I’m starting to think the Merchant Prince might not be a vampire after all.

So we come to the heart of the matter. All the players, the game master included, are collaboratively playing a story together. The game master’s job is to prepare the characters and setting in advance. How flexible should they be when reacting to what the players decide to do? Amongst GMs there’s an idea of the Quantum Ogre. If you create an adventure where the players have to search four ruined castles to find an ogre, you can go two ways. Either you decide the ogre is in the north ruin and if the party happen to choose that one first they’ll skip over the other three ruins you might have prepared, maybe getting a tougher challenge straight out of the gate than if they’d gone to the east first and picked up the sword that deals +3 damage to ogres and giants. That’s one way to do it. But once you realise that the GM has the power to move things around behind the scenes in reaction to players’ choices, you can play things out another way: the Quantum Ogre. No matter which ruin they search first, the ogre is always going to be in the fourth one. The adventurers search four ruins and each ruin offers a new challenge, increasing in difficulty each time, then the last ruin is the final showdown with the ogre boss.

Video games don’t have this kind of freedom, so they either have to let players do whatever they want in whatever order, create a linear path through the game that leads to the ogre, or take the metroidvania route and create a somewhat open world where the north ruin is reachable but behind a locked door that can only be unlocked by visiting the other three paths. Or there are four crystals that must be found before the dread castle can be opened, or you need the fire power before you can burn away the frost roots blocking the path et cetera et cetera.

Tabletop roleplaying gives everyone much more freedom. The players can come up with novel solutions to any problem you throw at them, things you didn’t even dream they’d think of, and the game master can shuffle things around like the world’s most rigged game of Find the Lady, or invent things on the fly. Taken too far, this could lead to an Inescapable Ogre, where no matter where the players turn, even if they build an airship and fly away to the northernmost point of the map, an ogre will be waiting for them. But the opposite extreme, a rigid world where the door to the ogre’s keep and the one key is in one and only one location and you have to guess where it is or the story ends here, is no less favourable. “No, you can’t cast spells on the door. No, not even the unlock doors spell, this door is special.” This is the kind of behaviour that leads to a Game Master waking up beaten in a ditch with no memory of how they got there. The wisest path lies somewhere between the two extremes.

I once ran into a situation as a Labyrinth Lord where all my players began to suspect that a perfectly friendly NPC ally was a mole working for the enemy. She was sus. They made a plan to kidnap and interrogate her. They spent an entire play session doing this. At this point I had two choices, and I could see that one choice — the one that adhered to my preconceived notions about this character and this story — was the boring and disappointing choice. So she cracked under pressure and revealed that she was a spy. Sometimes you’ve got to ask yourself “Why not?” and see where the story takes you.

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