Inspiration through player input

If you’re into pen and paper roleplaying games and (like me) often end up in the Game Master/Storyteller/Referee seat, let me help you. I’ll share with you a little something with you that might help you and your players if you’re stuck in a creative rut. It’s a technique I’ve developed and successfully used quite a few times now. It can be used for any game and it goes like this:

  1. Ask your players for 2 concepts each
  2. Write all concepts down on a piece of paper
  3. Look at them and be inspired
  4. Play!
  5. Reward the player as a suggested concept comes up in play

No worries. I’ll explain in some more detail now and I’ll put a detailed example up in a couple days.

Before the game starts, generally when setting up the next date to play, I ask my players for input. That’s a bit vague and since people are more likely to respond to precise orders I’m asking for precisely two “concepts” from each player. A concept could be anything they come up with: a character, a location, a phrase, a situation – whatever. Previous examples are “The Wine-king”, “a sacred gravesite”, or “tears in rain”. I don’t force my players to make suggestions (you can’t force creativity) but I do try to encourage them through the promise of tiny, temporary but tangible in-game benefits (Bonuses to a roll, Style or Fate Points etc.) that are awarded once a player’s suggestion comes up during play.

So how does this work? Well I begin by pooling all the suggestions and writing them on a piece of paper. Then I try to use them as a springboard for my imagination. It’s actually important for me to work with pencil and paper here, so I can place the concepts about arbitrarilly and scribble in between them, draw lines connecting them, and so on. Usually one or two of the concepts pretty quickly jump out at me and suggest some sort of core story seed. This could be an important character or event that becomes the center of the session. Then I try to combine this with some or all of the other concepts to create an overarching, more complete plot. Usually the already existing story elements of the campaign (characters and places) also enter the equation and help flesh out the story.

Sounds like a few unneccessary steps just to come up with something whole cloth? Well they’re not. There’s two really good reasons for this:

Firstly this method provides my players with a (voluntary) way to influence the next session and the general direction of the campaign by simply telling me what they want to see. “The streets run with blood” suggests something different than “A dagger grasped by a velvet glove”. Now you may scream about dirty indie-fueled player empowerement and how this takes away a player’s sense of wonder and discovery but I have a counter-argument! The other nice thing about this technique is that it gives players a way to steer the game without taking away the surprise of an unfolding story. After all you never know if I even use your concept or what I make out of it.

And secondly (and much more important to me): trying to stay within the confines of this player generated input helps me be a lot more creative. One could argue that such limits inhibits creativity but I find that (for me personally) it seems to be quite the contrary: It focuses my creative juices. It is a lot easier for me to come up with something if I have a few guidelines as opposed to an endless blank canvas. This seems to generally be the case as I’ve heard a lot of people say similar things, just recently at the GDC for example. So it seems there is something to it. Additionally I believe that the jumbled combination of concepts that I would not have put together myself can easily create some new associations. This is a technique not uncommon for brainstorming – looking for the connection in the seemingly unconnected – to try to break out of the mold of the usual ideas.

3 thoughts on “Inspiration through player input

  1. Have you ever tried Inspectres? (

    This requires a lot less preparation and the creativity of the players is more important. Basically it’s a ghostbusters-themed RPG, but there don’t exist any pre-written adventures. So whenever something happens and the players look at the gm to hear the details, the gm basically turns around and asks the players what happens. (e.g. Player: “I enter the room, what do I see?” GM: “I don’t know… What do you see?” Player: “uhm… ah… erm… well, this seems to be the living room in the house. There’s a big table in the middle of the room and there actually sit five people at that table who immediately look at me with bloodlust in their eyes… looking a bit closer they actually look a lot like vampires.”)

    I had the maddest, most psychodelic adventures using this system. 😉 And you can basically use this concept for any given RPG once everyone gets the idea of how this works. Doesn’t matter in what world you are and what dice you need to roll in fights.

    Just a suggestion in case you don’t have enough time to prepare for the next gaming session.

    Cheers, Sylvia

  2. No. I know you mentioned it before and I’d really love to try it some time. If you’re willing to demo for me, let me know 😀

    However I’ve tried Houses of the Blooded for a while and it’s quite similar. Here the players also have a lot of impact on the story: They can add and define elements of the scenery, characters and story. Often if they make a roll, they can decide what the results mean. Here though I find that some more traditionally influenced players have trouble with this: Some just want to discover a story, not shape it. Other times this drags the story into a couple different directions.

    Still even with such systems this technique helped me come up with a good situation to start with. If you don’t have overly proactive players you need some kind of setup to start events I guess.

  3. Pingback: Game Architecture » Blog Archive » Inspiration Example: Black Moon

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