21
\$\begingroup\$

This is something I am rather conflicted about as I have met with several gamemasters and I was told that asking players to not to have their character do something breaks their immersion and violates their agency.

To clarify what I mean: I usually run games that have no true villain with everyone having their own motives and using the group for their own goals I don't operate well while trying to get players to fight a BBEG. However, players seem to be prone to just saying 'We talked to X first and they told us Y was bad so we should go kill Y.' which I feel like takes a lot away from the game's potential.

Would I be violating the players' agency and break their immersion if I asked them to try talking to others as well before making a judgement?

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: What is Player Agency and what is it good for? \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Mar 21 at 12:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you mean telling them this in general or in a particular case? \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Mar 21 at 12:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ This in general. Like "Try talking to other people before agreeing to kill something." \$\endgroup\$ – Maiko Chikyu Mar 21 at 12:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this a pathfinder-specific question in some way? \$\endgroup\$ – Blake Steel Mar 21 at 14:38
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @BlakeSteel I don't believe so, but we've made it a habit to include which system you're using so that if there are mechanics in-system to facilitate a method of play, they can be called in. FATE in particular is better about setting an investigative tone, for instance. But because they're using Pathfinder, there is little besides in-or-out of character communication, so we answer it through that lens. OP could very well have their own reasons, though \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Mar 21 at 15:29
24
\$\begingroup\$

This is a group temperament question but is generally perfectly acceptable.

One of the amazing things about tabletop RPG's (TTRPG) is that there is not one right way to play. There is the statistical maximization; there is the high-fantasy character concept; there is the consumate role-player; and many more. There are also more than one way to GM.

There is an unusual amount of stigma in modern RPG gaming relating to player agency as it corresponds to the GM. I believe (just about) everyone can agree that the one thing a GM has no right to do is control players' characters. What you are suggesting is not controlling players' characters. You're in the clear!

  • First and foremost, asking the players not to commit to a course of action until they investigate more does not stop them from then going and killing the NPC. It just points out that there might be another option.
  • There should be communication between the GM and the players about what the GM wants their game to be like. Players don't necessarily have to play the game you want, but you will likely find that most of them will play along to an extent because everyone, not just the players, is at your game to have fun (yourself included, one would hope).
  • A lot of modern TTRPG players grew up on video game RPG's. Unfortunately, that media is relatively limited and almost always followed one of two tropes:

    1. Present you to the 'good guys' first, so you can take them at their word or
    2. Don't give you the option of not being duped by the first people you work for

      • While these are both valid stories and have served many of us with hours and days of entertainment, they're simply not necessary in a TTRPG world.

By pointing all of this out to your players, you give them more agency to choose how they want to interact with your world, not less. You establish that they're not immediately on a Grand Quest to Slay NPC 2, but instead embroiled in plots within plots.


You may find that some players don't want this style of game. Here I will include the near-obligatory same-page questionnaire that may help establish if you and your players are trying to play the same game. Some people just want to watch your fantasy world burn (or go kill BBEG) and you may want to run a different game for them, or even let them find a different game with a different GM.


Judging from your context, I think you could gain a lot (if you have the time) by watching Matthew Colville's "Running the Game" series on Youtube. Notably from this post, I pulled some from his videos about giving Information to the players and The Sandbox vs The Railroad, and to a lesser extent On Being a Good Player.

\$\endgroup\$
13
\$\begingroup\$

Asking does not remove agency if they're allowed to decline.

If the players are allowed to politely say no to the request, they're still fully in the driver seat.

Get players to consider other options with obvious hooks.

However, players seem to be prone to just saying 'We talked to X first and they told us Y was bad so we should go kill Y.' which I feel like takes a lot away from the game's potential.

This seems like they were presented with a single narrative and did not seek out another point of view. Try presenting an obvious or multiple obvious routes to differing opinions. For example:

  • "While Mr. X is complaining about the evil deeds of Mr. Y, the barkeeps eyes look like they're trying to roll out of his head."
  • "You hear several stifled dissents disguised as coughs from the assistant who you realize is trying to conceal that he's listening to your conversation."
\$\endgroup\$
3
\$\begingroup\$

In Pathfinder there is a skill called "Sense Motive".

You can, in-game, request Sense Motive checks from the players. Given N players, one of them is going to roll well at least some of the time.

Without using your "DM voice" and advising them of what to do, you can have a Sense Motive check give information that is likely to make the players say "wait a second". You can be extremely blatant even: "The Earl is asking you to do that out of pure greed; you think the stories he is telling you about the Knight killing children are lies."

A few extremely unreliable NPCs (uncovered by sense motive or other methods), followed by a few marginally reliable NPCs (ditto) could get the players used to the idea that NPCs who give quests are not to be trusted.

