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Nine Words That Improve Your Game – What Do You Want To Get Out Of This?

Posted By John Arcadian On May 13, 2011 @ 12:53 am In Gaming Trends | 9 Comments

image Every Game Master has been in the situation where a player starts pursuing some course of action that you just can’t divine the purpose off. They attempt a long complicated string of skill rolls, roleplaying interactions, and other hare brained interactions to get to … well, you never quite know until the very end. Maybe they just wanted that extra +2 bonus, or to get a better price for the loot they were selling, or to get the security schematics for the place they are attempting to break into. Whatever it is, the game goes through a whole lot of muck to try to get one simple thing happening.

I’ve long been a proponent of right out asking the players what they are trying to accomplish in situations like these. When they get into that interaction, or they start down some scheme of using the shape changer’s abilities to make a pretend buyer for the loot they just liberated – ask them straight out: “What do you want to get out of this?”. Asking it straight out cuts through a lot of the mess of players thinking one thing and the Game Master thinking another. It takes the game away from the table and into the Meta for a minute, but it lets you make quick work of otherwise confusing situations. Once you know that the player is looking for a minor benefit, you can have them make a simple roll and short form the rest or let them describe how their plan goes down. If what they are trying to get out of the interaction is much bigger, then you know how to pursue it and what rolls to ask for or make on behalf of the NPCs.

The idea isn’t new. In fact, it’s almost inherent to most gaming in some way or other. Many of the interactions between player, Game Master, and the game are determining what each party is looking for in the situation. But it rarely gets thought of in so direct a term or gets stated so bluntly, yet there are many times when zooming out from the game, looking at player intent, and then zooming back in can make things so much better. A little direction goes a long way.

There are a lot of ways to divine player intent, and there are a lot of ways to directly ask the players as well. The words you use can be very important. I’ve seen a lot of Game Masters use different phrases, and I’ve asked it many times in different ways: 

“What are you looking for?”
”What are you trying to do?”
”What are you trying to make happen?”
”What is the end result you want?”


However, at a convention I was at a few weekends ago, I heard the Game Master for a game I was in ask as: “What do you want to get out of this?”, and it struck me as one of the best questions to ask to divine player intent. It gets at the heart of what a player is looking for and gets past most obfuscation a player might try to throw into their answer. There is a thought, as a player, that if you right out tell the Game Master your plans, they’ll figure out ways to get around them. Some people run games like that, but if you ask what the player wants to get out of the situation, they don’t have to reveal anything about the way they are going about it. If “I want to get the duke on our side.” is the player’s answer, then they can still pursue the actions by telling him lies, by bribing him, by trying to leverage their status, by using their speaking skills to show their plight, etc. If you need to clarify, you can ask them more questions about how they intend to get that effect, or you can just let it go and know a little bit more about what you are working with.

So remember, if you are stuck in a situation that seems to be dragging in the quagmire, just ask: “What do you want to get out of this?” and cut through it. Have you used techniques like this before or do you believe in preserving the meta at all costs?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




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9 Comments To "Nine Words That Improve Your Game – What Do You Want To Get Out Of This?"

#1 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 13, 2011 @ 5:34 am

Excellent advice. My stock question is “what are you trying to accomplish?”

I tend to run social-heavy games. There are a lot of times when my players threaten to consume a session chatting up an incidental NPC or otherwise losing focus. While social interactions are part of the fun, I’ll use the question when it’s time to rein things in and move forward with the plot.

#2 Comment By Razjah On May 13, 2011 @ 6:16 am

I use this idea when the players lose me. They will bicker and plan and get ready for whatever plan they have- and then not tell me. I have completely dodged the players’ goals becuase I did not know what they wanted to do. No whenever they have a strategy meeting I ask at the end, “okay, so what’s the plan?” This way I can help make sure the BBEG goes by the cliff if they want to fight him there, or whatever their goal is. I don’t make it easier, but I make sure it can happen.

#3 Comment By Zig On May 13, 2011 @ 8:13 am

I agree there are definitely times where just coming out and asking the player to give you an idea of what she/he is up to. Nothing more convoluted, opaque, and just plain odd out there than some of the ideas and goals a player might come up with. But then, of course, it’s one of the joys of GMing for me. I love the surprises, the plans, the winging of some whim a player a gets, etc. Naturally, as the game is a collaborative process between GM and the players and fun is normally the goal for all involved, it’s very important for the GM to know what the player is looking for.

So I think just coming out and asking the player can be a good idea. Unfortunately for me, one of my long time group’s favorite expressions is: “Don’t tell the GM!” They like to throw me off balance.

Luckily, if the group is split up (as can often happen in Shadowrun as the group gathers intel and stake places out), when the focus is on others my players tend to start plotting and discussing thinking I don’t pay a small amount of attention. So, sometimes I can get a head’s up and alter things. Not to work against them (as that would be horribly unfair), but to come up with ways to really make the run memorable by being prepared for what they shall do. Even more useful when they come up with those ideas/gambits that I would never have come up with and planned for in a thousand years! :)

In conclusion, good advice, and yet another valuable article for GMs. Keep up the work, you Gnomes. And congrats on the third anniversary!

#4 Comment By Toldain On May 13, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

Sometimes what they want is simply to do something cool, and have the spotlight for a little while. They won’t ever say this, though, in response to any question. Not in my experience.

#5 Comment By recursive.faults On May 13, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

I think the phrase I use is, “What are you hoping for?” Just reading it, it sounds pretty bleak, but in this context it makes sense I think.

One thing I think that I do when I use this phrase unfortunately is to quickly curtail their actions or roll them back to whatever is at hand.

When the player answers, I have a direction and I go for it. Sometimes that can result in maybe a premature ending to something that could have been more interesting.

I had an idea while reading this. Obviously, it is rough and is not for everyone, but may spur something greater to happen. If you have players that run along their tangents and you know what they’re after, they are almost always going to interact with some NPCs.

Take a notecard, put a name for the NPC on it, roll on a table or fudge an initial reaction to the player and write it, and finally the result they want. Handle the card to an uninvolved PC and let the players go.

Hopefully the card has enough on it for the PC to run him effectively and after whatever dice rolling and RP is done the player will get their result and another player got to be involved instead of waiting.

#6 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Saturday Six: 2011-05-14 On May 14, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

[...] Nine Words That Improve Your Game – What Do You Want To Get Out Of This? [...]

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On May 15, 2011 @ 8:09 pm

“I’ve long been a proponent of right out asking the players what they are trying to accomplish in situations like these”.

Word for word what I would have said if asked about this subject cold.

I’ve been known to let them run with it a while first to see if I can guess what the hell is going on, but as I get older that length of time gets shorter.

#8 Comment By twoddr On May 15, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

I think, it is perfectly ok for the game master to ask such questions, just like the players may ask (also meta-gameish) questions about their environments.

#9 Pingback By IKRPG: Get Yer Game On | GAME OVER On June 15, 2011 @ 7:24 am

[...] I’m willing to leave this call up to the players, operating as I do on the principle that “what do you want out of this?” is the most important question a GM can ever ask a playe…, especially in pre-play where expectations are set and ground rules established.  It’ll be [...]


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