An Example of Player Empowerment

June 18, 2020

In my series of posts on DM+1 play, I spent a fair number of electrons on talking about empowering the player by supporting their choices and intents.  As I'd said then, this is something that I think is a good practice in general, but it's especially important in DM+1 play since (a) you need to keep an audience of one engaged in the game and (b) the margin for errors in communication/understanding between the GM and the player is far slimmer when there's only one player.  I've been running a weekly DM+1 game with a close friend for about a month and a half now, and a great example of this idea came up that I thought would be worth reviewing here.

Disclaimer: The game is still ongoing, and while I don't think she's a regular reader here, that friend does know about this blog, so I'll be vague about certain details intentionally.

Sayena, the PC, was exploring a tomb allegedly belonging to the first princess of a fallen empire, hoping to find some powerful relic that legends said had been buried with the princess.  In the course of exploring areas dedicated to a sort of funerary honor guard and advisor cabinet, she found an icon of the empire.

Somewhat later on, Sayena encountered a supernatural guardian, and the player tried presenting the icon as a symbol of authority.  That was something I hadn't thought of (nor had the original adventure's writer, apparently), but given where exactly the icon was found and the reasons for its existence, it was actually a neat idea.  It didn't work there, due to the guardian's nature, but that planted the seed in my mind to support that approach, if it came up again under suitable circumstances.

After exploring for a while further, Sayena found an old cell with a set of manacles hanging from one of the walls.  She went to take a closer look at them, and (as you might expect from reading this summary removed from the circumstances of actual play) the manacles lashed out, locking onto her.  Without any input from me, the player reasoned that this was an autonomous defense and decided to present the imperial icon again.

As written, the original adventure is silent on whether anything aside from brute force would work to remove the manacles.  Given the purpose and nature of the manacles, I found it justifiable to rule that they wouldn't restrain recognized authority figures, and bearing the imperial icon seemed like a reasonable way of demonstrating that.  Thus, the manacles released Sayena.

Viewed in a vacuum, that was a pretty minor moment; the manacles were hardly an existential threat, and I have no doubts that the player would've found a way out even if that hadn't worked.  However, in a greater context, that was an opportunity both to reward the player for thinking about her circumstances in an immersive way and to pay off her earlier expectations that there would be something special about the icon.  It was a joy to see her delight in her ingenuity while we were playing, and as a quick text message just confirmed, it turned out to be one of her memorable moments from that game to date.

Why do I think this was a great example of empowering the player?  Precisely because it was so ordinary.  I didn't do anything to make it happen, aside from exercising some discretion in a blank space.  I didn't bend, break, or ignore anything written in the rules nor in the original adventure.  I didn't plan it out ahead of time.  All I did was pay attention to what the player was doing (in the game and at the meta level) and let that inspire me when faced with a judgment call.  That was it.  That was all it took to make a small event from the start of a session from about two weeks ago into a highlight.

There's room for interpretation and empowerment in any game system, regardless of how complete or open-ended it tries to be.  And while I was far less deft at it when I was starting out as a GM than I am these many years later, it's something that I believe any GM at any skill level can do.  I'm not advocating for letting any crazy idea work (as I didn't with the guardian encounter), but I'd be hard-pressed to think of the last time I played in, ran, or watched a game that didn't need multiple judgment calls in every session.

It doesn't take a huge amount of effort or creativity to pay attention to what your players did to set off those calls.  Approach the calls from the default stance of letting the players' efforts work, so that the burden is on you convincing yourself that the idea shouldn't instead of on the players convincing you that it should (note: this isn't saying that you shouldn't try to be a neutral adjudicator, just that you should approach those situations from a default of ruling in the players' favor because being truly neutral is impossible in practice).  Not only will that help the game surprise and delight everyone through organic developments, not only will it also help you to practice and improve your improvisation skills, but though they might not articulate it, your players will appreciate your respect for their agency.

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