In the comments section of one of this series where I point out what's so awful about player control of narrative in RPGs, someone named Tom felt I was being too harsh about the possible consequences of granting some 'say yes or roll the dice' type authority to players. After all, he reasons, it is not much more of a step than asking things that players have always done like asking "I talk to the goblins. What happens?" or house rules where there was a 1% chance of Divine Intervention when a cleric prayed. It was Tom's position that surely a little Player-agency, outside of their character, could do no harm. Right?
This is my response:
'Say yes or roll the dice' is taken in practice by the Storygamers to be an absolute law. In fact, most Forge games don't even require it explicitly because they make it clear that the GM is bound by the rules and not allowed to change them. There is a whole culture of strongly discouraging GM authority, including any kind of discretion in what to allow or not allow. Think about it: you can't downplay the radical extremism of "say yes or roll the dice" as a statement or else there'd just be no need to even say it; it's not "say yes or roll the dice or don't and just say no or whatever". It's TAKING AWAY the option of "no", or else it would be nothing at all. You can say yes, or you can roll the dice, but you can't say no. If that wasn't the intention of this mentality there wouldn't be any need to express anything!
And "say yes or roll the dice" is NOTHING like the cases you described above. It is much more about Players getting to change the reality of hte world itself, not on their characters getting to do things.
In a regular RPG, something like having a Player ask "Could my character pick the lock?" is obviously fine. It is something the CHARACTER is trying to do; whether he succeeds or not will be based on the character's abilities.
Asking something like "is there a book on botany in the library?" is also a fine question to ask; but it's a great example of where the danger of player-agency over the world begins to rear its ugly head.
The mentality of "say yes or roll the dice" would there demand that the GM not have a concept of that question beforehand (that is to say, not decide beforehand, when he's creating his universe, that a book on botany exists in the library or doesn't exist) and instead just MAKE one be there because the player asked for it (or alternately, not get to pick himself but make the player or himself roll for it). Obviously no GM ever goes through every library in every place in his setting and writes out every book, so what does it matter, right? The point is, a GOOD GM, one who is turning the setting into a living world, will not have a list of all 10000+ books in the great library, but he WILL already know, the moment the question is asked, whether there's a book on botany in it or not. Because he will use his own sense of the Living World to judge: based on history, on culture, on what he knows to be true about his world. In a living world, there already either is or is not a botany book on those shelves.
So this is already a problem, because proper Emulation doesn't involve world editing. The library is a REAL place, not the blind backdrop for a story. An RPG world is a LIVING WORLD, not just a fuzzy pseudo-reality to suit some narrative. So in that living world, in that living library, there already either IS or IS NOT a book on botany. The Player asking whether there is one does not affect this virtual truth in any way shape or form, any more than you, in real life, asking a librarian at the Toronto Public Library if she has a book on botany would magically make there suddenly be one when there was not one before. Take away consistency, and the world becomes less true, less alive, and Immersion becomes much more difficult.
But the third and worst (and most typical kind) of narrative-control move is to ask something like "Can my sword actually turn out to have been forged here, by the very blacksmith I'm talking to now, and it was his favorite work?" or "Could I spend a 'story point' to make it that I have the antidote in my pocket because, in fact, I knew all along that the dukes plan was to poison me, and all this time when it looked like I was a complete idiot falling into his trap I was just faking it?" or "could it be that actually the dowager had a change of heart and had written a new will before she died leaving everything to me?"
This sort of bullshit is the mainstay of the demands of narrative-control: the ability to directly cut & paste the virtual reality, to edit whatever one wants. It takes the player COMPLETELY OUT of his character and puts him into the role of an author writing the story. It DEVASTATES the setting, which is no longer in any way a Living World, it's just a Potemkin Village, a totally fake backdrop, irrelevant to anything but story-creation.
ANYTHING can then be changed, at anyone's convenience, for the sake of the story. Nothing is real, and thus nothing is actually worth doing. Why the fuck go kill the orcs, if it all gets resolved by spending a story point anyways?! (of course, the Forgists' answer to that question is that they want RPGs to not be about game PLAY at all, but rather about deep and sophisticated story-creation; not about going to kill orcs, but about addressing the deep themes surrounding orc-killing. That's why they have games like the one where you play holocaust victims, or child-soldiers in the Warsaw Uprising, and the point is never ever to win or even to survive, it's just to play out the misery of the character's deaths and 'tell the story' not really of the characters, but of that misery).
Narrative-control is an insidious trap for players, because at first, it makes it sound like you as a player will get more power, and that you'll be able to use that power to give your character the stuff you want for him (either literal stuff like more items or treasure, or the more ephemeral stuff of him getting to be as awesome as you hope he'll be). But it's always a trick, that's not what the Storygamers give a fuck about after all; they know that what narrative control really does is make the triumph or disaster of your PCs totally IRRELEVANT. If the whole world is an illusion, there's no satisfaction in triumphing because there never was anything to triumph against, no true risk of failure.
So the draw for Players to join in this revolt against GM authority is that it will be more awesome for their characters, but the end result is that actually their characters will stop mattering completely, and the game will stop being an RPG and become a storygame, where the goal isn't about caring about your character but telling a larger 'narrative', one where it really doesn't matter if your character wins or loses in it. He won't matter to you anymore, because the world is fake and because you aren't in your character, you're just a guy making up some shit for a little while.
Currently Smoking: Italian Redbark + Brebbia no.7