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My players often ask me to GM games in specific settings we all like. Most of the time, they know FAR more than me about that setting. They will object to events I have happen or how I play an NPC, saying, "That wouldn't happen because of X," or "Y super-known character wouldn't say that."

Assume that I've done my homework as a GM and I've read what there is to know about the setting in the core books of said RPG… like the setting book. For example, I've read the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide for 4E but haven't read all the novels there are to read, but most of my players have.

What techniques are there to turn my players' knowledge in my favor (or the entire party's favor)? How can I get them to contribute to the story in a fashion that won't compromise their fun and keep things unexpected?

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Have one of them GM the world that you don't know? –  DForck42 Jul 20 '12 at 19:46

6 Answers 6

up vote 49 down vote accepted

Don't run a World X game. Run an alternate universe World X game.

Sure, your players are expecting a World X game. But you don't know enough details to run one. An alternate universe game lets the players enjoy the genre they want while you still retain control of the details.

Three basic steps:

  • Introduce some elements that are definitely wrong.
  • When they notice a discrepancy, make it seem intentional.
  • Make up information for the characters to know, and give it to the players.

Let's say you're running a game set in 1920s California. You might know some things about the 1920s, and you might know some things about California, but let's assume you have some players who know far more than you do.

Introduce some elements that are definitely wrong. At the very start of the game, throw something in that makes it absolutely clear that this isn't exactly the 1920s California they're expecting.

DM: We begin the game in San Francisco, June 3rd, 1921. It's a cool morning here in Union Square. Men in tweed jackets are headed off to work, lunch pails in hand. Fruit sellers are opening up their stalls. A young boy is standing on the corner, selling copies of the Chronicle. The headline catches your eye -- "Kaiser Accepts British Surrender".

With a single headline, they know this isn't the world they were expecting. But if the game is set in California, events going on in Europe are just background. It doesn't really matter what's happening in Britain at the time, but it does set the scene. This is not our 1920s.

Let the party find out, in passing, that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1860, just before the presidential election. Russia's been communist since the 1890s. No one's ever heard of a banana.

It is the right setting, but you've established that the world does deviate from their expectations in little ways.

When they notice a discrepancy, make it seem intentional. Let's say they're talking to the mayor of San Francisco, James Rolph, and they call him by his nickname "Sunny Jim". The players know that this was a nickname he liked, but you don't know that, so you have him take offense to it.

Frank: I go over to the mayor and strike up a conversation. "Good morning, Sunny Jim, how's it going today in this fine city?"

DM: {as mayor} "Excuse me? How dare you call me 'Sunny Jim' like I'm some pal of yours?" The mayor looks very upset.

Frank: Wait a minute, everyone knows he really liked being called "Sunny Jim"!

DM: Kinda makes you wonder why he doesn't like it now, doesn't it?

Now the party's trying to figure out what kind of man the mayor really is, and why he's so harsh to deal with. Maybe there's some secret here. Maybe he's just an angry sort of guy. But you've already established that this world isn't quite the one they know from the history books.

Make up information for the characters to know, and give it to the players. If you're going to do an adventure out in the farming towns of the central valley, and one of the characters is from there, give them a map you made up yourself. You can do a bit of research to get the basics, but it's ok to make up towns or leave places out. The players already know that the world isn't quite like ours. And when you give this map to one of the players, representing their character's knowledge, now they get to be the one presenting it to the party. The fictional facts become their facts, not just your facts that the players are disagreeing with.

This way, the players know the genre, but not the story. Most of their general knowledge will be correct. Laser pistols don't exist. Telephones do, but they're not too common. Newspapers carry stories from across the globe. Africa is dark and mysterious. San Jose is a quiet farming town. But their specific knowledge doesn't give them any spoilers. They won't be able to predict the 1929 stock market crash, because they know that this isn't exactly the world they've read about. They can't use Wikipedia to learn things their characters wouldn't know.

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I like a lot the idea, looks like a good way to make the players understand that they can't give anything for granted because of their knowledge of the world, that some things have changed from what they know... On the other hand maybe they are expecting to play in that world because they know the characters and the background... and that may be an issue... –  pconcepcion Jul 25 '12 at 19:08
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@pconcepcion, keep in mind that a DM who doesn't know the setting well enough can't give them exactly what they want. This is a way to give them the next best thing. –  Joe Jul 25 '12 at 20:43
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I agree, but if that doesn't fullfil the players expectations it may be an issue. Depending on the players and their expectations maybe the cooperative storytelling could be a better solution... or just having a complete different world... I just wanted to point out that maybe one of the main reasons the players want to play in that world is their knowledge of the background. –  pconcepcion Jul 27 '12 at 11:28

Consider Partial Cooperative Storytelling

Many DMs engage their players more deeply in setting the story elements for their adventures. See the article Worlds of “OUR” Imagination and GM-less games like Fiasco and Microscope for inspiration.

