DM Advice: Use choice. Not force.
There are instances in my time as Dungeon Master (DM) that I'm not proud of. Most of these moments stem from forcing my party into something and not giving them a choice or a way to avoid it. At the time, I felt justified. Thankfully, my group was understanding and went with my whims with little more than passing remarks. I've since learned from those experiences and want to share how to avoid making the same mistakes, why, and how to turn DM force into player choice. This advice applies to any tabletop role-playing game (#ttrpg), but my personal experience is with Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition (#dnd).
Why avoid force?
In a roleplaying game like (modern) D&D player agency is everything. The DM controls the world, the NPCs, the quests, the enemies, the environment, and the overarching story. The players control most aspects of their individual characters and little else. When the Dungeon Master forces something upon the characters — and by extension, the players — they undermine what little control the players have within the game. Even with the best intentions, this can chip at the party's goodwill and stir up a wee bit of animosity. If overused, it eats at the game like biting necrotic damage and becomes increasingly unfun for everyone involved.
If there are no choices to be made the game becomes a cutscene and the players are powerless to affect the world. If the bandit is about to execute the innocent NPC and the party is forced to watch, unable to take any action while the Dungeon Master narrates and vetos their attempts at intervening... well, I think it is clear why that isn't any fun for the onlooking players. The Ranger with their bow, the Wizard with their magic, and the Cleric with their divine healing — all forced into inaction for the sake of a scene, of a point to be made by the all-powerful DM. The game is at its best when the characters can act and react to what is happening in the world and at least attempt to alter the outcome.
Turning force into choice.
So, the Dungeon Master has a great idea they want to spring on their party. A big story beat, a wild plot twist, or a cruel tragedy. The DM is enamored with this idea and believes the party will like it, too. It's exciting! But, this concept hinges on a very specific series of events going exactly the way the DM plans them. The party will enter the boss room, the trap will trigger, the beloved NPC will die because dramatic flair, and the Big Bad will escape with a magical artifact that the party spent the previous arc obtaining.
The Dungeon Master narrates, "NPC-person is motionless on the altar. Paladin, you're held still by the mysterious magical force that grips you. The Evil Mage approaches and she wrenches the MacGuffin from your grasp. She backs away with a cackle and, in a single step, teleports out of the room."
"I use Counterspell on her teleport," the party Mage offers.
The DM says it wasn't a spell. It was an innate ability.
The Paladin asks, "Do I get to roll a save or contest against her taking the item? My strength score is 18."
The DM assures the party that the artifact was successfully wrenched away.
"Do we know where she went?" the Fighter asks.
But the DM insists there are no traces left behind to track.
In a scene like this, a Dungeon Master can magic hand-wave away anything they need to. Sometimes, it is reasonable to do so. Most of the time, it's because the DM has an idea they want to see through and they aren't willing to fully integrate that idea with natural game mechanics. It's easier to say it just happens, for the sake of completing the plan, than to balance it within the rules of the universe — or, worse yet, to open it up to the party's meddling. If the party can mess up a DM's awesome plan the party will mess it up. And that's the fun of the game!
No matter how tempting it may be to force something upon the party... stop... and consider how it could be made into a choice.
In the above example, the Evil Mage could have tried tricking the party into willingly handing over the artifact. She could have bartered the NPC's life for it and the players would have to decide what to do in response. The DM could have allowed a save against the magical Hold Person-esque effect, allowed a Counterspell against the off-brand teleport, or allowed Initiative to be rolled to start combat when the Evil Mage tried to take the artifact. She could have used Command, Suggestion, or some other charm to try to force the Paladin to give her the artifact. Meanwhile, the party would decide how to stop the compelled Paladin or choose to take some other course of action. Whatever magic she used to escape, it could have lingered and given the party just enough of a window to hop in after her. If they were brave enough.
Any of these setups, combined with the opportunity to take action and make saves, would have provided far more freedom to interact with the scene. It would have also opened up opportunities for the DM's plan to be "ruined" or subverted, which can be a vulnerable feeling for some Dungeon Masters. It's not necessarily that the DM is bad and it doesn't mean their intentions are bad. This sort of heavy-handedness manifests from a combination of inexperience as a DM, inexperience as a player, and being afraid to let go of the idea of how something should play out. I'll address this bit later in the post under the "Don't plan the result" section!
A great example of promoting choice instead of force comes from a campaign I'm playing in. Our little party of three was going to face a horrible beast called the Wolf King. The Wolf King was known to bully goblins and use them as both fodder and food. We'd also heard rumors that the Wolf King was part goblin or could transform into a goblin or something to that effect? We were just outside his lair when a distraught goblin came running out, fearful of his Wolf King master. Sgaoileadh (Scowly), our barbarian half-orc, had forged on ahead and shooed the sniveling little goblin out of the cavern. He called himself Zak and asked for help, offering up advice on how to fight the Wolf King. We'd rescued a couple of goblins earlier in the campaign and sent them to our home base, so we were sympathetic to Zak. He informed us that our intel was bad and that fire, in fact, wasn't very effective against the Wolf King. Zak also asked if we had any magical weapons to fight the Wolf King with. Tam, the good-natured halfling rogue, exclaimed that he had a magical dagger. Zak asked to see it. When Tam produced the dagger and showed it off Zak attempted to steal it. Fortunately for us, his attempt failed. He disappeared, using in-game mechanics that logically made sense, and the Wolf King's telepathic communication taunted us. Zak had been the Wolf King in disguise.
