Free Will in Roleplaying

by Heather Grove

Free will may seem like an odd issue to bring up in relation to roleplaying, but it’s an important one. Some GMs like to run very scripted games. They plan everything out and push characters into following the script. Some groups enjoy this, and I can’t argue with that. But I don’t enjoy it – not at all.

What’s the Point?

For me, one of the great joys of roleplaying is the exploration of a character. I love the moment when I say “jeez, why did my character do that?” and realize something about her that I didn’t know before.

But even if you aren’t as character-happy as I am, there are plenty of other reasons to dislike scripted games. What’s the point of playing a game at all if everything’s just going to happen the way the GM planned it no matter what the players would like to do? If you’re sitting there in your living room saying to yourself, “well, gee, both my character and I would really like to go explore this neat part of the game, but the GM obviously wants me to say this and then go there, so I guess I’d better before he gets mad,” then what’s the difference between the game and a static story? The GM could read the game as a story where the players have been told that they are characters in the story, and it wouldn’t be much different. Or they could just put on a play. The GM might as well hand out sheets with people’s lines on them.

Reasons for Scripting

The nervousness of improvisation

There are plenty of reasons why a game might be or feel scripted. Inexperienced GMs often feel nervous about striking out on their own, about having to improvise on the go. It certainly can be a frightening prospect. And so, rather than find a way to deal with that, they script.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I GM’ed for the first time. I did several things to make improvisation easier on myself. One, I warned my players that I was going to be winging things a bit, and asked them to go easy on me. Two, I decided ahead of time that if I really needed a few minutes to think about something, I’d take it. That may seem obvious, but it often isn’t to new GMs. They feel as though they have to keep going no matter what. They worry that if they stop, people will think they’re bad GMs. This isn’t the case. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “hey, I need to think for a minute; why don’t you guys go get some more pizza in the kitchen?” Or even, “why don’t you guys keep talking in-character? I’ll be back in five.” If there’s another player you trust, you can steal him to help you a little, if you’re really stumped. “Hey Jeffrey, I need to talk to you about your character for a minute. Come to the kitchen with me.”

Third, I made use of the resources right in front of me – my players. When I got really stumped, I’d ask the players what they thought about something. I’d take their opinions under consideration, and then do what seemed best to me.

It’s such a cool plot!

Another reason that GMs might script is that they have a plot that really excites them, and that excitement blinds them to the fact that the players may have other ideas.
GMs need to remember that most players want to be more than just passive watchers of a beautiful play. Players want to make decisions about where things are going – roleplaying is, after all, an interactive activity.

Sometimes this means that they take the plot in unexpected directions. Two major things can be done about this. One, let them! It may suck to not be able to watch your amazing plot play out, but you might be surprised by what sort of plot does emerge. Besides, you might find a way to work your plot in again later, when they are ready for it. Two, be flexible; if they miss the one window of time during which they were supposed to perform the spell because they were more interested in politics, let them perform it some other time. You can accomplish this by trying to avoid hard and fast deadlines and rules. If you don’t tell them that they have to perform the spell by 3 am, then they’ll never know that you adjusted the entire time table by a week to accommodate their side-trip into politics.

Try not to think of the plot as your plot – thus you won’t have such an emotional stake in seeing it play out the way you want it to. After all, the point of roleplaying, when it comes right down to it, is to have fun. And your players have as much right to a share of the fun as you do.

The heroes have to win

A third reason for scripting is that the GM doesn’t want to let the party lose. This is as noble a reason as any, and just as misguided. If the party picks up on the fact that the GM won’t let them lose then all sorts of bad things may happen. The players may take stupid risks that they shouldn’t take, because they know the GM won’t let their characters die. The players may stop caring about the amazing spiffy save-the-world goal, because they know they’ll win no matter what.

Don’t be afraid to let the party lose! Not every band of heroes out to save the world has to be successful. While you probably want to be at least a little flexible to account for things such as players not catching the clue they were supposed to catch, you should let them win or fail on their own merits. That way when they win, they feel a real sense of accomplishment. They know they did something amazing, and did it well.

Some of the best moments in the game I’m currently running have come when I’ve stared wide-eyed at my players and said, “oh, my god, I can’t believe you did that.”

