Recently a gamer friend sent me a message asking for my perspective about a situation that unfolded at a game table where they were a player. In the situation, some players and the game master were directing a player on how to spend her turn. Shortly afterwards, an article began circulating on social media that covered an extreme case of the same topic, titled “Honey, Let the Real Gamers Play.”Â The confluence of these two events inspired me to share my perspective on what can generously be referred to as providing unsolicited advice but can be more directly referred to as taking away a player’s agency.
Note that this article is not about the intention of the people offering unsolicited advice. This is about catching people, including yourself, on the edge of overwhelming another players agency and how to move forward in game.
In the aforementioned article, the writer shares a situation in which the GM and other players take away the writer’s sense of control by taking her turns for her. In the ultimate denial of agency, she was not allowed to select her own actions or even roll dice to determine the outcome. In my friend’s situation, the game master and several players at the table “helped” the player (playing a caster with some healing capabilities) to choose how to play her character by collectively suggesting what action she take or what spell she cast. By the end of the game the player called out the other participants for effectively taking over her turns.
It sucks to be the player on the receiving end of unsolicited advice. It makes assumptions both about the character’s personality and the player’s ability to bring that character to life. Unsolicited advice tells a player in not so many words that their fellow players — often their friends — think they are better at playing the character than the player herself.
It can feel like bullying to be on the receiving end of even well-intentioned, excited, or enthusiastic suggestions. A player may feel like they are disappointing a friend or the team if they don’t use the idea, and that’s basically the best outcome. Bottom line: It is not fun.
Here’s one of the golden rules in role playing: Let the other players do their thing.
Transforming Unsolicited Advice into Help
Don’t get me wrong, cooperation is great – this is a team game after all. But that has to be a two way conversation. A person’s control over their character’s decisions is absolute — otherwise it’s not truly their character.
If a player is stumped and needs ideas or rules clarification I hope that player speaks up and asks for help. But silence doesn’t always mean someone needs or wants help. They may just be trying to decide their reaction to the prior player’s actions. That’s part of the collaborative nature of RPGs, the story evolves as we play — contemplation is part of responding effectively.
If a player seems to be floundering but remains silent, go ahead and ask, “Do you want a suggestion?” Full Stop. Wait for consent before offering advice, that’s the magic that transforms the unsolicited advice into help.
Why shouldn’t I freely voice my awesome ideas?
I’ve done this. I’ve got a big personality and when I have ideas bubble up I want to share them with the world. But when I realized how much I hate it when people tell me how to play my character, I started making a conscious effort to rein myself in. Part of being an all-star player is passing the spotlight to your fellow players and helping everyone to have fun.
Tables where everyone feels like their ideas are enthusiastically encouraged are where players thrive and surprise us with their ingenuity. It is the starting place for games that are pure magic. It would be absolutely boring to play an RPG with a table full of people who think exactly the same way as each other. No one would ever be able to surprise anyone. That’s the beauty of role playing, the story unfolds in unexpected ways for the players and facilitator alike.
How can I help tamp down on unsolicited advice at the game table?
As the player offering unsolicited advice:
- Always get permission from a player to give them advice before doing so. If they do not want your advice, do not voice it. Kick some ass on your turn.
- Charge yourself an in game resource to give advice. Spend your action role playing to persuade your counterpart to take an action. Spend a Benny or a Fate Chip to offer advice. In essence you are potentially getting a second turn, so yes it should cost you enough that you consider whether it’s worth doing.
As the Game Master at a table where unsolicited advice is flying:
- Take control of the situation and shut down people who are overwhelming another player. Part of the role of game facilitator is to create a space where everyone shares in having fun. If players don’t feel in control of their own character they are not going to have fun.
- Regardless of if the player takes the suggested action, charge the player(s) giving the unsolicited advice an in-game resource: an action, a Benny, an Advantage, or something else. Make the cost matter.
- Ask the player directly “What do you want to do?” Make eye contact and use other body language to make it clear you are giving the spotlight to the current player.
As the player on the receiving end of unsolicited and unwanted advice:
- If you are comfortable being assertive, tell the other player(s) “I’ve got this.”
- Ask if they are spending their action trying to persuade you in character.
- If not, tell them if they aren’t keeping it in game your character would have no idea what they want and move forward with your turn.
- If so, have them role play it. Accept the suggestion or not as best suits you and your character.
- Above all, remember: you are playing pretend. Your ideas are equally as right as anyone else’s, and you are always right when it comes to your own character. If anyone takes away your sense of agency in the game, don’t play with that person anymore.
Power dynamics come into play when offering advice. Before voicing advice, consider if the person you are advising may see themselves as having a different status within the gaming community. If so, you may unintentionally be creating a situation in which it is hard for them to say no.
- are a more vocal player
- are a more experienced player
- know other participants in the group better
- have a different gender identity, cultural heritage, age, etc.
