player’s ability to choose their character’s will was ruined by the character’s will actually changing. While that might seem similar to the idea of an external control factor, they do feel subtly different. In effect, they involve you rewriting the character for the player.

So when are these things okay? The answer is: it depends. Some players tolerate no loss of agency at all. They won’t even deal with the lycanthrope or vampire domination thing well. To those players, loss of control ruins the character. The worst of these players won’t even bow to constraints that keep the game running. And, frankly, those players often find themselves looking for a new game. There is something sacred and sovereign about control of a character. I’ve seen players who end up suffering from lycanthropy and feel that the character is “ruined,” even if the curse can be lifted. They don’t want to deal with the knowledge that their character ate a child or whatever.

And there’s nothing wrong with those players, except the ones willing to wreck the game just to preserve their own sense of free will. In the end, part of the promise of an RPG is that your character is your sovereign domain. Only you can choose their actions.

But most players are a bit more accepting and understanding. The good-of-the-game type stuff is part of the social contract and usually won’t cause too much heartache. And most players can deal with the loss of control due to an in-game external factor with the understanding that their character’s own will is what is being subverted, not the player’s control. But, if you want to make that stuff as palatable as possible, there’s a few caveats to keep in mind.

First of all, if you can avoid taking control away from the player, do that. Or, at least allow them to remain in limited control. For example, when they are dominated by the vampire or possessed by the magical item, pull them aside and explain the situation. And then let them decide how best to act in accordance with their orders. In that case, even though the character’s will is subverted, the player still maintains sovereign control. And, honestly, some players can be creative and devious when you tell them they are magically compelled to do something terrible. They will exploit their strengths and their allies weaknesses in ways most GMs can’t even imagine. I’ve seen it. It’s pretty awesome. Especially watching the player try to apologize later with a twisted version of the Nuremburg defense (“I’m sorry, the vampire cast domination on me and the GM said I had to follow orders”).

Second of all, if you’re really concerned that a particular player won’t handle the situation well, ask permission first. And if they won’t give permission, don’t take their control. Ask them if it’s okay for them to suffer the effects of the lycanthropy they’ve contracted. Now, personally, I don’t usually do that if it’s going to ruin a surprise. But I also don’t play with loss of control unless I know the players well enough to guess who can handle it and who can’t.

Third of all, be extremely careful about the consequences of actions that the character commits outside of their own control. For example, if you tell a player that their character no longer has paladin powers because of their actions under the curse of lycanthropy, that player is going to be (rightly) pissed off at you. Honestly, that’s robbery. You stole the character’s class. Dick move. Sorry.

But beyond that sort of thing, remember that the player will have to live with the actions their character took. And some players can have trouble dealing with stuff like that. Some players might enjoy the role-playing opportunities inherent in being forced to commit crimes against their will and trying to make people understand. Other players might feel that their character is unplayable, ruined by being forced to eat babies by a failed Will save.

It’s a complicated dichotomy, but there IS a difference between the player being punished and the character being punished. Characters having to deal with the consequences of actions they take partly or completely against their own will, that can be a cool bit of story. But if the player doesn’t find those consequences interesting, engaging, or exciting as an opportunity to explore the character, the player is going to feel screwed over. Again, different players will handle it differently.

Fourth of all, understand that different types of loss of control feel different. Losing control for a few rounds of combat and being forced to attack your friends? That’s pretty minor. That’s why there are more than a few spells like Dominate and Fear and Confusion that can rob a player of their agency for a round or two. Most players don’t even sniff at that crap. But once it goes beyond “all is fair in the heat of battle,” things rapidly grow in importance.

If you were to try to create a scale of the “severity” of loss of agency, those combat things are the smallest. The most minor. And then you have the one-time scene that drives the plot. That’s where your “drugged into amnesia and framed” or “memory wiped to preserve a secret mission that then goes wrong” or even “Total Recall” type adventures. Players accept those as plot devices because the consequences tend to be limited to a single adventure which hinges around the off-camera event. Constraints for the good of the game are more severe. They are necessary, but they do remind the players that they don’t really have complete freedom over their character. Beyond that are the events that the character is going to remember, the ones that leave feelings of guilt even though they aren’t the character’s fault. That’s where your lycanthropy and long-term possession and betrayal through brainwashing all fit. Basically, if the character would ever have to beg forgiveness and convince people that he wasn’t in his right mind, that’s a pretty severe loss of agency. And after that, you have the overwritten personality effects.

