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Embracing Player Creativity

by Raymond Smith

In which the author argues that player creativity is the GM's friend, not his enemy

"Players. You slave for them. Between sessions, your waking hours are spent preparing, creating (or purloining) adventures and all this entails, setting, cast, themes and style. Then they take your work and destroy it before your eyes. They use your books and very probably eat your food. They are the enemy!"

The havoc players cause GMs is a frequent theme of role-playing literature. The famous Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip plays around it, and PTGPTB has previously appealed to all real life KoDTs to give their BA a break. Rarely do you meet a GM without a tale of woe, and still rarer the GM who has never written about it.

Such articles almost invariably offer advice to players so they might improve their performance. Advice on how the GM might improve is less frequent. Furthermore, such advice tends to be concerned with aids and props for GM, or else on controlling the players.

Less often do we hear voices from the other side of the screen offering the GM useful advice. In this article I will help address this imbalance by providing one suggestion to GMs. Namely, that they recognise and cater for the creative needs of their players.

Caveat: Players are responsible for their actions

An important caveat must be stated before I begin: players are responsible for their own actions. The GM can do little to combat the sins of malicious play, inattention, immaturity, or out-of-character discussion without the players' support. If the players are unwilling or unable to role-play then all is lost.

It is fair to ask characters to work with the story, to give the GM a break. It is unfair for players to put in no effort and expect a wonderful role-playing experience. But, let us be optimistic and assume players enjoy, and are willing to, role-play.

In this case it is unfair for the GM to put no effort into responding to the players' creative efforts.

Players are not Puppets

While each Player is different I would say that all enjoy the exercise of creativity required to create both their characters and (collaboratively) the story encompassing their characters. After all, roleplaying is about living in a tale. The players' need to create a life story for their character outweighs their desire to be entertained by a clever story. Little wonder then that players disrupt adventures which offer no outlet for fulfilling this creative impulse.

GMs can respond to such disruption catastrophically by trying to reign players back to a pre-planned storyline. This treats players as little more than uncooperative puppets, or worse, as play things of some omnipotent being.

From the players' point of view, characters are usually acting from a position of enlightened self-interest, with definite and well-defined goals. For them, it is the GM that introduces all the chaos. There they are, their Decker or Barbarian Prince, kitted out and ready for adventure and along comes the GM and throws them to the Corp or strikes them down with plague.

One person's creativity is another's chaos. While players' characters' actions often appear chaotic, and may be detrimental to the GM's plans, they represent individual creative thoughts and offer opportunities to take an adventure in new directions. A good GM should be open to incorporating their players' best ideas, however unexpected they may be.

Responding to Players

An ideal GM responds to players' creativity with his or her own. In this way the GM and the players become fully immersed in a dialogue of their common imagination.

One way GMs can do this is through good preparation. Imaginative characters and events, thoughtfully prepared, are the bases for all great adventures. Appropriate research and background material adds depth and colour to an adventure or campaign. What is more, the industry supplies a plethora of pre-written modules, backgrounds, and supplements to provide inspiration and lighten the GM's load.

While this pre-game activity is essential, it cannot capture the dynamics of the game in play. Without exception, the GM will need to improvise and adapt to players' actions. There are many strategies for this improvisation and while we cannot enumerate all of these, we can place them into two broad categories: those that attempt to control or direct players' actions, and those that respond to players' actions and embrace their creativity. Let us now consider each of these in turn.

Controlling Players: Ignoring, Herding, and Blocking Player Actions

The simplest reaction a GM can have is to ignore players' actions. Either subtly (for example, by fudging dice-rolls), or not so subtly. This response is sometimes necessary in the face of blatantly absurd player character behaviour.

However, it must be used sparingly because it provides no reward for genuine creative efforts. Rejecting players' valid creative advances shows that these advances are not valuable to the GM and, consequently, devalues those responses in the player's own eyes. This can lead to apathy and disgruntlement. Why should they make an effort if the GM won't?

A simpler alternative to ignoring players is to herd them along a predetermined route. This approach is distinguished by an inflexible narrative. Players' characters' actions are directed by the GM to minimise the deviation of the adventure from the plot. It casts the GM in the role of director of a script with often troublesome players.

This approach may appeal because it requires less effort from the GM while running a game. However, finding and adapting a story is far from trivial, much less writing your own. Further, should you adopt another's storyline, you may very well find your adventure ruined should a player recognise your source. This is the big disadvantage of herding; you can only do it if you have a pre-planned, pre-plotted adventure. This requires a lot of preparation.