- are a gaming celebrity, game master, game event staff, or otherwise well-known member of the gaming community
Then you may have a perceived higher status, and you should be especially careful about offering unsolicited advice. This is tough because it means flipping a switch in your own mind to try see how other people may view you as having higher status even when you like to think “I’m just a regular person.”
Whatever the situation may be: always assume the other person is equally as adept at playing pretend as you are and act accordingly.
As either a player or the game facilitator, make a conscious decision to support and encourage all of the players at your table. Challenge yourself to build off of other players’ ideas by employing the improvisational technique of “Yes, and…!” Your enthusiasm for what someone else brings to the table will help them to feel valued and your own role playing ability will grow.
Here’s my wish for everyone at the game table: assume you and all your companions have an equal level of creativity. Then together, play a game that surprises everyone.
Have you received unsolicited advice at the game table? How did you deal with it? As a game master how do you support and uplift the ideas of players who seem unsure or hesitant? What are some other ideas for how to rein yourself in or others who are offering unsolicited advice?
Wow. It’s as if this article is inside my brain, it was the piece that was missing from the dominant player article, which was good, but left a question about player agency. 🙂 I left a comment yesterday regarding that but I think this piece sums it up admirably.
Thank for your comment Keith! I’m glad the article resonated with you. Thanks as well for referencing the Dominant Player article (https://gnomestew.com/game-mastering/the-dominant-player/), they go together hand in glove.
I know I am a dominant player and while I often wear my white hat, sometimes I accidentally wear my black hat. I’m more conscious about how I act when I am out in the world at conventions versus when I am in my home groups with payers I have known and gamed with for years. There are a lot of lessons I have learned from being a convention GM, and this is one of them. 🙂
This is a great article that applies to all kinds of cooperative situations, not just table top RPGs. I’ve been on both sides of this coin and I can say, both sides leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. Receiving unsolicited advice or even having my agency taken away is perhaps more obvious in why it sucks, but when I catch myself either giving unsolicited advice or later when I realized I removed someones agency I am filled with regret. I took away someone’s chance to shine! What the crap!? How could I?!
I appreciate this article’s advice on not only policing oneself, but also offering tips to DMs who may not know how to stop it from happening as well. I am saddened that this behavior can reach the toxic levels as seen in the blog post you mentioned in the article and I hope articles like this one help to open eyes to this very real problem.
We are all different and there is never just one solution to a problem so lets all respect each other and have a blast.
As a GM, I think this can be an easy trap to fall into when you run into that fairly common situation: Player says they are Character Type X, but then Player’s in game actions really shows them to be Character Type Y.
“I am a pacifist,” they say before a session later declaring they’ll need to kill the guards to make sure nobody follows them back to their base.
It’s a fine line between pointing out the disconnect and just telling them they can’t do that action.
My imperfect solution is just to make sure that plot and NPCs reflect what the character has done, not what the player says the character is. Then they have to deal with those consequences.
Andy, I agree. let in game actions speak louder than words. Whatever plays out at the table is canon for the character. Characters are a question to be answered when they step off the sheet into the game, we uncover the true personality as we play.
That’s part of the joy (and sometimes frustration) about playing a RPG. A single participant never has full control of the narrative, not even the GM. If someone needs full control they can write a story that is exactly what they want.
Thanks Adam! I agree about the bad taste I’m left with after running my mouth at the table – even when just through enthusiasm.
The Microscope RPG by Lame Mage Productions was the first place I saw this advice “gamified” as a rule. The initial setup of the game is done collaboratively, but once the core of the game begins, turns are specifically *not* collaborative. It was explained brilliantly that collaboration will funnel the story to what feels comfortable to the majority, which often results in familiar tropes. I don’t want me story to become a trope, so I stick to that rule and it *really* works.
Letting each person do what they want without input from the peanut gallery can surprise (and stump) you as a player and as your character. But it encourages you to leave your comfort zone and react on the fly. Also, if a character does something your character doesn’t support/like/approve of/understand – let it happen and then respond in game. If the event never happens you’ve taken away an amazing opportunity for role playing – which (at least in name)-is what this hobby is all about.
Respecting a player’s agency by holding back on giving advice until they ask for it or agree to take it is important. Also important is knowing how to give advice, once invited, in a way that doesn’t rob the player of agency anyway. Just because the player has said “Okay…” doesn’t mean it’s time to open the floodgates and smother them with suggestions.
I recommend being broad OR specific, never both. A general piece of advice, like “I bet your social skills could help us gather info on this adversary before we plan an attack,” is a fine clue. So is, “During this combat turn, if you move to this square you’ll help block the enemy’s retreat and make it possible for me to move for a nice flanking bonus on my next turn.” One’s open ended without being too specific, the other’s highly prescriptive but very limited in scope. The thing to avoid is mapping out all of a player’s next several decisions just because they’ve invited a bit of help.