Essentially, the more severe the loss of agency, the more you need to do to mitigate it. And the more likely any player is to feel screwed. At the high end, ask permission and give the player as much freedom as possible. At the low end, don’t sweat it too much.

Fifth of all, remember that subverting agency is f$&%ing with the very core of the game. ALWAYS have a good reason. And the more severe the subversion, the better the reason needs to be. You can tell some GREAT stories with lost agency, but you can also end up wrecking your relationship with your players. So, you’d better be sure your reasons are worth the risk.

Anyway, Lord Commissar Hyenatuchis, in the end, you have to use your own best judgement.

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40 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Stealing Agency

  1. A couple examples:

    Last week, the party accidentally summoned a Cambion by touching an enchanted gem sitting in the middle of a pentagram. The “young” Cambion wasn’t pleased about being ripped from his home and brought to the material world, but being inside the pentagram, he was somewhat limited. He used is fiendish charm ability (by the book) and told the bard in the party to “Play me some music!”

    That character complied, having missed their Wisdom save by 1. She pulled out her pipes and started playing.

    A couple minutes later, after a couple gargoyles freed the Cambion from his trap, they attacked the party, but were careful to leave the bard alone. An NPC in the party (a young bronze dragon, of all things) breathed on the bard at 1/10th power (GM fiat, there), did 5 points of damage which allowed her to re-try her Wisdom save. This time she made it and was able to participate in the battle.

    The player was cool with the enchantment and had some fun with it. From the perspective of the battle, I had geared the difficulty low enough that losing one character wouldn’t be an issue.

    Later, in the same session, that same character (random roll, honest!) was hit and entrapped by a darkmantle. The player checked the rules to see how long his bard would survive being unable to breath, and read the restrictions described in the Monster Manual. She was still able to cast spells! So while her options were limited here, she wasn’t completely out of the game our out of control.

    The one place you didn’t mention, Angry, is one that really can’t be helped. Incapacitation. In my games, we use the “Shroedinger’s PC” Death Watch rule, which gives the player a little bit of choice during this time, but basically, they are out of play until the healer gets to them and does their thing. As a player, I often find this to be very frustrating, but it’s a situation that is part of the risk of playing.

    • Yeah, the only problem I tend to have is those really sucky moments of “Well, skip my turn, cuz I can’t do anything anyway”. The few times we’ve done something to this effect, everyone was on board with what was happening. But, naturally, when someone actually was getting controlled, and then having a hard time making their rolls (just bad luck that night), they unfortunately have to just “be” there at the table.

      I like the idea of allowing the player to play bad guy, though. “Yeah, succubus said go kill your teammates. You oughta go kill your team mates now,” would actually fly really well with most of my players, I think.

      • That happened to me once. My character touched a cursed sword, missed all the relevant saving rolls, and immediately skewered another PC. What made it worse was that other PC’s player wasn’t there that day.

        Talk about a loss of agency! “Oh, by the way, your character was killed last week by one of the other PC’s.”

        It is for this reason that if a player can’t make it to a session, that character doesn’t participate. Period. Also, for this reason, I won’t force a PC to attack another through enchantment, charm, or whatever. I have a house rule that says there will be no exp rewards for PvP.

        Now, if an NPC party member stabs someone in the back… FAIR GAME!

        • I had a player who would often not show up and would be like, “No, no, it’s fine. Just play for me.” To which–though we’d never had a situation on the level you stated above–I wanted nothing to deal with that. I’m not gonna play someone else’s character WHILE I GM, let alone make decisions for them as another player.

          My own players have told me horror stories about before I GMed from them. One instance: a GM basically said the “whole party” was always present, whether you showed up or not. Someone would go on vacation to see family or something and come back and have no gold, because their character was nice enough to divi it out to the few people irresponsible enough to take it. ANd the GM was totally okay with it. Not on my watch.

