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You Asked for Player Input for a Reason

Years ago I played in a game where the GM asked us to help creating the area around our starting town. We brainstormed landmarks, terrain types, enemies, allies, secret societies, and treasures. Sure, our starting area was a little rough, but it was full of cool stuff, and everyone had at least a few things they were excited to explore.

Roster [1] Then we showed up to play. The GM started the session by explaining that he “didn’t like” what everyone had come up with, and instead started us in an area populated with Twilightish vampires, WoW’s dark iron dwarves, and whatever the hell that green guy from Dragonball Z is.

OK, I admit it wasn’t as much of a disaster as that would imply and the game, while short lived, was fun. I wasn’t mad about it but I was disappointed, both that I didn’t get to play with the suggestions we made, and that our input had been so quickly rejected. It would have been fun not only to see and play with our contributions, but to watch the GM riff off them and take them in his own direction.

This brings us to the “No shit Sherlock.” moment for this article; if you solicit input from your players, use it. If you get more than you need, you don’t have to use everything, but make sure you at least use some of what each player suggests. Use similar amounts from each player and make some of everyone’s highly visible. If there’s anything more annoying to a player who suggested campaign material than having it simply ignored, it’s having it ignored or hidden away in a lost dungeon somewhere while another player’s suggestion is used as the central theme of the entire game.

Now that you know to make use of player input that you receive (as if you didn’t already), let’s look at common forms of player input. The special part is that you don’t really have to solicit it. Almost everything about the PCs and every action the players take is a window into their designs for your game if you know how to read it right.

PC Stats
PC stats are the first and most basic level the players give input to the game world. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but generally, players select skill sets for their characters based on what kind of challenges they think will be fun. In addition, they choose character options that they think are cool, and mechanical bonuses to support the kinds of things they want to be able to do. This means if you’ve got a player with a Dwarven socialite with bonuses against lizardfolk, your player thinks dwarves, social challenges, and beating down lizardfolk are awesome, and wishes very much you’d include those things in your game. Of course, if they just took a dwarf for the Con bonus, the socialite class for the skill package, and the lizardfolk bonuses as a step towards a prestige class, then it doesn’t mean that at all, so you have to exercise your judgment as to what these things are really saying.

PC Background
The next step up is PC backgrounds. Not only do these have the impact of calling out the kinds of things your player wants to see in game, but they’re rarely muddled in mechanical bonuses the way stats are, so they’re easier to trust. Even better, backgrounds allow the player a measure of narrative control to introduce their own elements into your game. The mysterious brotherhood, peasant rebellion, or space station featured in a PC background are full of meaty goodness for your campaign. Unfortunately, even if required PC backgrounds are often minimal or skipped entirely.

Player Suggestions
Sometimes you can solicit player suggestions or are just given them. When a player asks to fight martians, that’s your cue to bring on the martians! Unlike other sources, these are almost all signal. The issue is that different players will provide different volumes of suggestion, both in terms of amount and insistence. Thus it can be difficult to strike a balance between the player who won’t stop giving you suggestions and the one that has to be harassed into giving them.

PC Actions
While you can watch the PCs actions as indications for what they want to do, it’s often difficult to extrapolate especially if your game gives them a limited ability to be proactive or seize narrative control. However, by giving them sets of choices and allowing them to choose one, you can help focus on the kinds of encounters or elements they’d like to see in your game. If they always pass on the social encounters in favor of the combat ones, or they repeatedly reject jobs to investigate hauntings, you know those aren’t high on their list of  things they’d like to see or do.

Player Fictions
If you happen to have a player who writes fanfics of your game (which isn’t common, but also isn’t unheard of) you can’t necessarily assume the things featured in their stories are things they want featured in your game, but these stories are also excellent sources to mine for elements for your game.

In short, keep your eyes and mind open for what your players want to see in your game and use what you find to make everyone’s experience better.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "You Asked for Player Input for a Reason"

#1 Comment By unwinder On October 8, 2010 @ 3:24 am

Another good thing to look at is if any of your players have taken a turn in the GM’s chair. Chances are pretty good that they’ll be running the kind of game they want to play.

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 8, 2010 @ 4:41 am

[2] – Very nice! I hadn’t thought of that but it’s very true.

#3 Comment By bif On October 8, 2010 @ 6:08 am

Apocalypse World does this really well- the game wouldn’t function without extensive player input, so it offers tools for digging up input and organizing it into something playable.

A key piece of advice from AW that you left out: ask lots of provocative questions, e.g., “I go to the tavern.” “OK, why that tavern and not the other one?” Do that with enough frequency and variety, and you’ll have plenty to work with soon.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On October 8, 2010 @ 9:06 am

[2] – Yah, and while I agree that is a good pointer, if you read from that playbook exclusively everyone ends up playing the same campaign no matter whose house they are in and who is behind the screen.

