Inspiration from the Players

edited January 2009 in Story Games
Hey everyone. This is my first post here, so be gentle ;) And excuse me if it'll be a bit long-winded.

Skip all of this if you don't care about how I got to the idea presented below
So I often find myself in the Game/Dungeon Master / Storyteller / Narrator (I'll just use ST from now on) role and it's something that I enjoy very much. I like coming up with cool ideas and throwing them at my players to see what they come up with. And to see what kind of cool ideas they throw back. However coming up with cool ideas can be hard, but I have enough experience with the creative parts of my brain to know how they work...

So the thing is that my imagination needs some help. I do consider myself creative enough for the job of ST but when I work with a blank canvas I sometimes find myself having trouble to come up with cool ideas. I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one and through my education I've generally come to the wisdom that it helps to put some constraints on your blank canvas to focus/lead your imagination. These things might be random or based on some other facts - like technical limitations for example. They can also come from a wide variety of sources: Self-imposed, from other people or just due to the target "medium".

Now having learned what my creative juices need to do the flowin' I've until recently always tried to self-impose some constraints on myself. For example if I had a campaign arc of sorts planned, then I might have the constraint "Introduce the influence of the BBEG". Or if we've done some rural/wilderness stories I might come up with something like "urban scenario". That's already a good start to somehow start funnel my ideas. That's all good and well but somehow it just wasn't enough. I needed more.

Now add to that something I recently re-learned from a Video Game Designer. It came up in the context of general brainstorming techniques but the idea is that even the most random things can be of use, even if they don't look like it at first glance. They get you to think in ways you wouldn't normally. So I went out and tried that. I'll explain how in a second. Granted the process was generally based more on gut feeling than on rational thought but still.

The idea
For the last couple of games I've asked my players for "two things" each. With things I mean basically anything they could come up with: A location, setting, scene, character, environment, whatever. This was motivated by reading games such as PTA, because if I need some inspiration, why not at the same time provide my players with a way to give some input.

Now with these "constraints" from my players I set out and tried to come up with a cool plot/setting/situation/whatsit. I have to add that I didn't try to force all the "things" into the next session. I didn't give a guarantee that they would be used at all but if they were the player in question got a reward when the suggestion came up.
(For Houses of the Blooded I handed out a Style Point. For my current One Roll Exalted test game I'm considering giving out "variable dice" to the players that they can use to add to a roll when they want.)

This technique has worked really nicely for me so far. Even one time when I had to hastily come up with a SOTC session out of nowhere. Given a few constraints and some time to order my thoughts I was able to get a game going that was interesting and fun. I also think this somewhat involves the players more and gives them a bit more of a feeling of authorship.

(Note that most of my players are "traditional players" - that is they believe in the GM/player divide - but playing HotB for a while has started to warm them towards the idea of narrative authority in the hands of the players. Something I generally want to encourage.)

Alright, so that's it. Sorry if this post is a confusing mess but I hope at least the technique is interesting. I'd love to hear your guys' thoughts on this. Especially on the reward mechanic I have there. I had no complaints yet from my players but it is a bit arbitrary since it's the reward is determined by "GM Fiat". The idea is to encourage my players to submit things, and to make it worth if they put some effort into coming up with interesting and thematic things.

Okay. So now that's it. For real this time.

Comments

  • Sounds nifty, man. Do you have them stat up the characters they create (or the locations and environments, for that matter)?
  • I've used a similar approach at times. I basically said "Here's paper, go ahead and write three things you'd like to see in the game." I told them there were there were no guarantees just like you did but I didn't offer any reward. I guess I never thought about it and if I had, I'm not sure I'd gone that route anyway. Overall, I think it's a good technique. It's a clear signal to the players that "Hey, I'm listening to you" which I think is good.