    • This seems like way too much of a “Rules as Written” reading of the situation for my taste… I guess you checked the rules for suffocation to determine how long a person has time. While you have not run out of breath, these assume you keep your mouth shut to conserve air. It’s not written, but I think we can assume that keeping air inside the body is vital, even if they word it as “holding your breath” and running out of breath.” So, talking is out of the question (and hence mumbling of mystic syllables) – unless you want to automatically go from stage 1 (holding your breath) to stage 2 (suffocation). That would be my ruling. And when you have run out of air, you have no air to speak with. That’s what suffocation is, isn’t it? In that situation I would assume that all spells that have verbal components can’t be cast. No moving your hands => no somatic component. No air => no verbal component.

      • Right, but what game is he playing? What spell uses only hands or only verbal components? Sometimes RaW is helpful in making that choice, because it’s the first time that choice has ever been made. The player had an idea, flipped open the rule book, said “I think i can do this. DM, can I do this?” and they went from there with no problems.

        • That is pretty much how it went. The darkmantles are relatively weak. Three of them against a party of five 5th level characters. Their imposed darkness make things a little difficult, but they (the party) have control of a Shield Guardian that has blindsight. Basically, the character controlling it said, “Go kill the monsters.” and one-by-one, he did just that. The entrapped character was only stuck for 3 rounds. The rules give 3 minutes, or 30 rounds, so I didn’t think there was a real issue.

  2. I run Stars Without Numbers where the game designer purposefully did not include any mind control effects in the game. Still there was an incident where player agency came up once where a player was insisting that an NPC had no reason to prepare for their sudden yet inevitable betrayal. I hadn’t even wanted to deal with this crap and the scene was turning into a trainwreck. So I just gave up and told the player the session was over and next session was going to be skipping ahead in time.

    For my sessions I have a movie or tv poster to name every episode and for the next episode I did “the Hangover”. The player characters woke two days later with hazy memories and were free to assume whatever they want happened. I have no canon version of the events. I just made it clear that the issue was resolved and then presented them with shiny new plothooks. For the problem player it was obviously a big loss of agency, he was really invested in influencing the outcome of that encounter I took away from him. I think the other players were just as glad as I was to let the past stay in Vegas.

    Suspending player agency sort of acted like duct tape for the campaign. You dont make your plans with duct tape as a key structural component. If you end up using too much duct tape, that’s probably a bad sign. But if you do find yourself with a problem you can just reach for the duct tape to keep everything from falling apart.

    • Sometimes it’s better to just burn that player slightly with one instance and move on. Those wounds will heal, even if gradually. For the sake of the game, and the players overall, it had to be done.

  3. Another facet of off-screen actions that I use a lot are handwaved actions.

    Instead of asking the players to sign off on every little thing, or worse just assuming they do actually nothing when offscreen, I say “Off-Screen Characters Are Competent, But Not Brilliant”.

    I basically do a quick run through my head how the PCs might act if they had zero creativity, and just assume they did that. If the players declare an action, it can override the offscreen assumptions with good ideas, though.

    That way, when I say, “The guy from your evil organization who spies and gathers information about the town says that a group from The Knights of Slaying-Evil-Shit is en route. What are your orders?” I don’t need them to have told me prior that they want such a guy. Of course they have such a guy, the Oracle is way too paranoid to not, and it’s kind of implied that evil organizations gather info.

    It’s a hard line to walk though, since you’re totally just assuming direct control of the PCs and hoping that they won’t consider the action important enough to care.

    Which is why I like my “Competent But Not Brilliant” rule. I don’t give them the answers or play the game for them, but neither do they ever feel like I cheated them out of something just because they didn’t want to bother with busywork.

    (And that’s why it’s nice to get Angry advice on the topic. Cheers Angry!)

    • The upcoming MERCS system has a VERY handwavy ‘montage’ system for just this circumstance. I believe it literally says ‘Players can screw up even the simplest task. Don’t give them the chance to do that before the game even starts. Ask them what they want to accomplish, make a few rolls, and narrate their character doing cool things to get the info/tools/adventure precursors they want, or have them fail in non-destructive ways’

      I think the system bends a little more cinematic in that sense.