I’ve become interested of late in many new (or new to me) game systems and am trying them on for size, but were I to use the GM advice in each rulebook as written I’d sell the lot on eBay and quit gaming as a GM.

The consensus beats all now (taken to extreme limits in game systems like Dresden Files RPG in which anything is negotiable to the Nth degree). Is the challenge the GM is posing you too much like hard work? Don’t attempt to solve the problem, Negotiate it away!

Admittedly I’m perhaps overstating the case here for most game groups, but as written in many game books the GM is becoming little more than the AI in some bland computer RPG. Where is my incentive, as a GM, to come up with interesting challenges if they can be talked around by a bored player (who probably should be in another game altogether)?

I wouldn’t feel so strongly about this except that it came up during a game I ran at a con recently. The game was a D20, Call of Cthulhu, Modern Era SAN suck (there’s little else you can do in three and a half hours with CofC and maintain a high level of adrenalin) in which the player would strive for a goal, with a time limit, through a World Gone Mad, slowly losing their minds at each thing they saw.

Everyone was into it in a big way except one young woman who almost immediately informed me that she needed me to be more attentive to her. I relocated her to sit next to me since we were in a crowded and noisy hall and my ears have lost much of their ability to discriminate one voice over the hum and she had a quiet voice, in the hope that would enable me to better hear her pleas for attention, and the game commenced.

She argued with almost every point, sometimes retconning her last action in the light of its consequences. “New Player” I reasoned.

In the last scene she went nose-to-snout with a Hound of Tindalos and (due to her own dice roll) went insane, dropped catatonic to the floor and stayed that way during the five combat rounds in which the others got chewed up mentally and physically before Making It All Right.

Each round, although she had rolled the duration of her down time herself, she attempted to renegotiate the terms of her personal injury.

Now I had no notion of how long the final scene would run, that being largely down to the players inventiveness, but I had done bending the rules for this one player who, if the truth be known, was in the best place for that character since any further contact would be another trip round Insanity Bend.

She was not happy (everyone else left cheering and patting each other on the back, even the two who spent the entire final scene frozen actionless in time) and let me know it.

It turned out that her experience of RPGs up until then had been a Fate/Fudge thing with elves that as far as I could make out involved everyone walking around a wood talking to each other.

Now I couldn’t possibly have known that (and I wouldn’t have cared if I did to be honest), but I was absolutely clear in the game blurb in the program exactly what the scenario was about, the tone it would take, The risks to the characters and the likely outcome for all, the rules-set it would use and the time it would be allotted. There was no room for interpretation in that.

Yet this person felt that I was being unreasonable that I would not allow her to renegotiate each situation her character found itself in.

I should also add that in order to raise the action/adventure feel and lighten the load a little I gave everyone a make-it-didn’t-happen “benny” to force a reroll of *ANY* die.

Five minutes in she demanded a second benny, because I gave another player one for a great bit of in-game deduction.

I’ve said before that when the game becomes solely about the players’ experience at the expense of that of the GM, that’s a game with either no GM or a GM with nil imagination.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On October 8, 2010 @ 9:10 am

I’m actually thinking that Dresden Files RPG might lend itself very well to an almost GM-less game in which each scene would be “run” by a different player at the table, allowing everyone to be a player character. Now *that’s* a truly interesting idea.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 8, 2010 @ 10:04 am

[3] – I run a lot of Fudge games, some with Aspects (IMO that basically make the game FATE). Being able to negotiate anything is not the norm with Fudge based upon my experience.

If that player had been in my game, running the same scenario that you did, but with Fudge as the system I can tell you that she would not be able to negotiate her way out of a situation that was decide upon by the dice. Her roll sucked, and the consequences have to be held to. The same would be true if her roll was awesome.

The point of Fudge is not that everything is negotiable. The point of Fudge is that you can design exactly the type of character that you want and that the dice rolls will tend to support that design in play. If your character is a Great shot with a pistol, then most times you will roll a Great shot. That does not mean that you get to negotiate the results when you do miss.

That person seems to be a whiner from your description of her. What games she likes to play didn’t make her that way. The way that you describe Fudge and FATE is nothing like the Fudge games that I run, nor or is it like many of the Fudge or FATE games that I have played in either.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On October 8, 2010 @ 10:42 am

[4] – I would class the problem player as immature from a gaming standpoint (rather than in general) since she didn’t “read to understand” the game premise – essential in a convention game, where time is of the essence and the GM has to aggressively edit for length.

I’m sorry she didn’t have a good time, and that she didn’t see the game system and milieu in a good light, and still find myself running events back in my head to see if there was any point I could have mitigated her chagrin while preserving the game.

