by Mike Shea on 19 August 2014
Note, this article has been updated from the original published on 1 March 2010.
In the video game Assassin's Creed Black Flag, our hero, Kenway, is given an entire world to explore and plunder. He can run through streets, climb up on roofs, steer a pirate ship through the Caribbean, and plunder the forts of King George. This open-world game gives us a ton of freedom to be the sort of character we want to be.
Until, suddenly, that freedom is gone. The main quest of Black Flag forces extremely linear actions in order to move the story forward. In some scenes you are forced to walk side by side with your pirate friends and listen to their conversations. Deviate from this at all and you "fail the mission" and must start over at the beginning of the conversation.
These missions aren't organic. They're scripts in which our protagonist must act as the game allows to follow a very narrow story. The difference between these scripted events and the rest of the game is stark.
It's very easy for our tabletop RPGs to fall into the same trap. Whether it's a particular story arc or the outcome of a particular encounter, we have big ideas about the way things are going to go and, if they don't go that way, it can really piss us off.
As much as we want to direct the path of our games, often the best thing we can do is let them get out of control.
Letting go of our desire to control the direction of the game is hard to do. We want to control our games, even with the most benevolent reasons in mind. We think that, the more we control our games, the more enjoyment we can ensure when people bother to spend their time at our gaming table. Old habits are hard to break.
It's tempting to build scripts like those in Black Flag into our tabletop RPGs. These paths help us plan ahead. They limit what we have to prepare. It makes us feel like we're in control.
It also smothers the creativity of our players. It puts limits on them and it frustrates us if they push past those limits. It adds tension to an otherwise relaxing game.
Instead of scripting events in your game, build open-ended situations. Leave lots of blanks. Design an interesting location, fill it with appropriate monsters, add in some smarter NPCs with their own motivations, and then see how it turns out when the PCs wander in.
The GM describes a situation, the players describe the actions of their PCs, some dice are rolled, and the GM describes the outcome. That's pretty much the core instructions of an RPG and we would do well to remember it. PCs drive the action in a story, not the NPCs. No NPC or villain or monster is ever more important to a story than every one of the PCs.
Listening is a key skill here. We DMs are often quite the performers. We love to talk. We love to act. We're also probably not the best listeners in the world. Take some extra care and some extra time to really listen to your players. What do they seem interested in? What are they bringing up that you've not been paying much attention to? What do they want for their characters? Use open-ended questions and really spend the time to absorb the answers.
Letting go is an easy thing to say and harder to keep in mind as we prepare and run our games. We love our NPCs. We love our monsters. We love our elaborate combat setups. We must never forget, though, that all of these things exist to empower and shine a spotlight on the PCs and their choices. Let the PCs and their actions determine the course of the story. Let them gain control over its direction and have the world react accordingly.
It's also for us to play favorites, whether it's for one particular direction of the story, for a particular monster, for a particular NPC, or a particular encounter. If we play favorites, we'll try to push the story towards that direction. Love the scene, love the situation, let it go when the PCs enter the picture, and then enjoy watching the outcome unfold. If you find yourself becoming drawn towards one particular path, look at the others and decide what you love about those as well. Play no favorites and love the direction things end up going.
Letting go may end up being one of the hardest parts in preparing for and running our games. We can learn this more and more as the way of the Lazy Dungeon Master sinks in. The less we worry about trying to control our game, the greater freedom our game will have in growing beyond anything we could have imagined.