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Rules for Exerting Player Control?

This comment from Bankuei (author of the Deep in the Game [1] blog) on Matt Wilson’s site (The Dog Blog [2]) really got my wheels turning:

Unfortunately, there is not a single mainstream game that solidly lays out the idea of framing conflict outside of physics (even cinematic, anime, cartoon physics).

We have zero mainstream examples to point people to in terms of reconsidering that resolution, and more importantly, conflicts, might be about something other than who can hit who, move faster, or carry more.

This kind of post is exactly why I link to design blogs here on TT: because I think looking at game design can make for better GMing. Let’s take a look at Bankuei’s point as applied to to the grandaddy of mainstream games: D&D.

As Tony Dowler (of attacks of opportunity [3]) points out in that same comments thread, mainstream RPGs have been offering one mechanical system for exerting player control for years: a pool of points, generally hard to replenish, that allows a player to step in and change the way the dice fell. (I’d also add drama cards, from TORG, as an example — but I’ve never played TORG, and I don’t know that much about it.)

In D&D, the most mainstream of mainstream RPGs (and by mainstream I don’t mean “bad” — just “popular, and shapes the industry”) these are called action points, and they first made an appearance in the Eberron setting. But by design, action points don’t really do what Bankuei is getting at: all of the things a player can do with an action point are mechanical in nature.

In other words, you can’t spend an action point to take the story in a different direction (for example), except in the sense that, say, your PC avoiding a death blow takes the story in a different direction. In a nutshell, at least as far as D&D goes, I think bankuei is right: the rules don’t really get into ways for the players to change the story that’s being told around the table.

Sticking to D&D as an example, then, what would rules for exerting player control look like, and how would they fit into the game? In my time on both sides of the screen, I’ve seen a few things that jump out at me as examples of collaborative/player control — neither of which are part of the rules.

The first is using PC backgrounds as a direct source of campaign elements. A simple example would be a villainous NPC described in a PC’s background: the GM then develops that villain, and brings them to the table once the game begins. In my experience, this is actually pretty common — but it’s not really quantified in the rules.

The second is also more of a “hack” to the rules than an actual part of them: round-robin GMs. I’ve never played in a round-robin game, but it sounds fascinating. The idea being, of course, that the GM is more likely to vibe off previous ideas, making for a more collaborative experience, and less likely to arbitrarily kill characters (since her character will be among them).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t bring me any closer to answering my own question — then again, I don’t think there is a quick answer to this one! What do you think — do mainstream RPGs need rules for exerting player control? If so, what form might those rules take? And what examples of these kinds of rules are already out there in indie games, or elsewhere?

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Rules for Exerting Player Control?"

#1 Comment By Bankuei On July 17, 2005 @ 11:38 am

Hi Martin,

Funny enough, there’s a particular indie-game that was inspired by D&D- Donjon, that has a good example of a player control mechanic. Let us say that your character is making a “Listening” roll at the door, and you score 2 successes. Each success is a fact that you can narrate:

“I hear two trolls”
“And they are fighting each other!”

And then the GM is forced to adapt to your input.

This game was inspired by a couple of folks playing old school D&D for the hell of it, and someone made a successful roll to “find Secret Door”, and the GM thought, what if every time you successfully made a roll like that, suddenly there WAS a secret door?

But aside from that simple level of control, which also makes appearances in Inspectres, octaNe, Dust Devils, and Universalis to name a few, there’s a more interesting level of control that no mainstream game has even yet approached: Establishing conflict.

Trollbabe has a neat mechanic, called “Scene Request”, which a player can just say to the GM, “I’d like a scene where I stumble in on my boyfriend sleeping with the evil wizard!” and though the GM isn’t necessarily “enslaved” to the request, they are supposed to try to make it happen.

What this creates is a big input for players to shape the story and outcome of the game. So, if you were playing D&D and playing a Paladin, perhaps killing evil isn’t what really interests you, perhaps you’d rather play a character going through a crisis of faith. Instead of hoping the GM will magically be able to read your mind and establish the conflicts you want, having direct input lets you create the scenes and situations for you to play it out.

