It’s accepted convention that the loss of player agency is demotivating and to be avoided whenever possible. It’s just not fun, be it mind control, alien parasites, or plain GM fiat. But what can you do as a GM when the rules themselves deprive a player of agency?
Hold Me Now
I personally had the misfortune to find myself in this role quite recently as my character was grappled with no chance of escape. And when I say “no chance of escape” I’m being quite literal. While there was an escape mechanic, it was statistically improbable of ever making the roll.
Okay, that’s fine, I guess. A stronger person can grapple a weaker person for essentially in perpetuity? The issue being the wording of the rules, leaving no room for interpretation (emphasis mine):
The victim can try to escape the clinch with his action. Neither may perform any other type of action until the victim breaks free or is released.
My character was unable to draw a dagger, attempt an acrobatic or contortionist maneuver to escape, or even use a reflexive, non-targeting power. In short, there was no point in even being at the table or rolling initiative as I completely lacked agency. As you can imagine, extremely frustrating.
As an aside, what is it with grappling rules that they all universally suck? Seriously!
My issue isn’t with the escape mechanic: that’s fairly well codified and makes sense within the context of the rules. My issue is with the ironclad verbiage that deprives a character of the ability to do anything but make a meaningless roll.
Therein sits the problem, where a GM may be inclined—as in this case—to follow the letter of the rules rather than the spirit of them.
We’re all familiar with the concept of Rule 0 but the solution goes deeper than that. As a GM part of your role should be to work with your players to say “yes,” not to shut them down. Because the more often you find yourself blocking their actions the faster the players themselves will shut down at your table. It’s a lose-lose situation.
In this case, there is the rule that serves as the foundation but a player should have the opportunity—via a clever idea or whatnot—to propose a solution to the GM. The GM weighs the request, be it against realism, storytelling, or just plain coolness. Whatever that metric may be at least the player AND the GM are working together.
The second, and more complex issue, is just fixing the rule outright. As a designer, this is the place where my head goes, to encompass the spirt of what was intended but provide alternative mechanics that make sense. Perhaps it’s as simple as applying a flat penalty to all attempts until the grapple is broken? A simple, 5 second solution that doesn’t require much scrutiny to implement and keeps the flow of the game going.
When faced with an issue of depriving a player of agency, what is your go-to solution? (Also, bonus points if you can name the game this problematic rule comes from.)