Player vs. Story: Balancing their needs with yours
It’s been a while, but I’m back with another installment of One Die Short:
The above page illustrates something many Dungeon Masters have dealt with before: getting the players to do what we want. As creative people, we DMs can get attached to our storylines, sometimes to the detriment of the game. One of the central beliefs I hold as a DM, is that the players should always be the main focus. They make the game, and the game would not exist without them. A close second to this is the storyline. Players often forget that DMs rarely (if ever) get to play, and writing the story is how we have fun with roleplaying. Our stories mean a lot to us. It’s a difficult balancing act deciding whether player needs or story needs outweigh the other in any given scenario.
To help out with this conundrum, the first thing I consider is my players’ gaming styles. What kind of players are they? What kind of people are they? Every good decision as a Dungeon Master will stem from knowing your players. Look for patterns of thought and common themes that come up in their solutions and suggestions. When you can begin to better predict the kinds of decisions your players are likely to make, you can present them with opportunities, designed specifically for them to take advantage of. If you provide these opportunities strategically, and allow them to be the necessary factors for moving the campaign in the right direction, your life will be easier, and your players will be happy. If you’re not the best at analyzing human behavior, don’t be afraid to actively ask questions, something I discuss in my personal Geek blog.
For example, if you really need your players to explore some ancient ruins, don’t try to motivate them with gold if you know they really want to save orphans and kittens. This might seem obvious, but the more we incorporate individual and group motivations (and you need both), the more likely they will be to bite when we want them to bite. It allows players to feel like they’re making the right decision without realizing that you’re just baiting them into doing what you want them to do anyway.
Sometimes though, players are determined to do something unexpected, and the more we let our players run amok, the more likely the story is to get derailed. One of the best skills we can have in scenarios like this is improvisation. (For tips on improvisation check out this article by Expy, also on DungeonMastering.com). But let’s also not forget that in our desire to ensure player satisfaction we shouldn’t completely neglect our story. Sometimes you need to make sure the players do something, and if they seem Hell bent on avoiding it, that’s when the Deus Ex Machina becomes useful in the form of overly powerful wizards, Gods, or maybe some alien robots. Beware though, if you seem to be using this technique often, you should reconsider things. Maybe you’re simply not writing the stories your players care about. If this is the case, it’s either time to change your campaign style, or start thinking about finding a new group to play with that cares about the kinds of stories that you do.
The final piece of advice I would give is this: learn to let go a little. Don’t get so attached to your stories and creations. Sometimes the more ridiculous ideas, the more annoying ideas, or the just plain stupid ideas, can lead a campaign into really interesting and unexpected places, and turn a typical adventure into a night of mayhem of madness. In a good way.