Limiting Players Without Limiting Fun

file000461026353A recent article about railroading by Will Hindmarch over on got me thinking about something I’ve had in my “to-write” file for a while. It is an idea that I constantly go back and forth on when I run games, the idea of saying no to a player to preserve some dynamic of the game that I’m running.

Generally, I’m the sort of Game Master who runs into a game with very little planning and just grabs onto whatever the players seem to think would be fun at the time. This is great most of the time, but every so often I want to run something particular or find myself having to clamp down on player ideas because they wreck the entire idea behind the game.

“I really don’t think you should use your money to purchase that store. This game is about a world trotting epic group of adventurers, and I really wasn’t planning to do anything more with this city, so…”

“This game is about a group of military attached troubleshooters, if you are an anarchist then why would you be with them and why would they have you with them?”

“We’re playing a zombie survival game. You say you’ve been on the road for months and came from the west, but the whole idea of this game has been travelling west towards safety. I don’t want your character knowing what is out there already, it would kill the surprises I’ve got planned…”


It’s hard to do. As a Game Master I want to enable my players in all their ideas, but sometimes I have to shut down something that just doesn’t fit the general idea of the game, or that would send the game spiraling into the margins and away from the general boundaries I set on the world or style. But I’ve also been in the situation where I try something as a player and the Game Master shuts it down – I deflate, my enthusiasm for the game disappears, and I get a little grumpy. It’s a hard balance to strike – how do you preserve a dynamic of a game without turning off the faucets of encouragement and fun that fuel the players?

Underlying Ideas

When a player tries something that breaks the general guidelines of your game, what are they really trying to get at? Is it a problem of player interpretation or expectation? Is it a case of a problem player trying to grab control in some way or break the structure of a game so they can act as they want? Or, is it a case of a player wanting to get at something or make something happen and not really understanding how it interferes with the overall narrative arcs that you are attempting to create?

Getting at the underlying idea or desire of the player is the prime thing. Why exactly does the player want to own a store? Is it so they have access to supplies or a retirement path for their character? Why is the character wanting to come from the west when you’ve already established that west is the direction that you are travelling? What is it they really want out of the action they are attempting? Knowing this, you can determine your Take and Give

Take and Give

I’m not a huge fan of saying outright no to the players. It shuts them down. If I can find a way to give them at least part of what they want, I find that they are happier and more engaged than if I just said change your mind. Does the player want the store so they don’t have to purchase supplies or worry about “downtime” money? Well, what if they have a cart and are a travelling merchant and we just assume that they sell a few goods when they reach a new place and have some in-game down time? Does the character want to secretly be an anarchist who tries to take down the military? Can you work it out beforehand that they come to realize in-game that not all military actions are bad, at least to the point that they work with the group? If that doesn’t work, can you tell them that the character concept just doesn’t work, but find a better one that they would have as much fun playing? If you have to Take something away to preserve group unity, narrative, or general fun for the group, Give something that still keeps that player’s passion for the game high. Is the underlying idea that the character wants to be mysterious and connected to the deeper story? Can you write it in that they have travelled from the west, but whatever is there is so traumatic that they refuse to remember? If you have to say no completely, can you wrap in a separate mystery that rocks the group when it is revealed?


Say Yes More Often Than No, But…

When you find you have to say no for some legitimate reason, use the two part formula to preserve the players sense of ability.

  • Determine the underlying idea or want
  • For everything you have to Take, try to Give something that stokes the players fires

Sometimes you just have to take a player idea away that would be toxic to your game, but if you can replace it with coal you can keep the player having fun. What is your worst experience in having to say no to a player? Have you ever lost one from a game because of it? How often do player ideas run up against your narrative or group fun? Do you find players buying into your ideas more often than they run against them?

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John Arcadian is a writer, gamer, art director, web designer, crafter, and kilt-wearer. You can find more of his writings on gaming over at For web-design projects, check out
  1. Rickard Elimää     | Reply

    Lots of talk about railroading now. Two different forums and it’s also on G+. What I would like to say is that it’s an infected topic and it’s important that people realize that it’s ONE playstyle and it doesn’t have to affect anyone else’s playstyles by discussing it. Because the topic is so infected, I would like to use a different term to avoid preconceived ideas about it. Here is »sequential play«.

    I like this article because it brings up the fact that it can be a communication error about what the game master and the player wants from the session.

    I play all kinds of playstyles: fish tanks, bang driven games, sequential play, sandboxes, and collaborative storytelling. Each style has it’s own preferences and I think it’s important to use the right tool for the right cause. If you want to play hexploration, then a sandbox would be preferred. An intrigue, then a fish tank.

    Sometimes you want to give the players a sensation in form of an insight or a plot twist. Sequential play is usually better for this cause. Movies like The Sixth Sense, The Man From Earth, and The Usual Suspects comes into mind.

