We GMs are a pretty intelligent lot. Anyone who can handle juggling the world building, the story prep, the mechanics, and all of the NPCs while keeping players coming regularly back for more is probably at least a semi-smart person. Thing is, gamers as a whole are generally pretty smart people so there are going to be times when you, the GM, areÂ not the smartest person at the table.
Last week I talked about some of the wheel spinning I’ve been doing about a potential post-apocalyptic game. One obstacle I really didn’t get into, other than the barest of hints, is that most of my players are way smarter than I am. If I’m going to run this game, I’m going to have to do my world building right so it doesn’t collapse the moment they start throwing their considerable brain power at solving the broken world. Some of the comments on the thread suggested not worrying about the world building too much and just rolling with it, but I know from experience with this group that if I’m not confident in what’s going on behind the curtain, I’ll falter with running the game. I’ve written about this before elsewhere.
My players are a fantastic bunch and I wouldn’t trade them for anything, but there are times where I feel like I’m struggling to keep up with them. The group consists of two software engineers, a chemist (biochemist, I think), an artist (don’t underestimate the artsy ones, they’re a cagey bunch), and a rocket scientist (well, he’s a systems engineer that works on highly classified stuff… we call him Tony Stark). They’re funny, clever, tactical, and excellent at thinking on their collective feet. Throw a problem at them in game and they’ll usually solve it efficiently and in ways uniquely suited to whatever characters they’re playing, all while eagerly awaiting the next thing I can throw at them.
The very first time I was the GM way back when, I ran a Mutants & Masterminds game where their characters woke up in an abandoned underwater lab after having been kidnapped from their mundane lives. As they explored the now empty base trying to figure out what happened, they learned they also now had super powers. The climax of the session was when they found the last functioning escape pod but had to fight a group of earlier test subjects who had also been abandoned. While some punches were exchanged, one of my players found a way to call a cease fire, allowing them to question their adversaries. Rather than the full blown super hero fight I had been expecting to run, I ended up running a negotiation where they offered to hire the other abandoned test subjects and find a way to get everyone into the sub so they could escape the steadily collapsing base.
Another important lesson: It’s okay not being the smartest person in the room. There’s something to be said for having players that can grasp what’s happening in the game without being hand held through everything. While I may not be able to account for everything they’re going to come up with, I know it’s going to be good and it’s going to enhance whatever game I’m running. Ultimately, even if I have to work hard to keep up with them, it’s a good thing when your players are smart.
Other GMs have shared similar stories, where they suddenly realize they’re outclassed or outmatched by their players. What are yourÂ experiences with smarter players?
Well, one brain vs many is always going to be an unfair match up.
I like to reward good ideas. So if they find a unique solution to a problem, I give it to them. Sure, it might shorten a game session, but it gives the table a nice rush. Rolling with these events comes from determining the counter moves of the big baddies, and also any and all unintended consequences. Don’t sour every clever solution, but do stay a few steps ahead. That rescued farming village? The one the PC’s also used magic to ensure huge yields? Now it’s a target for every bandit gang and petty lord in the county. Killed the Black Knight? The Cleric who secretly summoned him now has no choice but to reveal himself – by doing something desperate and terrible.
If players wrap up one of our plots ahead of schedule it’s actually a very good thing, because the stories in gaming typically proceed at a glacial pace. But players ruining your cunning cunning plans lets you 1)Move on to your next plotlines and 2) Come up with new ones based on the consequences of their actions. Both of these things keep the campaign fresh, which means you won’t lose interest or burn out.
Rewarding good ideas is absolutely a must, especially when those ideas are something you never even considered when setting up the game.
My reaction has been the exact opposite of yours. I realized long ago that no matter how carefully I planned, my players were going to knock everything off the track I envisioned after an hour or two. So I just stopped planning. These days I try to have a decent notion of what the setting looks like, and come up with a problem that seems like it will take a while for them to solve. I hardly ever try to think of what that solution might be. I let the players figure it out for me. And they’re smart, they’ve never failed. 🙂
And what Tomcollective says about consequences is exactly right. They are a wonderful source for driving further game.
My prep isn’t so much highly detailed and regimented. It’s more that I have to have a foundation of ideas so I can roll with the punches. When I don’t even do that level of foundation prep, I can roll with it for a session or two, but I quickly lose my footing.
I’ve been lucky to play with smart people throughout. Sometimes the smart isn’t test scores or raw intelligence; it’s often pure experience. When your chase heads into the restaurant’s kitchen, you can stare at the map… but your friend who has worked in kitchens since his teens probably has the more accurate vision for the layout of the room, the reactions of the staff, etc.
I think you’re right about the best way to prep for a group like that: flexibly. Know their motivations and personalities and let the bad guys react, just as the PCs are reacting to their plans. It’s a dance…
Exactly. I make sure I understand the world and the major NPCs in that world along with their motivations. I’ll occasionally think of set-piece scenes, but I rarely tie them too concretely to any one part of the story, allowing me to slip them in when it’s appropriate.
Your group sounds very similar to mine. I have a wide variety of degrees sitting in front of me. Biology, psychology, humanities, computer science, journalism and these are just the few I can remember. I’m a physicist, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I have a hard time keeping up.
