Giving the Players What They Want Part 2

In my last blog, I talked about how my driving goal as a GM is giving the players what they want. When my players and I got together to figure out what we wanted to play next, I knew a little bit about the direction I thought we should go in. I had learned over the summer that my players like more combat-oriented campaigns without too much complex downtime activity. One of my players has two young children; the other has recently returned to work in a full-time, high-stress environment. They didn’t have the time or energy to answer a dozen emails every week about what their characters thought about one opportunity or another.

My mind had been gravitating to old-school D&D for a while. I played a little 2nd edition over the summer (that was a trip), and I thought the group would respond well to the hack-and-slash feel. If we had a home base to work out of, the players that wanted to do more downtime activity could have room to train and develop relationships with NPCs, and those that didn’t could just show up for the session.

I didn’t want to run 2e though, for a lot of reasons (including most of the group being unfamiliar with the system). Instead, we decided to go back to an old favourite—GURPS 4e.

I also decided I wanted to run something with plenty of premade adventures that would take some of the strain off me. I tend to be a serious prepper when it comes to running homebrew (and sometimes premade) adventures, and that takes a lot of mental energy. We tossed around a few ideas, but nothing seemed to stick.

A handwritten page of Shadowrun adventure notes in a coil-ringed scribbler.
And when I say I prep a lot, I mean I prep a lot.

Then I began daydreaming about adventures I’d run and enjoyed in the past. One leaped immediately to mind: Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

It turned out none of my players, not even my grognard husband, had ever played the original ToEE. I managed to find a copy of the T1-4 module, but I didn’t have much experience with Greyhawk. We decided to set the module in the Forgotten Realms, in Chessenta. I sent out some emails and got ready to introduce my new PCs to the village of Hommlett.

Only it didn’t quite work out that way.

One of the great things about GURPS is you can make any kind of character you want. There aren’t races and classes, only point buy customizations. I set a point total, limited disadvantages, and capped certain powers…. but a GM can only do so much. As my players got into character creation, the questions started coming.

  • Can we play anything?
  • Like, anything anything?
  • Are you open to neutral undead PCs?
  • What if my backstory is I’m the son of Tchazzar?
  • If we’re playing monsters, I want to be a goblin.
  • Maybe I’m human, but I’m a loan shark!

Soon my band of noble adventurers had turned into a gang of monsters.

Here’s where I had to come back to what I really wanted out of a game. I’d be making a PC for when someone else took a turn at the wheel, but I’d be the GM most of the time. My players were all excited about their new weird characters. Did I want to run the module as written? Put limits on their creativity? Enforce particular alignments and races?

Or should I give the players what they wanted?

It’s important to note that I wasn’t going along with the players because I felt like I was outnumbered, or I wanted to be “nice,” or I felt guilty or ambivalent or something. I wanted to give them this opportunity because they were thinking about the box, and I also wanted to think outside the box. Because there was potential in their enthusiasm, a way to make a game that was new and different. Because it sounded like fun.

With a few simple adjustments, the module became not “The Village of Hommlett,” but “The Village of Nulb.” The PCs’ job was to defend the town from zealous do-gooders who failed to realize that just because someone looked monstrous didn’t mean they were a bad person. When town mayor Rufus (now a retired half-orc warrior) told the PCs about bandit activity in the Moathouse, it was because he was afraid banditry would draw bounty hunters, paladins, and “good” adventurers who might extend their slaughter to the town of Nulb.

By letting the players get creative with their characters, I wound up with a much richer and deeper setting than a group of typical D&D-style heroes killing evil bandits. The PCs are fighting to protect their home, but also to assert their right to live in the black-and-white morality of a classic fantasy setting. It’s… it’s really kind of cool.

I won’t record every single session here, but I will occasionally blog about the adventures of Beldana (an intelligent near-undead who runs the local alchemy shop in Nulb), Borz (a fierce goblin gladiator and head “watch-gob” of the Nulb town guard), Kaiser (a human “banker” who uses his earnings to support local businesses), and Scales (of Justice), a lizardman and former paladin of Red Knight who lost his status due to his poorly-controlled berserker rages.

Our sessions have been filled with fun and excitement, and the players eagerly show up every week to see what new challenges face their village. The Moathouse is now clear of danger, but rumors have surfaced that more trouble brews to the south. Perhaps adventure will call our “heroes” farther from their home, but Nulb will always remain in their hearts.

And that makes me so happy.

Cover image by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

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