    I kind of incorporated this into my sword & sorcery game; after creating characters you grab another piece of paper and say "This is the map." Then it goes around the table about three times. You can add places, things that are happening, stuff about the history of the world or just state facts. All the stuff seldom gets used but usually most of it.
  • That's a cool idea. I might actually end up using that in some of the games I run.
  • Posted By: Josh RobySounds nifty, man. Do you have them stat up the characters they create (or the locations and environments, for that matter)?
    Nope. I just use their "things" as inspiration. So far the entries ranged from a single word to a short descriptive paragraph. I think having them stat up chars would be too much "homework" and end up with no char suggestions. But thinking of it, so far I've mostly gotten locations or setpieces. I don't think I've had a character suggestion yet.
  • So you basically ask for like, an improv prompt? ("We need... something you can do at a bar.") Or is it even broader, like word association? ("Shovel!" "Dig!" "70s Funk!")

    One interesting thing about how you described this (for me) was that you set the player inspiration/input outside the existing game material that the players are already providing -- most notably, their character sheets. Is this because you are already starting by taking inspiration from these more traditional player inputs, and at times that is not adequate (or you've gone through all the obvious ideas from there)? Because, to use my two examples above, most characters have at least one thing they can do at a bar on their character sheet (eg. skills) and usually they have a lot of words. It might be interesting to apply the player input technique without getting explicit player input -- just see if there's a way you can flip their character sheets so that they are decontextualized enough to set off this process you're describing.

    Because, I mean, when you mentioned running a SotC game off the top of your head, there's /so much/ player input for situation/constraints built in to the Aspects that it seemed a bit strange that you felt the need to also solicit extra material. Is there something about the way you get this material or the way it produces "constraints" that feels different to you, compared to the constraints that are built into the players' characters in most games?
  • edited January 2009
    Posted By: Ice Cream EmperorSo you basically ask for like, an improv prompt? ("We need... something you can do at a bar.") Or is it even broader, like word association? ("Shovel!" "Dig!" "70s Funk!")
    It's pretty open and up to my players. A few examples:

    - Black Moon
    This one was actually very formative for the scenario. It was for Houses of the Blooded and black is the color shame but also of secret revenge. Those who are granted their revenge by the dark Suaven Ikhalu have entirely black eyes. Then obviously if the eye that looks down on the world (the moon) is entirely black, that's a strong stong omen. This ended up being my primary hook for the game, given to me by a player.

    - A quiet hunting lodge in the middle of a large forest
    This one is a lot less evocative but it worked well with the Black Moon I had above so that's essentially where the players ended up being (for a wedding) when the Black Moon rose.

    - Thunderstorm
    This one was a bit bland. I added it to the scenario at some point when I felt it to fit, but it didn't present big enough of a hook for my imagination. Maybe if it would have been worded differently then I might have wanted to use that as a stronger hook. But with just "Thunderstorm" it felt a bit generic.

    - An observatory with lots of gears made of wood
    This is one I got for my upcoming ORExalted game. I don't yet know what I'll do with it but I like it because it again is quite evocative while still being vague enough for me to spin something around it. Where is it? Why was it built? Who's there? Why is it important? That's all questions I can answer and that might help me spin a st ory.
    Posted By: Ice Cream EmperorOne interesting thing about how you described this (for me) was that you set the player inspiration/input outside the existing game material that the players are already providing -- most notably, their character sheets. Is this because you are already starting by taking inspiration from these more traditional player inputs, and at times that is not adequate (or you've gone through all the obvious ideas from there)? Because, to use my two examples above, most characters have at least one thing they can do at a bar on their character sheet (eg. skills) and usually they have a lot of words. It might be interesting to apply the player input technique without getting explicit player input -- just see if there's a way you can flip their character sheets so that they are decontextualized enough to set off this process you're describing.
    I'm already using my players' characters and sheets for input, but that's all pretty fixed. Of course there might be stories developing from their motivations or their NPCs motivations, but generally looking at a sheet I get ideas for the "structure" of the crunch, not for a plot. For example if all characters are good fighters, I'll obviously try to add in some serious combat. If there's only one who's very good at social things and he hasn't really gotten to play to this strength last time I'll definitely try to build something for him. Stuff like that. But a combat or skill "encounter" can be redressed in myriads of ways. This doesn't tell me who the group is fighting (and why) and it doesn't tell me who the social guy wants to convince of what, or seduce, or slander or whatever.

