Sometimes Freedom is Wrong (in a D&D context)

I play a lot of D&D. And when I’m not playing about it, I’m reading about it. And when I’m not reading, I’m writing about. Or, at the very least, thinking about it. A big swath of my time is spent with my mind on the game and so its no surprising when my interpretation of the game seems a little far fetched. You don’t know the bubbles I’ve seen.

Today, I want to take an unusual stance, one I’m not sure how solid the footing is, nor how big the space to maneuver. It may not be a defensible position, and I probably shant hold it  “What if players having a choice is a bad thing?

… this is probably going to get messy.(I mean, if people read these things. I see little evidence of that, but you never can tell what would blow up. I would love to get a comment from you, kind reader, just to see how much you disagree with this position.

The Job Roll Role of the DM

Okay, I mentioned in one of these things before that DMs wear a lot of hats. They do many many things. They take the role of teacher, referee, game designer, story teller, director, battlemaster, rules lawyer, and who knows what else. Basically, without a DM (or a player filling in for some aspects of the DMs role) there is no game. Its a trifle sad, but true.

And with great responsibility, there comes great effort. It takes work to prepare for D&D. Sometime, you can get away with minimal effort. Running a module, for example, cuts out a lot of the prep work. But you can’t run modules cold. You have to read and re-read them, and know them well enough that you can easily make up information to give the curious player that asks. But, if you’re trying to make the game a good game, you’ve likely put hours into prepping your game, while your players can show up without having thought about the game since the last week before. Its a little aggravating.

And one of the worst things for a DM is when they put a lot of work preparing for a game and the players immediately make a choice that throws out all of the prep work the DM had done.

On Player Choice

Now, let’s make it clear: D&D is a game where characters can do pretty much anything. Its one of the best parts of the concept of RPGs. One of the cool things about Adventurer’s League is that I get to hear tales of different tables who ran the exact same area, with different DMs, with different players, so the stories of these little areas I know and have run myself are vastly different and that is so cool.

You can’t plan for what players do. If you present them a door, there is no way to know how they will open it. Or if they’ll open it. Or if they’ll see it. If your plan as a DM is for the party to get the key and put it in the lock, kiss your notes goodbye. I have yet to see a party actually use a key I’ve given in the lock it was intended for.

The same goes with monsters. I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me a few times because the party found a way to communicate with a simple hack and slash encounter and it turned into a social free-for-all. And while its startling for me at that moment, those end up being some of the best stories. Hero slays monster is an old story. Hero and monster go out to the pub for a few drinks, that’s a new story, a unique story. and new and unique is fun.

But. (You knew one of those was coming)

The problem is when players make a bad choice on a higher level, or fail to choose, that creates unbearable games.

On Player’s Indecision

I’ve seen it happen for a few parties. The first time I tried running a sandbox game for my VERY DM led group in North Dakota. The time I started running SKT for my family and they didn’t have any idea where they wanted to go. The time where, as a player, we didn’t leave the tavern for an HOUR, not because we were roleplaying, but because various parts of the group couldn’t figure out to get all of us, who were all heading the same direction, on the road together as a party.

All of these sessions were fairly blah. It wasn’t fun for the DM, it wasn’t fun for the players. Basically, while players were sitting around, we weren’t actually playing D&D. We were playing “How do we get to the D&D?”

People sitting a tavern talking or deciding where to go or whatever CAN be D&D. A discussion amongst the players about their options, weighing out the matter, is not what we’re talking about here. I’m talking about everything being on pause as the players have no idea how to proceed. Sometimes, as a DM, getting the game moving again can be as simple as asking “Where do you want to go?” (Spoiler:  sometimes it is not.)

Sometimes, this lack of motion is caused be something called choice paralysis. If we have too many options and we spend out time trying to optimize and pick the best one, there is too many and we can’t decide. This happens in combats in D&D. Spellcasters need to choose the best spell, the best targets, will there be another fight, should I save resources, what will happen next turn, how do I fight that. In 4e, every class was basically a spellcaster, so yeah, fights took a while for no good reason.

I think the best way to fight choice paralysis is probably just with player experience. Play more games, maybe run a few, and you start to figure out the structure of the game, how it works and what to expect. You also learnt the DM, knowing if he’s the type of guy to ambush you during a long rest, or if he likes capping his evenings with a boss fight.

Another solid way to fight choice paralysis is to know your character. If you know your witch reacts to being startled with “Fire, everywhere!” that’s a choice you don’t  have to make at that moment, because you’ve made that part of your character from before. There is no shame in simply making your basic attack on your turn.

