Players vs plot

So bit of an absence, I have a life that has nothing to do with being online so that means that things like this will happen from time to time. Don’t worry though, I will keep coming back.

So while I dive through game books as I have the time and look for the next item to do a review on I have a little something to talk about here for all the Game Masters, Dungeon Masters, Story Tellers and whatever other titles that the folks that run games are using based on your own system preferences.

So after a bit of a conversation yesterday with a  fellow gamer and game runner, I was thinking a bit about an issue we see from all sides of the game table, players vs plot. As someone who runs a game you have this awesome idea. You have a group of gamers who want to play a certain game system and you figure out a way to make the plot and story idea you have work, but it goes outside the regular game rules. You detail out the mechanics of the changes your idea will make, but giving the players the mechanic right off the bat will screw up the story because they no longer have to figure things out. What do you do?

Well you could just start the game and go with it, letting them fall into it a little at a time. You could bite the bullet and put the new mechanics out there for them to learn right off the bat and pray the players can keep what they know and what their characters know separate. Or you could tell them there is a change, and all will be revealed in time. I am sure there are other approaches you could take but I don’t have time to write a full psyche text on the topic so I am going to stick to looking at these three.

Just run with it …

  • Pro – you get to keep the plot secret, you get to see the players work up to the big surprise you have planned… and really that’s about it
  • Con – The players will keep bumping into the new mechanic and not know what to do with it. That will leave them feeling like they are being forced into something and if you have anyone in your game what wants to have the freedom to play whatever they want, they will feel hurt. If you have a rules lawyer at the table they will tell you the game does not work like that, because they don’t know the mechanic. You will need to drop a lot of clues and leads and come up with a lot of options to keep everyone going, unless you want to deal with people having a lot of other things to do, or not so subtly dropping out of the game.

Spill the changes early …

  • Pro – The rules lawyers and freedom seekers at your table can look into what you have done for the rules and figure out ways around it, how to manipulate it, and build their characters to take advantage of the changes as soon as you let them. Min Maxers will do so with wild aplomb as well. The players will be able to see what you are doing and none of them will be all but hurt about it.
  • Con – The players can intentionally or unintentionally blow a hole in your plot. It makes it hard to build tension for the players. People like the rules lawyer may still try and convince you that the mechanic does not work, even if you have tested it out. Your whole story may be blown as well if you have a very specific and distinctive new mechanic that you are adding in.

Let them know changes are coming, but not what…

  • Pro – A sort of natural tension is created for the players as they will be looking for signs of the new stuff, but not really be sure of what they are looking for. The story/plot/plan you have based the change on is not going to be revealed, they may still be able to figure it out early but not all of them will, and that will let some of them have the “That’s what I thought!” moment when you have your reveal.
  • Con – Players may focus so much on looking for the new thing they may miss elements of the story that have nothing to do with the new thing. Your story can still be blown if the players are better at reading clues than you are at creating them. You will face a lot of ongoing questions, and possibly bribery attempts as the game goes on, and if you give in to any of them, everything is blown.

As you can see none of the options is perfect. Some are better than others, and you are going to have to know your group well enough to know what will be the least problematic for you. Just like the individuals that make up gaming groups, the groups them selves are each unique and so putting out a blanket statement is going to be nigh impossible.

So what do I (the author of this article not the I = reader of article) do in this situation? I actually like the third one best, but have had to work with the second one as well depending on the group. I did try the first one once and ended up with over half the players (two of the three) walking out and not having the ‘time’ to come back until I started another story. I also have a tendency to spit forth the Golden Rule of Gaming to rules lawyers (If you don’t like a rule throw it out, if you need another rule add it.) and seem to tell the players ‘I am running the game, that means me=God, you=not.” much to their frustration when I change things in the rules.

In the end communication seems to work best for me. I mean I treat it just like any other relationship (ohhh yes the social interaction between DM and players is very much a relationship) you need to talk things out, give people at least a little idea where things are going (and if you don’t your relationship better have safe words 🙂 ). Keeping that flow of communication will let someone running a game know what is working and what isn’t.

So that’s it for the moment, more as soon as I have a moment… hmmm maybe a review of that game…

Now gimme the dice, I need to con several players into taking an action they may well not be ready for and need to get a crit to pull it off.


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