I bought it in the store

Yet another reason for scripting is that the GM is using a professionally written supplement. Unless a sold adventure is a short one, there’s almost no way to avoid a certain amount of scripting. This is because the author cannot be at the gaming run to adapt things to player creativity. In order for him to write the beginning of part 2 of the adventure, he has to know where part 1 ends – and this means that the party must end up at a predictable place at the end of part 1. A certain amount of squishiness is possible if the author has the word count to write “if your players do this” paragraphs, but not all adventure authors are given enough word count, and such adventures can become cumbersome to read.

You must decide ahead of time how important it is to stick to the script in this case. You should read the entire adventure and decide whether you care that the players get to the predictable end-point. This is more of an issue for an adventure that’s part of a series, where there’s another book to follow; you need to know how important it is that you get to play that next adventure.

If you read ahead and get a good handle on the adventure, then you may be able to figure out ways to get the party to a “close enough” endpoint even if they veer off wildly during the course of the adventure. Remember that when you run a published adventure, you are allowed to change things! You might want to make some notes while you’re reading about the things you think your players are likely to do that the authors didn’t account for.


If the GM is particularly psyched about the game, he may have prepared a lot of material for it ahead of time. The prospect of pitching all of that work when someone leaves the beaten path can be daunting, as well as frustrating, and can often lead GMs to script.

A solution to this is to prepare a different sort of material. Stick primarily to background information and characters. That way you don’t have to wipe anything out. If you have detailed information on a character, that character can react to anything the players may choose to do. If you have detailed background information on a situation, you can adapt the future of that situation to whatever the players do. However, if you concentrate on scenes and what’s going to happen during the game, you risk obsolescence of material.

The Appearance of Free Will

What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s more important for the players to believe that their characters have free will than it is for them to have free will. As long as the guiding hand is invisible – as long as you trick your players into making the choices you want them to make, seemingly of their own free will – they’ll never know the difference.

You just have to be ready to throw that guiding hand out the window if your players are bound and determined to do what you don’t want them to do. Better to let them lose the quest or end up in an entirely different plot than to make them think that their choices don’t matter.

Subtle Scripting

Not all forms of scripting are blatant. Some are subtle and insidious. The GM might use narration to slip in hints about how the characters must feel. For example, “as you near the corner you see a bloody footprint. It fills you with fear.” Such comments are subtle and you might not even realize that you’re making them. They’re important to avoid when possible, however. Telling a player how her character should think and feel is one of the worst forms of control. (For a particularly bad example of this form of scripting, see our review of “Supernumerary.”)

The example above isn’t a terrible one. It’s worse when a GM tells the characters something that directly affects their actions. To pull on the example in that review, you really shouldn’t tell a character: “While your suspicion of the android is evident even to him, you cannot deny the necessity of his proposal.” In this example the GM blatantly scripts actions as well as feelings: he has decreed that the characters should find the android’s proposal necessary, which will have a huge impact on their actions.

Mind you, some such comments may be appropriate – maybe a wizard cast a spell to make anyone who saw the afore-mentioned bloody prints feel fear.

Or maybe the character has a premonition that takes the feeling of a shiver of fear. “It fills you with fear” does not automatically mean that the GM is scripting. And admittedly, it can be hard to notice when you’re saying these things unintentionally. But when possible, you’re always better off tailoring your description to evoke the response you want, rather than simply stating the response.

In the example of the bloody footprint, you might instead say the following: “You near the corner of the street. The lamp has burned out and everything is a blur of shadow. You can barely make out the shape of a footprint on the ground, but as you get closer, you note rivulets of a dark red fluid trickling out of the footprint. The shadows seem to press closer, and you hear a rustling sound off to your left in the bushes…” You get the point. Use concrete, physical description to convey the feeling you want the character to feel.


One way to avoid the apparent need for scripting is to communicate with your players before the game to make certain that you’re all on the same wavelength. If some of your players hate politics-plots and that’s what your whole story arc is based on, you’re going to have a problem, and you may end up feeling as though you have to push people into following your plot. If you talk to people ahead of time you can make sure that everyone’s interested in the same kind of game, and muck with the plot if they aren’t.

In addition, pay attention to what the characters say when they talk amongst themselves during the game. If they talk about their feelings and suspicions regarding events, they may provide you with plenty of information to allow you to tailor the events to them.

When it comes down to it, running a game that isn’t scripted can be challenging – that’s why a lot of people avoid it. But it isn’t as challenging as people think. It avoids a lot of potential friction between GM and players, and it can result in a game that’s more fun for all. Besides, nothing quite compares to seeing the wonderful, unexpected plots that your players can make out of your game.

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