Why Player Consent and Collaboration Are Vital

A lego battle between multiple scifi characters.

Roleplaying games have their roots in wargaming, where each character was little more than a machine for killing goblins and gaining loot. It’s no surprise that many GMs still see their campaigns as a one-way street. The GM says how it’s gonna be, and the players enjoy themselves – what could be simpler?

But games have moved beyond that wargaming model. Even Dungeons and Dragons, the champion of goblin killing and loot gaining, now has sections in its rules about how to craft a story. With that paradigm shift, it’s vital to treat your players as partners in this collective storytelling experience. You don’t need to ask in advance before every plot reveal, but you should be in constant communication so you know how your story is being received and when you need to make changes.

Characters Are Extensions of the Player’s Self

A PC is a very personal thing. Players spend hours crafting every aspect of their characters. This could mean poring through the book for an extra +1 to attack rolls, or it could mean crafting an intricate backstory full of drama and conflict. A character is more than a vehicle to pilot through the adventure; they carry a piece of the player’s psyche.

So it’s critical for you to check with the player before making big alterations to their character. Some of this is obvious. You wouldn’t reveal actions from a PC’s past without making sure it’s something they’d actually do first. You wouldn’t unilaterally decide that a PC’s loving relationship with their sibling is actually hateful and toxic.

But some alterations are less obvious. For example, if a PC ends up in a situation where they must choose between two evils, that will be a major change. From that point on, the character will always be someone who chose evil, even if there was no other option. Some players will really enjoy this. Others will not. They didn’t want their character to be someone who chose evil. Now their character doesn’t feel right.

When a character doesn’t feel right, it’s like wearing clothes that constantly itch. It’s hard to enjoy anything when your clothes itch. Even if you go on to craft the most amazing story, your player might not be able to enjoy it because their character doesn’t fit anymore.

If you’re planning something that will have a big impact on a PC, you have two basic options. The first is to simply tell the player, “Hey, I’m planning this. What do you think?” If that’s not viable, the second option is to give the character an out in case the player isn’t into your idea. Sure, the moral quandary you put before the character might look intractable, but you’ve got a solution ready if the player just isn’t enjoying themselves.

Players Know Their Own Enjoyment

The goal of a roleplaying game is to have fun; that’s what it says in the intro section of nearly every RPG book ever printed. This is repeated so often that it can sound tired and trite. But it’s still true.

Every GM has their own idea of what will make for the most fun in their game, and that’s great. Variety is the spice of life. But if you really want to know what a player will enjoy, you should ask them. That’s right: players are really good at knowing what they’ll enjoy in a game.

This doesn’t mean you just say nothing and wait for the players to fill in your blank page. That’s an abdication of your responsibilities. Instead, you make the best story offering you can, and then you ask the players what else they’d like and what they’d like to change. That’s right: what they’d like to change. If you’re serious about collaborating with your players, and you should be, you have to be willing to alter your vision based on their feedback.

As the GM, it’s your job to make sure each node in your storytelling collective is working at full potential. That means checking in with the players who aren’t as active and encouraging them to offer up ideas. Otherwise, you’re not getting the full potential out of your medium. If you find that the mechanics of the game are getting in the way of a less active player expressing themself, it’s your job to change the mechanics.

And when players do produce ideas, you need to run with them whenever possible, even if they seem silly. While you’ll occasionally have to say no to protect the rest of the game, this should be a last resort. If you’re willing to work with the player, most ideas can be shaped into something that will better serve the story.

Character Death Cannot Be Forced

I’ve already mentioned how important it is to respect a player’s wishes about their character, but PC death is such a big issue it deserves its own section. Every player has a horror story of losing a beloved character and how it ruined the game for them. This is because most GMs have been conditioned to treat character death as something that just happens.

Even today, most roleplaying systems have death as the unavoidable consequence of running out of hitpoints. Too many unlucky rolls in a random encounter, and a character is just gone. This model worked when games were primarily an exercise in combat tactics, but it is incompatible with more story-driven play.

In order for your campaign’s story to mean anything, players must be invested in their characters. Otherwise, the group is just rolling plastic polyhedrals on pieces of paper. It is unworkable to ask for that level of investment from your players and then let their characters die from a random roll. Neither is it acceptable to craft a plot where a character dies without getting their player’s okay, no matter how dramatic the death.

This is a matter of trust. Players will not invest emotionally in their characters unless they trust you not to spring death on them at any moment. If a character is ripped away without consent, it can be traumatizing. At the very least, it ruins someone’s day and snuffs out the potential fun they could have had with that character. That’s not something you want at your table.

On the other hand, if the player is into it, then character death is a fantastic opportunity for drama and catharsis. It’s a chance to explore loss from a safe place or live out a fantasy of sacrificing everything for a worthy cause. The only way you can ensure this result is to always check first to see if a player is okay with their character dying. If they’re not, then don’t kill their character. It’s that simple.

