When I get the chance to be a player I am generally pleased to play along with the story going on. Whatever published adventure or lovingly crafted personal story framework the Game Master has worked out is generally great by me. When I’m a Game Master however, I tend to get player input before I ever build up the scenarios of the actual game and I react to flags and indicators that the players throw out, wittingly and unwittingly, while we are gaming. This approach makes for some really fun games, but often leaves me less than prepared for specific instances and forces me to rely on my improv skills. One of the tactics I’ve developed to bridge the gap between being an improv Game Master and still allow player input into how the game goes is an epic list.

I'm really not sure how this ties in, but it is pretty epic and I plan to make a character that rollerblades with a fire helmet at least  once in their life.An epic list is a list of story elements or possibilities that the players would like to see happen to their characters at some point in the game. More concisely, it is things the players want their characters to accomplish or achieve.

To setup the list I ask each player to give me 2 or 3, depending on the proposed length of the campaign, epic things that they want their character to do, achieve, encounter, be remembered for, or have happen. I tell them I’ll try to incorporate them, but I won’t make them gimme items. The players will still have to work at and towards them, but if I know what the player thinks would be cool I’ll be able to better work in the opportunity. Doing this doesn’t mean giving up control of the game or the mood. You can, and should, set guidelines about what game you are running beforehand.

"Hey guys, I’m running a sci-fi noir/pulp thriller for the next game. It will last about 3 months and will focus on a corrupt city and the corporations that are vying for control of it. At some point there will be travel off planet and some part of it will focus around alien artifacts. I want you to give me two epic things that you would love to see happen with your character in the game. I’ll TRY to work them in as possibilities, but they won’t just be gimmes. Email them to me within a week."

So, what kind of things count? Well any thing the players want, but choice often paralyzed people. So here is a list of a few possible epic things I can think of or have heard:

  • Defeat A Named Enemy With A Reputation
  • Own An Epic Item That Is Important To The World
  • Take Out Multiple Enemies In A  Single Combat Or Action
  • Take Out One Giant Enemy That Threatens Many People
  • Hunt A Legendary Creature
  • Befriend A Legendary Dangerous Creature
  • Discover a New Alien Race
  • Be Integral To The Overthrow Of A Corrupt Country Or Company
  • Be Popular With The Ladies (Or The Men, Or Both)
  • Beat Many Other Parties To Retrieving An Ancient Treasure
  • Be Hunted By An Arch Villain
  • Have A Recurring Rival/Love Interest Who Sometimes Works Against Me And Sometimes Aids Me
  • Cure A Plague With The Help Of Divine Intervention
  • Save A Beleaguered People And Start A New Civilzation
  • Defeat A Monster Who Killed My Parents, According To My Backstory
  • Be A Person Who Is Part Of A Secret Society That Has More Power Than Realized
  • Prevent An Ancient Evil From Awakening, But Do It By Accident
  • Become Overtaken By An Evil Artifact Before Throwing It Off And Redeeming Myself

In essence, you are asking the players to tell you what they want their personal climatic moments in the game to be and partially how they want them to play out. The more “generally specific”, i.e. the more they can be specific about the general feel they want from the plot element, the better.

When I do this, and I do it almost every game because of the success it has, I always make sure to tell the players that I will TRY to work these things into the story, but it will be up to them to make them happen and they will suffer any negative effects of these elements. If they want to fight Godzilla they might get crushed like bambi. You aren’t just giving them the epic win, you are giving them the chance to work for a particular epic win.

Once these epic elements are known, you incorporate them into the game like any other plot element, there is little that should need done to tend them. You might need to nudge the spotlight a bit to focus it on the particular character when their epic thing comes up, but by and large you are just adding these things into the story.

I find that phrasing this tactic as a list and getting just one or two things helps avoid the choice paralysis. Also, giving the players some time to mull over their epic things helps them think out their character and what they want them to be remembered for. Having them email it to you, or give it to you privately also helps keep each player from going into casual mode when they realize someone else’s time in the spotlight arrives and preserves a feel of challenge.

