I highly recommend you read this excellent post by Tavis Allison:
In it, Tavis discusses the illusion of GM control when co-opting player ideas and/or being driven by random elements. He mentions a specific case where he rolled a random encounter, the players jumped a conclusion about the motives of the creatures encountered, and he decided to “make it so.” This leads to some excellent and exciting roleplay, both for the DM because he’s been handed an interesting idea to run with that he hadn’t previously thought of, and for the Players as they feel empowered by successfully figuring out the DM’s secret plans. Of course the player’s success is all an illusion. As Tavis says:
As a DM, I don’t want to dispel the illusion that I have a secret plan, because that would take away the pleasure that players get when they feel they’ve figured it out. But is this deception wrong? Should I work to make explicit what I see as the implicit advantage of wandering monsters: that I get to be just another participant in figuring out the story, not its all-knowing mastermind?
This just happened to me last week, though it wasn’t a wandering monster, it was a hireling. I keep a deck of hireling cards behind the screen for when the players decide they need a little extra help. On these cards is simply a stat block, some random equipment, and a funny name pulled from an online generator. I interpret the cards as I pull them for personality. This time we got a well equipped dwarven fighter, a human magic-user with an odd selection of spells (ventriloquism and shield), and human thief. The magic-user had an amusing Germanic name, which quickly turned him into the butt of some jokes about stage magicians. After a lot of chuckles, they went with the dwarf.
Then something in my brain clicked. One other thing I do in my game is write myself little one-line notes about things that may or may not be true. Like time-traveling tweets, they contain nuggets of ideas for future-me to do with as I please. Sometimes they come true, sometimes I cross them out, and many of them just sit unused. I had written one a while back based on a random encounter. The party had passed a group of dwarves on the road from the city they were currently in, and I had decided they might be on their way to a nearby mountain to try and rediscover their lost homeland. This was a long time ago, the party never asked the dwarves many details, and then promptly forgot all about them. I would have too if I hadn’t written myself that note.
I decided that the new hireling was searching for his lost comrades. I had him mention it, and suddenly the party seized on the idea of finding this lost dwarven homeland. I honestly never expected them to get so excited about it. I was starting to panic that they would actually reach the location early in the night, and I had absolutely no idea what was there. Why did I point them in this direction without a plan? Why didn’t I plan out what would be there when the idea first hit me?
I know the answer to the latter: because it would be way too much work. I toss crap like this at the players all the time. The majority of it never goes anywhere, and they probably think I’m crazy for dropping random encounters with NPCs unimportant to the main plot. Creating content for every wild idea I have would take so much energy that I’d quickly get annoyed at this campaign, or start looking for ways to railroad my players onto a specific trail so I could narrow how much I had to invent. If I’m crazy it’s not because I drop things into the game that have nothing to do with the main plot, it’s because there is no main plot.
I think though that being reactive to the players’ whims is what has made this game so enjoyable for me, and hopefully for my players as well. Like Tavis though, I worry that letting the players know this secret may ruin everything. Some of my players read this blog. Honestly, the whole time I’ve been writing this I’ve been wondering whether or not to really post it. I think this is what Tavis is wrestling with too, and I’m not sure if he really comes to a conclusion or not. Perhaps though, it’s all tied into his final statement:
As a DM my strength comes from recognizing the players’ good ideas when I hear them, and mixing them in with just enough of my own that they can never be sure what’s true until their characters have roleplayed the process of discovery.
I think the players can handle the truth of the situation, and it’s because of the notes. Sure, not every note I write to myself actually impacts the game, but some do, and my players have no idea how many exist or what they say. There will always be enough of my own invention mixed in their with their ideas and random generated stuff that even if the players know I steal stuff from them they won’t know for sure how much. It’s not like I’ll dogmatically push every idea they come up with into the game either. Let’s face it, they come up with some pretty stupid crap some times. I’ll just take the gems, and sometimes I’ll add a little of my own polish to them.
I’m going to post this, and not worry that I’m ruining anything for the players. If anything, I hope this post is empowering for them. They can come up with crazy ideas about the world and pursue long reaching plans and there might actually be some chance that it will work. And if it doesn’t work, it’ll be because along the way we discovered something even more awesome to pursue. Either way we’ll have a great time going down that road together, and hopefully find some way of making it all make sense in the end. If there is one.