  4. Great article! I’d just like to add that there are some players who can’t even handle other people’s characters being temporarily mind-controlled during combat. My theory is that it is related to how competitive the player in question is, and how focused they are on “winning.” There isn’t anything inherently wrong with wanting to win, but it did lead one of my players to argue with another player over the decisions that player was making for their character while dominated. They were fighting a Mind Flayer (and I gave them a TON of warnings in advance of what to expect, even the players who had never played D&D before this campaign knew the score by the time they got there), who managed to dominate the druid. The player of the druid had no problem with this, she cheerfully turned around and tried to trample the monk while in Giant Elk form. The player of the monk though started arguing, trying to get the druid to use less effective attacks and not to take advantage of class/racial abilities while dominated. The druid managed to make the save the next round and they ended up winning, but I walked away with the strong impression that the monk’s player would have been really bitter (potentially to the point of no longer playing D&D) if they had lost the fight or his character had died as a result of the dominate spell.

  5. There was one campaign I wrecked to preserve my sense of free will, and it all revolved around a “Good of the Game” constraint gone horribly wrong.

    The main premise of the campaign was that Fate manipulated things towards a best outcome, including making sure certain people lived or died, and increasing people’s power if their paths aligned with Fate’s. Unfortunately, our PCs learned about this right after a necromantic follower of Fate persuaded us into obliterating an entire army and turning them into ghosts in his service (he did not mention how much damage it would cause nor the undead enslavement). Our newest PC (not mine) was literally raised from the dead after the slaughter and geased into helping us, much to our disgust.

    By itself, that would have been a harsh lesson we would have to learn and resolve to fix (or make up for) someday. However, the necromancer swore up and down that was just what Fate wanted to happen and it was the best path for the world… which gave my PC a severe case of PTSD and severe doubt as to how benevolent Fate actually was. (It didn’t help that none of the NPCs argued against it.)

    The problem was the GM’s adventure hinged on the party fighting on the side of Fate. He saw my PC’s doubts about Fate as a threat to the party’s cohesion. So he decided to correct them in any way possible. All of his NPCs talked about how sometimes innocent people had to die and accept their fates for the Greater Good. He inserted a GNPC into the party who talked about how it may be necessary for us “to become monsters” in Fate’s service and threatened to kill my PC and raise him as an undead slave if he abandoned his task. (He later threatened to kick my PC out of the party for “demoralizing the others”.) My PC’s suit of armor (inherited from his father) became an artifact powered by his devotion to Fate. It didn’t matter how compassionate or altruistic my PC was, the GM was only interested in whether he was following Fate’s will or not. On several occasions he nearly drove me away from what I WANTED TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE, simply because I began feeling like Fate was an asshole who wanted me to do assholish things.

    The final straw was when Fate asked my PC to accept his rival, who had murdered my PC’s father and slaughtered another PC’s village, as one of its new rulers (imbuing him with the power of a demigod in the process). Our NPC allies treated him with respect instead of contempt, even though he nearly destroyed Fate (changing his mind at the last moment only due to a moment of doubt and a bribe of power) and said he would do it all again because he felt it was “necessary”. The act of accepting him as my homeland’s new ruler basically meant abandoning most of my PC’s background, goals, and ideals. I walked out of the game instead & griped to the GM so much about it he abandoned the campaign completely.

    Post-campaign, he said we made a huge mistake and he actually wanted us to go against Fate and kill the guy; apparently he had sprinkled clues throughout the game that something was wrong with Fate that we never picked up on (presumably because we assumed Fate was his way of railroading us). Furthermore, he explained our role as Champions of Fate was actually to correct its mistakes (which he never told us) rather than mindlessly follow it (which all the NPCs told us to do). I was… rather pissed at the revelation.

    I’m still trying to sort out everything that happened for a personal postmortem of that campaign (it shook me pretty badly and nearly got me to quit RPing entirely), but I think it can boil down to:
    -Be clear about your expectations for the party
    -It’s harder for players to swallow forced ruthlessness than forced goodness
    -Heavy-handedly correcting “problems” can create worse problems than the initial one

    • Sounds as though your GM was just covering his sorry ass. Sorry, no other conclusion I can feasibly draw from that.

      Now, had you said he basically turned the NPC’s into caricatures and completely went over the top, whilst dropping SIGNIFICANT amounts of reasoning not to follow the herd, then I would have called it a ‘bad on players part’ kinda thing.

      But given your account of things, it truly does sound like your GM just ran things into the ground trying to scrape together his story from the bottom of a ‘Tales of …’ game.

