GM Technique: If they like it, expand it!

Player Interest has the power restructure your gameworld - into whatever they can dream up.
Introduction

Ever have one of those ideas that gets way bigger than you planned?

One of my campaigns had an ancient city so big and overgrown that it looked like a mountain.  Its architecture was otherwise untouched by time; a native civilization had settled there; there were chambers that contained whole ecosystems as if using ancient forms of climate control.   There was a room for tracking astrological movements, a scheming priestly class, and mysteries that tantalized my players for many sessions.

…The thing was, I had only planned it as a ruined city with some natives in it and a chief who had a quest for the party.

Then the players tried to pass themselves off as great sorcerers.  I countered: the natives not only believed them, but believed they were some long-prophesied chosen ones.  They started digging around in the religious chambers, so I whipped up some hostile clergy and a dark conspiracy to uncover.  And so on.  They’d snoop around expecting to find one thing, so I’d make them find the last thing they’d expect.  Or sometimes, exactly what expected, with a twist. 

This became one of my favorite locations, all based on the principle of: “if they like it, expand it!” 

But that principle can be risky: as GM, if you allow the group to make the choice to keep exploring a single location, you also have to make sure that choice was a good choice.

Rule #1: Increase the Location’s Importance

Whenever the players show an unexpected amount of interest in one idea – a location, an item, a character – you have the opportunity to make it a bigger part of the story.  For a game where you’ve got room to ad lib, it’s a good rule of thumb that if the group is interested in an area, the next part of the story is supposed to happen there.  Yes – player interest has the power to restructure your game world!

In fact, if you don’t do this, the extra time the group is spending here can feel wasted.  That’s why in my game I expanded the importance of the quest I’d planned (“please recover our stolen idol”) into the beginning of a huge plot arc that involved forgotten powers across the entire land.

Rule #2: Diversify the Location’s Physical Components

Think of a location as a toybox.  The longer your players spend there, the more toys you need to chuck in.  Some of the best ideas can come when the players ask about something you haven’t even thought about – just give it your wildest shot and let the details fall where they may.

In once sense, this rule can set you free to put out some of your really fun concepts.  Because once your players start “over-exploring,” you know they’re going to stick around long enough to enjoy them.

But in another sense, this rule is here to protect you.  If you don’t follow rule 1, the group will feel like they’re wasted their time here.  But if you don’t follow rule 2,  the group can feel like you are wasting their time here.  Much of the fun of an RPG is about exploration.  And if you fail to diversify the components of the location, the group will run out of things to explore and wish they were somewhere else – even though they’re the reason they’re here! 

Rules #3: Don't Forget To Raise the Stakes!

Is it possible to overexpand?  Yes – if you expand the location’s importance and components but don’t raise the stakes.  (And I found this out the hard way.)

As a GM, once your players think they know what the story is about, it’s important to yank a rug out from under them.  For example, they may know this adventure is about a chief who wanted the party to do a quest, a clerical conspiracy, and a mystery surrounding the city itself.  They don’t know the nature of those mysteries, but all your cards are still on the table, because they know what those mysteries are.

So just when they think they understand, they need to discover a Game Changer: it turns out everything was a trap!  Or the mysteries of the city the surface layer of a much deeper mystery.  Or this quest carries consequences that will touch them personally if they don’t follow it up.

And of course, you may have to change what you thought this adventure would be about in order to give them that big game-changer.  That’s the risk (and the fun) of letting a location, story, etc., expand in response to the players’ interest.

Conclusion

If you’re letting the Player Interest expand a location, the “Stakes” are your friend!  They’re here to help you bring things to a head before overexpansion kills the excitement.  Remember, the longer you spend in an area, the harder it is to wrap up the story.  When you stretch a location across several sessions, you always face the risk of opening more plot threads than the players can resolve before they get bored.