So if you are not comfortable with saying "Don't trust NPCs", there are game-mechanical ways to tell players that NPCs are not to be trusted.

As a bonus, once you start doing this, players may metagame not trusting NPCs when their Sense Motive rolls are low. And then your work here is done.


On the other hand, you probably need a session 0. They might not want to look at the underlying motives of the NPCs who give quests, but rather maybe they want direction to go off and do some fun things you have prepared. And they might not know you want them to look at the underlying motives of the NPCs.

\$\endgroup\$
3
\$\begingroup\$

It seems like you and your players are not on the same page.

You think it's really interesting to have people not always be who they say they are (I agree, for the record), but your players don't know that's a possibility; maybe you weren't clear at session 0, maybe they didn't listen, or any other reason that they want to believe what everyone says.

To that point:

It is okay to let them know what your intentions are

You can either tell/remind them that NPCs can lie with your DM-voice, or you can illustrate it with a different example. I've used something simple, such as an inconsequential NPC telling the players something that is quickly and easily disprovable; perhaps that the local innkeeper hides a skull behind his counter at all times from the last customer he killed.

The example is up to you, but make sure it's clear; I prefer to just use my DM-voice.


Regarding the specific wording of your question.

It is okay to ask players not to do something.... if*

*if you think doing that thing would detract from everyone's enjoyment.

Sometimes players want to do weird things; they're players, it's basically their job. And sometimes, those weird things are going to make my DM-life harder in a way that will detract from my ability to do a fun game. Maybe it's killing an NPC that I based the adventure around, maybe I'm just too tired to come up with a scenario for "those old ruins that the hobo told us about four games ago", or any other reason.

Feel free to start off with a narrative implication. Sometimes it will work

The human woman kneels before you, sobbing, begging for you to bring home her baby; a child gifted to her from the heavens (or so she claims).

Player: "∫^¢# that; I don't care about any kids"

Your words resonate with the harsh reality of the realm, but yet, you feel a nagging sensation that there are greater powers at work here. This child seems important, even to the most callous of hearts.

Player: "Nah, kids suck, bro. I don't care. Bozgum, want to go get drunk?"

-sigh- guys, look. I'm sorry to say this, but I only planned this plot hook. So, if you can't find a reason to be interested in it, we're done for the night.

It's not great, I should have been better prepared, or at least should have been able to look like I was better prepared, but I wasn't...

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think, rather than saying "I don't have anything prepared for this" you can heavily suggest something, I have used a magical pack of cards to point an arrow in the other direction (away from a potential TPK) or occasionally say something along the lines of "You each feel a strong sense of dread associated with this path/choice/situation". It usually does the trick, and if not you can always drop in a random encounter to buy you some time! I'd always err on the side of using a narrative voice rather than a simple immersion breaking statement! \$\endgroup\$ – Biomage Mar 21 at 13:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Biomage I might use that as a starting point, but I would rather my players know the situation, rather than implying something to their characters. I will include an example, however. \$\endgroup\$ – goodguy5 Mar 21 at 14:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Biomage lemme know if that resolves your issue. \$\endgroup\$ – goodguy5 Mar 21 at 14:16
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I think so! I think the sort of players that would get to that final stage in your example are probably very rare and perhaps themselves causing some of the issues! \$\endgroup\$ – Biomage Mar 21 at 14:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Biomage yea, I haven't played with that group since, it was actually three out of four of them had that mentality. \$\endgroup\$ – goodguy5 Mar 21 at 14:40
2
\$\begingroup\$

Whether or not it's a good idea to tell your players out-of-character to fetch other opinions first depends on your group. However, there are other means to achieve what you want.

In general, if my DM told me out-of-character to rethink a course of action that I planned ingame, I would feel a little tricked, "spoilered" and yes, also a little like the DM is taking away my player agency. Unless the DM forces me to do something, it's more of the former rather than the latter, though.

In the end, it depends on your group / your players whether or not they will appreciate or dislike you telling them something like this OOC.


That being said, I recommend that you avoid telling your players anything out-of-character that is relevant ingame. However, if your players do always listen to the advice of the first guy they ask about something, there are a number of ways you can tell or teach them in-character.

We have two kinds of situations here:

  1. the guy giving them advice is, in reality, a bad guy, and they should not listen to him.
  2. the guy giving them advice is really a good guy, and it's ultimately a good idea to listen to him.

The first situation is significantly easier to resolve. Show them that the given advice is untrustworthy, either by disproving it or by discrediting the bad guy who advised them.

For example, if a supposedly trustworthy, but in reality bad guy told them to go kill person X, you can, on one hand, show X while doing heroic feats, such as defending a village against an Orc attack or playing happily with the village's kids (in a non-pedophile way, obviously).

