Places to Go, People to Be [Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Changing the Roles

by Brendan Arnold


In general, the GM is responsible for running and creating the setting and each player responsible for his character. Players rarely get the chance to bring their ideas to the setting other than through their characters. The GM, because of his all knowing presence, rarely experiences the mystery of the world that he is creating.

The following article discusses some techniques that can be used to help remedy this and give the players a part in determining the setting.

Players With Initiative

The role of a player is largely reactive. The GM will describe a situation and the players will react. If nothing much is happening during a game, the GM is the one expected to somehow instigate play. The first step towards giving players more scope to develop the setting is to change their role from reactive to more active.

One way which this can be achieved I discovered by accident during a gaming session which I was GMing. Whilst running a prewritten adventure during which the players were expected to storm a castle Robin Hood style, I had described what they could see of the castle from the surrounding forest when nature called and I had to leave the room. I just asked them to carry on planning whilst I was not there. When I came back down, they had a plan which I knew nothing about. I already had a good idea of what all the castle residents were doing at that time so rather than get them to explain it to me, I let them put it into action. For the first time in my career as a GM the players intentions were unknown.

The players were left to set the pace and even allowed to adlib details which I had not previously told them (i.e. there was ivy growing up a side wall) so long as they were not too outrageous. Since my surprise at the method of attack was genuine, and the inhabitants would react in a similar way, my reactions were that much more realistic. It turned out that their plan, which they revealed bit by bit, was very effective in diverting the patrolling guards on the battlements whilst the rest of the group sneaked over a side wall.

This style is best suited to a scene where the players are the aggressors and know their enemy, maybe as a reward for good planning. If the characters are James Bond style secret agents, an SAS squad who had thoroghly planned their operation, questing heroes bringing about the final defeat of a now powerless villain, or any other situation where you want the heroes to seem to have the 'upper hand', then this is a good technique.

It can also be a powerful tool to lull players into a false sense of security, as well as heighten suspense. To illustrate, imagine a scene similar to the one in the film Alien where the crew need to get to another part of their ship which they know is being stalked by the beast. The relative silence of the GM is reminiscant of the silence of the hidden enemy. Of course, once the aliens attack, then the GM can 'snatch' the control back with the same dramatic power that the alien throws the characters back into the much more powerless reactionary role. Also when the players have planned everything, by starting the scene as above they expect all to go well. However, there could be a fatal flaw in their plan or something could go horribly wrong and they are thrust back into their reactionary role in which they have to 'adlib' again, (for example, they jump out of the airduct to find the villain and his henchman with guns trained on them.) As long as it never feels as if the GM manipulated events that could not have happened, the fact that the GM really did out-think the players will drive home the feeling that the villain outsmarted their characters.

Special Considerations

If you are just going for the style of play, then you will have to set the scene with enough details for the players to make a decent plan. You may want to be available (although not listening in,) whilst the players are planning to clarify any details.

If you are feeling especially generous, or the characters are at a non-critical point, then you may feel like giving the players full reins and allowing them to make up their surroundings themselves, whilst you listen in and perhaps giving your own ideas. This can be unsettling for hardened GMs who hold their setting as really quite personal and precious, but by doing this you are allowing the players to contribute their own new ideas to the world. If the players do start to become unreasonable then you can always jump in and rein them back in.

Another important consideration for this sort of freedom to work is the sequencing of events. In order for the GM to react properly, he will have to know exactly what is going on and when. In the first example, if the GM knew that the castle inhabitants had a device which allowed them to see into the forest and the players announced that they had allready sneaked around after the decoy had attracted attention, then the GM would not have had the chance to let the players know that their characters would have been spotted and the alarm raised. Retro-fitting looks like cheating, and simply allowing this to slide leads to all player plans succeeding.

Encouraging Player Adlibs

Players are used to asking questions of the GM and quite often it can get tiresome. Are there curtains on the window? What sort of material are they? Is the window locked? Is it reinforced? etc... Such details can quickly drain a GM's patience and creativity. But from a player's point of view, he has learned never to assume anything. So many times have they had their plans fail because they failed to notice (i.e. ask about) a certain detail, You run and throw your shoulder into the window, but it is reinforced and doesn't fully break. The werewolf is getting very close now...

In this particular example, keeping the players on edge and paranoid about details is fine as it suits a horror style game, but what about super heroes, brave knights and swashbuckling swordsmen? Should they be constantly checking the decor?

Do not let your players run wild. If you are lucky enough to have a group of players who are quite happy to roleplay without an experience system or buckets of treasure, then you can probably trust them to adlib quite a lot without damaging the game. If you aren't so lucky (like me), then it is probably better to let them adlib only little sections or provide a broad, overarching description which they can then flesh out with details. The example in the next paragraph illustrates this.

