Have you ever set up a huge encounter for your PCs, laid out everything, set the plot up for the adventure to hit it’s climax here with a huge plot twist and everything? Have you ever done all that and have your players totally bypass the whole thing? I feel your pain… But! This isn’t Skyrim GMs and your player doesn’t have to walk into that creepy cave to get the next cool weapon or level bonus. Zelda, one of the greatest RPG series ever made just stopped, with their latest game, a quest line to just get a weapon or item. One of the things that’s new and old GMs have is delineating video game paths and paper RPG paths.
In any RPG it’s important to remember some rules as a GM:
- Nobody is immortal
- No door is permanently locked
- No terrain is truly impassable
- Character can do whatever they want whenever they want
This creates some realities about an RPG world that are completely unique to this genre. There has to be a constant sense of time flowing through your world. If you think about the geometry of a game world there are rooms that open when triggered by an objective or event that have scenes tied to them. In a video game this is fine, but if you’ve ever accidentally broken into that special room in a game you can see a cutscene totally broken and out of place happen that can make you have to load an old save. It happens in Bethesda RPGs all the time because of the inherent difficulty of roping a character in a world that big. Well in paper RPGs you can make that room effectively closed by making it a really good door, and sometimes that makes sense if you’re in a castle or prison, but what about if you are in a cabin in the woods or just out in the open. You can’t hide timed events from characters or keep them from stumbling into these things. Try adding a loose time for these events to happen and if your characters miss that time than they may have to try harder to succeed or they could even generally fail.
Any person in any RPG can die in any moment ever. This is a fact in any RPG that there is a health bar on everything. Again this is another thing where you can have things effectively be immortal but even deities have health bars. Again this means that players can kill anything they want for any reason their whimsy chooses. Now, this sounds pretty chaotic but most parties will reign it in just because most RPG players have an air of seriousness about them and they came to play that game. What you really have to work on is the PC’s abilities compared to the NPC’s general badassness. The thing is if you have a beholder be the main bad guy behind your big evil plot the PC’s won’t be too excited to kill him, but they’ll be feeling a little braver at level 8 or level 12. So by then, you’re either done with that plot line or you risk some serious rail hopping.
There is not a single piece of terrain that can not be overcome by a PC and what this means is you can’t contain a PC that doesn’t want to be. If you drop 2 flaming carriages at either end of an alley and drop an ambush most players will bite, but every now and then a player may try to say… completely destroy the alley wall and run through there instead. My first bit of advice is, of course, things can be effectively impossible but not unfairly so. No ghetto alley has polished marble walls that can’t be climbed. It’s going to be stacked cobble or wood, and that stuff is easy to climb. The same goes with any other mountain, ocean, river, wall, or anything else you can think of. If players can roll for it and it’s in their capability there’s a good chance that they’ll go for it. Use these opportunities fluidly if you can. So PCs cut through a forest and skip your road bandit encounter. Maybe instead they find the bandit camp or maybe something else, who knows. The point is it’s better for a game to flow with the players rather than to forcibly throw them into something preplanned. Our writer Narb comments a bit more on this here.
Now PCs doing whatever they want whenever they want is kind of a problem for GMs with their carefully laid plans. The thing is that your adventures won’t always be derailed but rather PC’s are going to find solutions to problems that you don’t expect. Either these solutions will be absolutely crazy or they’ll be boring, or they’ll just be different from what you envisioned. The thing is that you have to let those players do that and see if it works. On that note as well characters pick their spells and their stats. Don’t expect your wizard to use a fireball but expect your party to be able to make fire somehow. You can’t expect players to level their characters one way or another either. You can let your players know the focus of the campaign or advise them to keep things balanced, but if they want to all be a high combat swat team then that’s what they are. Players will learn how to spend points by interacting with the world around them and you can influence that by making the world a certain way but you can never touch a PCs character sheet. That is their portal into your world and where all of their goals for their game exists. If a PC is new and asks for help then maybe help them or, or even send them to our article about making a character. Just remember character sheets are most certainly the PCs safety space where GMs don’t get to go.
The lack of track is what really makes paper RPGs unique though. What is the difference between your DnD game and the big budget million dollar fantasy video game that just came out with the 4k graphics? As the Stanley Parable so aptly points out, video games can only create the illusion of choice. Now as technology develops the illusion of choice gets more and more sophisticated, but the simple truth is a game can not go beyond what is programmed in the game. It might seem easier to railroad a character then have them figure it out themselves but as soon as you take away the full freedom of choice in an RPG you have lost the biggest edge that these games create.
With paper RPGs, a player can do literally whatever they want with a full freedom of choice because the game engine is part rulebook part creativity. Now a person’s brain is what really gets things moving in RPGs. We don’t know the limitations of the human mind is and that gives any RPG a +10 for freedom of choice. Basically, as long as someone can have the idea the character can attempt to do it. This is one of the coolest things about paper RPGs and it is what will keep your characters coming back.
As Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” That goes double for PCs that have total freedom. Pick your players wisely and make sure that they’ll take the game the same way you do. What I mean by that is that if you are silly and playing a silly game then a serious player will probably get frustrated and if you are a playing a serious game then having a silly player can be frustrating too. The players need to be expected to do what their PCs would do and keep in mind that the game is part narrative.
On top of that, character death becomes much more likely. Now I’m the kind of GM that is ok with character death, but even I have a bit of mercy and give them a hint every now and then. The thing is a character is free to climb, talk to, punch, stab, swim in, and generally touch anything they want. That does not guarantee success. If you read about character death it touches on this a little more, but for now just be confident that a player will mostly not do anything stupid unless they are overestimating their abilities because dying sucks.
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