Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will, Part I

In this post, I’m going to use an analogy (or set of analogies) to describe the various philosophical schools of thought on free will. Being a nerd and avid gamer, I’m of course going to find that analogy in the world of gaming. Specifically, in that corner of the gaming world that is possibly the nerdiest (and also my favorite): roleplaying games (RPGs). Here, I mean RPGs that are played with pen, paper and dice (or some other mechanic) in a face-to-face situation—not video games that would be classified as falling in the “RPG” genre.

If you’re not sure how a roleplaying game works, I’ve written a basic explanation here.

Here begins the analogy:

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that written literature represents pure determinism (at least when you are the reader). The story is already set, the characters are going to take the actions that they have been written to take, and you’re just along for the ride.[1]

On the other end of the spectrum is when you tell a story to others and have no set requirements about the content or nature of the story. This is pure free will. No outside force determines the course of the story and no logic need constrain your characters; you are the sole captain of your ship.

Somewhere between pure determinism and pure free will, things get interesting. Here we find a debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The latter believe that any element of determinism destroys the existence of free will, while the former believe that some determinism and some freedom of will can peacefully and logically co-exist.

In a RPG, the GM is a little microcosm of a god, though GMs who take this seriously usually fail to keep in mind that they’re playing a game that the Players are there to have fun, and that being forced to act out a story over which they have no control is neither fun nor interesting. Players generally call GM behavior that forces them down an inevitable story arc “railroading.”

When a GM railroads his players, they may be choosing their actions, but the consequences of their actions will always lead to the same result. The meaningfulness of choosing is lost; only the illusion of meaningful choice remains. Don’t look at the man behind the curtain or that illusion will itself disappear.

Railroading in a RPG, then, represents something more akin to the deterministic nature of Fate in Greek theatre—the characters seem free to do what they want, but they will always reach the same result no matter what they do—just ask Oedipus. Like Greek tragedy, this is depressing; it’s only real meaning is the paradigm’s tautology that Fate is unavoidable, so no matter what you do, you cannot avoid Fate.

Both Greek tragedy and poorly-run RPGs represent incompatibilist theory—it’s plain to see here how the determinism of the situation makes the existence of the remaining modicum of free will ultimately meaningless.

Roleplaying games, when run by a skilled GM, fall firmly into the compatibilist free-will philosophy. There are some—indeed, many—things outside of a Player Character’s control. From the very conception of a game, the determination of the setting to be used for the game naturally precludes certain options for characters, both ontological and practical. Once the game begins, at least some of the events that occur are predetermined by the GM.[2] What has happened before the game begins, for instance, is usually dictated solely by the GM.

Once the story begins, however, the Players and their characters have true agency. When a PC acts, he has the capacity to enact change in the (fictional) world around him. The things he does influence the story in a tangible way as the GM incorporates the results of the character’s actions into the plot and narrative as they progress.

What we end up with is a back-and-forth, a give-and-take between Players and GM where both influence the course of the story. Determinism—the actions of the GM in setting the stage for the characters’ actions—and free will—the actions of the characters in pushing the story along—live side by side and feed off of one another. This scenario is clearly the most meaningful. We’ll explore why in the next post.


[1] I understand that many writers, myself included, would argue that a story takes on a life of its own during its creation and wanders in directions we never initially considered. Nevertheless, once put down, the story is immutable.

[2] It has become popular in the last decade to focus on building narrative in an RPG and, thus, to foster “collaborative storytelling,” in which the players have greater control over the story in a more cooperative relationship with the GM. Even games without such a focus have become less “adversarial” in their depiction of the relationship between GM and players. Nevertheless, the analogy for our purposes focuses on the situation where the GM has ultimate narrative authority but allows the actions of the characters to alter the story as it moves forward.


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