On the other hand, you can also let the players notice the advisor in shady places or interacting with shady people, maybe even performing evil / morally wrong acts.

Either way, showing the players how other people interact with the guy in question can give them an indication as to whether they should trust him or not.


The second situation is a little trickier, although it is related to the former. More specifically, your players seem to be a little naive when it comes to trusting strangers, so if you present them with a situation such as (1) on purpose, they might starting acting more cautiously.

If that's not how you want to teach them, you can instead present them with an NPC that has a different opinion. For example, maybe he overheard them talking to the guy giving them advice, and he disagrees and recommends that you do Z instead.

In addition, this might be the point where you can - and maybe should - indeed talk to your players out-of-character. More specifically, it appears that they expect to be railroaded (i.e. basically everything you present them with is set up in a way so that the most obvious choice is the one you expect them to take, such that your plot works out).
Clearly, that's not what you have in mind, so you should engage in a (retrospective) "Session Zero" where you work through, for example, the Same Page Tool.


In summary, you could do one of the following:

  1. actively present them with alternatives
  2. show them the consequences of not seeking out potential alternatives on their own
  3. align your expectations, as is usually done in a session 0.
\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Don't forget situation 3: The NPC is a good guy and means well, but doesn't actually know what he's talking about, so it's probably best not to listen to him anyhow. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Mar 22 at 9:56
1
\$\begingroup\$

Make your campaign or adventure resilient.

This doesn't exactly answer the question, but it does solve the problem.

For DMs who have campaigns and adventured that are highly detailed and designed to only take one or two real paths, the answer is to let the character do what they want (such as kill Y), and then substitute Y with Z without really changing the outcome.

The story can be shifted with a small a change as Z stepped in to fill the storyline void left when Y was killed.

Problem solved and the players really haven't derailed the compaign and they still maintain their sense of agency.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I suggest that this is more like the Pratchett Narrative Causality theory. The story wants to be told, and if it becomes stymied will find ways to express itself. \$\endgroup\$ – Rowan Mar 21 at 15:23
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't feel like this answers the question because I don't feel like OP says the PC's running directly to kill the NPC is ruining the game... only that he didn't want them to do so without first making their own decisions about who to help and why. OP doesn't seem to want the NPC to live so much as have a reason for having been killed more than 'it was the main story quest, we have to do it' \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Mar 21 at 15:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso I don't interpret the question the same way you do at all. I think just as I suggested, that the characters are making a choice the DM doesn't want them to make because it disrupts or destroys what the DM had planned. \$\endgroup\$ – Escoce Mar 21 at 16:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, I'll remove that comment. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 21 at 16:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I removed mine as well. \$\endgroup\$ – Escoce Mar 21 at 17:04
0
\$\begingroup\$

Player agency is the ability for a player to make meaningful decisions. Simply making decisions isn't enough; they have to be well-informed with a clear list of potential consequences. This requires two things:

  1. Players are allowed to make their own decisions.
  2. Players know enough about the game world to make wise decisions.

That second point isn't obvious at first, but it is absolutely crucial. And sometimes, it requires you to tell your players they can't do something they want to do. This is so important that I'm going to say it explicitly:

Giving your players true agency sometimes requires you to tell them they can't do something!

This is how that works: Sometimes, you'll be in a situation where your players want to attempt something that, based on the information you've shared with them, should reasonably work out. In the game world, however, their characters know something that makes the plan obviously infeasible. At this point, the responsible thing to to tell your players what their characters already know and ask them to try something else.

For example, maybe your players are exploring a frigid cave system and come across a frozen underground lake that they need to cross. The paladin in heavy armor decides to chance walking across the lake. As the DM, however, you planned for the cave to get warmer the further the players travel into it, so you already know that the ice on the lake isn't very thick, and the characters would likely have noticed that as well. Perhaps you haven't had a chance to tell your players this detail - DMing involves juggling lots of details, and sometimes you don't get the right information to your players quickly enough.

At this point, you have two options: Let the paladin try crossing and have him sink into the lake to drown, or tell him that it's not a smart idea and explain why not. If you just sink your paladin, you've actually taken agency away from him by throwing a consequence he couldn't have reasonably predicted at him. He still made a decision, but it wasn't a well-informed one. But telling him to try a different approach lets him keep his agency by leaving him more well-informed about the situation he's in, allowing him to better reason about what other approaches might work.


In your case in particular, I think flat-out telling your players not to fully trust the first people they talked to or kill that group's rivals is a perfect example of this. In-universe, the PCs will have been living in this region where everyone has their own agenda for a long time and will know not to fully trust or distrust anyone. Your players, however, are completely new to this world and are still feeling it out. Telling them to be skeptical is telling them what their characters already know so that they can make well-informed decisions. This actually enhances your players' agency.

\$\endgroup\$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.