I was talking to a fellow GM recently and they said (paraphrased): “You know what I like to do when I GM and you should write an article about: I like to sprinkle in random dressing and clues with no pre-planned purpose in my world and see what the players make of them and maybe retroactively make their theories correct.” I suggested that they write it and submit it as a guest article, but not everyone is as comfortable with their imposter syndrome as I am apparently.
So, on the one hand, I think this is an interesting technique and I can see a lot of value in it. It would certainly cut back on prep to just drop in a strangely worked sword, an odd mural, a mangled corpse, a whispered rumor and then only expand on it if the players show interest and use their speculation to guide how you do so. It also would make your players feel clever that they “figured it out” if you keep mum, or feel like they’re contributing and that they’ve had a good idea if you flat out tell them you like what they came up with and are using it.
On the other hand, my gut reaction is that this feels an awful lot like “cheating”. First, placing random stuff in your game with no clue as to what it is and where it came from seems like lazy GMing, but that might just be my nitpicky drive to over prep. Second, taking credit for your players’ speculation and playing it off like you had it planned all along seems like borderline asshattery, though I suspect there are both good and bad ways to do this.
Some of my reaction is certainly due to a GM I played under a few times years ago. One of those who thought he was God’s gift to game mastery, he would often launch into self congratulatory musings over how he actually planned out very little and just listened to table talk and swiped player ideas, took credit for them and let everyone think he was the most creative GM ever. (Not that I suspect he actually got accused of that all that much.) His games weren’t BAD mind you, but he wouldn’t shut up about how great of a GM he was and that he had nothing to learn and that everyone always gave him praise and it was both hard for me to listen to and for him to live up to that sort of hype. Side story: when he started GMing for our group, he used to have us fill out a little post game quiz before he handed out xp bonuses for MVP etc. The last question on that quiz was “What could I have done better?” I always tried to put in some polite constructive criticism there. (Nothing too harsh. Like I said, his games weren’t BAD, but everyone has little areas they can work on.) About the third week, that question disappeared from the quiz because “No one was putting anything down for it.” So, asshole that I am, I wrote it in and kept providing constructive criticism. It was worth it for the looks he gave me every week.
I think the technique is self explanatory, so if you haven’t already, give some thought to if it would enhance your game. Ultimately, my misgivings only matter in my game.
So I put the question to you dear reader: Is this technique fair or foul? And if it’s on a scale, where is the fine line between the two? And if you like to use it, give us your best practices and a few table tales.
P.S. Also, if you want to tell me I’m a big jerk for giving that GM a hard time, feel free. Totally guilty.