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Undeveloped Game Elements And Borrowing From Table Talk: Fair or Foul?

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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.

 

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Undeveloped Game Elements And Borrowing From Table Talk: Fair or Foul?"

#1 Comment By Seth On January 3, 2018 @ 4:31 am

I think there’s nothing wrong with writing random leads with no planned conclusion. In fact, I do this specifically in my games just in case the players don’t like what I planned. Just having random stuff gives me an out.

#2 Comment By Engineer27 On January 3, 2018 @ 5:01 am

This can be overdone, but I totally agree with and use the concept in my own games. However, when I swipe an idea from the players, I always try to make it come true, but not in the way they were expecting. For example, the players think that a certain NPC has been following them around for some nefarious purpose? Turns out that they are right, only it isn’t the NPC, but a doppelganger.
Avoids the “lazy GM” accusation, but still leaves the players with the “I figured it out” satisfaction. Win-win.

#3 Comment By Maarten On January 3, 2018 @ 7:05 am

I don’t see any difference between this and the ‘normal’ work a GM has to do when the players go off in an unplanned direction. There’s nothing different from responding to “I take this oddly patterned sword to a mage to see if it’s magical” with “The mage tells you there’s nothing magical about it despite its odd patterning. He suggests a weaponsmith might tell you more.” versus “The mage’s eyes widen as he looks at the sword. ‘Where did you find this?'” The GM has to be able to respond to player action (input) in some way, whether it’s their desire to investigate the overgrown path that you didn’t write up or the incoherent ramblings of a hobo that muttered ‘Demon-filth everywhere’ or that odd sword. The overgrown path may be just a path to an abandoned hut but maybe it can be worked into the story. The hobo may just be a drunk. The sword may just be a damascus-like steel. As a GM, you decide if the thing is worth the time to flesh out, but the players decide if your time was worthwhile. Did you spend 40 hours fleshing out the hidden path to the ogre lair? If the players don’t go down it, was it worth the time investment?

#4 Comment By Jason Hardin On January 3, 2018 @ 9:10 am

I think random not fully fleshed out plot starting points are useful to a GM that doesn’t have a clear understanding of what type of story the players want to play. They are not much different than coming in with story ideas to a session zero where you chat about what interests the players. The difficulty with these ideas, however, is that you need to connect them at some point for an epic story to feel whole. If you aren’t running an epic than this is not a problem.

I think that the concern about taking credit for players ideas needs to be separated from the tool used for storytelling. Role-playing should be more of a shared story creation. Storytellers should come to a table with a lot of their own ideas about things that could happen or what is going on in the world they created. The GM should also be flexible to allow the players to impact those ideas in fun and interesting ways. This is a creative game if the players just wanted to play through someone else’s story they probably would just play a video game. The benefit of role-playing is they can help shape a story together. GMs and players should acknowledge that they are going to feed off of each other’s creativity to entertain each other and themselves.

#5 Comment By ICEDRAEK On January 3, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

As a GM, I like the idea of adapting some of my plot lines or details of the campaign in the hands of the players, or borrowing ideas that they talk about at the table. As a single person running the game, a GM doesn’t always have the benefit of workshopping their ideas / plotlines with others, similar to a writer’s workshop or just having someone to soundboard ideas with.

The players end up talking to each other and developing hypotheses about where the game might be going or where a plothread might lead, and it was a direction the GM didn’t think of. I don’t see anything wrong with using the players’ discussion as a plot seed if it leads the plot in a fun direction.

Other times, sometimes the GM doesn’t have time to fill in *everything*, and has to leave gaps in the plot due to time constraints or living a busy life without enough time to prep that specific aspect. Again, I don’t see anything wrong with borrowing from your players, as gaming is a group activity, not a GM typically just railroading a group through their next fantasy novel plot.

I do think its not a great idea for a GM to just say ‘the players will write the plot’ of a game though. Its disingenuous to wholesale leave narrative elements underdeveloped, and disrespectful to the players who show up expecting to have a fun game night.

#6 Comment By griffon8 On January 3, 2018 @ 8:19 pm

There’s a campaign I hope to run sometime using the Marvel Super Heroes rules. Other than the premise, a few notes about some NPCs, and what the first fight is going to be, I haven’t plotted out anything. Everything is going to depend on what the players want to do, along with how well that first fight goes. Any plotting I do beyond that would be a waste of my time.

You bet I’ll be using what the players say and do to create more of the campaign. I have possibilities in mind for how it could go, but until the players pursue it, those ideas won’t even be written down.

#7 Comment By Lugh On January 4, 2018 @ 7:35 am

Point one, I don’t think you were a big jerk to that GM (assuming you are faithful in recounting that the criticism was polite and constructive). That kind of person can really be a drag on any group.

As to the meat of the article, I find it personally bizarre that you consider this cheating. I mean, riffing off of unexpected interactions gets right to the heart and soul of what distinguishes RPGs from just telling stories. Do you map out conversation trees? Do you make sure that every merchant has a backstory ready to go, in case the PCs get curious? Do you plan what the dice rolls will be?

How is “this wall happens to have a mural of gods that have never been worshiped in this region” different from “this merchant happens to speak with an Eastern accent”? Maybe it’s important to the plot. Maybe it’s very important to somebody else’s story, but irrelevant to your players. Maybe it’s completely irrelevant to everyone but the artist, who is now long dead. While you can plan out where things come from and what their backstory is, it is utterly impossible to control which things will end up important to the PCs.

As to “stealing” from table talk, I consider that not only fair, but preferable. An RPG is not supposed to be about gathering a group of friends to listen to the GM tell a story. It’s supposed to be interactive. Letting the players shape the story both in and out of character makes the end product richer. Also, no GM in the world is going to be able to think of all the awesome possibilities that could happen. Sometimes, that table talk just sparks an idea that is much better than what you had planned. Why make your game mediocre just to keep it “pure”?

Whether or not you tell the players is a trickier path to tread. Like, well, the entirety of human communication, the success depends on tone, context, mood, and the expectations of the players. Some players (like me) will be thrilled that the GM is flexible and responsive. Some players get uneasy when they feel that the GM is not “in control” of the story. Some feel like they gave the GM a gift, some feel like the GM stole from them. Some will also take it too far, and see it as an invitation to start co-GMing, trying to tell the GM what the story “really” is.

#8 Comment By Dave On January 4, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

I agree. This is not cheating, it is good GMing. I used to think I had to run everything and didn’t take player input. I was an ok GM. Once I started bringing their ideas in, I got a lot better.

And after the campaign, tell them how you used their ideas! Give them credit for the good imagination and making all the group’s experience better. They will appreciate the kudos and you won’t have any guilt. Best of both world and a richer game world, gravy for all.

#9 Comment By Solomon Foster On January 6, 2018 @ 6:24 am

Amen. Listening to what the players are interested in doing is one of the most valuable tools available to a GM.

#10 Comment By Jon R. Osborne On January 18, 2018 @ 5:02 pm

While I tend to run a lot of improv as a GM, I always like to have something in mind. Then if the players come up with something more interesting, I run with that and save my idea for another time. Even when I’m running through a session I prepared, I’m not above stealing the players’ ideas, especially since sometimes they’re better than my original plan. But you can’t always do that, or it will make it too predictable.