I was reading this post over on r/dnd and became filled with a deep well of sadness. The player in question was arguing that the idea that the player can do something really cool or interesting on the roll of a nat 20 was an awesome thing as it actually allowed them for a brief, joyous moment, to have some agency and narrative control over the game they are roleplaying in.
I realised this is the reality of play for many players. Like cattle being gently ushered to slaughter they must follow the choreographed series of gates that eventually leads to the GM putting a metal bolt through their head. The only way they can at least make this journey vaguely entertaining is by declaring that they actually want to temporarily escape the confines of the slaughterhouse walls imposed upon them. The dice offer a 5% chance of them at least being able to temporarily breathe air before they are once again herded back towards the bolt pistol.
Please. For the love of fuck. Allow your players to do interesting things GM’s. They don’t need to wait for a nat 20. They don’t need to wait for your super awesome special set-piece encounter. They really don’t need to watch NPC’s be the ones doing anything interesting. Just let them do the things they want to do.
“Yes and” is a magical tool. “Yes but” is an equally interesting one. Rarely “no, but” is appropriate but you must always remember your but. Ideally, every dice roll should have some kind of interesting consequence, every decision adding together to form an emerging tapestry of narrative that keeps everyone at the table continually engaged as the unexpected builds upon itself towards a unified conclusion.
I had only understood the ‘nat 20 allows you to do anything’ meme up until this point as players misunderstanding the game rules from various internet memes and that bleeding into actual play. I had initially been frustrated by this misinterpretation of the rules seemingly allowing for ‘lolrandom’ zany antics to happen on any roll of a 20.
Reading this post made me clock that the problem goes deeper into the realms of games having so little player agency that the players are forced to rely on the vagueries of the dice. This is heartbreaking and the fault lies with GM’s blue-balling their players into never being able to do anything interesting while players totally don’t realise as a result that they can continually make engaging decisions for their character throughout the entire game. Instead they just glumly follow the tracks, chiming in whenever they have permission to do something they have no real choice over in the first place. This sort of stigma can stick with a player for life as they think that’s the only way to play a game and mutate into abused player syndrome where the player becomes almost actively disruptive to the overall experience in hopes that nat 20 lands and the GM is forced to listen to what they actually want.
Not to say nat 20’s aren’t great moments to really bring it in game. In a recent session, a nat 20 caused our barbarian to chop the arm off a freaking Balor. The Balor did not pass. They’re an improvisational tool in your kit that allows you to occasionally make something particularly memorable happen but they aren’t the only time anything, that ideally should be a continual process through each session.
I too used to be guilty of this to varying degrees. I wanted to look towards the rules to give permission to do something interesting and designed scenarios that were effectively railroaded rollercoaster rides where players had little to no control of the steering wheels. I would worry that the verisimilitude of the world and rules would be shattered if a player or NPC did something that didn’t exist in the framework of the rules or narrative I had designed. I couldn’t let go. When a player declared something absurd and hit a nat 20 I would find some way to lessen its effects rather than just rolling with it.
I can, as a result, understand it’s difficult letting go of control and in running a game you obviously need a degree of structure which come in the form of the rules and your design but it’s okay to take a few deep breaths and just say ‘yes’ and I urge GM’s to take this philosophy and players to demand it in their games.