By Patrick Hawes-DeFrias
As a Dungeon Master, Storyteller, or whatever your game of choice calls the person running the game, your role is to create a world and story for your players to adventure in. As such, your creative choices have a major impact on the proceedings of the game. However, it’s important to know that your players should also have some agency in the game. Now on one hand, you definitely don’t want your players to just do whatever on a whim, they’ll probably need some guidance (unless, of course, the point is to have a very open-world game, in which case that’s another matter entirely). For example, if your players need to talk to a king to take on a quest, you’ll want to make sure they’re dissuaded from killing him for no reason. That’s a pretty severe example, and if such an occurrence happens then chances are whoever did it is actively trying to be disruptive anyway. But, you get my point- you don’t want the world you’ve created to be easily ruined.
It’s important not to do the opposite either- railroading players or just giving them the illusion of choice. This story, while created by you, is interactive, and you need to take the creative challenge of being able to handle and incorporate the curveball decisions your players make. Let me give you an example of such a challenge from a game I’ve been playing with a group of friends lately:
Our group had gone to see the leader of a Dwarven city, since the city was along the path to our next destination, and we’d just happened to receive reports of the town’s mine being in jeopardy. After talking with him, we learned that in the process of their digging, they’d accidentally uncovered a nest of monsters. Additionally, an unrelated monster known as a Delver had shown up as well, which is particularly bad as that’s a type of monster that feeds off of rare metals and ores (such as those found within the mine of a prosperous Dwarven city). Seeing as the Delver would probably be the trickier thing to deal with, we decided to save it for last. So we went through the mine, and the majority of monsters we ran into were simply evil beasts ready to devour any who went into the mine, and so we dispatched them. But, then we got to the Delver. For reference, this is what a Delver looks like:
Sooo, yeah. When our DM showed us that, we were immediately struck back by the fact that the thing looks like a massive, hulking hell-beast of some variety. So, our resident caster decided to try a knowledge roll to figure out something about our foe before we just ran in there. He rolled pretty high, and learned quite a bit, including the fact that it’s an intelligent creature and is usually non-hostile unless provoked. Now, none of us could speak its language, but our resident caster was a psionic rather than a user of magic (basically he has a bunch of psychic powers rather than spells- think Jean Grey from the X-Men). That meant that he could just communicate with the Delver telepathically. So, rather than fighting the Delver (who at this point we started referring to jokingly as Delvin), we decided to try and convince him to move from the mine diplomatically. We eventually struck a bargain- Delvin had always wanted to try the taste of mythril, and if we could get him some, he’d agree to leave the area and move up to a mountain range known as The Spine. Thus, we decided to speak with the city’s leader to let him know of the situation (and possibly coerce some mythril out of him).
Now if our DM was bad at this, here’s how this could’ve gone down- the city’s ruler could’ve just laughed us off and refused us aid towards pacifying Delvin, and any shop we went to could’ve “just happened” to not carry mythril. Or, the mayor could’ve just flat-out stated that he’d refuse to pay us unless we killed Delvin. Basically, he could’ve left us with no option OTHER than killing Delvin, thereby removing our own agency in the game. However, he opted to roll with the ridiculous idea we had. We had to do some convincing, but in the end we did get the mayor to give us a scepter of mythril to feed to Delvin. We went back to the mine and fed it to Delvin, who happily fulfilled his side of the deal and started making his way to the mountains. The mine was saved, we got paid, everyone’s happy. Now, that could easily have been the end of it. Maybe we bump into Delvin again and see how he’s doing, maybe not. But, our DM understood the importance of having actual consequences and impact for player decisions. So for the next part of our tale, let’s skip ahead a few weeks. We had traveled to the opposite side of the mountains to speak with the Blackguard, a group of barbarians, to seek their aid in a coming battle, after which we went in the direction of a large druid settlement for the same reason, which was on the side of the mountains we were at before. On our way there, we ran into some miners, who to their dismay exclaimed that there was almost no mythril in the area. However, they also remarked at how a cleanly shaped tunnel had formed in the mountain, and that there was now a safe and efficient path through the mountain pass. You can probably guess how that got there.
And so here we see how a DM should handle player decisions- allow them to exist and cause actual change in the world. Our DM used our decision from a month prior to make a definitive change in the world (in this example making travel easier), set up a potential conflict earlier (what happens if the miners’ boss figures out we were the ones who messed up their mining location?) and on top of that, used it for a quick comedic moment to add a bit of levity in the game. Being able to do this with some random thing your players decide to do is challenging, but ultimately it adds to the experience, makes it more memorable and fun, and isn’t that the whole point?
Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Monster Manual