The Dungeon Master (DM) as it’s known in Dungeons and Dragons or Game Master (GM) as it is known in other games, has control over the non-player characters (NPCs), monsters, traps, treasure and the story itself. Ironically the GM, with all their power, is ultimately at the behest of the players. There are many things that make a good GM, and letting the players feel as though they are in control of their character and have influence over the world are definitely two of them.
Role playing games are an interactive storytelling with rules to make the conflict more interesting. One of the key things is interactivity. As a GM you are trying to create a story that maintains the interest for yourself and the players. This could be a loose narrative to get the characters from one fight to the next or it could be a deep, complex narrative that requires planning and precision. At the end of the day though, that decision is not the GMs to make by themselves. The one thing the GM can’t control is also the one thing that has the most sway on how the game is played, the players.
The session before dice are rolled and the story is started is called Session Zero. This is when as a DM you need to ask your players what kind of game they want to play. Having a good idea of the tone and style of the game is going to be very important. You can want all day long to play a game with spies and espionage but that means nothing if your players first reaction to adversity is to fight it loud and proud. Neither of these styles are wrong it is just that they must match up.
Once you have a style then you have to be mindful of the narrative. As a GM you control what the terrain is like, the NPCs and their motivations but you don’t control what the players do and where they go. If you do control what the players do and where they go it’s called railroading and can lead to conflict. Even if you have a beautifully crafted narrative, forcing a player to interact with it is like holding someone’s face in front of a painting. No one really likes it.
If your players have decided to engage with your narrative then you are good to carry on. In the case that they don’t you have a few different options. You could simply move the start of the narrative to where they are going. It can break the illusion of control if they discover that no matter what direction they go the same results would occur, but they don’t know what is on your notes. You can make it seem like it was their idea all along.
Another option is to let the world move on without them. In books and movies events will wait for the main characters, in your world they don’t have to. If they were going to try to save the prince or princess and instead spend the entire session talking to a random throw away NPC you put on the road to make the world more immersive; then maybe that prince or princess was killed or replaced by a doppelganger. The death of the princess might start a war that the players are partially responsible for. This lets you maintain your narrative while letting the players know that there are consequences for their actions
The Game Master may have master in their name and control over many things but it is a balance of power between the players and the GM. And at the end of the day it is a game that everyone should have fun with.