A great deal of those authorial and creative techniques which seem very obvious once you see them, have been cut off by the hardcore traditional player/GM divide in power. Method acting as our source of player input, plus the ability to slightly modify rolls, is nothing compared to the ability to set up conflicts or dictate their outcomes, which is what players really want in terms of greater input.


#2 Comment By John On July 17, 2005 @ 5:11 pm

First, a nitpick:

I think Spycraft introduced action points to d20. Which then went into D20 Modern and finally into Eberron. I mention it because I’m a huge fan of Spycraft — shhhh… don’t tell anyone. I’ll lose my indie-cred.


In addition to scene-framing powers, there’s also the matter of stakes-setting for conflicts. This small change can have a huge impact on a traditional game.

(Clinton explains this very well in his IIEE section in TSOY).

Allow the group to determine what happens with success or failure before the dice are rolled and then stick to that determination without any subtle GM manipulation after the fact. AND, if the group (or possibly, just the player rolling + the GM) cannot come to a consensus about the stakes (the possible outcomes of the roll) then you have to keep negotiating. Only when the stakes are approved and clear do you roll.

This is something you can drop into D20 without breaking a sweat. It will change the experience of play greatly.

#3 Comment By Martin On July 17, 2005 @ 8:43 pm

Chris, of the games you mentioned, I’ve only heard of two: Trollbabe and Universalis. I’ll have to check out the others — I love the idea of introducing a more collaborative element to D&D.

Tony, I’ll nitpick your nitpick: Spycraft introduced action points to d20, while Eberron introduced them to D&D. And no worries about your indie cred here at TT: “My name is Martin, and I play a lot of D&D.” 😉

As for your suggestion: do you mean for every roll, or only for certain rolls? It sounds neat, but it also sounds like it could bog down combat (particularly if a large number of combatants were involved).

And thank you both for your posts — it makes a big difference to a new blog like this one to be able to foster active discussion so early on! 🙂 I hope you like what I’m doing here, and I hope you’ll stick around!

#4 Comment By Bankuei On July 17, 2005 @ 11:39 pm


Yeah, there’s a LOT of techniques that allow folks to author what happens outside of “how likely is it for me to succeed?” which seems to be the question a lot of games are stuck on.

Introducing this stuff into mainstream games isn’t hard at all- it’s introducing it to mainstream gamers. Most are hardwired against having or using input in any fashion other than “I attempt X.” I’ve had a couple of gamers feel guilty or uncomfortable over exercising such power- they felt like they were cheating.

For the most part, I find the easiest way to get people out of that is to play games with explicit narration trading rules (like Inspectres) that force folks to play different, plus it also shakes them out of the mindset they fall into with their atypical games.


#5 Comment By Martin On July 18, 2005 @ 7:59 am

John “Tony” Harper, my apologies! That was an embarassing goof. : At least now I can tell you that I like The Mighty Atom (if you hadn’t guessed by the link on TT!) — sharp stuff, and an excellent read.

I’ll be printing out that section of TSOY today — thanks! I’ll have to think about how my players would react, but it might be fun to try in my upcoming D&D game (stars next week). We shall see!

Chris, I can see what you’re getting at about mindsets (and changing them). My group includes one game designer who dislikes d20, so I suspect he’d be up for a bit of experimentation; not sure about the other three. 😉

#6 Comment By Tony On August 10, 2005 @ 7:56 pm

The funny thing is that functionally players have had narrative input from the very beginning of RPGs. What GM hasn’t worked at picking up on what players want and incorporating it. The genius of all these “indie” games is that they give you a procedure for doing this in the rules.

#7 Comment By Martin On August 10, 2005 @ 11:11 pm

(Tony) What GM hasn’t worked at picking up on what players want and incorporating it. The genius of all these “indie” games is that they give you a procedure for doing this in the rules.

I’d never thought about it that way! That’s a very concise way to explain what a lot of indie games seem — I say seem because my experience there is so limited — to offer.