Question Your Assumptions

When you’re writing your game, there’s a tendency toward tunnel vision, to assume players will do what you expect. Take a step back and think about what assumptions you’re making:

gentleman’s agreement – You expect the players will do something based on the type of game you are playing. If you all agree to play a mystery, and you present the players with a mystery, it is reasonable to expect the players to demonstrate curiosity and investigate the mystery. If you are playing a modern spy game, it is reasonable to expect the players to make spy characters, not leprechauns. If you have a gentleman’s agreement problem, it is less likely to be an oversight in design than a disagreement or misunderstanding between you and the players about what kind of game you are playing.

the obvious choice – You presume the players are going to do the predictable thing. Often this involves a choice that is genre-appropriate (the heroes agree to help defend the village against rampaging giants, because that’s what heroes do) but this does not mean that the alternative which the players choose is necessarily out of genre. Sometimes the problem is that the GM only foresees one genre-appropriate response but the players see others.

falling for it – You expect the players to fall for some trick. In fact your plot hinges on it. They will not realize that the kindly old man who hired them is really the head of the assassins guild, they won’t make the connection between the full moon and the rash of murders, etc. Very good players will sometimes see the trick and fall for it intentionally to save the game, but you shouldn’t depend on them doing so. Note that some “falling for it” assumptions are really gentlemen’s agreements, and thus acceptable, but in those cases the players are collaborators and only the characters are falling for it. Having the players know their characters are being duped and going along with it so they can play out the righteous revenge later on is good stuff.

mental leap – You want the players to figure something out, make a connection, etc but you haven’t necessarily given them enough to go on. It is easy to make things obvious by providing a literal roadmap of clues, equally easy to make something completely inscrutable by never revealing any of the pertinent information (so only a wild guess would locate your plot) but the tricky part is finding that comfortable spot in between where the players have to put on their thinking caps but still can get the answer after some satisfyingly difficult rumination. You often don’t realize you’ve assumed a mental leap until the middle of the game when the players are sitting around trying to piece things together. For hours.

    Ben Robbins | December 6th, 2005 | | hide comments
  1. #3 Aumpa says:

    @ Alex, lol

    GM: “You… um, succeed in smashing out enough bricks in the wall to make an opening.”
    Player: “We look through the hole! What do we see?”
    GM: “I… don’t. know.”

    Yeah. I feel like improvisation is a necessary GM skill.

  2. #2 Alex says:

    Gheghe, I wish I’d read this before; I had to learn it the hard way: a week or so ago, in my very first tabletop session I fell for this not once, not twice, but three times.

    The basic premise was that the PCs were trapped in a prison cell because of a robbery one of them had committed. I (crudely) described the cell, and asked what they’d do. My first surprise was that they didn’t try to pick the lock on the door, as I’d expected, but they came up with elaborate plans, like waiting for something one-shottable to come along, so the Warlock could curse it, kill it and teleport (Fey pact boon) through the door.
    The second came after they’d gotten out of the cell complex and into another room with a few guards. Instead of immediately attacking them as I expected them to do, they tried to persuade the guards that they somehow gotten in there. Luckily for me, he failed his bluff check.
    The third was when they’d eventually killed the guards and were getting ready to leave the building. Instead of using the door like a sane person would, the party figured that since they’d just been in a fight, their clothes would be all bloodied and stuff which would make them a prime target for other guards. So they decided that the 20 strenght fighter would use a sledgehammer to smash a hole through the wall into unmapped territory…

  3. #1 jen says:

    This blog is where you finally get to vent about those times when you just put your head down on the table, and nobody else was sure why, isn’t it?

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