From my admittedly recent reading of DFRPG, it would seem that Fate (and by extension, Fudge) can be pretty much what you want them to be.

Imagine a line diagram showing degree of player contribution in RPGs, with points on the line being subjective values for various games. Whitebox D&D on day 1 of publication defines the left hand end of the line, completely freeform GM-less games like Fiasco! the other.

I suspect my own DF games run a high risk of tending to the Traditional RPG With A (imaginary) GM Screen end simply because I’ve never seen Fate/Fudge/DFRPG played. I’m determined not to let that happen without exploring the options fully.

I suspect the lady’s previous GM was exploring a presentation method closer to the Completely Freeform GM-Less Game end.

I’m sure what you say is right because you are a keen proponent of Fudge, an experienced Fudge GM and you seem to have a good head on your shoulders, judging by what it’s brain puts out here.

My comments have more to do with what is written in the various rulebooks than what real GMs are doing about it.

That said, I’ve also been in a position in which a game became unsatisfying because aspects of it weren’t being played to my satisfaction – i.e. the game wasn’t meeting my expectations – so I sort of agree with the sentiment that a GM is wise to factor in the players own game drives before putting wet-erase pen to vinyl battle mat.

I just feel that stressing that in the rulebooks in the breathless style that’s become popular of late can lead players to expect the game to become completely theirs to direct, and if that happens they’d better shift their buts over into my seat occasionally and run the bugger a few times so *I* can play the interesting side of the GM screen.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On October 8, 2010 @ 10:44 am

“it’s brain”. Gah! Sorry for the apostrophe.

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 8, 2010 @ 11:59 am

[5] – Understood, and well put. Here is where I differ from you though:

“From my admittedly recent reading of DFRPG, it would seem that Fate (and by extension, Fudge) can be pretty much what you want them to be.”

This is IMO incorrect. Not you reading or interpretation, of course, but what many games are doing with the Fudge system that essentially turn it into something other than the Fudge system.

At its core the Fudge system has three things unique to it in how they are combined:

1) The ranks ladder using adjectives instead of numbers.
2) Randomizers designed to favor a certain result.
3) The use of traits that are character concept driven.

Tweak #3 into Aspects and you have FATE.

Now the Fudge 10th Anniversary Edition says that you can take those key concepts and build your own game from it. I’ve gotten into plenty of arguments with the Fudge community that Fudge itself isn’t a game, but a game design kit. You make something like DFRPG from Fudge.

What you are describing is something that really pisses me off with some Fudge materials – a lot of them never really design the game, they just take the whole design kit and slap on a setting. Sure there is lots of cool stuff, but no actual game. I have no idea if this is the case with DFRPG, but I can tell you the open ended nature of Aspects keeps me from playing FATE with many groups. They abuse that guideline (it isn’t even a rule if you think about it) to a ridiculous point. Eventually you are not playing a game at all, but just sitting around a table trying to one-up each other.

Obviously a lot of this is based on my opinion, but I feel that Fudge has been hijacked by many gamers to use as their “When I don’t want to risk losing, I pretend to play a game so that I always win!” desires. I would be happy to discuss this further with you offline via email if you are interested. I think that you are having exactly the kind of experience with Fudge based materials that others are having, because a lot of stuff is just a re-hashing of the game design kit and not an actual game based upon Fudge’s concepts.

In regards to the article though, I believe that we are both talking about something completely different. Matt’s not saying give the players exactly what they want whenever the give input, but he is making an excellent point that if you solicit input form the player’s that you had better respect their time and effort and use that input in some way. I know I hate when the GM asks me for a backstory and then disregards it completely when an in-game situation comes up that it would be relevant to.

GM – “Since none of you know about sailing, you are lost at sea.”
Me – “Umm, in my backstory that you required I did write that my character was raised by pirates on the open sea. Might I get a roll for that?”
GM – “No. That doesn’t matter.”

Yes, that actually happened.

#10 Comment By CWBush83 On October 10, 2010 @ 8:31 am

I really like the idea of getting the players to help establish the setting – so it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth that your DM then just went over your heads.

The campaign setting I use for all of my games has been an organic thing. What started out as a city of my design has been shaped to the point that a great many NPCs and prestige classes are based on past characters etc.

#11 Comment By Volcarthe On October 12, 2010 @ 7:42 am

The majority of my player input comes from character background and planning.

Since i enjoy having a general roadmap for a character to progress along, i usually help my players devise some sort of goals for where they want to go and then work that into what i’ve got.

Background definately helps flesh out the little details and can make players feel more like the world is “theirs”. In a current game i run online, they’re even rewarded for putting extra effort into helping create places, NPCs and events.

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