      Not that I dislike the Tales of series, just drawing a comparison.

    • Well, it’s hard to say what your GM really wanted in this one… if he was truthful in the end. Though admittedly it does sound like he was looking for the breaking point of you guys to see when you would say “enough is enough”… I mean, if so many NPCs act as bullies, maybe that was a clear clue. Hard to say.

      In the end, the real and clear GM fail here seems to be lack of buy-in and not seeing that people do not enjoy the campaign. I had similar problems with a Call of Cthulhu campaign I wanted to play but the players had not really bought in. I found this out when things turned bad (as they should in CoC). In the end, a player left the game soon after. And lack of player enjoyment is a damn good reason to leave any game, so no complaints about that.

    • “(presumably because we assumed Fate was his way of railroading us)”

      This is something I’ve been noticing more and more lately, not just in games but in other mediums too. The amount of credit you give the creator of a story has a HUGE impact on how you receive the story. Both in tact and in attention to detail.

      For example, Danganronpa 2 is a visual novel mystery game I played recently that has a habit of making the most innocuous things into important clues. In chapter 1 I was dismissing things as oversights by the author, because “it’s just a game”. When it turned out that literally every single incongruity I had noticed ended up not only being canon, but important clues that could only stick out because of their slight incongruity, I was floored. It’s hard to describe, but the way minor things that you shrugged off earlier add up when it came time to accuse the murderer is actually extremely impressive. By chapter 3, I had a mantra that any time anything happened anywhere, it was a clue. And I was never disappointed, because once they had my trust that everything mattered, they were able to take it a step further. No spoilers.

      In essence, you didn’t give your GM as much credit as he needed to pull off his story. You assumed that incongruity was poor storytelling on his part, rather than a clue. And that’s his fault more than yours, because he needs to establish very early on what his ability is, because if you fail to realize that oddities are real story devices instead of lazy writing, the entire story falls apart. Some stories are more resilient against this than others, but his sounded downright dependent on it.

      • Yeah that can be especially vexing in RPGs where a GM is going to inevitably make mistakes from time to time and forget things. I once had my characters notice that an NPC was travelling around suspiciously quickly. This was intention on my part but they immediately decided that I must have made a mistake, leading me into a heavy handed “why yes, that is suspicious.”

        • Honestly, don’t bank on your players assuming everything is canon until you’ve demonstrated that fact. If things start happening that aren’t canon, especially because of mistakes on your part, then you really just have to give up on plots that rely on them picking up on small details like that. Either that or make the angles painfully (and I do mean unenjoyably) obvious.

          For your first campaign, just make things straightforward.

        • I don’t see any problem with… a frank discussion in pseudo character about whether things they notice are weird, mistakes, or commonplace in your world. It does take a willingness to say ‘yeah, I screwed up there, lets ignore that’

      • Danganronpa 2 did two important things there:
        -It immediately established it was a mystery game.
        -It showed you that such minor clues mattered in the first chapter.

        Neither of those happened in this campaign; we played it for 2 years without realizing it was supposed to be a mystery and that there were Incongruities in Fate. Even worse, since we were dealing with Fate and Long-Term Consequences, we were arguing whether every Morally Gray Situation was the Good Path or the Bad Path. It was a similar issue to “Would killing Hitler make a better future?” in time-travel campaigns, except we didn’t have the ability to leap to the future and see how things changed. In the end, we had to make decisions based solely on how cynical or idealistic we thought the GM was.

    • Great example, and I like your boiled down points too.

      In one game I played in, the party took on a delivery quest for a good wizard we had previously worked for. All we had to do was deliver a magical iron sphere to someone a couple towns away. Easy job. We arrive to the town to find that there are lots of bodies, some are failed assassins but many are townsfolk. We deliver the package and it turns into an iron golem bent on killing the recipient. After the fact, the DM was clear that his intention had been that the wizard would be a good guy, but he hadn’t foreseen a problem with that quest. At the time though, we were supposed to keep working for that wizard for the rest of the game or else his game would fall apart, so he heavy handed us into continued employment.

