Can you provide your players freedom of choice?

It all started out so innocently–just a normal, every-day mattress fire started by our cleric.  You know, in a wooden inn.  And in the end, the Golden Grain Inn (from N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God) was in ashes.

This, my friends, is the danger of giving players freedom to choose.  It’s possible that they may just burn the inn down!

Now this came as no surprise to me.  As a player character, I’ve roleplayed as arsonist a time or two.  I’m sure you’ve seen it happen too.  But these sorts of character actions cause a problem for us: offering freedom to players often constrains the story.

In the case of this unfortunate fire (which occurred in last Monday’s session, mind you), we now have a major set piece in ashes.  But beyond that, as the DM, I’m faced with a really complicated conundrum: how do the [bad guys] respond?  The module does not have much fluff about these folks.  So now the storyline has been shaken.  Where do I go from here?

While many GMs would default to railroading the players (thus limiting the players’ freedom), some would abandon the storyline altogether (thus limiting the GM’s freedom).  But I think there’s a better way to handle situations like this when players throw the story into a tailspin.  The answer?  Consequences.

For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction.  And that is what the GM must be prepared to do.  Here’s how you can do it with ease:

Know your options for consequences

I can think of at least four categories of consequences that can come about when your players introduce a monkey wrench in the storyline:

  1. Plot consequences
    This is certainly the simplest consequence.  In a way, it’s what I referred to in my Saltmarsh recap: is it possible that your PCs could actually fail at their quest?  And, if they did, how could that propel them into a new kind of story altogether?See, that’s the thing: player freedom actually makes it more fun for the GM.  If you knew the end from the beginning, it could very easily get boring.  But by having players shape the future of the story, even you could be surprised.

    So let’s say the players burn down the inn, prompting the BBEG to kill the princess the adventurers are wanting to save.  Whoa.  That’s a problem.  But then the BBEG pins the whole thing on the adventurers.  And now they’re on the run from adventurers seeking vengeance.  Here’s my point: if the players endanger the plot, allow them to endanger it!  See what happens when the whole thing starts to unravel.  It could get very interesting.

  2. NPC Consequences
    This is similar to plot consequences, but it’s less dire.  Perhaps a friendly NPC takes offense at the actions of the players.  Or, on the other hand, maybe an enemy NPC seems inclined to give them a second chance.Realistically, this is what’s going to happen as a result of the inn being burned down in our game.  Arson is generally looked down on in society.  So people are not going to be thrilled about this turn of events.  There are some other plot issues that will compound this, but this is the easiest one to generate for my situation.
  3. “Patron” Consequences
    I used “patron,” because I couldn’t think of another broad-enough word.  This could be a character’s deity, the local Assassin’s guild, or the extraplanar figure that gives the Warlock his power (I’ve been reading the 5e PHB).  Think about it:The cleric who set the fire in our game serves a goddess of death and fire.  So, I think she’s going to be OK with that.  But is the Assassin’s Guild going to be happy with a second Assassin getting assassinated in one week?  What about that druid?  If you’re playing 1st Ed. AD&D, he or she gets their third level spells directly from their deity.  What if their deity is unhappy with such activities and refuses to give spells?

    Every character answers to somebody in-game.  Of course, if they’re total loners, they could also be arrested.  Some authority figure can take umbrage with their actions.

  4. Internal Consequences
    These are frankly the most powerful, because they will cause characters to think twice next time.  If an innocent person had died in the fire at the inn, then the whole party would be stuck with a moral quandary–let alone the one who set the fire.This is where I find the whole alignment issue fascinating.  If you hold a more strict AD&D approach to alignment, it’s these sorts of moral quandaries that force players to think through their character’s actions.  Will they change at risk of losing power?  Or will they stick to their alignment “rules-as-written”?  Will the characters be redeemed?  Or will they stay the same?

    I personally find these sorts of consequences to be most compelling.  Why?  Because they lead to a better story.  The first three types of consequence can be used on occasion.  But if you use them too much, you start bullying your players into doing what you want.  But internal consequences give them continued freedom with responsibility.

So these are the four consequence types that I could see using in response to players actions that totally throw you off the scent of the storyline.  But what to actually do with these?

