Player Choices Foster RPG Division of Labor for Better Game Experiences
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted ponder the ins and outs of Dungeon Masters recognizing and respecting player and character choices in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. The discussion applies to any tabletop roleplaying game and encompasses both mechanical and narrative choices during character creation and throughout a campaign. To me this speaks to paradigm shift in the RPG hobby. So let’s get into it.
Shared responsibility in an RPG
I’ve been steeped in RPGs for decades and now with a career in the industry it’s no surprise I think about and engage with games and the people who design and play them a lot. This being said I can only speak to my own experiences and it’s been wonderful to observe a sea change in the way players approach these games we love.
For much of my life potential Game Masters propose running a particular game and adventure or campaign, a group forms to play, everyone makes characters then gets together for the dice rolling to begin. No one held a session zero and players didn’t coordinate their backgrounds or put much thought at all into their characters personalities, motivations or psychology. At least not as a matter of course. We adventured through adventures with cohesive stories and character development taking place after the fact, between sessions. I’m certain untold numbers of players and groups continue this tradition and enjoy countless hours of RPG fun.
But over the last couple of years as the RPG hobby flourishes I’ve been overjoyed to experience a shift in how players connect with these games. Bringing the emergent story to the forefront asks more of players. Showing up for a game with a collection of checked boxes and number crunching modifiers, while still a fundamental part of almost every RPG and certainly 5E D&D, doesn’t carry water the same way as a realized character. The personal choices we make as our characters before, during and between sessions impact our games to a much greater degree than any mechanical choices like their abilities and features.
The reason for this as I see things is a division of labor among everyone involved. As a character player in an RPG embracing this shift makes all the games I participate in more exciting and rewarding. As a GM it’s been a bit more of a challenge but I feel like I’m moving in the right direction. Learning what to prepare and what to leave to chance carries a bit of a learning curve for me.
What I mean by division of labor touches on expectations. Looking to GMs for supreme guidance of both rules and narrative has become a shared responsibility with the other players in the game. Things like player agency and meaningful choices are examples of this. The most fun games I’ve been part of include GMs who invite the other players to take opportunities for contributing to the emerging story. Instead of holding all the cards these GMs deal everyone an equal hand. But this doesn’t come for nothing. Collaborating together in an RPG this way calls on players to make those meaningful choices in the first place.
Make your character choices matter
In the video Dave and Ted mention things like a character with a backstory related to arid deserts created for a sea faring campaign. Others in the comments at odds with the spirit of the discussion mention things like bulky goliaths in a spelunking Underdark campaign or the perspective of GM as master of reality and players only existing within those confines. But therein lies the sweet spot! Incorporating creative space for everyone to share in an RPG results in some truly incredible games — when everyone shares the load.
If you strongly feel the urge to play a desert survivalist in a sea faring campaign or a person hailing from a civilization built on mountain aeries who’s journey takes them to subterranean depths these are wonderful ideas. The trick to making them work does not lie in the mechanics but in the character. Do some research. Learn a few things about desert survival or mountainous living and find ways to bring them into the game through the lens of your character. Consider who the person you’re playing is externally and internally and share who they are with the rest of the group — especially the GM.
Timeless advice for Game Masters
To all the GMs out there: you’re not getting off easy either. Sharing responsibility for components of worldbuilding and the direction stories flow frees up time and headspace for the critically important task of listening to the other players. It’s a GMs role to guide the other players through creating the story of their characters, and hearing what’s important to them is perhaps the greatest tool in your repertoire. As Dave pointed out back when Geek & Sundry invited them out to LA for GM Tips with Satine Phoenix you’ve got two ears and one mouth, so a GM ought to listen twice as much as they speak.
When players approach a game enthusiastic to make meaningful choices and GMs strive to acknowledge those choices the RPG experience improves for everyone involved. Discovering the unique impact of backstory elements, mechanical character features, personality traits and motivations builds on the broad strokes presented by a GM. For their part GMs influence and pacing and tension points throughout a game to account for the choices being made around the table. A once in a lifetime story emerges as a result.
But that’s just me. What’s your RPG experience been like? Do the choices you make for your characters become important parts of your games and influence the direction of the stories you create? Do you get a thrill from collaborative storytelling in your RPGs or do you prefer a GM holds the reins? I’m genuinely fascinated by the RPG experience and I’d love to see what y’all think about the importance of player choices on an overall adventure or campaign. Let me know and of course stay nerdy!