      Some DM’s just don’t understand what consistency means. Also, the game’s narrative should never rely on characters making a particular choice. The job of the DM is to present a situation, ask the players to make a choice, then describe an outcome. If the DM has already decided the outcome, what choice do the players have? You may as well cut out the middle man and just narrate the player action: “The blankety-blank asks you to accept him as your country’s new ruler, and you do so because you understand that Fate has decreed it.” You’re pretty much playing by yourself at that point. If you can ever look at a scene and sum it up with a dictation like that, something has gone wrong on the DM’s side of the screen. (One exception to this is how I often streamline the start of my adventures: “You’ve agreed to help the Duke by escorting his daughter to the neighboring kingdom where she will enter an arranged marriage with the Prince of WhoCares.” My caveat here is that I do not do this every time, and when I do I make sure the players agree before I do. The agency is therefore out of game, and the dictation becomes the recap of that choice.)

      • Well, technically the GM DID give us a choice. It’s just that he put “THIS IS THE BEST CHOICE” in neon letters above the path that involved my PC going against his personal goals and morals.

        I simply decided I didn’t want to play in a game that consistently put my PC through the wringer in the hopes it would “eventually pay off”.

  6. The one type of in-game loss of control I really hate is the type where you don’t get ongoing saves against it. The capstone adventure of season four in the Adventurer’s League, 4-14 The Dark Lord, had this; if you fail one Wisdom save against a particular enemy, who gets that effect as part of any of the three normal attacks on her turn, then you are slavishly devoted to her for 24 hours. No concentration required on the enemy’s part, and it isn’t listed as a spell which Dispel Magic can counteract, so your allies can’t help. The only way to get out of it early is to take damage or negative effects *from that same enemy*, which graciously permits you to make another saving throw.

    The finite horizon is critical. Otherwise, it’s an insulting save-or-die effect.

  7. When it comes to agency loss, I consider the character history. In my four year campaign I know my players. Both the wizard and the fighter were affected by lycanthropy. The party did not have Remove Curse and do to the luck of the dice it was indeed full moon.

    Now, the party missed a simple clue when trying to lock the affected PCs in the basement. It had earth walls, and once turned the two werewolves dug out. And the party did not follow them… lets just say a sufficiently impressive force of baddies was waiting outside just in case. So, they ran off, both of them, having been released by the machinations of Ravenloft’s own Strahd to wreak havoc. (After all, the werewolves were his favored pack.)

    Now, this played out very differently for the two PCs:

    The turned wizard is a notorious do-gooder. He is upright and heroic and tries to do the right thing. So I decided this gave him some inoculation against the curse and he ran and ran through the night, thoroughly exhausting himself. By doing so he prevented himself to act on his urges.

    The turned fighter, on the other hand, is the only evil character of the party. He is neutral evil and this is well-reflected in how the player handles him. He’s a bully, a coward, and a shameless opportunist. He’s hungry for adoration, power, and easy wins. So I decided to reward his years of selfishness in that he did not have this inoculation against the curse. He woke in the forest in the puddle of blood Angry mentioned, but his victim was not dead!

    Now, he tried to patch his victim together. But then another bad guy messed with him from the bushes, always out of sight. In chasing the bad guy he neglected his guard and the enemy tricked him and stole the body. He gave chase but his chances looked slim and I told him he was feeling extreme hunger pangs. No in-game effect, mind you, just a statement! He broke the chase off and foraged for food. He later found the dead remains in a tree.

    Now, he really has nobody but his own actions to blame. First the inadequate ones, and finally the selfish one. His actions are evil out of neglect and selfishness. And guess what? As a reward the neutral goddess of the cleric won’t touch him with a ten foot divine pole. No more healing, and no removing of the curse either. Now they’re chasing for another way to remove the curse from him – right into the dungeon with the most temptations in “Curse of Strahd”. Lets see how that goes!

  8. In my HM5 game, I’m currently in POSSESSION (hah) of a magic sword. So far, the GM’s only removal of agency has been the statement – “When you try to tell anyone else in the party that something is wrong, you mouth doesn’t move, no words come out. Sometimes when you want to stand up and walk around, or motion or gesture, your arms don’t move, and your body doesn’t respond.”

    In a way, it’s all the more sinister to be in mostly in control, only to have that snatched away in a moment, and not really understand why. So far the sword has not made it’s motives clear, it’s not even revealed to my character that it is intelligent.

