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GM's Corner

Let Your Players Have the Last Word

Or, Learn When to Shut the Fuck Up

This will be short and sweet, because the message is simple. We GMs have a tendency to suck up all the air in the room. And granted, that’s part of our job description, because we have to keep talking in order for our players to operate in the fiction. But if there’s ever a time and a place for us to stop talking, sit back, and take it all in, it’s this: when your players have that mic drop moment. When they utter the perfect quip in response to the badguy’s monologue. When they deliver that speech in character that leaves the rest of the table agog. That’s when you need to shut up and let your players have the last word.

It's tough sometimes, because the more immersed we are as players in a role-playing game (Game Masters included), the deeper we connect to the thinking of the characters we're playing.

You're Not Actually Wounded If You're Bleeding

Sometimes, your player is making a really convincing point as his character, a point that grinds your gears as the NPC, and you're feeling the heat because there's bleed between the role you're playing and you the person who's engaged in an argument. You want to best them in that argument because for that moment, you are the NPC, and that NPC is big mad at what they said.

But that's exactly the moment that your GM brain needs to take over and realize that you are not just your NPC.

You Are Not Just Your NPC

You are also a referee, author, guide, and player in the game. You are a fan of your players' characters. You're here to facilitate their journey (while imposing your agenda); it's not the other way around.

Add to this: even if this were a real argument to be had, there's so much information asymmetry that it would be cheap to whet your ego by having the last word. You're the one with the reams of notes and the secrets and the dialogue tags, while your players are flying by the seat of their pants. It's like coming onto the debate stage to fact check with ChatGPT while your opponent has to rifle through 32,640 pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica.* Your players arrived at the last word purely by thinking on their feet. Are you really going to punish them for paying attention?!

Shut the Fuck Up

"Okay, okay, I get it!" you huff, "I may be the Game Master with all these powers and responsibilities, but I'm also just a human being with feelings! How do I stop my ego from taking over? How do I shut the fuck up?"

Here's a short answer: roll some dice.

And the long answer: let go of your preconceptions.

Roll Some Dice

When a player character is trying to influence an NPC in some way, and it's possible they could be convinced of something, defer to the dice after they've done the influencing. You sidestep your own biases if you let the dice decide. Everyone at the table gets to be surprised by the result. And then your only duty is to be faithful to the outcome.

Let Go Of Your Preconceptions

A preconception in an RPG is the path to the dark side (aka... the railroad). A preconception in an RPG means the GM has an idea as to the outcome of play. He then maneuvers the players toward that outcome, which is the very definition of a railroad.

An example: maybe the players have decided that the BBEG can be redeemed. And in your mind, that sounds absolutely ridiculous. The BBEG eats babies! The BBEG time travels so that he can drop anvils on kittens! The BBEG wears flipflops!

You don't want the BBEG to be redeemed! That's not how things are "supposed" to go!

And that's your problem right there: in an RPG, there is no way things are supposed to go.

The destruction of a preconception is an opportunity. If the players intend to redeem the BBEG (and it is even remotely possible), this is an opportunity to take the game in a new direction. Maybe not one you intended, but the one your players are interested in. Congratulations! There's nothing more valuable than your players' interest in the game.

So to sum up: if you destroy your preconceptions about your NPCs, then you'll be more likely to roll some dice when it comes time to make decisions about how they might be influenced, rather than reach for fiat. And that's a good start to sidestepping your own biases!

Now Watch This Video of My Players Being Badass

Here's a clip from episode 37 of A Quest of Queens, a long-running (and the first) OSR+ campaign. In this clip, the PCs are negotiating with the powerful Sultana Meseampur, who rules over a land the party needs access to in order to prevail in their war against the Arcadian Empire.

From Episode 37 of A Quest of Queens


* Yes, I realize ChatGPT lies with impunity, but do you really think the truth matters on 2024 debate stages?

D. James Quinn

D. James Quinn is your friendly neighborhood Game Master and the creator of OSR+. His favorite holiday is Halloween and he is a fan of Oxford commas.

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