GM Advice: Getting Your Players To Write Your Game For You
Game Masters put a lot of work into their games. We like to craft those significant little details into our stories that make our players' jaw drop, that make them say "Oh!" and "What?!" and "I knew it!"
Some of us, and I am not pointing any fingers here (totally me), get a kind of high from the reactions we can evoke from our players. Sometimes, however, our players surprise us by cooking up ideas at the table that are so good, we wish we had thought of them first.
Well, unless your playing with an advanced race of psychic proto-humans (we've all been there), they don't know that you that you didn't come up with it first. They have no idea what is going on behind that screen or in your meaty noggin. In these cases, if the player's notion is better than what you've written, use the hell out of it.
They say that players will write 99% of a campaign with their paranoid conjecture. I say let's let them! While players are natural chaos generators, they are also the greatest idea engines in the universe, and a clever GM will know how to harness their power for evil... I mean good. Yes... good...
"I don't want to know how the other 1% live."
But how? How does one incorporate all these new ideas from their players, why, and when? That my friend is the tricky part. Luckily I have already done the grunt work and deconstructed what it takes to putting your players to work without them even knowing it.
When To Utilize Your Players' Ideas
Sometimes, at the table, your players will begin talking to each other, either in-character or out. They'll strategize, launch theories back and forth, and exchange assumptions. While some GMs may consider this pointless chatter, I firmly believe that this may be the most important dialogue to listen to in the whole game.
It's through this exchange of information between players that some of the best ideas reveal themselves, notions that you may never have thought of in a thousand years, or that make more sense than what you already have planned.
I find it is best to note these things down on a piece of paper when a player mentions them. You can use it as part of a future plot or encounter, or (if you are very good at GMing on the fly) you could switch some things up immediately.
However, I do not suggest doing this all the time. As The Bard's Philosophy states; everything in moderation. If you use their ideas all the time, they will begin to expect it. There will be no surprises left in store for them, no plot twists to drop jaws, no little nuances they haven't thought of yet. Do it enough to occasionally stroke some egos and build confidence, but not enough where the players have a definitive idea of where things are going. It's a balancing act, but one that yields some pretty rad results.
Players At Really Good At Deciding Who The BBEG Should Be
You can plot main villains to doomsday and back, but the characters might just not care that much about it. Sure, the villain is evil, but your players may come to truly hate and despise a different antagonist. I call this the Voldemort/Umbridge complex.
"I am leaning a bit to the right."
In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort is the main villain. Of course he is. He's the powerful quasi-undead Wizard-Hitler. He kills lots of people and does all the bad things. But he is not even close to the most hated antagonist of that series. That honor belongs to prim, proper, unsuspecting Dolores Umbridge.
Umbridge infuriated readers. From her mannerisms to the slow ways she tortured Harry, to the way she handled herself, everything about the woman had millions spitting venom. They detested her. In their eyes, she was eviler than Wizard-Hitler. Seems like she would have made a great main villain.
The great thing is, in your game, she can be.
"ALL OF MY HATE!"
I don't often roll up the main villain right off the bat, unless it is a super-narrative game. I usually like to come up with the "idea" of a villain, basically just a rough template. What I do often do is throw several frustrating enemies at the PCs, and when they show me wich one they hate through their open exchange of ideas, I listen carefully. If they've killed the villain, I conjure a way to bring them back. If it escapes, they hate it more. I find new ways for the villain to grow in power along with the PCs until that final climactic battle, which in turns becomes one of the most satisfying ones.
Why Would You Want To Use Player Ideas?
You're the Game Master, and odds are you have a grand scheme. A master plan. It seems strange the idea of using someone else's ideas, especially when you already have what you want to do on paper or in your head. However, there are some merits to opening yourself up to ideas that come from your table.
When the players talk about things like "Who is the man in the Gold Mask?" or "What killed the noble?" or even the suggestion of certain monsters based on what they perceive are signs of the monster's presence, they are secretly hoping for that thing to happen. If your rogue says, "I hope this chest isn't a mimic." they are really saying, "I hope this chest isn't a mimic, but it would be pretty friggin awesome if this chest was a mimic!"
They will tell you outright what they want, or what they suspect. Sometimes, playing into that is a fun way to reward characters. Let's face it, we all like being right sometimes. All of us. If you don't agree, you're wrong.
See how that felt?
"I don't want to go back into the ball. It's dark and lonely..."
When the player "figures out" who the villain's real identity is, or that the noble's daughter killed him, they feel empowered. There are pats on the back, high fives, and the overall feeling that the players got a one up on the GM, all the while never realizing that their "discovery" was entirely by your providence.
Get Good At Thinking On Your Feet
Improvisation is the Game Master's best friend. The ability to think on your feet is a boon that cannot be denied. Changing things on the fly, altering your strategy, and all around countering the chaotic elements that are the Payer Characters can help propel your games to new heights.
Working in player ideas requires a bit of improvisation on your part. You'll need to be able to connect the dots, justify why it makes sense, and work it in in such a way that the players think it was your idea the whole time, and that they merely stumbled upon it.
Occasionally you'll have that player, typically an old school player, that just seems to know everything that is going on. They'll tell the players that certain monsters lurk nearby based on imagined clues. For instance, they may turn to the party in a chilly cave complex and say, "The air is cold, stale. Undead thrive in these conditions. We should be careful."
A lot of GMs would revel in throwing something wholly not-undead at them. You may even have nothing but abba rations prepared for the length of the dungeon. But then you think to yourself, it would be cool if there were undead down here. In a way, you reward the player's assumption and perhaps give the cautious player, and the rest party a chance to shine since they won't be caught unawares.
Sure, you can spend hours writing each session, laboriously slaving over notes and praying that your players like it, or you can put them to work for you and use your newfound spare time to... I don't know, binge watch Stranger Things?
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Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard
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