  9. Honestly I needed this article, have for a while. Mostly for validation because I was kicked out of a group around a year ago for not accepting the DM taking away my character in a huge way.
    It’s almost exactly like the scenario Angry described of ‘stealing my class’. I was a paladin, had been roleplaying lawful-good all the way from level 1 all the way to level 9. I was very happy with my character, when we recieved an invitation from a vampire. THE vampire. Strahd.
    Strahd made it clear uf we didn’t show, we and our allies died painfully. So we go.
    Strahd takes issue with my holy symbol, tells me to cast it away. I refuse, duh. Clearly this is a test of faith, right? The DM doesn’t expect me to drop my faith to serve Strahd, right? Right???
    Strahd leads us into an unwinnable encounter, ties up my friends, and bites me. The DM has me rise as a half vampire. He hands me a few sheets of paper, I’m confused. He clears things up for me quickly.
    It’s my new class, blood knight. A nerfed Paladin reskin that requires me to drink human blood to live, with a rising chance each feeding of losing control and killing my donor.
    He had the sheet ready. He sent us to Barovia to take away my class. I was rather upset.
    He tells me if I want to run a new character I can. I decide I do, and tell him when I have a new character I’m excited about.
    He loses his shit, tells me that it was a test and he couldn’t believe I didn’t appreciate the time and effort that went into stealing my character class from me. I tell him that I shouldn’t have to be grateful that he took away everything I loved about my long-running character and he tells me in that case I’m no longer welcome at his table and kicks me out.

    I have my own group now, but that DM did give me two things that have stuck with me.
    1) A bottomless reservoir of motivation to be better than he is as a GM.
    2) A commitment to never EVER allow my vision of a character or story to become more important to me than my players experience at the table.

    So yeah, sorry for the long comment, but I think this article is what I needed to see. Thanks Angry!

    • That second rule has been a caveat of mine because of all the horror stories from the two (or more) previous DMs my group had. I’d never DMed before, and the last time I played with regularity was when i was 10 (with a very basic understanding of rules, settings, etc. via my dad).

      But I’ve always tried to make it a big deal that, while I have fun DMing, it’s my goal to get fun across to everyone. And that means certain things have to happen a certain way.

    • You’ve got plenty of good reasons to be angry, there. Sometimes I wonder if there are players who write up murderhobos specifically so that the GM won’t have easy hostages.

      It’s early in my game, but I think I’ve got a degree of trust from my players, and I will not abuse it the way that GM of yours did.

    • First of all, this seems like a bait and switch on the DM’s part. Getting out of that game was probably the best thing to happen for you.

      Why does this always seem to happen to Paladins? GMs always seem to be telling players how to play Paladins. Is this part of the utter garbage that is arguments over alignment?

      • Because so many people don’t understand Paladins. You know how when you build encounters for your party you tailor it to the group you have? Wizard > give scrolls and books to learn more spells; Rogue > give him traps and secret doors to find; Fighter > fight monsters with various DR to make him use all the different weapons he has.

        Well, too many people default to: Paladins > give him a test of Faith. That’s what that class is about, right? Faith? What else could I give them?

        Also, a lot of GM forget about the actual God that the Paladin worships: take a Paladin of Sarenrae (Pathfinder); Sarenrae is a goddess of good, honesty and redemption; but one small mistake is enough to punish with no possible appeal one of her most faithful servants. Now, you can argue a paladin of Abadar (still Pathfinder) would actually be more at risk in the same situation, with the whole god of Law and Rules thing; but I have never found a GM who would think this through (except for me, but I have yet to GM for a proper Paladin, so maybe I’m not as good as I think); usually it’s “You did a bad thing in a situation where every thing is a bad thing, you lose. I’m so smart, you guys!”

        A paladin at the table is a challenge to every crappy GM: “He is a Paladin because he wants to challenge me! He wants to see if i can make it fall! I’ll accept this challenge!”

        • Had a Paladin of Pelor (4e), and I eventually took his powers away because he actually WANTED me to for story-line purposes (he also wanted to change classes to mix things up/try something new). I use the gods a lot in our campaigns, and for this particular campaign every god that was worshiped in the party–with the exception of one–was included into the story in some way. The only ‘challenges to his faith’ were the ones he put himself through.

