Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Player Empowerment

Greetings readers! I just got back from attending Genghis Con, a great gaming convention held in Aurora, Colorado. This year I was one of the convention’s guests of honor – the first time I’ve been to a convention as a guest. The experience was extremely memorable and I had a wonderful time. I’ve been to Genghis Con three years in a row now, and I’m always impressed with the quality of the games held there. One thing that may be responsible for the relatively high quality of the gamemasters at Genghis Con may be their feedback sheet, a kind of “report card” that tracks how well GM’s perform across the convention (and across multiple years).

One of the best gaming conventions I've ever been to.
While I was going from game to game at Genghis Con this year, I was trying to analyze why the games were so fun—to try and find some common elements that I could use to enhance my own approach to running a game. Among the elements that I observed was one that I found particularly interesting: player empowerment.

My good friend Robert Dorf has a great story on this topic. Robert has run games for decades, and his wife has been a part of many of those games. Robert was once running a game at a convention where his wife was one of the players. The adventure began with a giant monster attacking the city, and the players – all superheroes – trying to defend the citizens. However, Robert’s wife was having none of that! Instead, she announced that she was flying off to find the “real crime.” When asked about this, she remarked “I know Robert. Things like the giant monster attacking the city are /always/ a distraction for the real crime that’s going on somewhere else.”

This question gives Robert an interesting choice to make. The adventure as he envisioned it revolved around the attacking giant monster, and naturally, he would love to have this wife’s character participate in that. However, if he chooses to enforce his original vision, his wife is going to be disappointed that there is no other crime going on and end up spending a great deal of time chasing a red herring.

If Robert decides to alter his original plan and create a “real crime” for his wife’s character to discover, he is empowering his players. Robert’s wife feels as if she has figured something important out, that she has “outsmarted” the GM in this case and thus her enjoyment of the game is heightened.

When you empower the player, what’s really happening is that you’re providing opportunities for the player’s choices to matter. Sometimes this concept can change the entire thrust of an adventure, as described above. Sometimes, it can be as simple as saying “Yes,” when the player asks “Is there a fire extinguisher nearby?”

Basically, this. But cooler.
Some games provide a resource that can be traded in for player empowerment (especially with elements of the game that are of lower stakes, such as the fire extinguisher example). These resources include Savage Worlds’ “bennies,” WFRP and 40KRPG’s “fate points,” and “action points” or “hero points” in Champions. Often, the existence of these resources gives the GM a way to make the player’s desires a more meaningful choice… in other words, the GM offers the player what he’s looking for in the game as a point of narrative control in return for some of those resources previously mentioned.

In my opinion, player empowerment is more important than the story. It is more important than the theme of the game and it is more important than what the Game Master has planned. Granted, there are and should be limits to player empowerment – if what a player is after actively harms fun for the other players or if empowering the player will cause the GM to lose interest in continuing to run the session or campaign, then it should be avoided.

When I was analyzing my games at Genghis Con, I realized that one of the reasons I enjoyed those game so much is what my character was able to accomplish – what my decisions had led to, within the framework of the game’s overall story and the character’s role in that story. Defining the character’s role is sometimes easy; many of the characters I played during Genghis Con all had an easy set of complications, disadvantages, or personality quirks that I could wrap my brain around and find fun things to use with during the game.

Similarly, I wrote two adventures for Genghis Con that followed this paradigm. First, I designed my Shadowrun game, All Elves Go to Heaven. In All Elves, I made sure each pre-generated character had a solid dramatic hook, a single narrative prompt that I could use to remind the player about that character’s core identity and that the player could use to improvise responses to the encounters in the game. One character was deeply in debt to some very dangerous people, whilst another had to deal with a legacy of intense racism against non-humans. By pointing these issues out at the very beginning and highlighting them through the encounters of the game, these issues gained the players some valuable payoff in the form of great roleplaying scenes that they created in the final third of the session. I specifically designed the adventure in this way to provide those opportunities for the players to make meaningful choices about their characters and thus gain the benefits of player empowerment.
Harvey Birdman has the power... of attorney!
At Genghis Con, I had to re-write one adventure in a hurry due to the fact that the prepared adventure I brought with me had already been experienced by half the table! Genghis Con is a small convention and I see a lot of familiar faces, and in this case, it was actually a good thing because it got me thinking about how to apply principles of player empowerment to a setting that I know extremely well – my very own creation, Shadows Angelus. Thus, the Shadows Angelus game at Genghis Con evoked one core element for each character and made sure that each element involves a choice for that character to make during the game.