So, have you ever done anything like this? Do you run your games with player input previous to the design process?


14 replies
  1. SchildConstruct
    SchildConstruct says:

    I run all my campaigns with player input during the design process.

    Generally, I have an idea what I’d like to do, and in what direction the story / game world to take, but there’s little point in doing loads of work upfront if the group won’t have fun.

    Though, my approach isn’t nearly as formalized as this one (or Three Things). It’s just asking the players: “What do you want to do?”

    The scope is limited, though, depending on what I am comfortable to do, and what the scope of the campaign is (there’s more room for epicness in sufficiently epic game systems / game worlds, obviously enough).

    The level of player input is also limited by the situation I’m asking for input for. In campaign planning I can incorporate much more player input than on the session level, with the adventure level being somewhere in between of those two.

    I’m fundamentally lazy, so I like to have players do some of the work. 😉

  2. Clawfoot
    Clawfoot says:

    I always seek out player input, but not quite so formally. I like to talk about my players’ characters with them, to get an idea of the kind of feel they want for them.

    I always make sure to ask both “What does your character want to do?” and “What do you want your character to do?” The answer to those two questions are rarely ever the same.

  3. Cloudyone
    Cloudyone says:

    I’ve never actually started with player input up front. I think only two of my seven players really care about character backstory and epic goals. However, as the campaign progresses, I usually get a feel for the type of stuff they think is cool for their character and try to work in situations for them.

  4. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @SchildConstruct – You’re definitely right that the campaign is a lot easier to manipulate than the individual session. I’ve found that player input on the session level tends to be more spontaneous and conveyed through character actions. That is when you really have to look for cues from the players and can’t rely on direct input.

    @Clawfoot – “I always make sure to ask both “What does your character want to do?” and “What do you want your character to do?” The answer to those two questions are rarely ever the same.” It is always a sign of good players that they think about their character from those two aspects.

    @Cloudyone – I’ve encountered a few players like that. They take a while to warm up to the game or story. A couple of sessions in they are jazzed about stuff, but they need a bit of framework first. In instances like those, I usually throw out some “prize” to motivate people. “If you get me a goal list before the start of game, you get an item worth xxxxx.” If the players aren’t that interested in that type of play, I usually ignore it and work other angles.

  5. evil
    evil says:

    I’ve tried this and my players have actively told me not to do so. My group prefers to be surprised at the given goals that naturally grow throughout the game process. I do ask my characters what type of game they would prefer to play (sci fi, swords and sorcery, political intrigue, etc) but that’s the most we get into before sessions start. After the games begin, then I’ll get input from my characters about which NPCs they’d like to take down or which direction they’d like to move in the future.

  6. BishopOfBattle
    BishopOfBattle says:

    I would love to get more player input for my games regarding the kinds of things they like to do, but most of them tend to check out between games. I have a few players who will generally get back to me in a timely fashion with anything I ask for prior to the next game, a few who may once in awhile and a few whom I can never expect to hear anything from prior to them showing up the next game day.

    While I would love to handle questions like this between games, I’ve found better success (given my above player group) getting input during the first session of the campaign (this could also be done during a group character creation session). I borrow liberally from a sheet of questions created by the Chatty DM on his blog (http://critical-hits.com/2010/01/04/gears-of-ruin-party-creation-session-template/) to get the Players to provide some insight into their character’s motivations, to provide me with NPCs I can use in game, etc. That approach has worked pretty well for me, but I’ve only really used it on short campaigns with a limited scope and its done after the major decisions regarding the campaign goals are made.

  7. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    Open input from the whole table is the only way I game. Burning Wheel got me into the process — “campaign burning” as it’s called. I’ll never go back. Why guess and waste planning/people’s time… when your players can just tell you up front what they’d love to see in the game as a whole?

