December 27, 2010

Coaxing Your Players to Awesome

Do you ever get tired of coming up with all the cool ideas? Does it cause you undue pressure? Ever wish your players would come up with something neat for you to respond to once in a while? Let them know they have some dramatic license and they might start helping!

Dramatic license is about imposing your own ideas on the game world. Most of the time, the DM has all the dramatic license, controlling the world, the NPCs, planning the dungeons, moving the mountains. The old joke that a DM represents the ultimate god of the game world didn’t come into being for nothing. This truth, though, is on shaky foundations as more systems implement ways to empower players to affect the game universe through more than simple mechanics.

If you want your players to take control a bit and make the game more interesting, you need to give them incentives to do so and not create disincentives for doing so. Eventually, the combination of these things will draw out more creative play from your players, regardless of the system.

Incentive: XP
If you have a system that has XP as a reward, it’s a wonderful mechanic to offer for people who come up with great ideas. XP makes you more powerful over time, so even small awards add up. Any time they come up with a cool combat action or anything that you feel improves the game, give them a nominal XP award.

Incentive: Action Point/Drama Point/Bennie/Will Power
If your chosen system has a ‘sometimes’ resource used in combat, it’s a great place to award for cool ideas. If they spend a major action to do something cool, but not very effective, give an action point to make up for it.

Incentive: Bonuses
Mechanical bonuses, any thing that makes characters more likely to succeed, are a great way to encourage ‘cool’ actions. If the cool actions are more likely to succeed than normal, your players are more likely to attempt them.

Disincentive: Multiple checks
If it takes more than one roll to determine if the action succeeds, and they need to make all of them, your players are less likely to attempt it. The simple fact that they will fail more often is enough disincentive to keep the imaginative attacks from happening very often.

Disincentive: Penalties
This is similar to multiple checks, in the fact that penalized actions are more likely to fail, so why attempt? The harsher the penalty, the more likely they’ll ask to take a different action altogether. As a counter point, this is a spectacular way to discourage actions you deem disruptive.

So, more incentives, less disincentives, and encourage it verbally every chance you get. Very simple steps to a more imaginative game from your players.

What about you, DMs, what ways do you incentivize cool actions in your game? Can you think of any ways you unintentionally disincentivize those actions?


  1. I think the best thing you can do is fostering a culture of saying yes. Especially recently, it seems to be the #1 piece of GMing advice out there: whenever players have an awesome idea, just say yes. And, having tried it, I must say, it always ends with awesome.

    Just earlier today, at a demo game I was running, the players had just scaled a tower and were working up to the rooftop where they were going to fight the final bad-guy, an alchemist. One of the players decided to go to the rooftop via a window and the outside ledge. Then, as the badguy walked over to the side, the player jumped out of nowhere, grabbed the badguy, and tossed him over the side.

    Sure, I could've god-handed it and fudged some rolls, but let's face it: Killing the villain by sneak-tossing him off the side of the tower, only for him to land below and activate the bulk of his explosive chemicals in one fiery blast of awesome is just... well... awesome.

    That player came up to me after the game and thanked me for allowing him to do fun things in my game. Apparently, in a lot of the adventures that he's used to playing in, the GM forces the game one way and doesn't allow him to be creative.

    So, in my experience, incentives are cool, but players will naturally start doing awesome things when they feel like they have the power to do awesome things. So, above all, make sure that you're allowing and encouraging your players to do awesome things. It'll pay off in the end.

    Cheers & Gears,

  2. That's a great anecdote, Dreyfus, and a good example of why 'saying yes' is such a powerful tool. Unfortunately, because of GMs like were alluded to by your player, offering incentives helps break the shell most players have created in an attempt to not get told 'no' constantly.

    That said, I don't say just 'yes' anymore, as I've found there are times when the right answer is 'no,' since every now and then you end up with a player who is just trying to be disruptive.

    The key to this article, specifically, is that incentives are a way to encourage behavior you want to see. Wednesday's blog post actually covers this concept in a bit different detail, discussing the designer's role in all of this, since that is where the culture of 'saying yes' really starts.

  3. Those are very good points, and - sometimes - knowing when to say "no" is more valuable than knowing when to say "yes."