As a player I recently experienced two opposite approaches to how a game master can react to the players’ input during a session. One GM made sure to incorporate what the PCs did into the game, and the other made sure to keep the plot on track with what he had prepared.

I am not going to go into the details, but guess which game sucked?

Game Master, Not Script Writer

A lot of GMs plot their sessions along a story arc which is fine. Some GMs take it a step to far though, and instead of plotting an interactive game they start scripting a story. This is a huge mistake, because RPGs are a social activity that requires group input to be at its best.

Your players are not gathering around the table to hear you tell a story. Your players are gathering around that table to participate in the telling of the group’s story.

How does the telling of a story become a collaborative event? By describing the consequences of each person’s input and having it change the outcome of events.

For example, in one game the players breezed through a series of encounters by avoiding conflicts with lesser creatures and then setting a trap for the main nemesis. The result? A GM pet PC appeared in the final act and took all of the glory and the rewards that the PCs were about to collect upon. The GM later explained that he needed our PCs to be “demoralized” in order to “set the scene” for the next session.

The other GM had his entire Halloween game super monster plot gutted and turned inside out by a group of PCs working together and using their heads. Was the game the horrifying event that the GM had hoped for? No, but the GM forfeited his plot and let the game evolve from the player’s input instead of his notes. It was a fun and memorable game for all.

One GM was telling a story, and the other was letting the players participate in the telling of the story. As a player the GM who lets me help tell the story is always the person that I want running the session.

The Lesson?

Your players are your peers in the storytelling process, not your audience. If you have some brilliant plot that you do not want anyone to tamper with do not use it to run a game with. Get your ideas on paper and write a story instead. You want to be a writer, not a game master, if your plot cannot be imposed upon by the players.

But if you want to run a fun game set the stage for your players to partake in the story being told. Be ready to scrap all of your plans when the players do the unexpected, and realize that your planned story arc may not be the one that takes shape at the table.

That is my opinion on the matter. What is yours? Leave your comments below to share with others, and remember that the game master is a player too. Have fun with it!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?



20 Responses to Your Expectations Lose To Player Participation

  1. My opinion is very much the same as yours…

  2. I wish someone would tell some of the guys I’ve played with in the past about that.

    Being able to participate as a player is utterly key to my enjoyment of a game, and I will (and have) quit games I’m not feeling like a true participant in without hesitation.

    The focus on shared narrative and player-power is one of the reasons I’ve largely eschewed traditional RPGs for the “indie” scene lately. A lot of story games have player narrative control built right into their basic systems, and tend to prevent any GM scriptwriting.

  3. That’s all well and good.

    But when you’re the GM, what do you do about the rest of the session when your plans are scrapped?

    Will the game be As Fun if you say “Sorry guys, I don’t have anything prepped for you, since you short-cutted through all I had planned. You zigged when I had set up all this stuff for you when you zagged. So, today’s session is an hour instead of the five that I had prepped for”?

  4. rechan; you get good at GMing on the fly. the party zigged? for great justice? there will certainly be consequences, good or ill, go explore those. perhaps by zigging, an important henchman of the master villain escapes, and continues the evil plan elsewhere. perhaps a nightmarish beast held in thrall by the master villain escapes, and rampages through the city. perhaps the party is seen as more powerful than they really are, and are given a task by the king which seems a little over their head, but which they dare not refuse.

    no plan survives contact with the enemy. preparation is not being ready for one specific thing, it is having the skills, tools, and confidence to be ready for anything.

  5. @Rechan – When my players zig instead of zagging I tend to rearrange my plot. I don’t set my plots up too tightly though. I set up a goal of getting into the thieves guild. I might expect them to try to sneak or bribe their way in, but if they decide to fight their way in I roll with it. They still get in, but with the added benefit of everyone being on alert now. If they went outside of town to explore a cave instead of down to the dungeons, then I re-use whatever I can from the dungeons or a random map if I can. It’s all about adaptability.

  6. @Lunatyk – I bet most gamers agree with the idea, and I’d love to hear how other GMs achieve this sort of balance.

    @deadlytoque – I think any game system can achieve either result. Some indie games do make use of designs that share the narrative, but I’ve played those game with GMs who still forced the plot back to what they had prepared. When the GM says something like “Okay that happens, but let me read this stuff that I wrote last night so we can get the game back on track.” more than a few times in the same game I don’t care if we are playing DitV or SotC. The GM can break those narrative sharing games by insisting that the players follow the prepared plot.

    Yet I know a GM who runs a D&D 4e campaign that is just brilliant, and I’ve always felt like my PC was a vital participant in a very vivid game world that he is describing. System does matter, but a good GM/group matters so much more.

    @Rechan – Drow hit it right on the head, but I’m going to try and state it from a different angle.

    If the party zigs instead of zags, and you then force them onto a railroad to get back to your plot you will never develop the skills of a great GM. Your plot is a starting point, not a security blanket, so learn through experience by taking the plunge into the plot that the group is developing.