    It makes things easier on everyone: the GM knows exactly what elements are important (reduced prep, and the expectations are laid out nicely); and the players not only know the tone and scope of the game but have helped create it by adding to it, which invests them in the campaign.

  8. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @evil – I’ve rarely encountered anything like that with my players, but it is a valid attitude. There is a lot to be said for discovering things as you go along.

    @BishopOfBattle – Chatty’s template is a good one. Having anything like that gives you some framework for player input, and that can be incredibly helpful.

    @Jeff Carlsen – The character wheel concept seems interesting. Is the mechanics section of it just meant to represent the actual mechanical aspects of the character building?

    @Rafe – Having helped to create or influence the game definitely invests players into the game more. Have you found that your players are willing to create or have a hand in almost all of the game, or do they require a framework to work in before really getting involved? I’m not too familiar with burning wheel, though many of the concepts it uses sound interesting.

  9. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    @John Arcadian – Oh, they’re willing. Granted, if they’re used to a more “GM presents idea, players accept it” system or way of doing things, you have to nudge ’em a bit at the start. Once they realize it’s all out in the open, they commit and everything becomes very focused. Characters made are more complementary and relate to the situation or big picture such that you don’t have a courtier in a dungeon delve campaign. (I think we’ve all had a “Dammit… this guy’s cool, but he’s useless in this campaign” moment.)

    It’s really liberating to be able to really delve into things openly, even villains and things going on behind the scenes. That way, it’s not about finding out who did what; it’s about doing something about it! Started a game recently with a buddy of mine where he’s a Born Servant (Slave) –> Foot Soldier. The brainstorming started out simply: he wanted to play a Child Prodigy with a phenomenal Sword skill, knowing that he’d have low or no other skills. The next thing he put forward was that it was his father who sold him and his mother! And his father’s is a high ranking officer for the armies the nation he sold his kid and wife to. Ha! Awesome.

    Hell, once your players get into things, they’ll deliver the whole game to you. And when they’re right down in it, having helped create most of the basis for the campaign, they drive the game hard and push towards the things they’ve added. If a player wants to find a legendary weapon, he/she starts the game looking for information; if someone wants to woo the prince of blah-buh-de-blah, that player’s portion starts out with an invitation to a feast (and whaddaya know… the prince’s old, miserly advisor has is rumoured to have a secret fascination with ancient weapons); etc.

    Quite simply, it’s awesome.

  10. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    (Ack. Sorry. In the above, it should say “And his father’s a high ranking officer for the armies fighting the nation he sold his kid and wife to.”)

  11. Nojo
    Nojo says:

    After you get their ideas, I think it’s fun to braid them together.

    For example: Sa’m and Hax want revenge on different people. The mysterious people who disappeared Sa’m’s parents are a different organization from those what setup Hax to die. BUT, they are both front organization for the same chaos conspiracy. So as they dig further into the investigation, their goals get closer to each other.

  12. Djaii
    Djaii says:

    when starting a new game with a group I usually go through my stash of settings and systems and do a short “inside flap” style summary of 3 to 5 stories I’d like to run, enough to whet appetites but not anything that takes me too long (sometimes including some character suggestions if the group has novices)

    then I let the players tell me which of the settings, summaries and bits they liked – usually as part of this vetting process, I find out what things they specifically DON’T want to see in the game (often more crucial than what they DO)

    once we settle on a game/theme to use, I’ll expand the description enough that the players have a chance to write backgrounds that are congruent with the planned story framework

    with this player created information, I’ll further tweak the story to include bits from each of the character backgrounds as best I can, avoid the things they said they had no taste for and let ‘er buck

    results so far have been very good

  13. Jeff Carlsen
    Jeff Carlsen says:

    @John Arcadian

    I’m honored that you like the Character Wheel. Yes, the mechanics section refers to the game mechanics. They’re an equal part of the wheel, both influencing, and influenced by, the rest.

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