Monday, August 16, 2021

should the game world act the way the players want it to?

 Consider a pretty common scenario: players meet a monster and want to manipulate it into doing something. They have a spell or ability and are trying to use it in an unusual or counterintuitive way to achieve a result the DM does not expect. When does it do what the player wants it to?

A few things I keep in mind for this decision:

1. It's fun and rewarding for player to have agency and get a result they want

2. Players make sense of things differently than the DM might make sense of things

3. DM's job is also to create an appropriately challenging experience. Denying a result will make an experience that feels more challenging, whether fairly or not

4. A world that works consistently and in a way that matches our reality will reward lateral and creative thinking, thus creating a more engaging game

5. In fantasy, there are physics that have no analogue to real life, and cannot be modeled through common sense.

6. In real life, sometimes the world behaves in ways that don't make sense to us, because we don't see the whole picture. This is true in video games as well -- we hope that our new spell or gun will work in some way, or that physics will interact together in a particular way, but in fact they do not. 

7. Sometimes the player simply has a bad idea

8. Sometimes, the DM might have an unconscious or difficult to articulate reason for why something shouldn't work the way a player wants. In my experience I've sometimes found that reasons might lie in barely perceived interactions with other game mechanics. Sometimes there are other reasons.

9. The DM might want to provide a certain aesthetic experience that resists something working the way the player wants it to. 

10. When the DM doesn't allow the world to act in the way the player wants, the player may feel as though the world is intractable or unresponsive, or that the DM is being hard-headed or stubborn instead of reasonable, particular if the reason doesn't make sense to the player

11. A world that feels intractable to the player is probably the worst possible outcome. The greatest strength of role playing games is complete freedom of imagination, so a break-down in that aspect is really undesirable. As game narrows in tractability, it becomes less and less engaging, until player will disengage and do the next most interesting thing to them, or if nothing is available, find a way to cope with the situation. 

12. A tool that can be used here is the relationship between player and DM. If DM can communicate that they realize that the outcome may be disappointing, or any other variation of what is going on for them in the moment which maintains the emotional connection, this can really ameliorate some of the bad outcomes. 

With that in mind, I tend away from automatic "yes" and maybe hew a little too close to automatic "no." It's been helpful for me to experiment with playing games that are really built around collaboration and lateral problem solving, like White Hack. In 5e D&D, players are so powerful that I tend toward no. I wonder if this could be improved on my part?? On the other hand, see point 8 above.

Makes me wanna play more White Hack.


  1. I think you're on to something here, but I believe your explanation would benefit from a real example. Can you expand upon your thesis?

  2. This is a really hard and interesting question. I’ve taken a few stabs at designing games with woo-woo settings (you’re all ghosts, you’re in a fantasy wonderland, etc) and they run into this wall very quickly: if you’re going to run a game in a “fantastical” setting, there are a few ways to do it and each involves hard trade-offs.

    First: shared world building. How does the setting work? Ask the players! This is the Fate approach. It is largely incompatible with both GM planning (so anything involving a planned scenario and especially any kind of mystery in the setting) and also with player planning (eg, I made a PC who is supposed to be a wizard but the other players just decided there’s no magic in this setting). Fine if you want to do free-form improv with players who can roll with it.

    Second: the world works pretty much like ours, with any deviations strictly nailed down ahead of time. This is the trad/sim approach. Dozens of pages of setting/special snowflake mechanical description and rules in the rule book. Tends to drain a lot of the wonder out of wonderland, and there will always be gaps in the rules, leading to some of the same problems as approach three below.

    Third: GM mysterianism. The GM knows how the world works but leaves it as a mystery for the players to solve. Robs the players of agency and leads to extended games of mother-may-I. Leads to player disengagement as you point out above.

    Essentially, you can choose one or maybe two out of three: rules-lite, novel fantastical setting elements, ability to play as a game (instead of improv/collaborative storytelling).

  3. I find that the main reason I'm forced to tell a player "no" is because of information they don't currently have, and also, they are unaware of their ignorance. Unknown unknowns. Which is obviously challenging to deal with if their attempt won't reveal the information they don't have!

    Often I'll say "No, but it's really weird that it doesn't work. It *should* work, and your character is also really confused as to why it's not working."

    Or I just pull back the curtain and say "this doesn't work because X, which you don't know about yet. What do you do?"

  4. I agree, usually for me it is a case of "this doesn't work, and I swear there is a reason for it..." and my players roll their eyes, and maybe 1/10 times they figure out that reason 12 sessions later when the original incident is forgotten!

    I like to give them at least a *shot* at any crazy plan working, and it is nice to even say "okay, that might work, I give it a 1/whatever chance." When they hit that number, everyone feels like a winner.

    Also see this one:


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.