    I think there's a difference between these two sources of inspiration. I'll have to think some more about this.
    Posted By: Ice Cream EmperorBecause, I mean, when you mentioned running a SotC game off the top of your head, there's /so much/ player input for situation/constraints built in to the Aspects that it seemed a bit strange that you felt the need to also solicit extra material. Is there something about the way you get this material or the way it produces "constraints" that feels different to you, compared to the constraints that are built into the players' characters in most games?
    As said, the Aspects generally give me ideas of what kinds of situations the players want to find their characters in - but there's still enough in between. If I had a suitable Aspect example handy I could spin a couple of different situations where it would apply. It's finding one of these that I want player inspiration for.

    Is that making some sense?
  • To elaborate some more, I'll add my latest example using the Result of the submissions from the players of my ongoing ORExalted game.

    The Situation:
    We started out in the south, the Summer Mountains to be exact. It's a large range of mountains bordering the desert on one and tropic jungles on the other side. After an initial one-shot to see if everyone was happy with system and setting my players wanted to continue the story and focus on overthrowing/weakening the Realm. In the one-shot they've already helped some slaves and caused a bit of a ruckus with the Dragon-Blooded before they left. So now the players move towards the Kingdom of Harborhead, which is struggling with civic unrest and strong oppression through the Realm. An ideal place for young Solars to cause even more trouble.

    The Submissions:
    Trying to come up with something, I again asked my players and what I got was:

    1. Firebreak (Feuerschneise in German)
    2. Wineking
    3. A red sea of poppy flowers over which the heavy but sweet scent wafts in the sun
    4. An observatory powered by wooden gears

    The Story:
    And what I made out of this is the following: (Improvised details in brackets)

    The players are travelling with a trading caravan which will leave off the beaten path and visit some slightly far away cities to (sell the needed iron neccessities to them and) buy some rare delicacies. Chief among them is "Firewine", a tasty and intoxicating blend of opium, wine and chili. The city is the only place that produces this delicacy and it is strongly entwined with the "Wineking", a good of said product. Being a greedy god, he tried to cause trouble before and enthrall the city with his intoxicating powers. However the Immaculate Order eventually stepped in and "liberated" the city. Now the IO is gone, called away to an important matter, and the Wineking has seized the opportunity. He is demanding the most beautiful of the girls for himself, so they can make his special brand of Firewine (only Women are allowed to make wine, it is said the quality is affected by the beauty of the practicioner. His band of drunkards led by his three godblooded sons enforce this rule. They practicing a sort of drunken boxing, by virtue of their association with him). The Wineking has retreated to his Sanctum which can be found within the old Observatory. The true secret to the wine is not only the beauty but the time, so only there can the special brand be made. I do not yet know how the Firebreak will play in but that's the basic situation my players will find themselves pitted against.
  • I heard a podcast that presented an idea of a similar technique (Sorry can't remember the name of the podcast atm).

    3x3 NPCs

    After chargen all players should generate 3x3 NPCs.

    Three friends (people who could be trusted, and expected to help for free, but could also call on favours from the PC). Could be relatives, lovers or just close friends.

    Three contacts (people that could be trusted, mostly. And could be used as experts provided there was something in it for them.

    Three enemies (people that the GM could use as antagonists). Scorned lovers, rivals, anyone with a horn in the side for the PC.

    These should not be fleshed out as full PCs. A name and a sentence or two description of each would be enough.

    ---

    I like the idea since it puts the PCs in a social context, and gives them a history. SOMETHING must have made the enemies into enemies, what? How did they meet those contacts in the first place?
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