          In older editions of DnD, the rules were wonky about paladin faith. And many can argue that they were unfair. But this is the way i explained it to my people for our own worlds: A monk uses martial arts. He therefore has MARTIAL powers. It comes from the raw power within you. A wizard uses magic, which is in the simplest words a strange law of nature that’s just a part of the universe, like gravity. Then there’s the ardent, who uses psionics. Psionic energy is like alien-world magic, a power that leaked into our world from the far realm. Litter harder to grasp sometimes, but hey, there it is. And lastly, there’s FAITH. Faith is basically just magic (again) that come directly from the gods.

          There’s two ways DMs can go about this:
          the a** hole way–you haven’t bee faithful, so said goodbye to your powers you dumb mortal. I, ‘the gods’, definitely pay attention to every single worshipper on an individual basis. Because I’m a ‘the gods’ and I have that kinds of time.

          the smarter way– your paladin has trained for YEARS to be able to access, harness, and master those faith-based powers. You know….just like how a wizard does the same in a library or arcaneum to study and study. So, maybe he falters down his righteous path. The church could say “you no longer represent us. Get out. Boo hiss. Boo hiss!” and that’s pretty much that. But you still have your powers.

          My player’s paladin, Librom, had a demon living inside him since he was 6. The only way to 100% unbind it caused him to lose his powers, but Pelor came down and connected some other story line dots to show that he was destined for new thing, via Psionics.

          • Of course, if the player wants to go through the whole “losing and regaining powers after atonement” quest, it’s a great story hook.

            Otherwise, actually taking powers away from a Paladin is basically a way to “steal their class” from them. Either it was for a VERY good reason, or it was a dick move. No other possibilities exist.

            A Paladin deliberately and knowingly doing something really Evil, or constantly living a life ignoring Paladin rules should be punished; but if you can, give some clues before it happened. I always liked the idea of a Paladin slowly losing powers as he moves towards Evil, like a spell not working or a Smite Evil being weaker than it should be. And if he recovers from it before the loss is complete, he starts regaining those back.
            Faith and divine favor don’t really seem like things that work with an on/off switch.

        • The problem with PC paladins is they have to go through everything the GM throws at them, unlike NPC paladins. I have yet to see an NPC who had to go through half the shit the players did to get to their level.

  10. I was once a member of a party on which all of us were under Geas’, and one illusionist was under two!!! It was really cool to see everyone play around the powerful magic, and I learned a lot about running that type of magic in my own game. Good article! I love what you did with the second paragraph

    • Geas could be fun… provided the party knew what they were getting into, and there were plenty of loopholes in the geas to abuse.

  11. Elie Wiesel wrote a wonderful book contrasting inner will and exterior situational control in Man’s Search for Happiness. Mr Wiesel was a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Your remarks reminded me of his book, Scott.

    As you always do, you hit the nail on the head. This is a top 10 article for me :).

  12. Very timely, as one of my players has put all of his proverbial eggs in the basket of “mind control sorcerer” spells, and his first question was “so what happens if I use suggestion to make Bob’s Lawful Good Paladin do something Chaotic Evil, does that mean I can make him lose his Paladin levels?”

    I’ve played in groups where this would totally fly with the players. My brother took great glee in nearly TPK-ing our party once when his fighter was under the effect of a mind control spell, and played it better than the GM ever could. He pulled no punches.

    But not every player likes that – we actually lost another player over that exact instance (and her character wasn’t mind controlled or even attacked by him!).

    So yeah, it’s a huge question of your judgement and knowledge of your players. My strategy is not to include mind control effects (or NPCs with them) unless players do so first. And if, as in this case now, a player wants to use mind control effects, I’m going to be sitting with all the players together ahead of time to see how they want to handle those effects targeted at them. Unless they unanimously would be ok with being mind controlled and RPing that way, I’m going to veto mind control on them. There are plenty of other schemes I have to challenge them, without having to introduce a gimmicky theft of agency that will make them hate the game.

    • In my opinion, long-term, well-hidden mind control of a PC cripples your game in more ways than it improves it. After the “gotcha!” mind control moment, prepare for your players to slow down every campaign & nearly rip groups apart over paranoid preparations and accusations.

      Because after you’ve fooled them once, they will never let you fool them again, even if it brings your campaign to its knees.

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