My solution has been to migrate to games where the players have some ability to contribute to the story. Fate Core is arguably my favorite for this. Powerful and flexible rules that easily facilitate a more collaborative story telling experience.
They almost never use fate points for rerolls or +2s anymore. Instead they love to use them to declare small story details. It’s amazing how creative they can be, and they often build off each other’s ideas. I still have final say, but I think everyone has more fun when their ideas get a chance to shine in the game, and I don’t feel so stupid for not anticipating it.
I’ve been intrigued by Fate. I haven’t really had a great experience playing it yet, so I haven’t tried it as a GM, but I keep hoping. (I like to play things before I run them, whenever possible.)
Let them do the work for you. Just throw out the key points for them to work around. They don’t want to just play in ‘your’ game anyhow. They want to feel like they are making an impact. You can always add your own little twists here and there anyhow. The last campaign I ran, I made it a point to invite a couple of players who I knew would think outside the box. I had my overall perspective on how things would play out, but if their outside-the-box thinking presented a better way of proceeding, I was all for it. I haven’t GMed all that often, honestly, but when I have in the past, I tried to run the game with everything somewhat planned out. If something threw me off, I would be lost on how to continue. It wasn’t much fun at all. But this last campaign… it was fun. The random/off-story stuff was still mostly off-story. But some of it actually made perfect sense and added to my overall goal for the game. It can be quite surprising when you go with the flow.
It’s good to have a couple of players you can count on to pick up the plot seeds you’ve thrown down and run with them. A good player who knows how to do that and can draw in the other players is a treasure.
Had this type of crew back in the 70s, perfectly willing to take the plot and run with it. Giving the details to the players is a great relief when you are eaten up with over-active imaginations/intelligent/high end gamers. I pass off every on-table task I can as soon as I can. The ‘rules lawyers get stuck with the job and hassle of ‘correcting’ play (makes them happy and I don’t have to worry about it), the anal-retentive is the chronicler (again, happy and does a better job than I can), the tacticians swap sessions of running the foes (happy and more vicious than I am), etc.
The main plot and interaction with the world are my job and players shovel in detail faster than I can keep up at times (see chronicler above) and remember details I have introduced decades back (Black Spear goblins are traders first and foremost, a shaman advancing and holding a black spear sideways means they wish to trade, I forgot, totally). Some of my players actually believe I came with convoluted plots they actually produced! One of the longest and most torqued plotlines in my GM history was entirely run on the fly following player chatter at the table. All I did was toss out vapid clues they tortured into facts and leads that never were. Awesome, but not ‘mine’, truly player driven storytelling.
A big point to remember is to be flexible and welcome feedback. If a player has an issue with something in game, do not allow him (always a ‘him’, hmmm) to pull a one on one away from the game to browbeat you. there is a time and place and a player that can run a private blog for the group is to be used. A game I play in has a Thursday lunch where such BS is brought out for all there to rip apart (I work those days and rarely make it.). Th GM logs the problems and solutions and has them in a pregame packet we all flip through to catch up. Most are simple notes on rules botched or points brought up that were missed plot wise amongst the players (we have a faux-pathfinder Society set up) such as bringing missing characters up to speed on x, y or z, answers to off table questions, house rule discussions, etc. Records like this help plot the development of the story, rules and such, and brutally ‘playtest’ concepts for inclusion (we have NO naturally flying races, should we?). As a new comer to the campaign of 12+ years, I find reading the 22 years of back story revealing.
One of my players has a very keen mind and memory, and is a member of Mensa..you’d think it was intimidating (and maybe it would have been, if I had known before he became a regular player in my game), but …
..our campaign is absolutely chock full of detail after eleven years of “Game of Thrones”-style political intrigues, upheavals, wars, and an NPC index that I stopped updating when I passed 1000+ characters – yet it is the player who has the most control (I need to continually go back and re-read my notes/ideas). I do write a “quest journal” after each session, but anyway, the point is –
very often that player brings up some small detail, for example something a character said, and I’m like, “Uh?!” and then I pretend I remember and roll along with it, and he goes, “But wait, why did he say THAT then and THIS now?” and I act smug as if I had planned something all along, and then he begins to think (often leaving the chair to pace around in the room) and usually comes to a conclusion I can then follow up on.
Sometimes I do blunder, of course and can’t hide the fact he “had” me on a certain element of the game world or story, but usually the story improves through this weird dynamic.
“So THAT’S why NPC#398 said that! Of course!”
*My* memory is one cloud of foggy haze, so I’m trying to come up with a specific example here but alas. There was the first session played back in ’04/’05 when the characters couldn’t help but wonder how a galley had ended up on the slopes of a mountain in the middle of a mountain range (pretty strange for a low-fantasy setting). Much later, last year or perhaps this year, something entirely different was going on and that player made a connection to that ship spotted way back when, which was just lucky happenstance that it matched what was going on now. Initially I just planted it there for the fun of it – an element that stayed frozen on that slope for eleven years before the player, through interaction and investigation, came up with an in-story reason for that galley’s existence at that place. 😀
Angela Murray, an excellent article (as always)! If there’s one thing players are good at it’s throwing their DM a curveball and doing what you least expect. What’s really challenging is when you have a player, or players, that are highly creative in addition to being intelligent! Let the hijinks ensue, and let the good games roll. 🙂