Burn Everything Gaming

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Predicting Unpredictable Players

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Today’s article is geared more towards GMs, but I hope dedicated players will be able to pull some things about it. After all, this is about you from the GM’s perspective.

Players are unpredictable.

If your world is at all rocked by that statement, then bless your heart. The rest of us probably learned this the first time we ran a game. Maybe at first we thought it was our fault; that he hadn’t prepared enough for the adventure. Eventually, if a GM sticks with it, then she will come to the inevitable conclusion that no matter how much she prepares, she will never be able to predict her players’ actions.

This Is a Good Thing?

Despite the problems that unpredictability can cause, this is actually one of the best things about a roleplaying game. Players have the power to attempt whatever they wish. A video game can only predict so much, and anything it is not designed to handle it will not.

When a player is invested in a story, they want to shape it for the better. That barmaid that is always dreaming of seeing the world? Take her with you as a follower. Got the formula for light year transportation memorized? Plug it in and have your character invent it! Ever wonder why no one ever licks the trapped door except maybe a doctor? Lick that door! Do what you wanted to do, and see what happens with the story.

Selfish Or Evil?

Like any other power, this much free will can and will be abused. It is easy as a GM to assume the character wants to lick the door just to be weird or bring the bar maid along for a graphic scene. Sometimes we as GMs feel like the players are just trying to break the game we have made for the fun of it. Oh we joke about it all the time, but sometimes we secretly wonder if our players truly are evil.

More often than not, this is not the case. Players just want to see their character do amazing things, things that they may wish they could do themselves. And sometimes they just want to think outside the box because it really makes more sense to them to try and fight rather than surrender and play out the prison escape you wrote out for them.

If a player is being purposefully selfish, then probably the whole group knows it. That sort of thing needs to be dealt with, because it will kill a game. On the other hand, when a character decides the want to get into a naked wrestling match with a foe that ends in both of them dying, it can be a memorable part of the story that really drives it forward.

No Tips on Managing Chaos

Since we only want to discourage players from taking selfish extremes, we as GMs probably want to encourage free will among our players. This means that we need to be able to manage the chaos that is coming, to the best of our ability.

This is not an easy task. Improvisation is an art, after all, and planning for every specific possible action of every player for every game is…well there’s probably a math genius out there that could figure out the odds, but let’s just say it isn’t going to ever be worth spending that much time preparing.

I wish I have a lot of helpful suggestions on how to deal with player chaos, but really I just have one: be prepared to be flexible. I’m sure that doesn’t rock your socks much more than my telling you that players are unpredictable, but in practice this actually saves a GM from hours of work.

So what I would like to do is provide an example of an encounter and show how flexible preparation would be helpful. Maybe you’ll learn something, or maybe you’ll think of a way to break the scenario. Either way, lots of fun right?

So here’s the encounter for the players.

The Selkie’s Desperate Dilemma

A beautiful woman has come to you with a terrible problem. She is a selkie, a creature of the sea that cannot return without her seal skin. The skin was stolen by a fisherman that will not return it to her and is forcing her to marry him instead. Will you help her?

If the players are unfamiliar with the mythology, an appropriate lore check will reveal that selkies are seals that can shed their skin to become beautiful women that can live on land for a time. They have to hide their skins because anyone that has their skin controls them, and they cannot return to their home kingdom under the sea or transform at all without their skins.

Social checks have low difficulty and will reveal that the woman is sincere in her pleas, that it is not a trap. Any question of payment, regardless of skill checks, will prompt her to say that she is willing to reward them with treasures hidden deep under water if they help get her skin back to her.

Flexible Planning

I tried to make this as simple and straight-forward as possible to contrast how not simple players can be. This is a quest where a magical creature needs help and is willing to reward the players for that help. It should be a simple quest, right? Go to the fisherman, get the skin, bring it back to the woman, and let her give you the reward. No GM tricks or traps or red herrings.

Lots of things can go wrong, of course. What if the players still fail social checks and believe that the selkie is setting a trap for them? What if they can’t find the fisherman? What if they come up with a magic spell that lets her return home without the skin? What if they keep the skin for themselves? What if they don’t even care enough to take up the quest?

Flexible planning in this instance means that we are going to try and cover as many problems with as few solutions as possible, and for this encounter we do not need to ask what the players could do. We instead need to ask what the NPCs will do.

NPC Motivations and Reactions

There are 2 key NPCs in this adventure: the selkie and the fisherman. Their motivations are fairly obvious and simple: the selkie wants to return to the sea, and the fisherman wants the selkie to marry him. These goals are opposed, so the players are unlikely to make both of them happy but it is possible. So let’s look at all 4 possible outcomes in relation to these motivations.

  1. The players help the selkie but not the fisherman. This is how the adventure is probably supposed to play out: getting the skin to the selkie. If this happens, the selkie will be happy and reward them. The fisherman will be unhappy and punish them, as best a fisherman can anyway.
  2. The players help the fisherman but not the selkie. This is the opposite of how things are supposed to happen, but it would be very easy to accomplish if the players sympathize with the fisherman. If they help the fisherman keep the skin, then he will be very happy. The selkie will not be happy and probably hate the player characters, causing them as much grief as she has permission to.
  3. The players oppose the fisherman and the selkie. This is not the same as the players not doing anything (that would be #2). This is more the players keeping the skin for themselves or selling it for money so that neither NPC gets what they want. Then both of them will hate the characters
  4. The players help the fisherman and the selkie both get what they want. Somehow, with high skill checks and brilliant strategizing, the players figure out how the fisherman can be married to the selkie while she is still a selkie. Or maybe they are able to change one of the NPCs motivations to where they accept the happiness of the other NPC. If this happens, both sides will be happy though probably less able to reward the group.

So How Does That Help?

At least 90% of player ideas will fall under one of these categories, which means you’ve got yourself pretty well covered for whatever the characters throw at you. You will still have to adjust specific details on the fly, but you will know exactly where to start.

Try throwing a few player possibilities at the adventure and see if you can figure out how to handle them. With the motivations known, the story will work its self fairly easily. Let me give you a few examples.

Say the party does exactly what they are supposed to do except they kill the fisherman in the process. Well the selkie probably doesn’t care, but if you had plans for the fisherman you can still pass those on to a brother (or his ghost).

Say the party wants to help the selkie but they roll terribly and don’t find it before the wedding. Well that is still #2, so no reward and no angry fisherman but you can give the players a chance to apologize for failing.

Say the party decides to visit the underwater kingdom of the selkies to get her a new skin and won’t believe the GM when she says that is not a valid option? Have the fisherman and the selkie both try to stop them (for their own reasons) as best they can.

You see? It becomes a game of reactions, as improvisation really is. You know what the NPCs want, so when the players have their characters do something you can easily guess how the NPC will react and continue the adventure accordingly.

What About Non-NPC Stuff?

What if a player wants to lick a door or throw rocks at a trap or poke a volatile crystal with a stick? Those sorts of things don’t have motivations, do they?

Well the short answer is that yes they do. This is why FATE Core’s big thing is that you can treat anything like a character. Locked doors have a motivation of not opening. Traps have a motivation of damaging heroes. Volatile crystals are motivated to explode. So yes, you can plan flexibly accordingly.

The long answer is…well…um…my motivation right now is to keep these posts at a reasonable length, so my reaction is…um…bye!

~Joshua

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Author: Burn Everything Gaming

Website that mostly produces Actual Play Podcast as well as game reviews and other musings on the topic. Hope you enjoy.

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