This whole scenario was full of choices and decision points from the moment Scowly met the goblin in the cave to the moment Tam chose to put his magical dagger on display. Zak had a plan, but the plan would only go as far as the party let it. We played right into it despite the clues being apparent, but at no point was a predefined outcome forced upon us. It was satisfying, clever, and gave the Wolf King an extra punch of personality.
I've covered a few ways to take a DM idea and let the players make it their own through action and choice. I don't have an exhaustive list of examples. The key take-away is to examine the setup of a scenario and make sure it emphasizes party choices instead of forcing the party into an outcome desired by the DM. Which leads us to...
Don't plan the result.
When prepping an encounter, setting up a scene, or brainstorming that great DM idea — avoid predefining the outcome. It's important that we don't get too attached to what we, the Dungeon Master, want to happen. Examine the source of conflict, inspect the NPC's or monster's goals, and decide what the natural results of the scenario would be if A) the party wasn't there at all or B) the party is unsuccessful and their opposition "wins" the encounter. Whatever this result is, it is the default outcome. It's good to have a general outcome or goal in mind for whatever the source of conflict is that prompted the encounter. But don't plan for this be the singular definitive outcome.
Remember, it isn't the DM's plan or goal, it is the NPC's. The Dungeon Master shouldn't be rooting for a particular outcome (cheerleading for the party is 100% cool, though). The DM is simply facilitating, reffing, and adjudicating. Expect the party to alter the default outcome through their choices, ideas, actions, and reactions; however, they won't be allowed to act and react if the encounter is on rails toward the desired outcome. Therefore, don't lay down any railroad tracks! Let the party organically take whatever route they fancy and it's okay if they don't end up at the anticipated destination. Let the party surprise you! Don't be afraid to let the idea free of your control.
Let's revisit the original example of the Evil Mage trapping the party, killing the NPC, stealing the artifact, and escaping. All of these steps can and should be goals that the Evil Mage has. They want all of this plan to succeed. They're going to take steps to ensure their own success. The Dungeon Master conveys that through the Evil Mage's actions and dialogue with the party. By acting as the Evil Mage, it will seem as if the DM is on her side. This is not the case.
The plan begins with trapping the party. This isn't an inevitability. The party may enter the area through a secret passage and bypass the trap. They may disarm the trap. They could succeed a save to avoid the trap. Their choices have foiled this trap.
Next, the Evil Mage wants to sacrifice the NPC. It is possible the party saved time in the dungeon and arrive early before the Evil Mage has finished setting up her sacrificial ceremony. Perhaps the party found where the NPC was being held captive and freed them before the Evil Mage brought them to the sacrificial altar. Maybe the Cleric casts a charm spell to prevent the Evil Mage from following through with the murdering. Or Polymorph. It's always Polymorph, isn't it? Either way, the party saves the NPC's life. Whew!
The Evil Mage still wants to reclaim the artifact. It's not as simple as the DM proclaiming she takes it away from the Paladin. She's going to have to earn it. Hordes of minions to swarm the party, a spell to compel the Paladin, a champion of evil to grapple the Paladin, and so on. The party has a chance to thwart this plan, too. But they may not be able to overcome the Evil Mage's forces of evil. We'll give this one to the Evil Mage. She successfully gets the magic artifact and plays by the rules to do so.
Finally, the Evil Mage wants to make an escape. There's any number of ways the Dungeon Master could have set this up. A back door, a teleport spell, a magical portal, invisibility, or etherealness. Tons of options. The Dungeon Master should pick one or two that the Evil Mage is capable of and try to fit them into the rules of the universe. The party may or may not have the toolset to counter whatever tricks are up her voluminous, evil mage-robe sleeves. If the party does have Counterspell, Truesight, etc then the players have a chance of closing off her escape route. If magic portals are involved, it may take the Evil Mage time to summon it or a spell slot to cast the spell. It could be that the dungeon room has foci of power that keep the portal running and the party can damage those objects. It may be difficult to stop, but her retreat can be stopped.
There's a give and take throughout this whole scenario. The Evil Mage has a plan and the means to carry it out. The players have the agency to act and react in opposition to this plan. No one aspect of the scheme is set in stone and altering one step can impact the outcome of her other goals. This version of the Evil Mage's encounter is the foundation of what great game tales are built atop of. Exigency, an evil plan, and all of the freedom to mess that plan up. Don't take that away from the players! Allow them choices and avoid forcing a situation they're not allowed to play within.
If you enjoyed this post and want more of it, check out the companion podcast episode. I explore different examples and share what my moment of shame was as a DM forcing big events upon my party. What examples do you have as a DM or a player where heavy-handed force was applied? Share your experiences in the comments below or @CritCatastrophe on Twitter!