Create a immediate consequence for player actions

This is the best action for you to take right now.  If your player’s actions are threatening to derail the whole plot, make sure there’s a consequence!  It’s not that you don’t want players to “step out of line”–you want to make sure that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction!

When you begin to GM this way–when player actions cause real responses–it gives more meaning and weight to player freedom.  Players will play more carefully and strategically, when they know there are going to be consequences.  Additionally, this will prevent any overly active murder-hoboing.

How immediate does this consequence need to be?  I usually wait until the next session.  I think on what the players have done each session and add complications that seems (a) appropriate to the storyline and (b) fun and challenging for the players.  Don’t be vindictive.  Be thoughtful as you guide your players into a better, deeper, richer story.

Plan a long-term consequence for player actions

Now I find this particularly fun.  In life, choices have consequences that can last for a very long time.  Why not have the same thing happen in your RPG campaign?  Imagine it this way.  If you’re using a pre-published module (which I am), think in terms of different timelines in comic books, movies, or theoretical physics.  Every choice your players make sends your timeline in a different direction.  It need not be far off the original timeline, only a mere adjustment or two, but it should affect eventual outcomes.

To give an example from my current campaign (without spoiling it for my players), there is no way that our PCs will be able to go unnoticed by their enemies any more.  They have arrived in Orlane.  They have burned down an apparent stronghold of their enemy.  What they may have accomplished through stealth and trickery can be done no longer.  No, they will now be opposed.  But it will take time for that to set in.  And it will be wild when it does.

What do your characters set in motion long-term through their actions?  Give thought to this, as it will make for a much more enjoyable and fun story for everyone.

So what are you facing in your campaign?

I’m curious what monkey wrenches your players have thrown into your story lately?  How have you dealt with it?  And what creative solutions can you give us for creating compelling consequences for player actions?  Let me know!  Here’s how:

Tell me on Twitter or Facebook.  Or sound off in the comments below!

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5 thoughts on “Can you provide your players freedom of choice?

  1. I like all of your ideas, but I also like to use the players imagination against them – heck, half the time they will say something out loud that Ill think “Wow thats better than my idea!”.

    In this case, the party gets a reputation for being cursed or unlucky. Because being PCs they probably have some air-tight smug alibi to get away with setting an Inn on fire. Well you might get away legally, but as word spreads that they are jinxs… you plant this seed in their minds – that people are looking at them weird, women dragging their children inside, merchantssuddenly saying “we are closed!” as they approach… as a GM you can keep this going for a bit and leaves door open for future “consequences”, but for me, the best part is just planting that seed of paranoia in the players mind that this is going to come back to haunt them. You dont even have to have any good ideas *how* haha! just make them paranoid and wary. Their imaginations as to what the consequences will be in the *players* mind is better imo than a literal, (immediate that is) consequence for the characters.

    • MadCleric says:

      ha! I’ll have to agree there. often players will even accidentally tell you what will be most effective. In tonight’s session, though I had already planned it, one of the players said, “It will be terrible if…” And then said exactly what was about to happen.

  2. I think you’ve answered your own question solidly enough lad. I wouldn’t do much different. Though I tend to intermix public areas with children and the elderly. Even ‘bad’ people have them. That would (SHOULD) dissuade any attempt at arson. Where are those people going to sleep? How close is winter? You burn their home, what have they got? Nothing? Well, let me tell you. People with nothing, are the most dangerous people on earth, yrth, Oerth, Urf, etc.

  3. Beoric says:

    This hasn’t happened to me in a good long time, for several reasons:

    1. I try to make my hooks really compelling. When I succeed, my players are determined to get to the bottom of whatever plot the villain is running or whatever mystery they are facing.

    2. I take the position that it’s not my plot. My villains have plots; I don’t. How the players choose to unravel the villain’s plot (or explore, or resolve some mystery) is up to them. I present opportunities for them to discover things, but if the players blow it, they are just going to have to figure out something else. I am happy to sit back and wait for them to figure out they are going in the wrong direction, and when they do, they will get themselves back on track because of #1.

    3. I know my factions and my NPCs really well. I keep the descriptions in my notes short enough to read at a glance, and evocative enough that it immediately reminds me what the NPC/faction is all about. Then I just think in character, and the NPCs make their own decisions about how they will respond. That makes it easy to determine consequences.

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