Controlled Anarchy: Power to the Players
If traditional games were a nation, The UN would be on them like butter on toast. The distribution of creative control is a tyrannical system: nearly all of the game world’s creative control rests in the hands of the greedy, clawed hands of the ruthless GM.
Okay, so it’s not that dramatic. But traditional games are certainly designed to give the most control to the GMs. Players have control over their characters (through character creation, backstory, and in-game decisions) as well as the immediate environment their characters can affect (whether it be by moving it, killing it, or magical force bolts at it). This system of power can be fun, but it gets really fun when we allow some of that creative power to trickle down to the players. When players create something, they are more likely to interact with it, and therefore be more interested in the game. This in turn makes your job easier, which makes a better game over all! In short:
empowered players = happy players = interested players = happy GM = enjoyable game
Giving players power doesn’t mean tearing the role of GM down. This can be done by handing out little “power nuggets” to players, using many different techniques. So turn on your Rage Against the Machine, ‘cause we’re about to tear down this tyrannical establishment and stick it to the man. Let’s have some anarchy!
Disclaimer: These techniques require trust in your players. One reason why many traditional games limit the control the players have over the world at large is the desire to maintain a challenge. The thought is, if players have world control, they’ll just poof in a treasure chest full of vorpral swords or do some other game breaking action. This has the same effect as “god modes” in video games: it’s a blast for the first fight, sort of fun for the second, and then by the time the third fight comes around, you’re missing the challenge.
Like all problems, this can be solved with communication. Explain your expectations to the players. Tell Grabak the Barbarian you’d prefer if he didn’t create an army of Gundams to use. Then trust your players to respect your expectations. Don’t say no unless it’s hurting the game experience. If they toe the line, explain how and why their actions are hurting the game (they may not even be aware), and ask them not to do so. The worst case scenario is you have to say “No, sorry, you can’t do that.” You’ve got nothing to lose.
Apocalypse World Rules: Disclaim Decision-Making
Nobody would know how to empower players better than the story game community. If you haven’t already MCed (the game’s term for Gamemasters) Vincent Baker’s story game Apocalypse World, do yourself a favor and do so. That game’s structure for GMing has been a great influence on my own style. One of the game’s MC guidelines is of particular use to us here: occasionally disclaim decision-making. In Apocalypse World, this means that sometimes when a player asks, “Are there chandeliers in the Great Hall?” you should respond with “Are there? You tell me.”
This gives the player a creative input into the game beyond what they usually have. Of course, a player could abuse this, but we’re going to trust them not to, because the results are awesome. If a player asks if there are any chandeliers in the Great Hall, it's probably because they're about to do some sweet shit with it. Let them have it. Let’s do a comparison:
Option 1: Decision-making disclaimed
Player: “Are there chandeliers in the Great Hall?”
GM: “Are there? You tell me.”
Player: “Uh, okay, yes, there are. Can I jump onto one from the balcony, swing across, and then interrupt the king’s speech by skewering him with my rapier from above?”
Option 2: Lame
Player: “Are there chandeliers in the Great Hall?”
Player: “Huh, okay. I guess I’ll just shot him with my bow.”
I hope I don’t have to explain which of these the better option is. This technique can be used for anything: environments (like above), social interactions (“Is he lying? You tell me.”), historical clarifications (“He might have an illegitimate heir, what do you think?”), and more. Disclaiming decision-making works best when it’s used relatively sparingly and used in ways that give the PCs toys to play with.
If you play a game that using miniatures and maps for battle, allowing your players to draw out battle-maps is one of the easiest ways to give players a taste of the sweet, sweet nectar of creative control. Briefly explain the general contents of the map (“It’s a town square,”) and any features that are needed (“so there'll need to be buildings, and there’s probably like a fountain or something too”), then give the players the markers and sit back: prepare your notes, get a drink, nod off, or whatever you like. Meanwhile, the players will create for you an interesting map. In all the times I’ve done this, I’ve never been disappointed with a blank map.
In fact, most often, players are going to include something extra to give them an advantage. And that’s totally okay. If a player creates a terrain feature, they are nearly certain to interact with it. It’s far more interesting for Grabak to push down rotten trees on top of the goblins than for him to walk up to the and whack them with repeatedly with his greatsword.
Player Controlled Monsters
Dave tipped me on to the awesomeness of this one in a custom critical hit charm for magic against zombies (Dave’s secretly a gaming anarchist too, he just doesn’t know it yet). One of the results on the magic hit table allowed the caster to take control of a zombie, and basically use it as a puppet. When I read that, I was instant enamored. Fewer monsters for the GM to control, more fun for the players to have. This can be done in-game, like Dave’s example above, or out-game, where you just hand the players sheets for the monsters. This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing, either. You could say that goblins are indecisive and bad tacticians, so one turn the players will control them, and another turn the GM will.
Let’s Start a Revolution
These are, of course, just a few methods to break down the tyrannical distribution of power in traditional games. As you use these, others will develop, and soon you’ll have full blown anarchy on your hands! (Okay, hopefully not. But you will have fun, enriched gaming.) Do you use any techniques like these to play with the power distribution in your game? If so, let the world know! Leave a comment below describing how you stick it to the man!