The adlibs should usually be prompted by the GM even if it is only tacitly. You walk through the doorway into the plushly outfitted master bedroom. Where do you want to look? If the player gets the hint then he could reply along the lines of I'll look behind the curtains on the opposite wall and on the balcony outside. Otherwise, a player would normally ask for details of what is in the room. This allows the GM to then reply Well, what do YOU think is in here?. Be ready for blank looks, though, as this can take players quite aback the first time...

Remember that players always take their cue from their GM. If you describe things vividly and in detail, they'll soon be doing the same

If your group is anything like my own, then you are probably envisaging them with eyes lit by the golden prospect of every broom cupboard filled with treasure. This kind of abuse should not be allowed, and they should know better. Try to explain to them that any of their adlibs that benifit them will only be allowed if it provides for sufficiently interesting play. This proves a great incentive for getting them more involved.

Do not forget that even though the players are the ones talking now, you still have the final word as the GM. You can still step in at any time, or better yet, twist it against them. Those who have studied long and hard preparing for the time that a player may come across a Dungeons and Dragons 'Wish' spell will know what I mean.

Player 1: ...and in the corner of the room stands a suit of full plate armour, average size and height, about my size really, I go over to it and try the helmet on...

GM: - and as you take a step forward you see its left arm twitch slightly...

Perhaps you can guess what comes next.

Tapping Their Minds

They are lifesavers: the players that surmise and theorise out loud about what they just saw in the shadows or what they think are the real intentions of that scheming deputy sheriff have saved countless cornered and idea-less GMs. Of course, sometimes the mouthy player might be away that week, or is remaining agonisingly quiet. Fortunately, player adlibs force them (and indeed, all the players) to talk that much more.

Apart from the inspiration that listening to another's ideas can give, there is another big bonus to character adlibs. The problem of perception, or the 'spotting of clues', has plagued GMs for ages. Some gaming systems have a skill that allows you to roll to notice some vital piece of evidence or an important object, but this is unsatisfying. The player does not really feel as though he spotted it, rather he just rolled a die. Other GMs have opted to do as Agatha Christie does and swamp players with hundreds of red herrings for the players to choose between, but to do that on-the-fly takes a genius. Player adlibs provide another option because what the player describes can be considered what their character notices about the room, allowing you to place the clues naturally in the places they look.

Player: I'll make sure my clothes are straight in the mirror in the wardrobe before leaving the house, I don't want anyone thinking anything untoward happened...

GM: Actually, looking on the inside of the wardrobe you notice that the mirror has been removed and in fact, glancing to the side, you see the mirror from the dresser has been removed as well.

Keeping Everyone Involved

Some characters, due to their nature, will invitably end up adlibbing a lot, such as the steroetypical D&D 'thief' who is always sneaking around rooms apart from the main group. Likewise, some players, due to their nature, will find themselves adlibbing a lot because they like the idea of having control and the limelight. This is where the other players can soon feel left out.

The best way to spread the adlibbing is to let players adlib for each other. When player one enters a room, ask player two what he thinks would be in there and let him describe it. This would be simple if it were not for inter-player rivalries - which are, alas, quite common. You may find you have to keep players on a much tighter lead than when they are describing for each other as quite easily, disputes can occur (you NEVER put anything interesting in my room!).

Players as Supporting Cast

There are times when a player can become disinterested in his character. He has been the same character for the past six months and he is getting the fatal urges to create a new one 'just in case' his existing character dies. The GM, on the other hand, has characters coming out of his ears. He tries desperately to make each one individual, experimenting with semi-successful accents, but conversations with himself still seem bizarre.

Once again a change of roles can help this situation.

In my opinion, it is unfair to give the players a role which will detract from playing their own characters. The characters are the heroes of the plot and are the central personalities, and the players should be able to give their full attention to them. In order to avoid this, the GM should only give a role to a player when his character is not intimately involved in the action. For example, when the character is elsewhere or when situations restrict her to playing a passive role throughout a scene i.e. listening to a debate, physically restrained. Some people like to offer the roles of the group's henchmen or allies to a player, but for the reasons stated above, I tend not to do this.

Giving a player a supporting role tends to work best when the group has been split. When the GM is focusing on one player, rarely do the others do anything constructive, (the usual activity is to either listen intently and provide advice they shouldn't be able to give, or to just sit and make jokes about your attempted celtic accent.) These other players could easily take the roles of a random storeholder, a passing noble or a beggar in the street. Even though these roles are fairly inconsequential, it relieves player boredom and the new responsiblility means that they are less likely to add out of character spoilers or comments.

