But What Can I Do?

Usually, I talk about topics that can fit both role-playing and writing. Today’s a bit different, though; I’m going to talk about a topic that fits both role-playing and real life, and that’s the importance of the ability to effect change.

I’ve written about this before, in mentioning the importance of agency, but from what I’ve seen, it’s impossible to write about it enough. I’ve seen games end because nobody thought they could do anything but be pushed around by the storyline; I’ve seen fights that were never resolved because both sides believed there was no chance the other would bend.

Conversely, people who think that there’s a chance to change things might stay in a situation longer than it really makes sense to do so. Even success being nigh on impossible won’t necessarily get people to give up. I’ve seen people who would do anything for the respect of that one authority figure, or for a chance to make a difference in someone else’s life. I myself spent four years fighting a losing battle trying to prove myself to a band director who seemed to take every opportunity possible to keep me out of the jazz band. Shinali phrases it more succinctly: “I tend to work hard at the slightest chance of success because I fear giving up—better to fail than quit.”

The take-home lesson is that if you’re going to set a task in front of people, or set up a circumstance that it’s their job to change, they have to believe that change is possible, and that they are the ones who can effect it. If they don’t, they’re probably not going to try. If Plan A fails, and Plan B fails, and C looks like it’s about to fail, and there’s no way to tell whether the plan was flawed to begin with or if Fate just says No, is anyone really going to want to risk all on Plan D? Similarly, if you can tell exactly where the people above you are going wrong, but as far as you can tell the only thing that will happen if you try to explain this to them is that they’ll take away the little you have left, are you really going to want to help them fix things? What if there’s something that’s very obviously a plot point in need of addressing, but you haven’t the slightest idea how to address it or even where to start addressing it; are you going to try to push on in your ignorance, or are you just going to find something that you actually know how to do?

The game master needs to understand this, and act accordingly. If it’s a problem that’s supposed to be solved, there needs to be some sort of apparent clue as to how to solve it. If there are a lot of problems, at least one of them should look like it can be solved.

In general, it all comes down to this: If you imagine yourself in the scenario you’re setting up, and the only answer you can reach to the question “But what can I do?” is “Nothing”, it should be no surprise when the people who are supposed to be in that situation don’t do anything.

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