Saturday, 26 June 2021

Context and Player Responsibility

I was involved in a recent reddit thread, which was related to a situation where a GM allowed a vampire (I presume PC) to be murdered as the other PCs stood around in shock and did nothing. I am of the opinion, unequivocally, that the GM did nothing wrong in the situation as described. 

The gist of it was this: The PCs decided to intimidate a group that they didn't realize were expert vampire hunters. Then they decided to threaten them with their vampire friend. Although the details are not given, I picture the result like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer while the other players stood by and did nothing. The GM then expressed regret that they didn't make the consequences/context clear enough to the players before they decided to act rashly.

I have written a long piece about Context, Choice, and Consequence, which you can find here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). There is no doubt that the GM's job is to provide context for choices, but the question is: Whose job is it to determine if there is enough context to make a choice?  In other words, if the players make assumptions about the situation, is it up to them to check their assumptions, or is it up to the GM to ensure that their assumptions are correct?

I argue that this is part of the players' game. A role-playing game contains both informed and uninformed decisions. It is not always easy to tell which is which (which is why rumor tables often contain false or misleading information). Part of play is trying to figure out how much you know. There is a reason why divination spells exist.

There is also a big difference between an informed decision that is a sort of "devil's choice" (hazards all ways) and one where there is clearly a "right choice". If there is a "right choice", and the players uncover it through their actions, then finding it and utilizing it is their victory. If there is a "right choice" and the GM warns them every time they choose something different, then the players might as well not play through those events. The GM can just narrate the choice they are "supposed to" make and move on. In short, providing this sort of context is just another form of railroading, which removes agency from the players involved.

So, yes, a lot of this post is just my Reddit comments with slight reworking or additions. Here we go.

If you want the players to learn that thuggish tactics work unless you tell them otherwise, by all means make sure that you telegraph when they should tread lightly. If you want the players to learn to think before acting, continue to allow the natural consequences of ill-considered action to occur.

It is not the GM's job to make sure that the players understand who any particular NPCs are. It is the players' job. The GM's job is to ensure that the means to figure it out exist.

This is no different than their being thuggish in their tactics and not helping their friend. It isn't the GM's job to adjust things to their tactics. It is their job to adjust their tactics to what they are facing.

Now, there were some disagreements, as happens. In particular, the claim was made that this position encouraged murderhoboism and harbors mismatched game expectations. 


Players being required to think before they act are not encouraged to be murderhobos. Quite the opposite. Allowing players to assume that they can simply murder anyone they meet  encourages murderhoboism.

The GM is under no obligation to tell the players which NPCs they can successfully murder and which they cannot before combat begins. In fact, doing so reinforces murderhoboing. I don't know if that can be overstated.

Mismatched Game Expectations

Likewise, mismatched expectations are a result of expecting the game milieu to adapt to you, rather than expecting play to adapt to the situations you encounter.

This doesn't assume that the players and the GM will come to the same conclusion about a specific situation. It assumes that it is the player's responsibility to draw conclusions and act accordingly. What the GM wants, does not want, or expects has nothing to do with it. If the players come up with a way to completely and utterly defeat what the GM had imagined was going to be a major challenge - good for them! We will discuss this again in reference to player agency later.

Likewise, it is the player's responsibility to seek out information. It is not the GM's responsibility to hand it to them on a platter. Not surprisingly, if a player doesn't realize that committing murder has consequences, the root cause is either

(1) the GM never enforces rational consequences, or

(2) the player really isn't thinking things through.

In case (1), yes, the GM is to blame. Because consequences are not "obfuscated"; they are pretty direct. Otherwise it is entirely on the players involved.

The GM might want to ensure that he communicated that a chasm was 100' across before the thief tries to jump across it, but the GM is not obligated to remind the thief that they can't make that jump. That decision is made by the player. Not pointing out that the thief cannot possibly make that jump (barring magic or some unusual circumstances) is not obfuscating information, and it is not failure to communicate.

The disagreement is not about whether or not the players know there will be consequence; it is about whether or not they should know what those consequences will be before they act.

