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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.