Game Mastery

Game Wrap – Player Agency

by on Aug.31, 2011, under dnd4e, observations

With last post’s introduction to level skipping I encountered a problem.  I wanted to jump over some sections of the plot between levels.   When I started jumping levels, the players were in Vesperin and needed to get to Tantras.  For those of you without a ridiculous Knowledge: Geography of the Forgotten Realms check, that’s about 1000 miles1.

I didn’t want to skip over the travel.  Doing so makes light of the huge world I’ve chosen.  I use campaign settings for a reason, and to throw them out when they’re inconvenient invalidates the whole setting.  I also didn’t want to describe a thousand miles of traveling misadventure to my players.  Well, I did, but I didn’t think they’d want to listen.  Unless it came back up, they’d know it was filler.  And if it was important enough to come back up, they’d rather have a say in what happened than allow me to narrate their actions.  There’s no point in playing a game where the GM has full say in what you choose to do.

So I opted to give the players full agency of the situation.  The results were fantastic.

To keep this from becoming an adventure log, I’m only going to sum up the best of the player narrative segments.  I explained to the players what I just told you, that “Cormyr is 1000 miles away, and since we’re level jumping they’ll have to explain how over the …”

“Selim uses linked portal.”

“Where’d he get the sigil for a portal to Cormyr?”

“He’s from Cormyr.  He’s one of the War Wizards.”

“Oh yeah.  I guess he does have a sigil to do that.  *sigh* I was planning on having you tell me four levels worth of traveling adventure.  You know, to justify the four levels you’re getting for this session.  I’m not sure how to justify that now.”

“What if the place we teleport to is under siege?”

It got better from there.  They portaled into a War Wizard castle that was besieged by Netheril (a.k.a. the bad guys).  I pretty much let them do whatever they wanted and we didn’t roll dice.  In the previous session we’d done a little bit of PC narrative control to get their feet wet.  A bad guy had taken over a city with her undead army.  It was up to the players to get past the undead, and find the bad guy.  But they were responsible for explaining and then overcoming the baddie’s defenses.  It took some time to get them thinking in terms of obstacles and challenges rather than monsters to throw dice at.  By this session they were thinking in terms of story, rather than mechanics.

The doppelganger did what doppelgangers do and impersonated a Netherese leader in order coordinate an suicide attack on the part of the enemy.  But when he tried it again, he got captured along with half the party.  The other half improvised a jailbreak.  I can’t honestly remember how they pulled it off, but it worked out so much better than the jailbreaks I’ve run previously.  I like jailbreak scenes, but there’s always the temptation to write in an escape method.  This one had no built in escape, so the players had some actual work to do, instead of methodically inspecting all the details until they hit the right one that provided improvised lockpicks, tricked a guard, or opened a secret escape tunnel, for those odd circumstances where the king was thrown in jail.

After the siege, I decided that the players had done about 2 levels worth of adventuring.  They looked at a map before figuring out what else happened.  The War Wizard encampment was actually a few days away from the capital, which was where they meant to go.  The bard’s player in this game knows more FR lore than I ever will.  He looked at the map and saw a small town between here and there, and recalled it was some sort of dark weirdness vortex.  Whenever demonic shadow beings spill out from some tear in the universe, this was where it happened.  Cool!  He also decided that it attracted the attention of Larloch. I’d never heard of Larloch before (have I mentioned not know FR as well as I should), but the bard’s player had. By outsourcing narrative control to the players I was able to incorporate more elements of the campaign setting.

Larloch is one of the most powerful liches in the land.  He could take over the world, but doing so never interested him.  All he ever wanted was more magical power.  This played well into the plot we’d already established.  The players had found a magical artifact that still held magical power of a bygone era.  They couldn’t use it, so they gave it to Elminster.  Larloch wanted the artifact though, and offered the players vague power (which would of course amount to two character levels worth of power each) if they talked to Elminster about giving Larloch the artifact.  They begrudgingly agreed.

After that, we resumed the session where I’d planned.  But, the player narration didn’t end there.  This is the really important part of this post.  You can’t just send the players on a sidequest of their choice and ignore the results.  That tells them that their contributions were meaningless filler.  I incorporated Larloch into the rest of the game.

The players managed to later convince Elminster to open negotiations with Larloch to get extra help before the final boss fight.  This got Elminster killed, and the boss took control of the aforementioned artifact.  The players were defeated and turned to undead, and normally that means their souls are stuck, leaving the players unresurrectable.  But in trading them some of his power, Larloch kept a portion of each of their souls, and that allowed him to bring them back (and this actually solved a plot hole I hadn’t worked out yet – the kobold refused to be resurrected under normal circumstances.  His religion was based on death and resurrection was unnatural.  But having one’s soul owned by an evil lich was even more unnatural, so resurrection was okay) .  Finally, when it was determined that the bad guy had grown too powerful, Larloch sent the players back in time (more on this in a later post) to face the bad guys when they were weaker.

Larloch, the NPC the players contributed, showed up as an important plot element in three different ways after he was introduced.   He wasn’t thrown out or swept under the rug after his scene was done.  He became just as important as anything I wrote into the game.  Riffing off of what your players give you is what roleplaying is all about.  It’s what you need to do if you’re trying to make your collaborative storytelling into more than just a game.


1 As a side note, the Forgotten Realms map was set up brilliantly. This almost makes me want to apologize for hating on WotC’s tech department.

Alright. Download a copy of the map. Open it in the GIMP (or some other image editing program if you swing that way). Choose the measure tool. In the bottom left corner of the map, there’s a scale that shows distances. Measure that scale. Comes out to ~960px, right? How many miles is that? 960. 1 mile per pixel. Thanks WotC, for making it trivially easy to determine distances using your map.

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