Game Masters Are Stewards of the Group

In previous articles, I’ve advocated that the GM should have full authority over their games, and I stand by that position. But a GM’s authority isn’t so you can push your own ideas at the expense of all others; it’s so you can be of better service to the group. Your goal as a GM is not to rule over the game like some feudal warlord, but to promote fun as best you can.

We run games not for our own glory, but for the enjoyment of our players. Being a game master means you have a position of responsibility. To fulfill that responsibility, you must communicate with your players. Otherwise, how are you going to know what they want?

And when players tell you what they want, you have a duty to give it to them as best you can. Respect their desires and incorporate them whenever possible, or else you’re just throwing your weight around. If you have to overrule a player, it must be for the good of the group, not just for your personal interests.

Roleplaying is one of the most personal storytelling mediums in existence. In order to get the most out of it, players must open themselves up, which means there’s a substantial risk of getting hurt. Your job is to build a safe place for your players, somewhere that minimizes the danger. Consent and collaboration are the building blocks of that space. Without them, your games will never reach their full potential.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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  1. Kathy Ferguson

    This analysis of GMing works well as a model of political leadership: responsibility based on collaboration and respect.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      This is true, although in politics I am a big fan on limiting the power of political leaders, both through checks and balances, and through elections, while in RPGs I favor more of a Philosopher King approach.

    • Jesse

      I was thinking the same thing, but as a management style in a business setting. Bottom line, people like it when their voice is heard and those in authority that it into account. Happy players (employees) make for a successful game (business).

  2. BI (@BIofGG)

    I understand where you come from, but frankly I feel you lost the point and you’re the one trying to force your opinions on everyone else

    >Your job is to build a safe place for your players, somewhere that minimizes the danger.

    No. Your job as a dm is to create something fun. It’s literally your first and most important task. That requires you to understand your group, and it also requires something that most noobs seem to forget, that you yourself as a dm should try to have some fun too.

    If you were on my group, I probably would try to accomodate for you, but nowhere in my mind would it pass through my head that what YOU require to have fun is normal, something you deserve by default, or something that should be imposed to everyone else. Your needs would be gauged against the needs of other players, and any failure to make you happy will be assumed to be the DM just being human and not managing to make everything 100% fun between a mish mash of individual people with different needs.

    But the moment I see you trying to game the fact that the DM knows that you don’t like to die(And believe me, the last two times I saw someone using your arguments, it was exactly that), would probably end up with your character being killed because I as a DM don’t find appealing nor fun being manipulated with emotional arguments. Different people have different approaches to fun, and for me, a player unable to act and roleplay as if his character could die, even a little slip of that is a complete and total turn off. I as a DM deserve to have fun too, and I’ll not even consider the idea that one player politics can be used to universally determine what’s fun and what’s not.

  3. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: I removed a comment here for being extremely hostile to players with a different playstyle. If people think the article is wrong they are welcome to say so, but attacks on other players will not be tolerated.

  4. BI (@BIofGG)

    I’m quite surprised it’s not mine. Not to be trying to throw cheap shots at you but based on the subjects of this blog I’m surprised my post is still up.

    Guess I judged you too quickly.

  5. Jio

    You as the DM are the storyteller, you can take opinions, but I don’t believe you should change your story completely to accommodate others. If the quest was to rescue the kingdom from the Lich king of Eyldof, you shouldn’t allow that to be detoured into focusing on the liberating the kingdom of Uinsol. Uinsol’s, being a players suggestion for an exotic port kingdom where there’s an evil oppressive Hanold Rumpft taking over and making it less lively and mechanizing things. At most I’d make Hanold a pawn of the Lich king who has been sent to the port city of Uinsol to slowly kill life in the area in the name of the lich, still making my original plan work and their idea worked in.

    Failure as within all things comes with consequences, if you fail to roll right your character can be and should be punished, including death. I understand you may not be comfortable with these but your approach is rather filling me disinterest to ever play with someone of that rule set as it lessens all stakes and in fact with the point of death not being forced, kills(for lack of better term for it) the major stake. You as a person playing will lose your progress or be illegible to continue, without that failure state even if it’s a temporary one you lose the point of playing to win/accomplish a goal. This makes me feel like it’s not exactly the greatest foot to start a campaign on, because I know at any time I can ask you to cancel out deathly issues.

    I will not hope that this will change your mind as it’s clearly enough to be outspoken on the issue but realize at least where these critiques are coming from.

    • Mazzy

      But the thing is, consequences aren’t meant to be a punishment, they’re meant to add unpredictability to make things MORE fun, not less (like a punishment). If you roll a nat 1 at an important time it means the plan you just made is going spectacularly wrong, but if that means it’s less fun for the players, then why would anyone want that?

      I don’t think player death is necessarily off-limits, and the article doesn’t say that, but it does need to be treated with a little bit of tact. As an example, I’m playing Curse of Strahd right now, and I made a character who’s super snarky, and in our first meeting with him he pissed me off, and I knew it would have consequences, but because doing otherwise just wouldn’t have felt like good role-playing, I snarked. Strahd retaliated, and the GM gave me an option: I could keep playing her with some consequences of being much less sane, or I could make a new character and my old character could go be a crazy alcoholic hanging out with allies.