    Great GMs step up to the challenge of a blank slate. They do not tell the group “You broke my game. I cannot handle this. We have to play my game, not this one!” Great GMs say “Alright, this is what I have to work with. What can I do to make this game fun and interesting?”

    @drow – Those are all great examples. I see that someone has experience with this sort of thing. :)

  7. I love when my players do something crazy. I kind of encourage it (25 xp if you can surprise the hell out of me with your plan)but I always plan mobile plots so that they can do a lot without wrecking things.

    A GM I played under las year had very narrowly specific plot points prepped. If we did something that led us away from them, we lost them. One instance is in our very first session one player closed a box that contained a very important magical book, the box sealed itself magically and the guard came and took the box. When we investigated it got moved an we wouldn’t have access to it for over 5 levels. Of course we ruined his plots! They were so focused on us doing the right thing, or his over preparation and us always feeling railroaded because everything was scripted.

    I know how frustrating player choices can be, but I think GMs should learn their group and anticipate the more likely player choices. This way you can have a couple back up plans for the crazy things the group will attempt.

  8. It’s taken a lot of trial and error and a lot of reading articles like this for me to finally shift from ‘scriptwriter’ to GM.

    Being able to react on the fly and adjust everything when your players throw you a blinder and simply bypass all the cool scenes you ‘scripted’ requires a certain sort of mind and it’s for that reason alone that I believe the GM’s chair is not for everyone – even those who want it. I’m not great at it, but I’m learning by doing.

    One little rule I’ve developed recently is this: The GM should always try to say ‘Yes’ to the players whilst the NPCs should often say ‘no’.

    Of course that’s not always the case but I’m finding it’s helping me a lot. The players aren’t frustrated but there is conflict and conflict is good. :)

    Crow

  9. @Razjah – I agree that if the plot is scripted it isn’t fun. Hell, it isn’t even a game anymore. Your putting on a play and the PCs are the parts, only you forgot to give them a script.

    Any GM who feels that they can’t improvise or roll with the punches should check out both Dread and Fudge. These games are highly subjective, very loose with their rules, and incredibly fun. Run those games to develop your improvisation skills with, and then try to do the same with your D&D game (or whatever system you prefer).

    When I run D&D 4e I use software tools to create encounters with, but I never use the descriptions of the actual monsters. I just wing that stuff and make it up. The stats are just there for the combat, so who cares if the Kobold becomes and undead pygmy warrior that shoots acidic spit? Whatever works is what I’m going to use as my description.

  10. @Scarecrow – Thanks for the tip! I like that easy to follow formula of GM:Yes/NPC:No. :) Knowing when to stray from it is important for any formula, but I do think a simple approach like that is a great starting point.

  11. This is great advice for gamers of any system, but particularly for those who play D&D. I find that most of the D&D games I’ve been a party to as a player have had preordained outcomes: The session outcome was preordained, the story arc was, too, as was the entire campaign.

    The illusion of impact pretty much sucks and the flat-out elimination of impact or participation in story direction completely sucks.

    Interestingly, participation is [one of] the huge separator between “traditional” (big name) RPGs and small-press games. Having long ago abandoned D&D in favour of Burning Wheel (and Dogs In the Vineyard), it’s fantastic to truly be a part of an ever-changing story — one that’s driven by the players, with me (as the GM) having to react instead. I love watching it unfold according to their choices and rolls. It makes for a much better table dynamic, and a much more enjoyable game experience for everyone.

    I’m not saying that dynamic can’t be found in D&D, but it takes a great DM (and great players) to make such experiences happen. In other words, such groups are the exception to the unfortunate rule.

  12. Good article. Improvisation is a key thing for GMs to learn how to do. It can be difficult at first, but like most things in RPGs, improvisation only improves with practice.

    I agree that the key is to not have things tightly scripted. I learned this nearly two decades ago, but it took me many years before I could improvise at the drop of a hat. If a group throws you for a complete loop, ask for a ten minute break and rethink the situation.

    When you “plot” a story arc or campaign, you must remember that when you provide six different choices for the PCs, they will choose option seven at least fifty percent of the time. :D

    Here is the trick: Create locations and create NPCs. Have an idea for the campaign premise. Place the opening scene. Introduce some event with an NPC. Feed off of the interaction between NPCs and PCs. The conflict and cooperation between NPCs and PCs is the fuel that makes the RPG engine purr. The story is what happens while the engine is running.

  13. I’ll agree with all the agreements, and then, I’ll disagree. ;)

    In even the best role player’s heart, there is a little Munchkin. That part doesn’t want to tell a story. It wants to win. Minimum risk, maximum reward.

    And when it sees other players driving the direction of the story, it wakes. It thinks “I am a big greedy treasure and power-up collection machine. How can I ‘share in the story building’ in a way that makes me invulnerable and all powerful?”

