... Here's the thing that's really at the crux of my expressed ideas on this: Each active agent has a role and when one agent is working to limit or infringe upon the role of another, the game stops functioning as intended...
The above passages were copied and pasted from here, where this particular discussion began on this blog. As they provide the context for what will be three or more related blog posts worth of content I figured it would be handy having them around as I move on. Today I want to write about the players.
The Player's Discuss: Much of what I previously had to say about where the DM's power needed to be constrained involved his or her ability (or inability if I have my way) to discuss. Conversely, the players must discuss. They must investigate by reasoning or argument as it is what most of the game is about aside from combat. The overall success of the adventuring party is in no small way determined by the players' collective ability to discuss a course of action and resolve their differences concerning it.
A deeper discussion (no pun intended) on this would veer into the social contract territory that I previously said I would avoid. Further, while I have no qualms about presenting what makes my preferred style of play work and how other styles might not even be rationally considered RPGs, I have no desire to write here about how anybody should behave at the table. Each group needs to work the particulars out for themselves, but the obvious end result is that each player needs to be able to express themselves satisfactorily when involved in the discussion. This requires all sorts of inter-personal skills gamers aren't typically renowned for having. Wheaton had his say, I'd only amend that you should feel free to be a dick provided that your group puts up with it or you enjoy playing alone.
The Player's Describe: Granted, the bulk of this particular task is typically in the hands of the DM but my experience has been that players generally need to spend more time describing than what I see or hear about. I'm not talking about describing the stylized carvings on your pet sword or your magical order's penchant for buggery. All of that is great local color at the table and some of it can even lead to some memorable gaming. But the kinds of players that like providing it generally need little prompting beyond a receptive environment. I'm talking about describing one's actions.
"I talk to the innkeep." "I open the door." "I search the room."
Any of the above is a serviceable means of describing one's action to the DM, but it's not sufficient and should beg more questions from the DM that cares. Once a player has opened the door and the trap blows up in his face, then suddenly the minutia of how the door was precisely opened is explored, prior to making a save or rolling for damage. To embark on this sort of post facto rationalizing too often undermines the fairness of the game. "Of course I wouldn't have opened it that way, I'm an experienced tomb robber. Can't we assume I know the safest way to open each door?" 90% of the arguments I've had at the table came from either a genuine misunderstanding over what should have happened or a player trying to weasel out of their hasty action. Players, the DM is hard at work back there. Help him or her out and be explicit when describing your actions.
The Players Decide: Nothing defines the kind of game I want to run or play in more distinctly than what the player's assumed role is in making things happen. I happen to be one of those individuals that believes dearly in the concept of free will. Setting aside my philosophical beliefs and a broader discussion here on causality, determinism and the nature of reality (i.e. an RPG bloggers' goat rope), let's hone in on how this belief relates directly to my taste in RPGs. I value a game that provides an abundance of choices to its players. I like those choices to mean something.
Often in RPGs the concept of choice, particularly player choice, is just a cover for player aggrandizement. I'm looking directly at you splat books. Aside from being a nightmare to manage as a DM, the endless supply of rules modifications and tweaks aimed at keeping players happy by taking their money and giving them more choice (i.e. power) only serves to bloat the game and create a sort of arms race between player abilities and the challenges that monsters pose. This, in turn, introduces the reactionary movement to "balance" the game. Through all this cycle of expansion and contraction of official rules, the quality of play isn't improved much and if anything, the abundance of so-called "choices" rather serves to limit players to defaulting to the most powerful builds/ exploits available to them. I'm looking at you glitter boy. I know, I know... the true role players out there rise above all of this. I salute you. This post is for the rest of us.
I know the above is well trodden ground in the RPG blogosphere, particularly amongst those that still play older editions of D&D. I'm not out stumping to stir up the base, here. What I'm driving at is that choices have to have logical consequences for good, for ill and in-between in all RPGs, no matter your persuasion. If there's always a best choice or if all choices amount to the same result, then there really aren't any choices. A player's, and by extension the party's, opportunity and ability to actually choose a course of action is their single biggest means of expressing themselves as active agents in the game. Limit this and you limit their agency. Less choices is less agency. Take away enough player agency and the game breaks.
In practice this means that if the results of any given "adventure" are already decided or the most obvious character class to play is the 16' guy with the big laser gun then there's really no point in playing it out. If the players are always assured a measure of success (or failure)... if every failure (success) is just a setback on the path to their inevitable triumph (tragedy), why bother at all? If the DM already knows what the adventure is going to be each and every night, why doesn't he or she simply play with themselves? In short, I'm saying to let the players decide as much as is practical and most importantly, make them live by the results of those decisions as determined by DM and dice.
This message, while concerning the players, is directed squarely at the DMs who actually control the amount of choice in the game. Each DM has a certain level of it they're comfortable with providing. The art here is either in finding (or molding) a party that suits your tastes or tailoring your preferences to meet theirs.
Within the past two years my own style has veered even further into open-ended gaming with a lot of choice, thanks to a lot of inspirational blogging by others. Our current campaign essentially started with "OK, here you are. Here is some brief prose I'm hoping will stir your imagination and provide clues as to where interesting and or dangerous stuff might be. Good luck." It was tough getting started and some nights have dragged while the party decided a course of action amongst a multitude of choices, none of which were obviously good or bad. It's also been the most fun I've had running a game in years and the response from my players has been positive. My game isn't any sort of ideal, other than being close to what is ideal for us. My point is that real player choice must exist in some meaningful way. Otherwise, your game is veering away from an RPG and into something else.
The Player's Don't Resolve: No, that bit of expression is squarely in the hands of dice and DM and guided by the rules. The DM we've talked about. The dice I'll get to next.
Part I: The DM
Part III: The Dice