Today’s guest article was written by Will Jobst, GM, political science student, musician, and hopefully-maybe-one-day RPG writer. He runs a weekly game with strangers he tricked into his apartment, and waxes RPG-theory @dm_ilf and at www.willjobst.wordpress.com. He is based in Boston, MA. Thanks, Will!
The collaborative GM gives her players every opportunity to fictioneer. Create, extrapolate. Everyone at the table contributes to the story, so it’s time to hand them the Blank Check.
In play, the GM can create an opening for a player to build on.
“As you strut through the saloon, the barkeep eyes you – menacingly.Why is this person angry with you?”
This is the Blank Check. The GM hands the player free reign over this moment. The only limit is the player’s creativity.
“I shot his son dead, right outside.”
“That’s my stepmother, I skipped town last June.”
“I had a huge tab here, and I paid with wooden coins.”
This adds depth to the scene, and can further flesh out a character. This also provides important character buy-in, creating interest in the scene, and the game. Use this technique to wrap PCs into scenes, and to involve and complicate their relationships with the world-at-large.
The player can give the GM a Blank Check, too. Searching for something specific, she asks about an object in the scene, not mentioned by the GM.
“Is there a telephone in this subway station?”
The player hands the GM a Blank Check. There are three things the collaborative GM can do.
“Yes, and it’s ringing!”
“Yes, and it’s swinging off the hook.”
“Yes, but there’s a ghastly looking woman using it.”
“Yes, but it seems broken, yet fixable.”
“No. This station’s only phone is beyond disrepair.”
Be A Logical Enabler
Potent tools like these require a reasonable GM. Trust gut instincts. The GM can Block player requests for +7 Pike of Plot Disembowelment or a Ford F1-Anachronism to discourage abuse of the Blank Check. Enable as much fictioneering as possible, but keep it logical.
In Your Game
Give your players opportunities. Let your players create opportunities. Let them know they have this power, and use it early and often.
Also, the options ‘No, and…’ and ‘No, but…’ can make for interesting twists.
Is there a phone in this subway station?
No, and… suddenly the lights begin to flicker on and off, and the air gets colder.
No, but… a previous passenger has left their mobile on one of the benches and it’s ringing – with my number!
You need to be OK with improv though to go down that road.
Thanks for speaking up for the value of “No”! It gets too little respect around here. I use it all the time and feel it’s very effective. The trick is, as you and Phil note, to avoid giving a flat “No”. Doing so puts the players’ attempt to create something at a dead end. The technique I use is “No… because… but.” For example:
“Is there a phone in the station?”
“No, not here on the train platform. You know that pay phones are rare anymore. You think you may have seen one upstairs near the ticket machines, though.”
I call this technique the Redirect. You’re not Granting but you’re also not Blocking. Instead, you’re sending the player in another direction, one that may require making a tough tradeoff. For example, an enemy has emerged on the train platform and is approaching. Going upstairs for the phone– which may not even be there– means running instead of engaging. The enemy could use this opportunity to attack from behind, to choose another target, or to escape.
The flat “No” response can kill momentum at the table, so is best avoided if possible.
“No, because . . .” explaining your reasons is better, but still leaves the Players at a dead stop.
“No, but . . .” adding an alternative benefit is good, as steerpike65 described.
Alternatively, there is the “No, and . . .” option, where you change the focus of the game by introducing a new set-back. The arrival of guards, or similar jeopardy can keep the game moving at this point.
Both of these expanded answers give the Players something new to explore.
I like the blank check idea. I have used varieties on this idea (without the useful title, which I am officially stealing) when my players throw a curve ball at me. It helps me improvise and forces the players to contribute when I say something like, “OK, you find the thing you’re looking for — what does it look like?” or “The phone is ringing — who is on the other end?”
It can also be a lot of fun to do this sort of thing. My group of players takes great pleasure in forcing me to call a break so I can think through the ramifications of whatever nonsense they just pulled. This way, I can get to see that deer-in-the-headlights panic from them! As steerpike65 said, though, you do have to be ready to roll with the improv.
All that said, I think the most useful thing in the article is the (tacit) encouragement to build these moments into our session prep. That is, while I often use the blank check to lob a difficult volley back to the players, I could also plan for blank-check moments: “OK, you have made it to the outskirts of the drow city. You have a contact there — who is it?” As the author says, this can create high levels of character buy-in, and it has the added benefit of being prep-lite.
I am totally gonna use a blank check or two next time. (Assuming those jerks do, in fact, keep going toward the drow city…)
Yeah; I’m not sure which game it was that explicitly called this trick out in the rules (I think it was probably Tenra Bansho Zero) but it’s fast become my absolutely favorite GMing tactic.
This is a great technique when it works. Unfortunately I’ve succeeded in using it only rarely. It requires an uncommon sort of player who knows how to ask questions or supply answers in ways that contribute to creating the story and detailing the setting. Much more often, players ask very demanding questions and wait for detail to be provided because they only expect to react to the situation. It’s a more passive mindset that is supported by modern video games, where gigabytes of information are depicted in real time and the player need only flick a joystick and a few buttons. When you find a player, though, who knows how to be a co-creator of the story, grab hold! Bring that player with you from game to game.
Despite the difficulty of making this work in practice I really appreciate your article, Will. Just sharing the handy name Blank Check makes it a worthy read. I hope that by using a name for it I will be better able to get my players thinking of, and practicing, the ideas behind it!
Hi Will – Great post. I love articles like this. I’ve been doing stuff like this for years, but I had never heard a name for it. Blank Check is a great label for it. Thanks for the article.
I’ve begun to use this technique, in combat situations. My last session had a serious battle with bad guys that my players managed to track down.
When one of the NPCs hit a hero for a whopping amount of damage, he managed to Â«soakÂ» it all…so i asked HIM to describe how he managed it.
On another round, another player dished out some massive wounds to the bad guy…once again I asked for his description of the attack.
Both came up with good narrative…so they were immediately rewarded with Bennies.
But I want to have more opportunities for player narrative control (aka Blank Check, with sound better and is less of a mouthful).