    “I think this cow patty should give me infinite wishes that can never be twisted against my intent. And I can change my mind about that intent at will.”

    At that point, the GM role is not to “let the player’s ideas take precedence,” but to whack that player upside the head with the demonic hell cow patty curse of infinite doom.

  14. @Nojo – I strongly disagree with the idea that you are presenting. I know plenty of players who do not fit your description, and no GM is the “warden” of the players.

    And I did not say that the player’s ideas take precedence, I said that their participation trumps your plans. There is a big difference between those two concepts.

  15. I mostly run my npc’s like the players run their characters. I give them a goal, and some means. and then they try to reach the goal no matter what the players do. If they interfere with the npc’s, the npc will just try to alter his plan to succeed anyway. and if they don’t interfere, the npc will succeed in his scheme and the pc’s might have to deal with it later.

  16. I agree with the article, but DMs, especially inexperienced DMs, sometimes buy into the “so let it be written, so let it be done” mindset. This is particularly common with published adventures which often have linear designs anyway. A DM often treats the text as though it were written in stone. Over time and with experience a DM will learn to embellish or downplay elements of any adventure (even ones he wrote himself) to better suit his player characters’ actions and the goal of the campaign as a whole. I have a few simple rules that I tend to follow more or less unconsciously now, but that might prove helpful to others.

    1. Never feel like the PCs have to get through every room and each encounter in order to complete an adventure. Doing so manifests in heavy-handed manipulation by the DM and ruins the players’ enjoyment.

    2. You might plan on finishing an adventure in one sitting only to find that it is running over. Don’t force it. If it needs a second night to complete, give it the extra time. The players will enjoy moving at their own pace and the adventure will unfold in its full glory. On the other hand, if it ends early, that’s ok, too. Either break out some boardgames, a movie, or run a sidetrek adventure to fill in the time.

    3. In almost all cases (except for maybe the occasional deathtrap) there should be more than one way to accomplish any objective. Never have a sole dependency on one PC’s skills or on having the group “do the right thing.”

    4. Any “must have” critical pieces of information or material items can be introduced in an alternate manner if necessary. Don’t hold the adventure hostage just because the party missed a search roll or walked past an important room. You’re the only one who knows the storyline, so having the secret doo-dad pop up somewhere else is fine. The PCs need never be the wiser.

    5. Dropping parts or adding encounters or twists into an adventure, even a published adventure, is ok and a normal part of DM’ing. Get used to tweaking. It will help you with your improvisational skills later.

    6. Always remember, the top priority is to have fun with the game. If the characters turn left when your dungeon specifically veered right, go with it. If they’re having fun roleplaying and it does nothing to advance the plot, so what? Enjoy the moment. Play off the PCs. You’d be surprised what excellent hooks for further adventures can come from these distractions. (For further examples, remind me to tell you about the blue pygmies from my wife’s campaign sometime.)

    That’s my rambling 2 cents on the issue. Thanks for a great article.

  17. I was thinking some more about this article last night whilst we were playing our weekly 4E game.

    I realised to my frustration that the tables have actually turned. I’ve reached a point now where I’m happy for the players to do what they want. The players on the other hand have reached a point where they’re trying to figure out what it is I want them to do and then do it, so as not to derail the ‘story’.

    Last night was a great example. A vampire count jeers at them from the top of a tower. The idea is for them to go into the tower to get him. This will be the dungeon for the evening and there will be vital story arc clues at the top for them to prize from the Vampire’s cold re-dead hands.

    The first thing one of my players says is, “Let’s not bother. We found out what we came here for. We don’t need to bother with him.”
    My heart sank but I grit my teeth and said, “if that’s what you want to do, then go ahead. That’s cool.” I have the next part of plot sketched out, they can go straight on to that and I’d have to figure out another way of getting them the clues. annoying but doable.

    With no prompting from me, the player then immediately countermanded himself saying, “Nah. We’d better go in.”

    Sigh.

    Anyway, we had a fun session and that’s what matters.

    I seem to recall that there were a series of excellent articles on DungeonMastering.com that suggested ways of sketching out your campaign plot points in such a way that it didn’t railroad the characters. This one inparticular is very good:

    http://www.dungeonmastering.com/campaigns-adventures/how-to-outline-your-dd-campaign-events

    Crow

  18. Player participation and plots are the main points; for years I tried to work with a “PC” in half a dozen PBMs and PBEMs whose idea of an answer was to describe an impassioned speech by one of my NPCs about the supposed fact that one of my other NPCs, a Wizard, was homosexual simply because3 he was a Magician and not a fighter. Three years I tried to get that across to him, and eventually gave up; he was my only contact at the time. He simply stubbornly ignored the story and his own character, refusing to answer.
    Ian Winterbottom

  1. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-11-06

    [...] Your Expectations Lose To Player Participation Don’t run the game you expect to run. Run a game your players will want to participate in. How do you do that? Patrick, over at Gnome Stew, has some good ideas on the matter. [...]

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