The Limits of Control

This arose out of a discussion with a friend on Facebook about the role of randomisers in tabletop RPGs, and how one of the things which can bug people is when they feel that the dice (or cards, or yarrow stalks, or whatever) end up taking away their control of their character’s actions or story.

I like having randomisers because of the element of surprise; I like having the scope in a game to have stuff happen which, individually or collectively, we wouldn’t have thought up ourselves. For instance, Ygraine’s NPC stats in Pendragon would have given me, as the GM, the impression that it’s basically impossible for the player characters to try and woo her after Uther dies; a combination of flukey rolls on the part of one of my players when it came to flirting with her and similarly unlikely rolls on her part when it came to judging whether she was receptive made it clear that as far as the dice were concerned Ygraine was 100% into this and that took the story in a direction none of us expected but which turned out well.
With respect to being in control of your character’s actions, I think systems need to default to the randomiser determining the result of your action rather than completely rewriting the action you decided on in the first place. The former is important for immersion and simulation and creating the sense that your character exists in a real world that will kick back rather than a cardboard set that exists solely to contextualise their story; the latter takes away the player-PC connection which is vital to the tabletop experience to begin with.
That isn’t to say I’m 100% against systems which take away some choice, mind. Occasionally it can be useful for the system to nudge you and say “Are you really sure your character would do this?” For instance, Pendragon‘s personality trait system doesn’t often force you to act in a particular way, and when it does it’s usually because you have set such a strong precedent for your character behaving in that way previously that it’s genuinely difficult – though still possible – to break the habit of a lifetime. It is not too difficult to avoid traits getting to that extreme (though extreme behaviour has its benefits), and the main constraint is requiring a Valorous roll to engage in combat with particularly terrifying beasts, which I think is an acceptable way to reflect the fact that in some situations having genuine freedom of choice requires you to first wrestle your fight-or-flight response into submission.
(For similar reasons, though its implementation has its issues, I think Call of Cthulhu‘s “roll when you see a monster to avoid panicing” concept is very useful. It’s all very easy when you are sat in a cosy chair surrounded by friends to be all “Yeah, I’m not afraid of this”, but your investigator doesn’t have that benefit.)
At the same time, critical fumble tables which make your character behave in silly/humiliating/gamewrecking ways can get in the sea.
With respect to being in control of your character’s story, I can see the desire to have that control but I have very carefully weaned myself off it over the years, and I enjoy both tabletop and LARP substantially more as a result. The thing is, even in a very story-focused game you never actually have full control of your character’s story. To have that, you would need a veto power over everything anyone or anything else does which might affect your character, and that tends to be incompatible with playing a game where you have multiple characters running around ostensibly able to affect the proceedings.
Unless the player characters are genuinely irrelevant to each others’ stories – which kind of wrecks the point of running a game with more than one player – then they are going to be able to affect each others’ stories. And in games where you have a GM-like role, then the GM’s ability to frame the situation has an enormous capacity to affect people’s stories.
Frankly, I think the best and most successful storytelling game out there is Once Upon a Time, in which there is no identification between players and individual characters at all and all elements of the story are fully accessible to be meddled with once you take control of the narration. There are a bunch of storygames which explicitly deviate from the “one player, one PC” model – The Quiet Year and Microscope, for instance – and even more which I think would be radically improved if they brushed off the residual “one player, one PC” assumption they inherited from more traditional RPGs (for instance, I think the best part of Fiasco is the collective setting and character creation phase, and I think the game would be more fun if the pool of characters were entirely communal), and still more which are designed from the principle that other players can and will shape your character’s story (such as A Penny For My Thoughts). I can think of none where your character’s story is explicitly immune from external meddling.
Of course, now that I think further on this, I suppose a case could be made that some people would prefer that meddling with their story happened as a result of other human beings explicitly deciding to do that, rather than because of a roll of the dice. I guess personally I don’t find that much of a meaningful distinction. Sometimes shit happens to a character because somebody else decided that it should. Sometimes a character has a sudden stroke of amazing luck or terrible ill fortune. Their story is in how they deal with that.

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