When I get the chance to be a player I am generally pleased to play along with the story going on. Whatever published adventure or lovingly crafted personal story framework the Game Master has worked out is generally great by me. When I’m a Game Master however, I tend to get player input before I ever build up the scenarios of the actual game and I react to flags and indicators that the players throw out, wittingly and unwittingly, while we are gaming. This approach makes for some really fun games, but often leaves me less than prepared for specific instances and forces me to rely on my improv skills. One of the tactics I’ve developed to bridge the gap between being an improv Game Master and still allow player input into how the game goes is an epic list.
An epic list is a list of story elements or possibilities that the players would like to see happen to their characters at some point in the game. More concisely, it is things the players want their characters to accomplish or achieve.
To setup the list I ask each player to give me 2 or 3, depending on the proposed length of the campaign, epic things that they want their character to do, achieve, encounter, be remembered for, or have happen. I tell them I’ll try to incorporate them, but I won’t make them gimme items. The players will still have to work at and towards them, but if I know what the player thinks would be cool I’ll be able to better work in the opportunity. Doing this doesn’t mean giving up control of the game or the mood. You can, and should, set guidelines about what game you are running beforehand.
“Hey guys, I’m running a sci-fi noir/pulp thriller for the next game. It will last about 3 months and will focus on a corrupt city and the corporations that are vying for control of it. At some point there will be travel off planet and some part of it will focus around alien artifacts. I want you to give me two epic things that you would love to see happen with your character in the game. I’ll TRY to work them in as possibilities, but they won’t just be gimmes. Email them to me within a week.”
So, what kind of things count? Well any thing the players want, but choice often paralyzed people. So here is a list of a few possible epic things I can think of or have heard:
- Defeat A Named Enemy With A Reputation
- Own An Epic Item That Is Important To The World
- Take Out Multiple Enemies In A Single Combat Or Action
- Take Out One Giant Enemy That Threatens Many People
- Hunt A Legendary Creature
- Befriend A Legendary Dangerous Creature
- Discover a New Alien Race
- Be Integral To The Overthrow Of A Corrupt Country Or Company
- Be Popular With The Ladies (Or The Men, Or Both)
- Beat Many Other Parties To Retrieving An Ancient Treasure
- Be Hunted By An Arch Villain
- Have A Recurring Rival/Love Interest Who Sometimes Works Against Me And Sometimes Aids Me
- Cure A Plague With The Help Of Divine Intervention
- Save A Beleaguered People And Start A New Civilzation
- Defeat A Monster Who Killed My Parents, According To My Backstory
- Be A Person Who Is Part Of A Secret Society That Has More Power Than Realized
- Prevent An Ancient Evil From Awakening, But Do It By Accident
- Become Overtaken By An Evil Artifact Before Throwing It Off And Redeeming Myself
In essence, you are asking the players to tell you what they want their personal climatic moments in the game to be and partially how they want them to play out. The more “generally specific”, i.e. the more they can be specific about the general feel they want from the plot element, the better.
When I do this, and I do it almost every game because of the success it has, I always make sure to tell the players that I will TRY to work these things into the story, but it will be up to them to make them happen and they will suffer any negative effects of these elements. If they want to fight Godzilla they might get crushed like bambi. You aren’t just giving them the epic win, you are giving them the chance to work for a particular epic win.
Once these epic elements are known, you incorporate them into the game like any other plot element, there is little that should need done to tend them. You might need to nudge the spotlight a bit to focus it on the particular character when their epic thing comes up, but by and large you are just adding these things into the story.
I find that phrasing this tactic as a list and getting just one or two things helps avoid the choice paralysis. Also, giving the players some time to mull over their epic things helps them think out their character and what they want them to be remembered for. Having them email it to you, or give it to you privately also helps keep each player from going into casual mode when they realize someone else’s time in the spotlight arrives and preserves a feel of challenge.
So, have you ever done anything like this? Do you run your games with player input previous to the design process?