Saturday, April 30, 2016

Working with Player Choice, Catalyzing Chaos

In the mind of the game master, the world they created is a glorious clockwork machine filled with carefully constructed intrigue, adventure and drama.

Players, by their nature, want to play! They want to explore new worlds through the medium of the tabletop experience. Through all five of the player senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, and hitting things with medieval cutlery, players want to interact with everything. They are also people, as such they act about as predictably as the dice they wield.

Players may completely ignore the city the game master created, after having spent many sleepless nights researching civic infrastructure, and instead insist on setting sail upon the nearby sea. By some small slight or misspoken word, the players may just slay that all important NPC with a backstory that took up several three ring binders! They generally don’t do this maliciously it is simply in their nature to act in a way most exciting for them.

Some game masters might be utterly demoralized by this, harboring animosity for derailing what they had felt was a truly majestic story. This might come out as petty cruelties.  Or perhaps as despondent acquiescence to whatever the players feel like doing leading to a meandering adventure that eventually leads no where.

Myself however, I invite it. For me there is no greater pleasure than a collaborative story.

Being a game master is essentially a combination of author and actor, one must gain proficiency in both to run a successful game. This includes improvisation, in fact I would hazard to say that improvisation is key to the success of a game. Your players are essentially improvising every step of the way so it only seems polite to meet them in this.

Allow me to recount an example from my most recent game, a Halloween session of Call of Cthulhu. The players were all engaged in tea and desserts aboard the orient express. Seated at their table were two NPCs, an occult minded dilettante and a land owning hunter. The players felt they had reason to be suspicious of both of these characters and tailed both in their own ways.

Unknown to the players, the hunter was a restless spirit, given unnatural life by way of a boon of the underworld. This semblance of life had a time limit which I was keeping track of by way of an hour glass. The players of course had no idea what the hourglass was measuring, simply that I had turned it over when play began. I had intended the hunter to return to his cabin on the train and perform the rite that would keep him enfleshed. Having done this, he would participate with the players in the fight that would happen soon after against a monstrous creature assaulting the train. In this way, I hoped to keep the players somewhat more loyal to someone they had fought alongside as a greater reveal later when he turned on them.

What I had not counted on was a series of terribly good rolls as the players silently stalked the hunter and then jumped him in his room. They knocked the hunter unconscious and forced him to waste what time he had left to his spell. Upon waking they had intended to question him, which is when he transmogrified to his true, putrid, inhuman form.

In the first half hour of the game one of the major antagonists had been revealed and his method of disguising himself, the pips of a magically enchanted pomegranate, were stolen from him.

I hadn’t planned on this by any means, I had assumed the hunter would be found out far later in the adventure after some pre-arranged slip up or by way of deduction. His scenes and short narrative arc involving his villa had to be scrapped and needed to be filled in immediately as this was meant to be a one session game.

But I was so immensely pleased, because it meant I could start the game out in a far stronger way than I had intended. The players put themselves in occult danger immediately, facing down the hunter in his undead, cervine form in the tight confines of the sleeper car. Without knowing it the players had created a far more exciting scenario for their first scene than I would have written! Now they would be injured and rattled from the experience of seeing a man twist and decay before tearing through the window into the dwindling light of dusk.

I’ve had so many incidents like this, such as a dungeons and dragons session where my players were exploring a swamp and the random monster table demanded I send frogmen to attack them. My players were charmed by my descriptions of the beasts and decided to befriend them instead of kill them. They made good rolls so I let it happen. I felt like the frogmen needed a good reason to have attacked the players and reasoned that perhaps there was some clan war going on. The players had inadvertently stumbled into the middle of it and the frogmen that attacked them were starving and desperate.

What followed was a team of adventurers sharing their food with the beleaguered frogmen and giving them assistance in their war. On the fly I assigned two other major clans to be antagonists and gave the players the benefit of their surrogate clan being very amenable to trade and goodwill with the nearby city. The war wrapped up by the end of the session and now the players had some treasure, experience, contacts in the fledgling frogmen settlement and even a frogmen hireling!

In the games I’ve run there are some fundamentals I’ve always stuck to:
  • Learn what your individual players think is fun or cool then make that happen.
  • Every critical success should yield something exciting. Player wants to woo the red dragon with his charisma to try and get out of being fried? He rolled a 20? Well now that player has to deal with the intimate interests of an ancient red dragon, I certainly hope he keeps scrolls of fire resistance handy.
  • Avoid saying no whenever possible, this tends to make players feel stifled and slowly will breed resentment.
  • Use redirection whenever possible in the place of just saying no. Tell the players what they can do rather than what they can’t do.
  • Be ready for your players to be creative, to ask weird questions, to do weird things. Try to practice your improvisation with writing exercises, read as much as possible in the genre you want your game to exemplify.
  • Also be ready for your players to obsess over incredibly inconsequential stuff and immediately write off vitally important details. If necessary, just switch them around, they will never know the difference and you don't need to waste time having heart palpitations over it.
  • Understand what you think is fun, what you really want to get out of the adventure, let that be your guide for how you run the game rather than the specific crunchy details.
  • Make any detour your characters drag themselves into feed your story. Try to imagine the threads of your story, your villains or your heroes, how far out do they spread?
  • Never feel like the fantastic set pieces you create are wasted if the players don’t get to them. You can always adjust the details and fit it in somewhere so don’t worry about losing that gorgeous prose you prepared or that really exciting character you’ve been rehearsing for days.
You are the game master, the storyteller, the dungeon master and ultimately the host. The only way for the players to have fun and ultimately to experience your story is through you. Your players have to contend with the challenges you lay before them, but for you the challenge is to engage with your players and create a fun experience with them. It can be a little more difficult than rolling to hit armor class zero but for me the rewards have always been incredibly satisfying. 

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