A second disadvantage is that it limits the scope for player creativity. This too can lead to dissatisfaction or player apathy. Ironically, the latter case puts a greater burden on the GM by requiring extra effort to motivate and entertain the players whose creativity could just as well be harnessed.

Somewhere between herding and ignoring players' actions is the technique of blocking where a GM consciously contradicts a player's action, removing it from the game world. For example, "PC: I try to climb the wall", "GM: you can't". This approach can be seen as a punishment for inappropriate or illogical responses.

Ignoring, herding, and blocking have a lot in common. They are an easy response for the GM that maximises the value of pre-session planning. They also fail, on their own, to encourage effort and participation from players by providing no reward for, or even punishing, players' creativity. Furthermore, they often require that the GM deceive the players (to hide a storyline, a dice roll, and so on).

This is not to say that these strategies are always inappropriate. Sometimes they are required to keep a game going. However, GMs should also actively improvise in response to their players' actions. Let us now turn our attention to two examples of this strategy.

Responding to Players: Embracing player's actions

Every GM has to modify their storyline to take into account events during play. If gaming sessions always went to plan, we wouldn't have GMs bitching about irresponsible players. The GM must not only accommodate players' characters' out-of-field actions but also the element of chance built into our gamesystems. Revising and rehashing storylines to account for in-game events is common practice. However, all too many GMs only go that far.

All revisions are not equal. Some revisions are an exercise in salvaging pre-planned plot lines. In these cases, the GM attempts to navigate a new course for a story blown off-course by the players. Here again, minimising deviance from a pre-defined plot is the norm, but unlike the previously mentioned responses, the narrative is now malleable. This is important because it recognises the right of players to affect the game world.

A GM who respects this right of players will revise with a different attitude. Rather than grudgingly conceding ground to players, these GMs allow players to define the direction of the narrative. That is, instead of trying to hold the players' characters' to a predetermined linear plot, these GMs allows the characters to create the journey from start to finish.

Accepting that revision is not only inevitable but also profitable and allowing players a part in the direction of the story is the first step in truly embracing players' creative actions. Almost by definition, however, the goal of such revisions is still to bring the party to a conclusion pre-determined by the GM.

The next step is to allow the players to write their own conclusions. To do this, GMs must embrace player actions, and extend them by following their consequences to their logical conclusions. At this point, players not only shape the direction of the narrative, they also define the destination of that narrative. At last the story to be told is freed from the bounds of one mind (the GM's) and fully thrown open to the creative impulses and needs of all participants. This allows much richer and varied game playing because it brings together the power of many minds rather than one.

The benefits of this are many. First, players' characters' wants and needs are not only naturally incorporated, they become a motivating force for the adventure. This allows greater character growth and development because the adventure will naturally tend towards action that meets these (perceived) needs. While it is still up to the GM to arbitrate the specifics of a situation, the probability that these situations will be relevant to players is greatly increased.

Second, a greater creative source is now open to the GM: namely, the players' imaginations. The GM is thus freed from the effort of creating and planning out every possibility for a myriad of situations. In effect, the creative load of preparation is decreased by a sizeable amount. (Although not without cost, as examined in the next section.) By removing this burden, the GM can have more time for their housekeeping duties like getting the group together, or maintaining a chronicle of the adventure.

Third, a synthesis of creative views naturally leads to worlds with more vividness and vigour. This is primarily because the adventures can uncover worlds that are built from more than one perspective and after all, perspectives bring colour and depth to a world. A similar result can be achieved by allowing multiple or rotating GMs for a campaign; in either case the benefit is realised by giving the game world more than one mind in which to live.

A final advantage is that player-GM interaction demonstrates a relationship of trust and mutual creative respect. Too often good role-playing is forfeited by petty attacks from both sides of the screen. By fully embracing player actions into their game, GMs level the playing field, and remove a prime reason for player misbehaviour: a desire to rebel against a creative dictator.

For these advantages to be fully realised the GM must walk a fine line. An adventure cannot be entirely player-driven. A friend once recounted a play-by-email game with minimal GM input where the party got no further than their campsite on the first night. It is obvious that, without the presence of a GM, most parties would either sit back in a pub, or else attempt to murder each other for personal gain. Without external stimulus, it is unlikely they would ever make the effort to reach out to the world.

The GM needs to supply motivations and circumstances to the players by playing the role of reality and the NPCs inhabiting it. To fully realise players' creative potential, the GM should constrain only the game world, not the actions of players within that world.