If you are playing a traditional role-playing game, you can examine things like the combat rules to know how absurd it would be to expect fully informed decisions. If you decide to attack, you do not know whether or not you will hit until you roll. You do not know how much damage you do (if you hit) until you roll (in most games). The game itself is designed to prevent you from knowing the outcome.

(Including the GM. They may know AC, attack modifiers, damage range, hit points, etc., but they are not omniscient. They don't know how things will play out until the dice hit the table - in some games moreso than in others!)

The same thing goes for skill checks. Checking for traps does not necessarily mean finding traps. Trying to climb a wall does not mean that you will even be able to start, let alone offer a guarantee that you will not fall.

The GM's job is to provide the context for choices made by the players. The players' job is to make choices (including seeking out more context). The GM then determines the consequences of the choices (either through die rolls or some other method), creating the new context for the next set of choices.

It is, emphatically, not the GM's job to determine whether or not the players understand the situation outside of information their characters have. It is the job of the players to decide how much context they need. If they feel they do not have enough context, the game is full of ways to gain more. Asking questions and proceeding cautiously is just the most obvious.

None of this means that the GM cannot add context without player input; but it is emphatically NOT unfair if the GM does not.

The GM does not have to remind you that a dungeon might have traps, or that your roll to check for them might have failed, or tell you that opening the door will release a spear trap that might kill you.

I am not a child. I do not need you to hold my hand.

Player Agency

If the GM believes that players need their hands to be held, and does not enforce rational consequences for player choices, then that GM will need to warn about consequences, repeatedly and often.

On the other hand, if the GM believes that their players do not need to have their hands held, then enforcing consequences for decisions allows the players to take responsibility for their own actions, for good or ill.

Both are self-fulfilling propositions. The first GM will need to continue hand-holding; the second GM will not. In both cases, it is the actions (or lack thereof) of the GM that sets expectations for the players. Of course players are going to be shocked if the GM holds their hands again and again and suddenly does not. Of course the players are going to assume that their might be consequences before they act if they have encountered that in the past.

I am not saying that one group of players is better than the other. I am saying that the GM of the first group is artificially preventing their players from reaching their full potential. Literally, the GM is robbing the players of agency by ensuring that their choices align with the GM's expectations before they can be resolved.

If, as a player, I said I tried to open a chest, and the GM stopped me and told me that it might be a mimic, then when I failed to search the room stopped me and told me that I might be missing some treasure or a secret door, I would not want to keep playing in that game. The player gets to make decisions, and the player owns the consequences for those decisions, for good or for ill. So what if I missed the treasure? So what if the mimic killed me? At least the outcome was based on the choices that I had made.

And, maybe next time, I would prod a suspicious chest with a 10-foot pole before opening it. Or maybe I would defeat the mimic against all odds, or be able to open a dialogue with it. And, if so, or if I found that treasure or secret door, the victory would be mine. Because my choices mattered. Because my reading the situation and realizing that I needed more context mattered. I am actually playing the game.

Paradoxically, the GM who prevents you from failing also prevents you from succeeding. After all, success is only success because failure is possible. The GM who prevents you from making bad choices by layering on information until you make the choice they want you to is really just playing your character for you.

In the end, that isn't why we play these games, is it?

What the Players and the GM Know

Some people will argue that the players only know what the GM tells them. This is patently untrue in most game systems.

Unless the world/system is completely different, the players know that there will be trees, and horses, and rabbits, and a sky. They know that there will be people, and that those people will usually behave to one degree or another like people behave.

They will know that stabbing a creature with a sword does not generally improve its health. They will know, from the rules, what kind of creatures they might encounter (at least to some degree), how magic or technology works (at least to some degree), etc.

They will have a basic understanding of gravity and other laws of physics, from their own experience and from the rules. A PC might be able to survive a greater fall than would be likely in the real world, or defeat creatures in single combat that one would not expect a real person to succeed against, but the rules will make these things clear...or at least clearish.

If you can buy a sword, that not only implies that swords exist, but that creators of swords exist, and that sellers of swords exist. Indeed, the players know a great deal about the world before they sit at the table for the first game session.

They know the general picture. What they do not know are the details. Some details they will learn as they go on. Some will remain forever hidden. Some the GM will tell them upfront ("Beyond the door is a 30-foot square room with a chest near the center of the room") and others they must discover through their actions (the secret door in the far wall, the treasure buried beneath a loose flagstone, that the chest is a mimic).

Likewise, the GM is not omniscient. Until the PCs lay their plans, and the dice hit the table, the GM definitely knows more about the situation. But no one knows how the situation is going to unfold. Some GMs will fudge die rolls and change monster hit points in order to control the outcome. I have written a lot about this topic. I don't think I need to rehash it again.

One of the joys of a swingy system like Dungeon Crawl Classics is that I never know how an adventure - or even an encounter - is going to play out. Comparing this to a "finely balanced" game that relies on GM fudging to provide the balance, and I definitely prefer the Chaos of a finely unbalanced engine of adventure!

Player Intelligence

By and large, players are not stupid, and do not need to be treated like children.

It is the hand-holding GM who imagines their players foolish, not the GM who allows them to take responsibility for themselves. Players by and large adapt to the GM. If the GM hand-holds, they will adapt their strategies to take that into account. If the GM does not, they will likewise take that into account and behave accordingly.

Players are smart. They are going to play intelligently the vast majority of the time. The GM who thinks they need to handhold their players or those players will not be able to know there are consequences for rash actions is the one who imagines that they have stupid players. If your players are unable to play intelligently, it is because they are faced with a game that does not require intelligent play, or that rewards dumb play. 

That is not the fault of the players. That is firmly the fault of the GM.


In one video game analogy made in the reddit thread, the players are mashing buttons without trying to find out what they do beforehand, and ignoring the consequences of what mashing those buttons do. This is not the GM's fault. At all.

And the GM in the original post didn't simply decide what was "going to happen". There were plenty of opportunities for the dice or player choices to change the outcome. Again, this speaks to how the GM is not omniscient. 

Those who imagine that because the players try the "I intimidate" button and it doesn't work, they should just keep mashing it, and either the GM is supposed to tell them it isn't going to work or just make it work to match player expectations would certainly be surprised in any game I run.

The NPCs in the OP didn't just jump out of nowhere and kill the PCs. There was an interaction. There was communication. The players did not pick up on it. When it became a fight, what was happening was also communication. The players still did not pick up on it. None of that is the GM's fault.

Frankly, if the elite vampire hunters in the OP didn't do something about the PCs willfully consorting with - and threatening them with! - the undead, the GM let them off extremely lightly.

And that, maybe, is the GM's fault.


  1. I feel like a whole new legion of gamers are around that completely missed those long discussions regarding player agency (Context, Choice, and Consequence and Quantum Ogre, anyone?). Granted, that happened like a decade ago...

  2. A month or so ago I had a long-running PC of mine get himself eaten by a baby aboleth.
    The GM gave us plenty of clues that something big and nasty was living in the water. I went in anyway.

    Was I surprised that it was an aboleth and that I pretty much died without a fight? Yes.

    Did I complain that the GM should have TOLD me it was an aboleth in there? No and I would have been a bit disappointed if he had without my putting in a lot more effort to find out. As it was it was a 'fun' surprise!

    It's not like we were cornered and HAD to swim for it either... I went in out of curiosity and... well, I was that darn cat.
    No complaints, all my fault... and please do not try to resurrect him. He earned that death fair and square.

  3. Players are smart! If the GM holds their hand, they, being quite smart, get lazy: "I don't need to worry about these rough chaps at the bar cos I always manage to squeak out of these situations."

    I play and GM tables where serious consequences are always just one decision away. And I'm almost always impressed by the intelligence and resourcefulness of players. Whatever form it takes, be it that 15 seconds of silence after you set the scene for the players or that lively discussion about the true motivation of a captured NPC, the gears are turning and there is sure to be an interesting and possibly surprising decision. Seeing what the players cook up in the face of weird and dangerous situations is like the #1 reason I GM.