Player Character Autonomy

Soon enough, I'll write a review for How to Run: an Advanced Guide to Managing Role-Playing Games by Alexis D. Smolensk. I'm less than 50 pages into it, so even a post of my first impression is premature.

However, there was something that bothered me in Chapter 2. Big time! The issue in question is players who act autonomously. The following is a direct quote from page 33...

I know that not every player favors a shared experience. There are those who perceive their participation in the game as autonomous. they will not, or cannot, relate to the other players as associates. Some are unaware of this, even as they pursue their bias. Others view self-service as a kind of superiority, silently accumulating their own 'wins' while dismissing those of their peers.

Participation in a role-playing game, or any activity, carries with it a responsibility: to be generous, not only with one's means, but with one's favor. I have great respect for my players, who wish me well in the running of my game. They want me to excel. They want that I should get better at DMing. And in turn, I want my players to feel fulfilled and supportyed, and to have their needs facilitated by the running of my game.

A player bent upon autonomy falls outside this relationship. When I have such players in my campaign, my first duty - to the other players before myself - is to take those players aside and counsel them. A friendly activity requires a common effort and a willingness to sacrifice one's immediate needs. It requires that the participants have faith in their fellows, in order to believe that what they surrender in the short term will be repaid over and over.

Let me tell you a personal story. A long, long time ago, I played one session in this Vampire: the Masquerade game. I found this group from either a friend of a friend or a co-worker (can't remember which).

The chronicle's premise was that various supernatural creatures (werewolves, vampires, sorcerers, etc.) forced to become part of a secret, para-military organization controlled by some shadow government or something. Sounds cool, right.

I had no problem with the setup, nor with the fact that our PCs would either do certain jobs for this supernatural special-ops group or be eliminated. Being "the new guy", a vampire channeling Radu Vladislas from the Subspecies films, I was distant, withdrawn, and occasionally antagonistic. I was a vampire thrown in with other vampires and assorted creatures. That was my nature, demeanor, and whatever else.

I was even awarded the "extra XP of the night at session's end because of my portrayal. And yet, before going home, I was taken aside by the Storyteller and told that he was going to cut me some slack because I was new to the table; however, in-character threats (idle or otherwise) to other player characters wasn't cool, wasn't going to work in his chronicle, and wouldn't be tolerated.

I never went back, despite a couple emails asking me to return. That's just not the kind of game I want to be in. If the character and situation warrants it, I want to feel free to roleplay as I choose. The GM and/or my fellow PCs might decide to take action during the game but that's where it ends.

If that happened today, I would openly address the issue. I wouldn't dodge the conflict like I did then.

So, I'm biased towards "autonomous players". While I won't tolerate players being an asshole to other players at the table, I'm not going to demand or coerce players to roleplay their characters a certain way. Suggesting another course of action or possible consequences is ok, but not wresting control out-of-game. Taking away player agency kills the game faster than a trio of Tarrasques.

Feel strongly about this issue? I'd love to hear about it. Comment below...


Authored by Venger Satanis


Readers' Rating: 


I think there is a big difference between a problem player, and a player running a "problem character". Someone once wrote that the role of Wolverine in the X-Men (80s version) was to push Cyclops's buttons, question his leadership and ultimately go along with the plan.

I agree, big difference. The book doesn't really differentiate the two, which is a shame. Still reading, though...