Roleplaying games famously lack a pre-determined goal. They are open-ended games. The assumption is that you’ll use the rules of the game to adjudicate the events in a World wherein the characters are inhabitants and that this context will suggest some possible goals. The players either choose or accept a goal and off they go to achieve it.
The big question, at least in my experience, circles around the question of who chooses the goal. Most players behave as though they expect the GM to give them one. This might be because most pre-written adventure modules are written with one (or more) objectives spelled out and it’s quite common to go along with the module. The alternative, and my preference, is to choose your own goal.
One of the most interesting elements of The Alexandrian’s focus on game structures was the point about the role played by two key questions:
…there are two questions which every game designer and GM must ask themselves:
(1) What do the characters do?
(2) How do the players do it?
These questions might seem deceptively simple, but the answers are complex. And getting the right answers is absolutely critical to having a successful gaming session.Game Structures, The Alexandrian.net, April 2nd 2012
Later on, The Alexandrian suggests this applies on both the micro- and macro-scale, the latter becoming scenario structures. Robust scenario structures, such as the classic Dungeoncrawl, have a default goal and a default action which answer these questions. But better than that, when these structures are deployed they do not straight-jacket the players:
[The Dungeoncrawl] provides structure, but not a straitjacket. When the players ask themselves, “What do I do now?” the dungeoncrawl provides them with a default answer (“go through an exit”), but doesn’t prohibit them from creating all sorts of other answers for themselves: Fight the goblins. Investigate the arcane runes. Set up a fungal garden. Check for traps. Translate the hieroglyphics. Reverse engineer the construction of dwarven golems. Negotiate with the necromancer. And on and on and on.Game Structures – Part 3 Dungeoncrawl, The Alexandrian.net, April 6th 2012
In other words, the GM can provide a structure to the game that allows the players to default to a goal – in this case, searching for treasure – but it doesn’t stop them deciding to do anything they want. Walking out of the dungeon and deciding to do something else was always on the table. Well, at least as long as the GM is willing to roll with that and honour the agency of the player.
Which brings me back to the question of who picks the goal. Ideally, I would prefer the players to determine their own goals and pursue them with all the resources at their disposal… or go get more resources. In reality, too many years of passively accepting the goals given in pre-written modules has trained me – when I am a player – to not choose a goal.
Not taking agency in the roleplaying game leads to playing in games where I get bored. For sure, I need to work with the other players to determine a cooperative set of goals if any of us are to succeed in a hostile fantasy world, but ultimately if I don’t pick a goal then (just as in real life) someone else will assign one.
Problems arise in two situations: when the GM doesn’t allow the player to pursue their chosen goal or when the player rejects the pre-determined goals of the GM. The practical upshot of these problems are that the GM will railroad the player or the player will leave the game, sometimes both.
That being said, I quite enjoy the default goal of original D&D – to go and find all the treasure in the dungeon – and would probably be quite happy following along in dungeoncrawls much more than is currently fashionable. Maybe that’s why the game structure is so durable.