Player empowerment is actually quite simple and much easier than many people believe; sometimes it can be as simple as glancing at a player’s character sheet to examine the choices he made about his character from the creation step. Other times, it can be a matter of listening to the players during the session or campaign and finding ways to weave into the game the things that each player finds important or interesting.
Remember. The key here is meaningful choices. Not the illusion of choice.

Remember that empowering a player means that the player feels as if he has made a meaningful choice – that what he has decided to do in your game has some significant effect on the outcome of the story. That effect can be small (a lucky placement of a fire extinguisher) or large (changing the point of an entire adventure), but it always improves the player’s overall enjoyment of the game. And isn’t the point of the game to have fun in the first place? Let’s all try to maximize having fun – and if that is your goal, player empowerment is a tool in the toolbox.

In the end, I strongly encourage game masters to make sure the players feel empowered rather than just acting as guest stars in your story.


  1. I dunno Ross. It sounds like Robert's wife was confusing player knowledge with character knowledge. She, herself, knows that Robert likes to throw in red herrings and is applying that to her character. If that isn't the definition of meta-gaming, then I don't know what is. “My character is not going to participate in the scenario you’ve devised because I know that you like to put in twists” seems like a great way to ruin the game for everyone else, not an example of “empowering player choices”.

    There's empowerment, and then there's just refusing to play the game the GM has set out because you want to do your own thing. Games have to have boundaries because there's no way a GM can account for every possibility. It'd be like a GM setting out 5 different planetary systems in Rogue Traeder, each with their own detailed histories, potential endeavours and so on - enough to last dozens of sessions - only to have the players say "Screw it! We're flying to Terra!".

    It's one thing to create a situation where the choices of the players are very important. It’s another to just let the players do whatever they want, especially when it runs counter to what has been established by the GM.

    1. I pointed out in the article that there are times player empowerment is a detriment and should be avoided, and some of the examples you mention are definitely representing that.

      Agreed that the wife was metagaming, but I still think Robert's choice to handle the situation is a good example of player empowerment and how it can help people enjoy the game more. Again: isn't the point to have fun? Assuming we can all have fun given the options ahead of us, that is. :)

  2. Another factor to keep in mind is that there is only one GM, but many players. To borrow a phrase, one player's empowerment stops where the other player starts.

    If all the players want to fight the big critter but one player decides she wants to chase a red herring, what do you do? Disappoint the group for one person's preference? It's not an easy decision.

    Then again, one of the axioms in our gaming group is "Players write the best adventures." :-)

    1. Nestor, I agree that Player Empowerment is an idea that requires a talent for improvisation in the Game Master and a certain flexible outlook on his campaign. It is worth noting that different groups and gamemasters have their own style and YMMV.

  3. I start a lot of games with letting the players know that they have just as much to gain by being creative as they do by following plot seeds I've put out there for them. I've found that a nice way to remind them of this is by using very simple maps. As an example from a recent CP 2020 game, the fight took place in a military surplus store. I drew out the basic dimensions, put in the doors and the counter, and then let the players tell me what they expected to find. I drew the line at rocket propelled grenade launchers, but other than that gave them free reign. They had a lot of fun then coming up with props that could give them an edge in the fight if they were used correctly, and what could have been a fairly standard base defense fight become a lot more interactive and enjoyable for both parties.