    Extra Credits talks about player agency in video games and the question they bring up is very relevant for roleplaying games as well. It’s not a matter of the players being able to anything in all games. In some games, it’s more about what they can influence.

    I’m always open with if I’m going to use sequential play. I then follow this up with using the techniques cementing, delegation and shifting. I sometimes use shifting as a reward for when the players do something. I can use cementing to give the players some options – they can paint whatever they want, as long it’s between those frames. I finally use delegation to show the players where they have full influence to do whatever.

    Sequential play is not about fully removing player agency, it’s about limiting some parts of it to be able to play tighter scenarios with clear frames that is easier to hold together.

    1. Blackjack     | Reply

      Thanks for helping broaden the conversation and the terminology beyond the overly simplistic argument of “If you take away player agency you are railroading them.”

      I also appreciate your suggestion of discussing these topics openly with players. I haven’t done that with my current group because I assumed– erroneously– that as experienced gamers they would understand. It turns out that two of the most experienced don’t. Every time something happens that they can’t react to with a realistic chance of avoiding, they cry foul and complain about how it’s “unfair”. Ironically, the player who understands best the balance between full agency and limits, and often helps calm down these other players, is the one who’s normally the biggest rules lawyer in the group.

  2. Blackjack     | Reply

    I cringe every time I read an article touching on the idea that a GM should never say “No” to the players. The fact is “No” is often appropriate. As you identified, the challenge for a GM is to use it to help the players enjoy the game rather than simply shut them down.

    I say “No” pretty frequently in my games. But how I redirect the player’s request depends what the nature of the situation. I would say there are 3 basic cases where I push back against a player request:

    1. Character conflict. The player wants to do something that conflicts with the style of the game, the group, or even her own character concept. This isn’t so much about saying “No” as it is about asking “Are you sure?” As in your examples above about how buying a retail shop conflicts with being a traveling adventurer, and the conditions under which a self avowed anarchist would really join a paramilitary group. Sometimes explaining the reasons against the action helps the player realize it was a bad idea. Other times the player really wants to do it despite the reasons against; then, discussing those reasons helps reach a solution that fits within the game. For example, the PC shopkeeper acknowledges she’ll be an absentee owner and accepts the costs & risks of hiring a manager to run it while she’s away.

    2. Good idea, wrong details. The player has a really interesting idea, but some of the details conflict with elements of the game that are more or less set in stone. This isn’t so much about saying “No” as it is about asking, “What are you really trying to accomplish here?” For example, I had a player once in a D&D game who described a very interesting mystical order, basically benevolent puppet-masters, he wanted to be part of. I didn’t have room in my game world to add a whole new faith or organization like that, but I did have a priesthood that incorporated a few of the same ideas. I described that priesthood and asked about his goals in defining his character. It turns out he simply wanted to play a character with occult insight who worked mostly unseen to implement a basically benevolent agenda. Once we framed his desire like that, it was easy to map it into existing elements of my game world.

    3. Unfair advantage. Sometimes the player is simply trying to avoid one of the hard but meaningful parts of the game. This is where I say “No” as in “No”. Fortunately it’s the rarest of these three cases. One example would be the player who drew up a 1st level character and announced, “I’m filthy rich!” He decked himself out with all kinds of equipment unaffordable to the rest of the group. This would have created a character parity problem and would have eliminated the common motivator/dramatic tension in low level games of slowly acquiring better gear while adventuring. I refused that request.

    1. Scott Martin     | Reply

      I like your call to look deeper–and, even more, to investigate and find out more by discussing “the whys” with the player. As your first two points show, it’s often that the player wants to help create, but doesn’t have the same grounding–often because the game hasn’t started yet! If you can figure out what they’re really aiming for, players are often fine with a substitution–particularly if you explain that the change means that it’ll have more influence in game that the unrevised would.

      From John’s example, where he proposes revising the shop to a traveling cart, the shop is brought into the game. An absentee manager would become faint bookkeeping, or influential to the story only as a background element. By making it a cart that travels with the PCs, it can be threatened and episodes can focus on protecting it from bandits–or you can set a scene about the killing cold that would have frozen unprotected adventurers, but you’re sitting snug against the wagon’s stove and sipping cocoa while it sleets.

  3. John Fredericks     | Reply

    Along with “No” sometimes you have to say “This is my call.” It’s not out of meaness, but sometimes you have to establish that you are looking at the bigger picture. They don’t always like it, but if they leave over it, well, then they do.

    I try to really listen to my players and hear their rules or campaign concerns. But sometimes the answer is no. I’ll be as fair as I can, but I’m not begging anyone to play in my games.

  4. Asmodeus Mictian     | Reply

    Thank you so much for this article!! I have a player who’s your prototypical POWER GAMER. He wants to be the best, biggest, baddest, strongest, smartest…etc etc…in the world. The information in this article should help me tame him at least a little bit. I think if he continues down the road he’s on though, we may have to part ways. He likes breaking games -_-

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John Arcadian