Since they know more about the places, history, and people of the world, ask them why they think your crisis is happening, who might be behind it, and why. Just the process of them discussing it should provide enough background to help you refine your view on the threat and its source. Then, between sessions, you can dig deeper with a focus on just the details that have come up.

Honestly, we DMs do this all the time – when the players come up with far better ideas, fears, and rationalization based on partial information than you'd previously worked up (or found in a module), we weave the detail into the story in real-time. If we're not sure of how things are connected, we ask them to flesh it out – and with D&D we get to make it all seem "part of the plan" by asking for detail and skill rolls.

Here's an example:

Player-Who-Knows-More-History: "Hey! I bet this is part of some plot by [old nemesis I'd forgotten about] in his ongoing plan to open an obsidian gate!"

DM (after thinking quickly): "Sure enough, you look closely for his tell-tale signature… Tell me what you're looking for."

Another player: "A red-tipped crossbow bolt!"

DM: (Rolls) "15! … and you find the broken red tip of a crossbow bolt that was overlooked under the body."

That example is very sandbox-ish, but I do it all the time in even the most linear-on-rails modules. The players always seem more engaged when the story goes in their direction, even if only a little bit.

Even in a GM-centric game, it is still "our" story – try to embrace as much player input as you reasonably can.

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+1 Nice, I like the idea of leading the players to tell you what they want to hear. –  Rob Jul 20 '12 at 9:34

I think the thing you need to do first and foremost is remind them of the cardinal rule: What the DM says goes. They asked you to be the DM for a reason. If they wanted to run the show, they should've DMed instead.

That said, you don't have to make this point in a rude or confrontational way. Just gently remind your players of it and, if they're any decent as players or friends, they'll understand, get the hint, and move on.

I'm not sure you can really "turn their knowledge into your favor." You just need to make sure they understand that you are the one who sets the tone for the game, not them, regardless of their particular expertise of the setting.

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+1 They also asked you to DM knowing you are less experienced than them. You being inexperienced and doing things slightly inaccurately is part of the package. They can choose accuracy or you DMing, but not both, and they chose you DMing. They're in an alternate universe where everything is slightly different, and they need to go with the flow to let you lead an effective game. –  doppelgreener Jul 19 '12 at 22:30

Three Roads

I see three major methods to take:

  1. Alternate Universe
  2. Study up like mad
  3. Narrative gaming

Alternate Universe

Explain to the players that, "Yes, I'll run the game, as I understand the setting. Consider it an alternate universe." Try to get it right. But don't worry if you get it wrong. And, if they've been asking, make certain they understand that your understanding may differ strongly from theirs.

I have used this mode in running Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, and Star Trek. In the case of BTVS, I'd seen most of the series, but not all of season 7. In the case of Star Wars, I flat out ignored any extended universe stuff that didn't jive with WEG sources in my possession. In the case of Trek, it again ignored the extended universe; I usually run in such a variant of the Star Fleet Universe by ADB (best noted for Star Fleet Battles).

There are a couple methods for this that I've used:

  1. In the Past
  2. Exclude the following...
  3. The Books are Wrong...
  4. Over here where it's been neglected...

In the Past

In cases where the novels change what has happened since the setting book, simply state that you're setting before the novels. This works rather well for Battletech and to a lesser extent for Dragonlance.

Exclude the Following

Tell them what is and isn't canon for your variation. Make certain they agree before start. If they do, run as you would.

Works well for most games with novels. Works especially well for Star Trek TOS/TAS gaming... just ignore TNG and everything from movie 1 on.

The Books Are Wrong

I've done this with Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. Simply tell the players that the books are the commonly taught but erroneous history. They are, as written, in world artifacts - memoirs. Especially The Hobbit, which is contrived by the author to be the writings of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, Burglar.

Over Here Where It's been Neglected

Pick an area on the maps, but not covered well in the novels/movies, or covered only in novels/movies you've consumed.

I've done this with Trek (putting the explorations coreward of the known Federation) so that they don't run into Kirk and Co...

Study Up Like Mad

If you've got the time, money, and inclination, bone up and learn more. It can work. It's what happened with me and Pendragon. Some of my friends who ran it later came to me for Canon references to Mallory. (I've still never read White's Once and Future King, tho' I have read the Mabinogwion and Mallory, and seen lots of Arthuriana.)

Narrative Gaming

This can be, as Randall Suggests in his answer, by use of a narrative game engine. Or it can be done with whatever engine is normal for the setting (if there is one), or even your non-narrativist game of choice.

It also has several modes...

Tell Me, Don't Ask Me

Derived from Burning Wheel forum advice...