The exact method and form of this constraint will vary with the conventions of the group. A Paranoia or Toon game requires a world that allows the players to do pretty much whatever is funny. On the other hand, a semi-historical game like Call of Cthulhu will require the GM to provide realistic results to player actions. Remember that the idea is to embrace characters actions and extrapolate them to their logical conclusion within the constraints of the game world. A super-hero might fly between buildings; your regular gumshoe will fall to his death.

A fruitful analogy exists with computer game play. Some computer games are very rigid and require the player to perform certain predefined actions to progress through the game. Others are more lenient and respond to a variety of actions (for good or bad). To be compelling a game must provide enough guidance to provide goals for the players, but be open enough to allow multiple creative solutions to these goals.

GMs walk this fine line with computer game designers. Too little control and players will flail about wildly, but too much and they will be frustrated. A good computer game responds to player's actions and passivity. This is exactly what a GM should do, and indeed should be more capable of doing.

Towards player-centred games

How should a GM run a game without excessive control while providing players with sufficient motivation and direction to make sensible choices? This question is worthy of its own article and the approaches to take are probably at least as varied as GMs and their players. However the single most important thing is a change of attitude.

The GM must loose the attitude that they are the only creative force sustaining the game. This entails consciously changing the GM's role from that of a god of fate playing with insignificant mortals, to being a provider of structure within which players may explore their creative impulses. With this change of mindset, more player-centred games will inevitably arise over time.

To further facilitate this, GMs must prepare or adapt their adventures to be player driven. Rather than writing a story, GMs need to write the elements of a story: people, places, objects, and setting. Each of these needs to provide natural hooks and enough background to allow the GM to work out a response to players' actions.

Of all these elements, NPC design is, in my opinion, the most important. A traditional plot-driven game will usually describe NPCs in terms of what they do within the story. A player-centred game needs to contain NPCs with whom the players can interact. Consequently, principal NPCs require not only a name but histories, alliances, motivations, obligations, temperaments and the myriad of other details that makes up a person. In play, these more detailed descriptions need to be acted out by the GM, just as they might play their own character.

This different writing process will inevitably lead to producing history. Just what has happened before the players became involved? If an adventure is set in the context of an ongoing campaign, another useful technique is to keep records of places and people the characters meet. Not only will this provide useful background material for future adventures, but it also offers a new opportunity to players - they can express a desire to revisit an old tavern or follow up on a suspicious NPC (again, this takes the load off the GM by presenting an opportunity to pick and choose adventure seeds from the players own minds).

One gaming group I know has a long term campaign that uses this approach to great effect. A file is kept of the 'cases' the heroes have worked on; some open, others closed. Between adventures, a character may bring a particular case to the attention of the GM and suggest further exploration, with some suggestions concerning why a character might follow it up. This has led, over the years to some novel adventures.

There are many more techniques, but I leave these for future articles. Clearly player-centred games require a lot of preparation. This is often used as an excuse to stick with plot-driven games. Up goes the cry 'That's too hard! If I wanted to be creative like that I'd write a book!'. This misses the point that writing a complete plot-driven story requires almost as much effort. You need to think up places, NPCs, and events, and you need to anticipate player's actions to some degree. All this is required, and the only source of creativity used to power it is the GM's own creativity.

While requiring at most as much work as their plot-driven counterparts, player-centred games do however require greater agility on the part of the GMs running the adventure. They also require a swallowing of ego and pride that many GMs may find dissatisfying. Doing something well is never easy. These extra challenges are more than repaid by the improved role-playing experience that will result, for both sides.


While players are frequently criticised by GMs for their failings, these same GMs rarely consider whether they have given their players sufficient opportunity to role-play. By focussing on preplotted adventures and planned narratives, GMs restrict their players to acting out little more than a script. This quickly leads games down a slippery path of bickering, ending with players and GM at odds with each other.

To avoid this, GMs first need to recognise how they react to their players' creative advances. They then need to provide for player creativity by welcoming it, through adventures that allow player characters' actions to have a genuine impact on the game world.

GMs should be role-playing along with their groups rather than storytelling to them. It is all too easy to fall into the mode of the storyteller or deity that moves the players through a world. This is a comfortable position that reinforces the GMs creativity and ego, but it does so at the expense of the players. A better gaming experience is possible only by GMs recognising players as creative equals, and providing opportunities for players to express that creativity.


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