[RPG] How to communicate feelings to players without impacting their agency


As a Game Master I'd occasionally like to communicate premonitions or sensation to my characters, as a benefit of their backstory, or as a means to give them opportunity to be deeper tied into the narrative world. For example, a wood elf character is in Neverwinter wood on a fey night, and I'd like to give his player the information that something is unusual, perhaps:

As the moon rises, your heart begins to beat enthusiastically to the rhythm of drums that always seem to be just beyond the edge of your hearing, and you feel the need to dance, in spite of your fatigue.

However, this communicates something about the character that is not strictly under their players control. How can I communicate this kind of setting information, without reducing player agency?

Best Answer

Suggestively and Subjectively, If At All.

Based on your reference to Neverwinter, I am assuming that this is some version of Dungeons and Dragons, which has no general mechanic for this sort of thing, only specific mechanics for things like Cause Fear spells. I also recognize you're not talking about those special spells or spell-like effects.

The general guidance here is, "Don't. Really, don't." In Dungeons and Dragons-like games, this is an often-unwanted intrusion into the player/character agency, as you rightly recognize in your question phrasing.

Even so, I understand the desire to provide this kind of guidance, and there are situations where it can be appropriate, and one technique I have had some success with:

  • If your players ask, then by all means give the mood-setting guidance you want to give. I've had this happen a number of times where the player will just up and ask me if his characters thinks or feels a certain way. Surprises me every time, because that's not how I play my characters, but it does happen.

  • You can skirt the issue in a number of ways, with a number of semi-weasel grammatical constructions, many of which boil down to use of the subjunctive mood. What the subjunctive does, in so many words, is express something hypothetical or something assumed, inferred or implied, but not really known to certainty. So I found myself saying things like, "You might be feeling the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, right about now," or "Most people would be revolted by this." Those phrases can be highly suggestive and evocative, providing clear mood, tone, and guidance, but they don't actually take the agency away from the character. The player can always decline that hypothetical, and they are somewhat prompted to accept or decline, almost required to do so in a way. I found it very effective once I realized what I was doing and was able to do it on purpose.

(Having worked so hard at it so long ago, my high school Latin teacher would be so proud of me, right now. Next week's lesson: Ablative absolute, or, "You too, can sound like Julius Caesar in two easy words.")