My Litmus Test For Crazy Player Ideas

slapchopdude (2) So, if you two can balance the ladders just right for about 45 seconds, I can get high enough to get a good angle from this garden beyond the castle walls. I can throw my dart the distance to the chandelier from there and with a good enough to hit roll, which I can totally make!, I can cause it to come crashing down on the table while the duke and his guests dine. They get paranoid and are alerted to the real assassination attempt going on, but we don’t have to come forward and risk being thrown in jail because of that orphanage incident… We just need two people to make rolls to hold the ladders, then I have to climb one with a balance roll, and then I have to make a decent roll to throw my dart and hit that place between the chains… So, shall we try it?”

 

As a Game Master, you’ve probably sat on the other side of that player conversation that sets up some crazy, almost sure to fail idea. You know the kind – the overly-complex, problem-laden, reality defying idea that would only feel at home in a Laurel and Hardy Three Stooges short. It breaks the verisimilitude of many games and settings – but when it came up in my game, I threw it against the most important litmus test I’ve got for allowing crazy ideas, and it passed.  Some Game Masters will try to nudge their players to more realistic paths, some will shake their heads in defeat and groan as they tell their players to roll. Sometimes the other players will look at the player suggesting the idea and give muted sighs of frustration. Sometimes, no matter how stupid or complex, the players are all gleefully giggling and figuring out how to do the very crazy idea, and that is what makes it pass my simple litmus test:

 

Does it make the game more fun for the players?

All the questions of breaking setting, tone, and mood or whether a situation would really work or not pale in comparison with that one concept. If the players are all excitedly yammering about how they’ll make the ladders work and balance or what they should write on the dart to frame the right people, then nothing else matters. The players are going to have more fun attempting their crazy idea than creating some dramatic or realistic moment that taxes their abilities or showcases their awesome skills.

Does it make the game more fun for the players? is the first and final question I ask myself when I arbitrate a situation in-game. Will allowing something that otherwise breaks everything else I’ve set up make the game more fun? Then I go for it and say yes. I can always repair or restructure my adventure so it moves forward in some way, but I can never recapture the excitement the players are generating themselves if I say no to what they are attempting.

That’s my main litmus test. Do you do something similar? What criteria do you use when the players are doing something crazy? What is the craziest idea you’ve let the players try?

15 replies
  1. Yora says:

    Does it make the game more fun is certainly important. But I make this consideration in the long term, not the immediate short turn. Do we have a 2 minute laugh goofing around, or will it actually set a precedent that will make the game better permanently.
    Goofing around with improbable ideas based on misunderstanding the presented situation may be fun now, but there’s a good chance that the game will devolve into a chaotic string of crazy antics that is fun for maybe a session or two, and then becomes boring.

    I would instead ask “Does it encourage the players to pay attention to details and approach future situations with common sense?” The Deck of Many Things is fun when you’re drawing cards, but as someone famously put it “this artifact eats campaigns”.
    Fun is important, but longterm enjoyment of the campaign is more immportant than an immediate giggle.

    • John Arcadian says:

      One big thing to take into consideration is the tone of your game and whether or not it will create problems down the road. I’m far less likely to allow crazy ideas during deep intrigue/political games because it often ruins the tone. I do find that the game system sometimes helps to mold player expectations in those regards. If a Deck of Many Things doesn’t exist in the game world, then it is hard to abuse it to the detriment of the game.

  2. black campbell says:

    For something like your example, I would suggest it depends on the tone and genre of your game. If you were playing some chop-socky action game with a Jacky Chan flair, I’d have enthusiastically endorsed this move. If you were playing in a “realistic” fantasy game…let ’em try it and spectacularly fail, or do the classic “Fate thing” and let them succeed (if they roll well) BUT…and hit them with some kind of complication that brings the tone back where you want it.

    Generally, I side with “is it more fun this way?” but again, it depends on the level of verisimilitude your have in the setting. And if the players bought into the sort of game (dark, gritty superheroes being angsty) that doesn’t match this sort of levity, maybe you need to have a talk about the expectations of the players and the GM regarding the game.

    • John Arcadian says:

      Agreed heartily. I find a lot of games have tone drift as they go on. What starts as dark and gritty gets funny when someone starts playing the deadpool sort of character.

      One thought that just started moving in my noodle is to make an experience category for tone. If the players keep within the tone of the game, they get the exp. If they break it with crazy ideas, no exp for the tone category. Tell them at the end that their crazy idea was fun, but it was too zany and so the dark and gritty tone exp bonus isn’t happening this session. Their next idea might be as unrealistic, but will stick with the dark and gritty tone.

  3. Nojo says:

    One way to balance the short term fun vs. the long term loss of tension is to have a cost.

    “There is no way this ladder and dart thing can work, and yet, you make it up there, and throw the dart. You’re afraid that it’s going to miss, when all of a sudden, it changes course and hit’s the chandelier which crashes down.”

    Pause for the players to cheer each other.

    “You feel an invisible hand on your shoulder. A hissing, inhuman voice whispers in your ear. ‘I always help my friends. And I expect my friends to reciprocate.'”

    • John Arcadian says:

      That just sounds like a fun thing to include in the game. Otherworldly patron ropes PC into increasingly worsening deal would be a very fun plot piece to throw at the right player! Very nice idea.