The Unseen Scene

Novels are almost always written in the third person. Quite often a scene can be written that the main characters would not know about. A short dialogue between the villain and his second in command, (typically where he is punished for being an 'incompetant fool') is a classic example. This kind of scene is rarely featured in typical roleplaying as roleplaying tends to be a very first person experience, where the players are expected to know no more than what their characters know. If the players take the part of supporting charcters, however, then these 'external' scenes can be introduced.

But wait! I hear you shout, surely then the players will learn things that their characters should not know! This is true but do not forget that the characters, in theory, also know things that the players do not know. A starting player for example hears talk that his character lives in a kingdom ruled by an 'unjust' king, he knows nothing more. The character, on the other hand, knows exactly how unjust and evil the king is having lived under the king's rule all his life. External scenes serve the purpose of familiarising the reader with the character before he is introduced into the plot. The previously mentioned 'incompetant fool' scene merely serves to demonstrate to the reader just what a throughly indecent person the villain is, without harming the plot in the slightest.

During these scenes it is probably best to not allow the players to be the main villain as he is the one who normally dictates the action around him and players may unwittingly derail vital character or plot elements. However, it is possible and there are some advantages to it. Where there is a short, relatively insignificant scene such as the 'incompetant fool' scene, the GM can describe the basic thoughts of the villain to the player, enough to play out the short scene. For example: Your worthless head tax collector comes in, head bowed low, soaking wet from the rain outside. He has once again failed to collect all the dues from the people in the village and now he is dripping water over your prized fine fur rug - for this he must suffer... The player now should have enough to go on to act out the villain, plus he gets and insight into the way the villain's mind works (and can use this information later - for example, by tearing up the rug to enrage their enemy). The biggest advantage by far of this approach is highlighting the traditional concept of the hero being mirrored in his arch nemesis. How better to do this than have both hero and villain being played, at least for a short while, by the same player. And after taking the role of the villain, the player will, in future confrontations, look upon the villain as partly his own creation, like a personal Frankenstein's monster.

For more on using ideas like this to give players empathy for their enemies, see this article.

Clues are also given through these external scenes. Agatha Christie's Poirot stories include lots of snippets of suspects doing suspicious things that Poirot would never see, yet the mystery is not spoiled. This can be done in many ways. The players could play their parts almost as an onlooker, while the GM, playing the villain, hints at parts of his grand scheme. Naturally, the story will cut back to normal play before too much is given away. Alternatively, the players could use their roleplaying skills by trying to trick vital information out of the GM, trying all the time to stay within the character of his bumbling henchman, of course this could be risky for the henchman...

Player (as head tax collector): ...A-a-apologies my liege I did not mean to filthy your rug with my presence...

GM (as evil king): Quiet, idiot! Now what went wrong, do you have that writ I gave you? [GM shakes head to indicate he should reply in the negative.]

Player: No, it got ruined in the rain my lord.

GM: [Pleased with this adlib, allows for a clue to be given.] Fool! That writ was the only thing allowing me to tax Duke Firth's land. Now I shall have to send a messenger to apply for another! [GM indicates cut back to normal play.]

(Of course, if the GM doesn't notice his slip, then this idea can be combined with the first idea of players outsmarting the GM, and just as their characters outsmart the villain. Imagine the GM's surprise when he realises the henchman was working for the good guys all along - and he didn't even know!)

The clue given in the above example is good because knowing that a writ is needed to tax the land is something that the characters would likely know, but not the players, therefore bringing this knowledge into synchronisation. Also it demonstrates clearly to the players exactly what sort of character the king is.

The above, again, requires trust in your players to play a supporting character responsibly. If you do not have this level of trust then you can still include a short external scene acted out entirely by the GM.

Remember that trust is a two-way street - if you don't trust your players, it might be because they don't trust you

The Underlying Requirement

Whatever measures you take to allow the players to bring their ideas to the campaign, one stipulation is needed throughout: The players have to be responsible. There may be GMs reading this who like the ideas but can never see their player taking it seriously. In fact, many (including our group at times) prefer not to take their roleplaying seriously at all. But even in such cases, many of the techniques discussed here may still be used, but certainly it would be to achieve different effects.

So whatever your gaming tastes, I hope this article proved at least a little bit insightful and inspired you to look beyond the established Players and GM model. If you do decide to introduce some of these techniques into your game then do not expect the opportunities to arise straight away. I often forget to include them in play. However, when you do manage to fit one in, I hope that you find it as rewarding as our group does.

Thanks for reading.


[Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Copyright © 2001 Places to Go, People to Be, all rights reserved. May only be reproduced with permission. Refer to the copyright page for full details. Email us: