Can vs. Should

By Robin D. Laws

A while back I foisted on an innocent social media landscape the following roleplaying koan, written to meet Twitter’s telegraphic character count:

If your RPG sentence has the verb “should” and a subject of “players”, “GM”, or “group”, change verb to “can.”

This occasioned a surprising amount of debate, due largely I’m sure to the difficulty of debating something Tweet-sized, let alone doing it on Twitter itself. This reminds us once again all that it’s a medium better restricted to jokes, links, and complaints about the minor hassles of your day. In future I’ll do my best to abstain from the unfair practice of using the format for meaningful-seeming pronouncements.

As further atonement, I’ll now expand the thought into the infinitely more debate-ready column format. See if you still agree or disagree with it after I layer on the nuance.

In setting and adventure text, you often find constructions like:

  • The GM should keep relentless pressure on the investigators throughout their escape from the monastery, letting up only when they reach the outskirts of town.
  • Initial sessions should revolve around the visitor’s exploration of the island.
  • The characters should mostly come from the village, with maybe one or two outsiders familiar with the wider world beyond.

In this context “should” behaves as a weasel word. It urges the GM to take action without quite copping to it. It gives an instruction which the writer assumes will be flubbed or flouted by a significant number of readers. If you observe that someone should do something, the implication is that some of them probably won’t. When you think about it, something Eeyorish is going on here.

“Should” also implies an alternate course of action the passage does not further elucidate. Apparently I have the option not to keep relentless pressure on the investigators, to center early sessions around something other than island exploration, or to let the adventuring team consist of mostly characters from outside the village. But what happens if I choose to do any of these things, by active decision or bumbling omission?

As roleplaying writers, we use this construction reflexively. It slipped into standard phrasebook during the formative years of the medium and we reach for it without any particular ideological agenda. But when you stop to think about it, the should construction shines a revealing light on game writer psychology.

When you write RPG material, you cede control to play groups, who ultimately decide what to do with the blueprint you’ve laid out for them. The GM might not succeed in keeping up relentless pressure, or might not see this as a rewarding choice when the time comes for the characters to escape the monastery. Yet as you write, you are undoubtedly picturing the fun and gripping game you would run—or perhaps did run, for your own group. Your natural urge toward creative control pulls you toward a series of instructions to do it your way. But you don’t want to come out and say that. Sometimes what you really mean to say, but can’t admit, is that, if we’re to have the experience you’re envisioning:

  • The GM must keep relentless pressure on the investigators…
  • Initial sessions must revolve around exploration of the island…
  • Characters must come mostly from the village…

Once you put it that way, the presumption becomes evident. You’re trying to control the game experience from afar, which is not only undesirable, but impossible. As a designer, you’re at best one member of the collaboration—the one who drops off the blueprint and leaves. In truth, none of these things must occur. The GM can relax the pressure during the monastery escape yet still deliver a riveting game. A group might have a great time doing something other than exploring the island. A campaign featuring non-villagers requires some adjustments from the assumptions you lay out in the setting pack, but scarcely guarantees hideous failure.

If you substitute “can”, either literally or implicitly, you remind yourself that you’re not the builder, but the architect. You’re laying out options rather than dictating the experience.

  • By keeping relentless pressure on the investigators, you can intensify their desire to break up the monastery gang once and for all.
  • By nudging the characters toward initial island exploration, you can create a sense of escalation when the darkspurs invade.
  • If characters mostly come from the village, they can bring out the conflict between parochialism and cosmopolitanism central to the setting.

Note what happens when you switch from “should” to “can.” Now you’re not issuing an instruction, but a recommendation. Even better, the construction encourages you to show your work, to describe the benefits of following it. You’ve given the GM and players the tools to evaluate your choice. And, by implication, you’re indicating what might happen if they ignore your recommendation—other than failing to recreate the experience you’ve either had already with your own group, or conjured in your head.

Now I know that the consequence of not keeping pressure up during the monastery escape might be lowered emotional commitment to wiping out the evil monks. Well, maybe the group already hates the evil monks plenty, based on what transpired in the monastery prior to the escape sequence. Or we don’t care about repercussions, because it’s a convention game, and with time constraints it’s best to elide the escape so there’s still time for the final confrontation. I see not just that a tense escape fits the writer’s vision, but how it fits. To further torture the architectural metaphor, I can now tell whether the element in question is a load-bearing wall, or a decorative I can take or leave, as the moment demands.

The “can” construction forces the writer to consciously weigh that exact same question, understanding why she’s issuing the instruction. Is it considered advice, or just an attempt to tell the group to play it as imagined, dammit? Is a tense monastery escape really a must, or something you’re thinking might be cool. If the latter, is the writer really saying anything other than, “When you play this, remember not to be boring”? Which, once understood as such, uselessly pads the word count with a statement as obvious as it is condescending.

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