Let’s See What Happens, Part Four: Watch Their Eyes

It’s been a while, but I’m back to talk about the next component in my recipe for emergent campaign storylines. If you’ve missed the previous installments, I give an overview of my method here, and then talk about the Secrets Deck here, and discuss Sandboxes here.

This step of the… I hesitate to call it a process, because that implies a more rigid structure than I actually have. Let’s call it a tool. This tool in the toolbox is where the rubber really meets the road. At this point ((If not before.)), the players are well and truly involved in what you’re doing, and you go into reactive observer mode. You’ve got your secrets in place, and some hints ready, and your sandbox set up and filled with toys, and the players get to come in.

Now you have to watch their eyes.

Pay Attention

The biggest thing you need to do is pay attention. Watch what they react to. Listen to what they say. They will show you what catches their interest and what doesn’t. You just need to be aware of the signals.

There are a couple of catches, here, though: first, the onus is on you to catch the signals. Later on, I’m going to talk about asking questions to find out what the players are interested in, but really, what you want at this point is their unsolicited, unfiltered reactions. That means just paying attention to the things they do and say without prompting of any sort.

Which leads us to the other catch: you need to be objective and open to what you here. Be ready for them to ignore your strokes of brilliance, or to find them trite and boring. If you want this to be useful, you can’t react to what they say, or else the players will start to filter. And really, you need to know if they find pieces of what you’ve done to be crap. That is valuable information, and you must absorb it and use it.

So, watch what they get excited about, and make note ((You don’t need to actually make a note, and you probably shouldn’t make a physical note if it’s going to make it look like you’re eavesdropping on the players’ conversations and taking notes. That’ll make them start to filter, again. But remember what they do and say.)) of any strong reactions. The things that make them say, “Cool!” or start hatching plots – those are the things that you want to expand and flesh out, so you can make them centrepieces of the campaign. The things that they ridicule or ignore – those are the things that you either want to let fade into the background, or rework later on ((Which I’ll talk more about in the Making Connections post.)) to make them cool.

But for now, just take note.

Bide Your Time

This is surprisingly important. You need to wait a bit before acting on the perceived interests of the players. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Acquiring More Information. The more you wait, the better picture you’ll have about what the players are interested in. You hear more of what they say, see more of what they do, and build a more complete idea of their interests.
  • Giving a More Complete Picture. At the beginning of the campaign, your players are going to be finding their feet, and everything will be new and shiny. Give them some time to get a more complete picture of the world, so that they will have a more complete range of choices, and their reactions will be more meaningful and useful.
  • Misdirection. You don’t want to just toss in another story about pirates just because the players had fun with the last adventure about pirates. You need to mask what you’re doing a little bit. A little bit of time, with something in between, will keep things a little fresh.
  • Give You Time to Think. Don’t just jump in with both feet at the first thing that the players seem interested in. Take some time to think about the best way to do things. Plan your approach, and look at how things fit into the overall campaign. Only move when you’re ready, and you’re happy with what you’ve come up with. There’s no rush.

So, take your time in reacting to what the players are reacting to. Let them enjoy the opening stages of the campaign, and the wonder and confusion that a new campaign engenders. Use that time to process their reactions and decide what to do about them. Polish your ideas, and don’t spring them on the players until you’re happy with them, and the time looks opportune.


When you think you’ve got a handle on what the players are looking for in the game, and you’ve worked out an polished an idea until it’s ready, introduce it. It doesn’t need to be a big thing – it can just be a single encounter, an interesting item, a new NPC, or even just a bit of background information. Drop it in as appropriate, and pay attention to how they respond.

This is the feedback cycle. Pay Attention – Bide Your Time – Respond – Pay Attention – Bide Your Time – Respond… You get the idea. Lather, rinse, repeat. What you need to be looking for is if you were right about what the players were interested in, because it’s easy to be wrong. Here’s a scenario:

  1. You have an adventure where the characters take to the seas to hunt down some pirates. Everyone has a great time.
  2. You decide that the players like sea adventures, so you develop an adventure where the characters join an expedition to map the Lost Seas.
  3. The players are bored, and do whatever it takes to cut the adventure short and get back to land, because it wasn’t the sea adventure part of the original adventure that they liked, it was the swashbuckling battles against the pirates.

See? You guess wrong about what it is that the players find interesting ((And it’s easy to do, don’t fool yourself. This is because the adventures you design look different to you than they do to the players, who don’t have your insight into the structure and development of the adventure. So be aware.)), and the adventure falls flat. And then you’re stuck in an adventure no one is enjoying ((Which is why you should be ready to Discard Liberally, as I’ll discuss in a later post. For now, I’ll just say that you shouldn’t get married to any adventure, and build in escape hatches if possible.)) until you can switch tracks to something else.

Learn from that. Build it in to the next cycle. This is an iterative process, and each time round the circle should bring you more mastery, more certainty, and more fun for everyone.

Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers

Asking questions is an important way to gather information about what the players like, but you need to delay doing that until they’ve had a chance to get used to the campaign and develop some real opinions. This means running through the cycle a few times without asking questions. This gives them time to really figure out what they enjoy about the game, and also gives you time to accumulate your own ideas about what they like.

Now, the kinds of questions you ask is important. I recommend not asking, “What kind of adventures do you like?” simply because players think about adventures differently than GMs do ((In short, they see the adventure as the finished product of them playing it, while GMs have to look at the adventure as a list of potentialities that are not resolved until play. It causes the two parties to think about the structure and nature of adventures in very different terms.)), and their answers won’t be all that useful ((Well, they will be somewhat useful, but they will be needed to be translated into GM-think.)). In general, these types of abstract questions, while they might yield some interesting information, aren’t as useful as your own observation.

Now, that’s a pretty big claim, but hear me out. You need concrete information to create an adventure. When you talk to players about what they liked in an adventure, they will say things like, “It was really cool when we did X!” Now, that’s concrete information, but it’s not the kind of information that you can just reuse – if you did, you’d just have the same scenes repeating in each adventure.

Because you don’t need to know that they liked doing X. You need to know why they liked doing X. And that sort of information is often not conscious – it’s a gut reaction based on a number of factors. You need to do the analysis yourself to figure out why X was fun.

And besides, you probably already knew that they liked X, because you’ve been watching their eyes during play, right?

So, what question should you ask? In my opinion ((Like the rest of this essay isn’t just my opinion.)), the best question is, “What do you want to do next? ((Sometimes, you might want to phrase this as, “What does your character want to accomplish in this campaign?” That’ll give you about the same information, but over a longer time-frame.))”

This gives you a concrete answer about what bit of the campaign is most holding their attention at the moment, for whatever reason. Again, you have to do the heavy lifting of analysis to figure out why on your own, but you should have a wealth of ideas from paying attention to the players. The important thing here is to actually give the players what they want – don’t twist things so that it looks like they might be getting what they want, but then yank the rug out from under their feet. Sure, throw in some twists, but give them what they want. Otherwise, they’ll stop trusting you, and won’t give you useful answers any longer.

There’s another question that you probably want to ask every now and then: “Why didn’t that work for you?” You know when things fall flat for a player, and when they do, this is a good way to gather information about why. It’s a dangerous question, though; you have to be ready to hear the criticism of the adventure you made. The player is probably going to be a little reluctant to complain too much ((You’re probably playing with people who like you, and who don’t want to hurt your feelings. If you’re not, why the hell not?)), but if you genuinely welcome the feedback and use it to improve the game, you will get more candid responses as they come to trust you.

If you take the information they give you and use it to improve the campaign, you may soon have your players volunteering answers to the questions before you ask them ((In the case of the “Why didn’t that work for you?” question, this can come off an awful lot like bitching about the game, but it’s not. It’s your players trusting you enough to be honest and give you the feedback you need to build something that’s fun for all of you. Welcome it.)).

What Aren’t They Saying

Silence and lack of attention are things you need to pay attention to in the game.

Some players don’t talk much in game. Whether it’s a product of their character, or their play style, they sit quiet unless they need to speak. This is not necessarily an indication that they are bored ((Though it might be. Pay attention to them, and, if necessary, ask them outright. But do it privately, so as not to put them on the spot with the group.)), some players just play more in their head than in conversation. For these folks, you need to watch body language and general demeanor during play to see what they’re interested in.

Then there are times that normally garrulous players turn quiet. That’s usually a sign that they’ve run up against something in game that they either have no interest in or actively dislike. That’s good information to have; keep it. It doesn’t mean you have to eliminate whatever the player isn’t liking, but you do need to be aware of this cost of using it – you’re losing the interest of at least one player. If it’s something that someone else is avidly interested in, then go ahead and use it sparingly to provide a bit of a spotlight moment, but be aware that the bored player is going to need to be rewarded for being a good sport with a spotlight moment of something he or she likes.

And if everyone at the table goes quiet and starts fidgeting, well, that’s a big red flag for whatever you’re trying. Get through what you’re doing, and then drop that campaign element in the Do Not Use bucket.


The upshot of all this advice is simple: pay attention to what the players like, and give them more of that. These techniques are the ways I try and do it in my games. Hopefully, they’re useful to you.

If you’ve got any tips that I’ve missed, fell free to drop me a comment below.

Next time, we get to the actual construction of storyline elements in emergent campaign storylines. This is where the work starts paying off.

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2 Responses to Let’s See What Happens, Part Four: Watch Their Eyes

  1. RazielRedel says:

    Man, these articles are absolutely brilliant. Thanks so much for taking the time and effort to write them. They’ve been incredibly helpful to my campaign.

  2. Rick Neal says:

    Glad to hear they’ve been useful. Thanks for the kind words!

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