      I picked the 2nd option, and it’s a lot of fun (I like my new character, who’s a little more viable for the setting, and every now and then my old character will show up to explode things and cackle maniacally). But if the GM had just made a call without talking to me, or if he had just killed my character right then without saying anything beforehand, that probably would have upset me enough that the game wouldn’t be fun anymore, and I would’ve stopped playing. He’d have every right to do that, but that’s not really the point: why would any GM want to do something that causes their players to have less fun?

  6. Joshua

    I think this article is on point as far as Player/GM interaction is concerned.

    Player feedback influencing the GM is a great idea. Players do know what they like, and while a GM should not be a slave to every whim of the players (the GM likely has significantly more time invested in the game than the players) they should be sensitive to the player’s desires.

    Coming from a background of very linear RPGs where many goblins were smashed and much loot was acquired I have a great appreciation for the storytelling aspect of the medium that I missed out on as a kid. The GM should be willing to deviate from the plot a bit if the players are taking the narrative in a fun direction. But this doesn’t mean that the GM shouldn’t be allowed to subtly circle the players back to a plot thread that has been lovingly and painstakingly crafted. That is their right as a GM.

    I agree with Jio on the issue of character death.

    A world where a player can walk up to the Warlord’s daughter and slap her across the face without being immediately skewered by guards is broken and comes across as fake. The decisions that a character makes needs to have consequences and if the player knows that death is off the table then they are able to invincibly take risks where nothing is at stake. The success of a daring defense while your friends escape is cheapened if there was never really any mortal danger.

    A friend of mine did this very thing in a session recently where the entire party was down, save him, and instead of running, which would have ensured the safety of his character, he stayed and gambled on a very slim chance of fooling the enemy and saving the lives of the party. From the outset the GM said that the results of rolls would be final (as evidenced by the character bodies all over the ground) and the danger was very real. He succeeded the roll, saved the party, and everyone cheered. If the GM hadn’t made clear the fact that failure would very likely mean the death of his character there would have been no opportunity for selfless sacrifice. “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” Characters should have a chance to be valiant.

    That said, if it isn’t a character decision but instead a cruel twist of fated dice that would result in a character’s death, then fudging a roll should be up to the Deus Ex Machina, but I propose that character death can be forced by a players decisions.

    I don’t think the GM should have to nerf morally compromising choices for players.

    An RPG in an opportunity for regular people to act like heros. It allows an environment where players can test their mettle against those “what is right and what is easy” decisions. A diabolical GM could conceive of some choice where there is no good option, but how many times have we seen the heros of our favorite stories push through those circumstances and win the day despite the hopelessness of the situation?

    Mal could give up Simon and River and keep flying without being hunted by the Operative. Han and Chewie could take the reward and pay off their debt to Jabba. In both of those instances there were some pretty severe consequences (friends died, ganster’s mantle piece) but they made the hard decision and didn’t regret it.

    I think characters should be pushed sometimes to make tough choices (which ties into the character death idea) and really see what they want their characters to be. The tough choices are what shape the character and if the player never gets a chance to make them then their character is going to have a hard time growing. Should such actions be rewarded occasionally with a little extra help in the nick of time? Again, the god in the machine can decide.

  7. Morgan

    To me, risk is part of what makes it possible to get heavily emotionally invested in a character.

    Heroism and adversity don’t feel nearly as meaningful without the genuine risk involved in having your character’s life hang on the roll of the dice. Playing someone smart and tactical has no payoff if bad tactics don’t increase your chance of failing and dying horribly. Nor does playing someone reckless, if you can always evade the consequences. Taking stupid risks is fun because there’s a possibility of big negative or big positive consequences. Taking either possibility away diminishes the impact. It shouldn’t be impossible to win in a given scenario, but it also shouldn’t be impossible to lose.

    I don’t think you should plan to kill someone’s character unavoidably without prior consent, but putting them in situations where they can die if they’re unlucky or make bad choices increases tension and increases investment in the character. Same with difficult moral choices – consequences are what make story.

    There’s a broader form of consent where there should be an explicit or implicitly understood social contract from the start of the campaign as to what sort of game it is: is it high-risk, high-fatality? Is there a possibility of death without permission? Will unpleasant things unavoidably happen to you? Are you big damn heroes, antiheroes, or ordinary people caught up in events?
    The important thing is that everyone is on the same page: a game where you randomly die because you rolled badly against Mook #3 can be fun, a game where no-one dies without prior consent can be fun – the game that isn’t fun is when some of the players think they’re playing Game A and some think they’re playing Game B.

    • Mazzy

      That’s all fair, but death isn’t the only viable consequence of bad luck or choices. Just as there are consequences worse than death, there are a ton of reasonable consequences that don’t kill fun (pun not intended) like a character death does.

      I’m not trying to invalidate your experience, but for some people (me included), being a couple of nat-1s away from a character being gone forever makes it practically impossible to get emotionally invested in a character, because we all have nights where our rolls are terrible, some of us have more of those than others, and if I’m that close to losing this character forever, why would I want to get attached to them?

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