Let Players Steal Your Scene


When an RPG is rich enough for your players to engage with, they become more creative, which in turn makes your game more rich.  This is one of the miraculous things about the hobby.  The thing is, sometimes player creativity sometimes happens on accident!

When a player makes an intentional contribution, it’s important to honor his creativity – not doing so is sure to undercut his interest in the game.  When a player envisions details differently than you do, you can save a lot of time by tweaking the details to fit his vision of things [link: Don’t stop the game just because]. 

But when players think they hear something that doesn’t even exist in your notes –that’s when it’s really good to let them have their way.  And that’s all on you, because they don’t know they’re doing anything creative.

I repeat: when players misunderstand your descriptions, they are being accidentally creative. (I wanted that for the title of this post, but it was way too long)

Example: If they think it’s important, then it IS important

When players make a big deal about a minor detail in one of your descriptions, they’re being creative – whether they realize it or not.  Here’s an example.

GM: “The chamber has tall columns supporting a ceiling you can’t see, and you feel as if you’re being watched.  The outline of a gruesome idol broods over a disused altar at the far end.  The darkness is almost palpable, and shadows lunge against the flickering circles of light cast by your torches.

Player: “I cast Divine Rebuke against the shadows.”

GM: “Uh, that was only a colorful description.  The shadows aren’t really alive.”

Player: “oh.”

GM: “It just feels spooky in here, you know.  As if the shadows were alive.  But they’re just regular shadows..”

Player: “Got it.”

[awkward pause]

Player: “I guess I go investigate the idol.”

See what happened?  The player heard something the GM didn’t say – that the shadows are alive.  And here’s the important point: players unconsciously “hear” the things they want to be in the game. 

A good GM would treats this player like he misunderstood the description. A great GM treats this player like he’s contributing.  Let’s see what would have happened if the GM hadn’t failed his Notice Check:

Player: “I cast Divine Rebuke against the shadows.”

GM: [pauses, thinks, ‘I can go with this,’ gives the player a knowing look] “Good catch.  You recognize the flickering shadows as ‘shadestranglers,’ closing in around the group, trying to gather thick enough to overwhelm the torchlight.  You cast your Divine Rebuke, giving you space to prepare yourself for battle.  Everyone else make a Reflex Save – or else you find yourselves already grappled.”

The GM had planned things a little differently, but then the player heard something he thought was cool.  Because the GM quietly changed his plan, the player now gets to be a savvy character who spots dangers that others don’t notice (have an NPC ask him, “wow, where did you learn to spot those things?”).  And best of all, your game gets a dramatic encounter that you didn’t have to plan.

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