The other side of player inaction is a lack of information. I don’t really know how that happens. Really, I don’t. Knowledge is power and if I don’t feel like I have a good mental picture of the area, or a good understanding of anything in the world, I will ask questions and clarify. If the DM makes the mistake of having some NPCs trail along the party, I will interrogate those guys (you know, by asking questions, not with torture). That’s just how you get information in D&D: Ask questions!

And yet, somehow, that’s never what people I run for do. No idea why. NPC followers who are trained scholars are used as a cheap translator. A jungle survival native expert is never asked about the dangers that could befall.

And its not just the NPCs. A few weeks ago, my party’s rogue didn’t go anywhere near the keyhole , where he could have learned a lot, such as the fact that he could have just unlocked the thing without needing to find the right key.

So I obviously don’t know the right way to disseminate information without making it look pushy. It depends on your players, I guess. And your system. (this is not a thing that can cause issue in GUMSHOE, afaik) Some players might get annoyed that you give out information for free if they’re struggling. Others may be grateful.

High level choices

A big place (and, honestly, the reason for this whole article) where the party can make lame, game ruining decisions, is the high-level choices. These aren’t anything the characters decide in game, but rather, choices the players make on the outside of the game. Choices like “do we want to head to Waterdeep or Daggerford?” may fall under this category, as well as “Do we want to chase bandits or become bandits?”

Seriously, I had to suddenly invert my campaign because my party (a primitive adventurer’s league before I knew what I was doing)  decided to join the bandits instead of chasing them down. It was stressful.

The thing about these choices is, while, sure, the players get to make some of them, there is a lot of that weight being supported by the DM.

Take this week. to my utmost disgust and shame, I had misread the book when it had listed the enemy forces and so they were a lot smaller than previously anticipated. Suddenly the fight went from “we can’t win” to “we could probably do that.” And so instead of doing a running retreat like we had talked about doing, we did a fight. a 2 1/2 hour fight. And it was close. I knocked a few people out, had a lot of fun with suggestions, but in the end, it was still a super long, single, encounter. Bleh.

What I should have done was not let them make that decision. Honestly, I should have factored the no-choice into the whole setup. I should not have drawn “Map 1” I should have started drawing “Map 2” and letting the party be running away already. It would have been more interesting than our slog fight.

What’s that? Jumping straight into the retreat makes choices for the character and is that evil sin of railroading?

I have a lot of ways to defend against that claim, but primarily: THEY MADE THAT CHOICE THE WEEK BEFORE! I knew that there would either be a big fight, a run away scene, or they would go quietly. those were the 3 branches of the decision tree. Go quietly seemed unlikely. So at the previous session, I pitched the 3 options, we discussed it, and I knew enough to make that post last week about my scene fleeing mechanics. Even though things changed due to errors on my part, the party had still made a decision and I should have stuck with it.

It’s like if you’re doing some map travel. The party has quests in Waterdeep. You ask them where they are going and they say Waterdeep. Then the next week, after the DM has put a week into reading up on Waterdeep, preparing handouts, drawing maps, and who knows what else, if the players decide “Oh hey wait, we’re going to Daggerford.”

I’ve seen a D&D adventure that says “If the players refuse to do the quest, pack up your stuff, they don’t want to play D&D” it was a bit extreme and tongue-in-cheek, but, honestly, if a party pulled that on me, that would be what I would feel. Anything I ran in Daggerford would be ill-prepared and lackluster. As DM, I would feel that we had made an agreement, that we were heading to Waterdeep. And heading to Daggerford breaks that agreement.

I know players who, if they tried to pull this on me, would be angry with me and accuse me of railroading. Bleh.


I started writing it a few times, but I decided that I couldn’t give a heading called “On Railroading” The justice it deserves. At best, it would be a parroting of Angry DM’s Angry Rant: Railroading. And, honestly, if you care enough, just go read it yourself. It’s good.

I think the experiences listed here are important to have as a DM. You need to know what your party needs to take off running. If that involves starting them in the moment, fine. If you need instead slowly build moment, then by Lloth, I pray you have enough time for your session to get anything done.

I think it is important to mention that I am a very relaxed DM and I let some crazy things happen at my table that make my life harder. So cut me some slack and let me simplify things a little.




Join the Conversation


  1. I think the idea of starting in medias res based on a previous decision is very understandable. You aren’t taking away choice from the players; you’re making them stick to a choice they already made. Unless I’m misunderstanding what your saying, I think that you’re not trying to say freedom is wrong, but that choice has permanency. Flip flopping back and forth for a week before finally saying the polar opposite of what the GM has prepared is not expressing your character’s freedom so much as it is being a dick to the GM (unintentionally most of the time). I think that is a very understandable opinion to voice.

    1. That’s a good way to put it. I was more mad at myself for serving a mediocre game in the name of player choice with complete information instead of sticking to the more memorable, elegant adventure.

      I hope a scenario like this comes up again, so I can do better on a second try.

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