Freedom. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of roleplaying games. The players are, for all intents and purposes, free to do as they will. Actions have consequences, of course, but the player is generally able to attempt just about any action they can conceive. “You can certainly try,” is a somewhat famous adage among game masters. One of the players in my new game, this being his first RPG experience, recently said to me that he’s amazed at how he can ask to do pretty much anything and it’s my job to figure out what happens. I love seeing that moment of realization in a new player. They’re so used to board games or video games – even the most expansive of which are still limited by the ruleset of the game or gameworld. Realizing that you have the freedom to try pretty much anything you can think of is, in a word, epic.
That freedom comes with a cost, of course. As a DM I enjoy world-building. I love fleshing out my world, writing, planning, prepping, and doing everything I do to prepare for a session. It’s creativity in it’s purest form. I have layered story arcs in my mind, spanning detail levels from why the simple innkeeper is asking for the party’s help to the larger machinations of the nobles ruling the land, affecting events in the background (for now). Yet, for all my planning and prep, there is nothing stopping the players from saying, “Hmmm, yeah we don’t care about this innkeeper. We want to leave town and go explore that mountain in the distance!”
So, how do you keep the game “in control” while still allowing the players the freedom to do as they will. Well, the first thing to remember is that your plot isn’t set it stone. There’s no rule that says the players must follow your plot, absolutely. As a certain group of cinematic pirates like to say, “They’re more like guidelines, anyway.” I find it’s most important to have my start point and (hopeful) end point mapped out with some idea of what happens in the middle. You need to be able to pivot, though. You need to be flexible enough to adapt your story to player actions.
That distinction is important. You do NOT want to adapt, or change, player actions to fit your story. If a player wants to try something, let them! Don’t tell them what to do. Let them explore as they see fit. In traditional improvisation training, rule number one is “Say Yes.” In other words, always follow the lead or prompt you were given. Don’t dismiss it just because you don’t want to act it out. Running D&D (and any RPG) is very much about improv. You can have your story, and indeed you probably should, but be prepared to change it or maybe even toss it out the window entirely.
After my most recent session, one of my players asked me, “What would you have done if we decided not to [do the thing they did]?” I replied by asking him, “What makes you so certain I planned for everything to unfold as it did?” Truthfully, there have already been multiple occasions in this campaign where the players didn’t do what I expected, so I adapted.
In one case, when they didn’t seek out a particular NPC I wanted them to meet, I found a way for that NPC to come to them. In another case, when they were sure what they were looking for was in location X, but I put it in location Y, I simply changed a few details, and suddenly they were right where they needed to be, like I planned it that way the whole time. It is rewarding for the players. They found the McGuffin! Do all of your details significantly change the impact of that moment? I doubt it.
The players have no idea what you prepared. They don’t know what your notes predict they’ll do. They only know the situation in front of them, and they act accordingly. Let them. Be prepared to “say yes” to what they want to try. Maybe it works out for them, maybe it doesn’t, but avoid the temptation to dismiss it outright. Honestly, some of the most memorable moments from my games are the totally unscripted ones. You’d like to know if you can try to befriend the vicious, snarling wolves the goblins have placed here to keep out intruders by offering them sausages instead of simply fighting them? Yes. You can certainly try.