    • Razjah says:

      This is awesome! It reminds me of the sponsored magic compels in Dresden Files. Oh sure, you can fry that bad guy with some good rolls (and unknown help). But now a little itty bitty piece of your soul belongs to a demon- what could go wrong?

  4. Razjah says:

    I like this idea, but as a few people have brought up, it can really hurt a genre’s feel. I like to negotiate these things. “Oh, you can go for it, and with a good roll pull it off, but the ladder is going to fall with you on it after the throw. Do you still want to do this?” You are not aiming to punish them, just that the ladder stacking has a consequence.

    While these antics can hurt the tone of a game, this is the stuff players talk about for YEARS. I want that to happen, and I’ll sacrifice a little genre verisimilitude most of the time for a story we tell for years almost every time. Its for fun, not a film.

  5. Tiorn says:

    I think it was Chatty DM (could be wrong) that was pushing the idea for awhile that in certain situations, success or failure wasn’t enough. There needed to be a third option, mainly to avoid failure and keep the story going. On rolls indicating failures, the player could be given the option: “you can just plain fail at the attempt OR you can succeed, but with a complication.” This was mainly to be permitted on skill checks only, I do believe. But I see no reason why it couldn’t be extended to a skill/attack challenge given in the example.

    • Scott Martin says:

      That’s at the heart of the [splat]World games: 10+ = solid success, 7-9 = pick one of (chandelier falls, avoid ladder collapse and taking damage, avoid setting off the alarm), less than 6: fail!

      Fate games allow the same most of the time; a tie (or even minor failure) can be turned into “succeed at a cost” appropriate to the check. You’re right: they’re a fun things to include, and sometimes it torture to decide how much you’re really willing to pay for that success.

  6. Blackjack says:

    When players propose crazy ideas I start with the classic advice printed in an (A)D&D DMG years ago: Don’t Say “No”; Determine Difficulty.

    While determining difficulty is all well and good, it’s also important as a GM to understand why players are proposing crazy ideas. Not all situations should be addressed in a dispassionate, by-the-numbers way. Understand the players’ motivation and right the way to respond becomes almost self-evident. Here are three quick examples:

    1) The players propose zany ideas because they face a tough challenge where they can see that the more straightforward approaches won’t work well enough. They’re engaged, they’re in character, and they’re having fun.

    2) The players propose nutty ideas because they face a challenge that they’ve become pessimistic about beating. They’re frustrated, they’re dejected, and one or more have already disengaged.

    3) One player is proposing crazy ideas. This player is clearly “having fun” but the rest of the group are not. They’re rolling their eyes, taking contrary actions, and saying things like, “Look, can we just play the game normally?” Some players may be disengaging rather than arguing.

    • Scott Martin says:

      Or the worst: they’re proposing an idea because they misunderstand the situation–they have a different picture in their head. Sussing out when that’s true is critical, otherwise you can wind up with “but I thought the bucket was next to me, not across the room”.

  7. Roxysteve says:

    You know, even the most serious plot-driven TV shows have light comedic episodes that do not derail the “feel” of the show when considered as a whole (well, not enough to matter more than other plot-holey stuff).

    I’m thinking specifically of the X-Files here. I wasn’t an avid watcher but even I caught the “he said, she said” comedy episode with the vampires. Also the Stargate SG-1 episode when the cast are pitching ideas for the show-within-the-show that was played strictly for laughs.

    The ladder affair has come up in different forms in my games occasionally. In that specific case I would have said “draw what you are trying to achieve. Don’t worry about making it look good, stick men are OK, I just need to see the idea so I can properly understand it, then I need you to tell me exactly what you hope to achieve so I get the details right in my head“. I should add I always cover my game tables with a couple of Chessex battlemats and have wet-erase pens to hand, so this is no real problem. Once I have a clear idea of what they are trying to do and why I can turn off the ultra realism and turn on the comedic fail detector.

    Because your ladder/dart thing shouts “Inspector Clousea” loudly in my ear.

    So, in my version of events, a fail would involve someone perhaps being dumped over the wall (through a cucumber frame or into an ornamental pond) or being dumped in the opposite direction (into the duckpond or similar) when the ladder teeters so much the ground crew are overwhelmed.

    A critical fail would have the ladder risers separate from the rungs, turning it into stilts for yet more comedy. It is highly likely the dart would end up being dropped into the ground crew for a pierced boot or loud “ding!” from a half-helm.

    In short, the unlikely success would be a success (probably with absurdly comical side effects) while the fails would be embarrassing but not in and of themselves fatal. A dumping over the garden wall might result in a couple of laps of the grounds being pursued by guard dogs, but escape would be allowed owing to the fact it is funnier.

    The thing is that I can see the funny side of just about anything given enough time to recover from the effects of whatever-it-was and the wounds it inflicted. I’ve often thought that the incidents of extreme real-life idiocy on my part would be hysterically funny from a third party’s viewpoint, and I started blogging about some of the more spectacular episodes of personal incompetence in order to have the chance to take that viewpoint. Example: The time I almost blinded myself at the school science fair by accidentally inventing thermite and setting it off about eight inches from my nose.

    So whenever someone in one of my games wants to let out their inner Buster Keaton, well, I let ’em, usually. Anything is better than hours spent looking at each other over the table muttering “I got nuthin” or a TPK. After all, player characters so inept as to trap themselves in an inescapable and lethal situation will be able to do so again if they live. Double laugh bonus!

    My biggest problem is not telegraphing the levels of Laurel and Hardyness about to occur by bursting out laughing.

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