How Do You Get Players to Contribute More?

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0609

A Brief Word From Johnn

Are Players Really Unpredictable?

I contend players are creatures of habit. And when we get caught off-guard, or say no preparation survives contact with the party, I believe the problem is we do not take time to think about our campaigns in a critical and objective fashion.

To test this, I recorded all the actions we took as a PC group in a recent Pathfinder game run by my friend Colin. When I abstracted things out a level, here’s how the entire session shook out:

  • Attack
  • Perceive/Sense
  • Dismount
  • Heal
  • Intimidate
  • Scout
  • Talk
  • Move
  • Cast spell
  • Drink potion

That’s it. For the whole session, we took just those actions over and over.

Here’s an even more abstracted version:

  • Attack
  • Flee
  • Magic
  • Talk (friendly, neutral antagonistic)
  • Move

I feel what we should do when preparing a session is test this short list against the key points of our plans.

For example, the PCs might meet a leader. What will you do if they attack, antagonize, avoid or cast a spell on him?

Another example – a stage boss. What will you do if the characters befriend, bespell, flee or ambush him?

Players do not catch us off-guard because they are crazy bastards. They ruin our plans because we don’t take a minute to picture each situation in their shoes, and apply a little forethought to anticipate their actions.

I also believe you can get to know each player’s play style and get even more accurate in predicting what PCs will do because you know their habits.

For example, if I were to say there’s one player in my group who goes solo often and will likely trigger a new danger mid-combat at random by opening a door or fiddling with an unknown magic item, all my players would know exactly who I was talking about.

Next time I GM I’m challenging myself to run through the actions list above and test my designs against it in an effort to not get surprised by so-called unexpected player actions. Should be a fun experiment!

If you try this before a session, let me know how it goes. Did you get surprised? What did the players do?


How Do You Get Players to Contribute More?

Joshua Hanson asks: How do you encourage the players to drop their own world design into published products?

The tricky thing about commercial products, Joshua, is keeping track of the published details versus the details in your campaign.

If they fork, you’ll need to know and remember. Otherwise, contradictions and inconsistencies pop up.

Here are a few tips for you.

Track Details Well

Before you have players co-creating content with you, set up a robust system to track your campaign information.

Whether it’s Evernote, MyInfo, a GM binder, notebooks, or a wiki, be sure to record all the details.

The best way I’ve found to manage this faster is to ask a player to become The Scribe each session. They note names, locations, items, events, and other details that come up during games.

If you take your own notes during sessions, then you can combo yours with The Scribe’s and are likely to capture almost all the important details.

Start With Backstory

Backstory is everything that’s happened up to the point of play.

If a backstory detail is made known to the players, it becomes canon (material accepted as official for the campaign).

Else, it’s just an idea you can still mould and change.

Be sure to record canon material for future reference. Keep your non-canon backstory details separate in your GM notes.

Next, ask players to come up with PC backstory details. This is an easy way to give players practice creating stuff. Start with short and simple details, like family, hometown, worst fears, personality quirks.

You just want to give players the experience of contributing official material to the backstory. “It’s not so scary, and might even be fun.”

Then you ramp up player participation in generating campaign content over time.

  • Ask players to provide descriptions of how their PC fails or succeeds
  • Ask players to describe NPCs their characters meet
  • Ask players to help add details to encounter locations on-the-fly

Give players more license to create things in the game until you reach the balance you want between player vs. GM sourced information.

For example, I always want villains to be mysterious. So I would not ask players to generate villain stats and fluff for me, though they might create basic villain concepts. That’s my thing though, and your boundaries might be different.

Boil It Down To The Razor

In video games, the razor is a simple combo of two or more well-known things that frame up the game you’re trying to create.

For example, James Bond in space or Steampunk meets Walking Dead.

This creates a shortcut for evaluating ideas. Would a machine gun fit in a game about Steampunk meets Walking Dead? No, but a steam-powered javelin chucker might.

Your players will not have read the published game materials. So they won’t understand the themes, boundaries, and tropes of the game.

You need to help guide their content creation so it fits within these areas. And an easy way to do that is to create a razor, tell your players what it is, and give them a couple examples of what fits within the razor and what falls outside of it.

Now your players can ask themselves, “Is this Steampunk meets Walking Dead?” before they introduce something in the game to ensure it’s on-theme.

Reward With Use

Engage with player creations in gameplay. This rewards creation with interaction and spotlight time.

Once players realize what they create becomes real in the game, they’ll get excited. Some will prefer to stay passive and just consume, but others will get the message, enjoy it, and create more with you over time.

Spotlight time with player creations rewards and generates more player creations.

There are two approaches to any game element: build or diminish.


Diminishing something means making it less important, effective, or valuable. You want to avoid diminishing player creations, especially at first.

Once everyone is used to co-creation and adding things to the game, you can get more advanced with diminishment techniques that change and warp player creations, usually for the worse but always to propel great plot and gameplay.


Building something means adding to, making more important, or celebrating the game element. Do this with player creations as much as possible to further reward player co-creation.

For example, a player gives you a wrinkled piece of stained paper with five point-form items written on it. “Some ideas I had on the way to the game for my new henchman.”