Instead of having players ask you for information, have them tell you what their character believes. Then, set the difficulty based upon whether that answer works for you. Have them roll... if they make, it's true. If they don't, they still think it's true, but it may or may not be true, as you see fit.

If it's something that should be obvious as to what it is, and they fail, let someone else try until they get something you can work with.

Sneakily Steal from the Players

Let them discuss, and if it sounds good, adopt it and pretend you had the same idea all along. This can be excellent general GMing advice, but it also can backfire, with certain types of players intentionally twisting about based upon known weak spots...

Randall gives an excellent example in his answer to this question.

Ask the Experts I

If you have an expert in group, make use of them by flat out asking. preferably outside of session, and not in use order.

GM: What should Dr. Who do when confronted with 3 daleks modified with XM-3000 Kill-o-zap blasters?

Player-Expert: Well, in episode 7 of season....

or

GM: Where can I find maps of the Triangle Region of Romulan-Klingon Border?

Player-Expert: In the Triangle Sourcebook from FASA

GM: do you have one?

Player: Yes...

GM: Can I borrow it to read up for next week?

Ask the Expert II

Find a buddy who is an expert but not playing. Have them help you prepare your plot lines.

This works well, if you don't have too many surprises, and works best with the "Alternate Universe" approach also being in play.

Unanimous Veto

In some cases, you may want to simply allow the group to veto/reset if you screw up. Always make it require (1) sourcing and demonstrating the error and (2) unanimous agreement of the players.

This requires you to not have too much of an ego-issue with being corrected. I've used this especially in games with shared GMing.

Some Final Advice

Which ever way you go, make it clear that any timelines are subject to change once play begins.

You're more likely to find issues with familiarity with game products than familiarity with Novels and Movies. Players are more likely to argue "You're ignoring the rules" than "you're changing the timeline," especially if they're experienced gamers. No timeline survives extended contact with PC's unaltered, but rules can be a social contract. Fortunately, adjusting to rules is easier than adjusting to unknown timelines.

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Tell Me, Don't Ask Me seems very akin to the introduction of things that are intentionally wrong as stated in the answer above. They believe something is true based on their knowledge of the universe, then because of a roll it isn't. I don't see much of a difference between this approach and intentionally making it so. –  wraith808 Jul 20 '12 at 18:16
    
@Wraith You failed your reading test. On a fail, the GM gets to decide for himself if it is true. A GM intentionally deciding something is intentionally wrong ahead of time is lying to his players from the outset. It's a subtle but important difference. –  aramis Jul 20 '12 at 20:42
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No, I read right. I just don't see where it's lying. If you change something, especially in the way said above, i.e. they come into the world and see evidence that something is different than they expect, how is that lying? The evidence that it is different is seen from the outset, not discovered after the fact. –  wraith808 Jul 20 '12 at 20:49

Somewhat similar to what Pulsehead wrote, but a step further: start in some distant area (or distant period) not covered by the stories you know. This is not very suitable for real historical setting, but every fictional world has some part that's "unknown", where no story has been set. It's no shame to ask players where such "blank spots" are. This allows you to have more control over the evironment, while there's enough of the setting to keep players interrested. If you manage to surprise the players (a hard thing for somebody knowing the setting almost perfectly!), it's even better.

I used this technique while GMing a game in Star Wars. I created a primitive planet (first contact a generation ago - before a point 5 years before Episode 1) with two competing races and placed some Hutt agenda there. Both native races had some limited alternative access to the Force, which could have vast impact on whole galaxy, giving the adventure "save-the-Galaxy" feeling. Then I just introduced a Jedi group and a nice adventure started. The players really appreciated extraordinary low-tech situations such as car chase (not speeder chase - unfamiliar driving gave the situation both dramatic tension and comic relief).

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Simple, limit the use of marquee NPCs as much as possible for 2 reasons: 1) by your own admission you don't know enough about them to run them to the standards of your players; and 2) Marquee NPCs tend to really distract from the narrative that the players are participating in. If you are on the basketball court and want to play a pick-up game; are YOU going to ask Joe in Accounting, or Michael Jordan? If you are the mayor of MacGuffinVille and the princess has been kidnapped by bandits, are you going to hire the PCs (a bunch of relatively unknown ruffians), or will you beg for Drizzt Do'Urden (I think I spelled that right) to rescue her?

Keep reading up on the setting, and remind players that the fiction is FICTION; the stories they "know" about the world are really just Bard tales that may or may not be accurate. Also, if a faction are supposed to be just good guys and you need them as a villain for a story, make the head of that faction house just as evil as he needs to be. The players will wonder what's going on, and maybe ask the right faction member the right question. Thus leading to a quest to help the faction out and capture the evil faction-chief, or after he's been captured they are asked to help repair the faction's reputation with the surrounding region.

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