To build on this, you can have other NPCs in the game interact with the henchman according to the bullet items. You could have the henchman get a care package from home with some neat things in it. You could ask the player during the game if the henchman has an accent. You can have a friend of the henchman provide an important clue.

All these things take the build approach.

However, you might be tempted to throw the henchman into a pit, to hit him with a few arrows, to ignore or forget about him in play, to have an enemy kidnap him.

These are all diminishing actions. They tell the player, “Thanks for the fodder, now go away.” This is the opposite message you want to send when trying to encourage player co-creation!

So become self-aware about how you treat player creations. And watch how players treat each others’ creations and referee the game with a builder mindset, not a diminisher one.

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Are You Ready?

Tip 4 leads us to the big question. Do you really want players messing with your game?

Think about this hard before you unleash it. Imagine what it will be like giving up control over things you have traditionally taken care of.

Are you going to be okay with players adding to your ideas, changing them, and entering your territory?

If not, take things slow so you get comfortable with increased player agency.

You might consider playing a one-shot game that has a lot of player co-creation, just to see if you want this in your main campaign.

Names Are A Bitch

Of all the things players create, names are the hardest.

First, if you’re not used to it, coming up with a name on the spot is tough. Gameplay stalls when players scramble to come up with names for their PC’s parents, past rivals, or merchant in front of them. It can kill momentum of play.

Second, players might not treat names like you do. I’m kinda serious about the names I use for people, places, and things in my games. I think names are important to theme and setting.

So when a player names his father Bob, I cringe. It’s bad enough dealing with silly PC names.

I suggest coming up with a player handout that has sample names from the major cultures in your games. Ask players to use names from the lists, or to see the intended style and to try to reproduce that style when making up names.

I actually make up almost all names myself, even ones for player creations. That relieves players of the pressure and ensures I get good names. My players don’t care. Maybe your players would be okay with this too.


Before trying to increase player co-creation and collaboration in your campaigns, make sure you’re okay with this. It means less control for you in some areas, but gives you more to game with overall.

Introduce players to this mode of play through PC backstories and details.

Reward player creations with interactivity and a builder mindset.

Watch what players have the hardest time with, such as names, and prepare props or aides to help them out.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Keeping Players Organized

Steve Maloney asked, “What do you as a GM do for your players to keep THEM organized?”

The Game Master Tips community responded with some helpful advice, and a little ranting.

The most popular tips were:

  • Obsidian Portal
  • Shared folders on Google Drive or Dropbox containing rules, character sheets, game notes, and anything else useful

Putting game information on the web seems to be the best way of making sure everyone in the group has access to the same info.

Some people had a few other suggestions too.

Oliver Korpilla offered this sage advice: “Abandon all hope and hit them with the cluebat. Repeatedly. Hard.”

Holger Muller waits for golden moments to remind his players of character details. “Players not knowing what their characters can do don’t get the full potential out of them – their problem. I only whip out the cluebat when they are about to die, because I hope this increases their ability to remember (after all, feature X they forgot saved their butts).”

Allan Sitte puts his players to work at the table. “I have the players assign roles within the group. Those roles are accountant (inventory manager), cartographer (maps), and lore keeper (note taker). When there are enough players, no person can have more than one role.”

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Be Careful What Your NPCs Say

From Chasen Hutchison

Just wanted to say word choice can be pretty important when you run NPCs.

For instance, I was running an adventure with a monastery overthrown by monsters in search of a powerful artifact, and all the monks were supposed to be killed in front of the PCs.

Unfortunately they foiled that plan, and I had to improvise a conversation with that NPC when they discussed the artifact.

By using words such as “mortal,” “divine power,” and “unfit for mere mortals,” I accidentally portrayed a mid-level monk as a god on earth type character.

As fun as that may be, one should be aware the impact one or two words can have on the entire adventure. My group ended up changing their outlook on life completely with that “revelation” of the NPC’s identity, changing the adventure with it.

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Homemade Location Cards

From Jesper Clemmensen

I would like to share something I call Location Cards. When I hand the players a map, I have prepared laminated cards, usually of standard playing card size. Each card contains a picture and a short description of the location.

Sometimes I provide other info on the cards, too, like modifiers to dice rolls or special conditions.

For example. when the players are exploring a dungeon or a small village, I place the corresponding card on the map as I describe the place. That way they will always have a visual reference and it looks cool too (well, I think so).

I have used the cards for large fantasy cities, indicating things from important locations and contacts, to terrain aids with dice roll modifiers in tactical board games like Battletech.

Sometimes, I reveal the cards to set the mood of a particular place and other times I keep the cards away, until the players look in a certain section of the city.

The cards can be used for items and persons alike, but I find them most useful for maps. Here are two examples of Location Cards I’ve made.

The first (Bluelight Inn) is from a Mechwarrior role playing game, showing a Nightclub where the players were conducting business. The number in the corner corresponds to the number on the main map.


The second (Trading Post) was from a fantasy campaign. The Trading Post was located in a small town and rumors of the owner dealing in stolen goods were known to everybody, but no one had been able to prove it (a subplot), which is why the rumor was mentioned on the card. I put the name of the owner on the card too, so players easily would know who he was and where he belonged.


I hope other GMs can use this idea to set the mood or add more flavor to their maps.