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Tabletop Tuesday – Always Mess With Their Heads

Have you ever found yourself behind the GM screen, struggling for a way to keep the players focused on the game, establish a mood or perhaps sew some much needed paranoia and intrigue into the story? Consider some good old fashioned stage magic! Well, not literally – but in the spirit of the upcoming season, consider trying out some of the tricks I’ve employed over the years to add some mystique to your tabletop game.

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Treats may be dispersed at your discretion.

I’m sure passing notes from GM to player is nothing new to you. I mean, I hope it isn’t! It could be scrap paper or file cards like I used back in the day. And while, in this day and age, are countless apps that achieve the same purpose, I still use hand-written notes. Why? The need to pass along secret information happens in game and should be handled in this way — if for no other reason than to avoid arguments over player knowledge versus character knowledge. Now of course, I used the note passing to do just that; but just as frequently, I used it as an opportunity to mess with my players — and by derivation their characters. It kept their attention focused on the game as well as the behavior of the characters and their players.

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Let me give you an example.

I ran a long standing campaign of ‘Spycraft‘ which was overflowing with global espionage as well as paranormal madness (think ‘The X-Files‘, ‘The Twilight Zone‘ & ‘24‘). I frequently had to pass secret notes between myself and another players. Now, in order to keep the players attention focused on the game and remain in character as much as possible, I found that passing information around to a select few people in the form of a physical object (in this case notes on file cards) brought the unnecessary table chatter to a screeching halt. Now in that note, I may have written the results of an action a player took. Maybe they were searching a room or because magic existed in this spy game, a demonic voice just whispered something in their head. This isn’t information the character has to share with the other characters if they don’t want to.

But that’s not the trick…

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Sometimes, when the situation was right, I would pass say three notes to players in a party of six characters. One of those notes could be a response to a roll one of them made. The second could be something as simple as a bit of flavor text about the current situation that had no in-game numerical effect, but something that could prompt the character to do something besides stand there. The third note would say something along the lines of “Look like this note says something mind-blowing. Look at me like you’re shocked, dismayed, alarmed etc. etc.” Now, imagine you as a player seeing this exchange happening in front of you. Not only is your attention focused on the game, you’re now trying to read your fellow players and consequently what their characters do after reading the note. Players seem to instinctively focus on a tangible object and if that object is a source of intrigue both in and out of game, so much the better. That’s why I still use index cards.

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Where rabbits & plot hooks come from

I’ll give you some more examples of these note-passing head games. You can mold them to fit any game; and since you probably know your players, they can be tailored to screw with their heads as much or as little as you see fit.

“Roll a d20 + Investigation. Write the total down then pass this card back to me.”
You as a the GM don’t have to do anything with this! Your player thinks something is up. The other characters may think something is up. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.

“Read this as though I’ve asked you a difficult question. Simply say “yes” or “no” to me. I will then ask you “Are you sure?” Just say “Yes.”
This will get the attention of everyone at the table and they’ll become quite interested in what happens next.

“Roll a percentile. Tell me the result. Pass this card to PLAYER X. Roll percentile. Tell me the result.”
Players are rolling dice and reporting directly to the GM. What’s going on? What do they know that you don’t?

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Think of it as the Prestidigitation spell for the GM. You’re doing things that may or may not have any numerical game effect, but you are keeping the players attention while cultivating an atmosphere of intrigue. This works well in games like ‘Spycraft‘ or ‘Call of Cthulhu‘ by virtue of the genre alone, but I’ve used it in everything from ‘Star Wars‘ to ‘Legend of the Five Rings‘ with wonderful results. Use this to keep your players on their toes and their attention fixed on their fellow players and their characters. Never give them a reason to relax or take anything you do for granted.

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$49.95?

Speaking of physical objects, a GM would be remiss if they did not employ an equally simple technique (although it is one that may take a little bit of extra effort): props. Player’s love, I repeat, love interacting with physical objects in a table top game. It could be a handout or map from an official game module to some oddball knick-knack from a craft store. Halloween is a great time to get these sort of objects for a few bucks. Some fake gemstones or a potion bottle, a crystal ball – just use your imagination and keep an eye out for anything you could use as a tangible prop for your game.

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This can also be a great way for you as a GM to indulge your crafty, artistic maker nature. There are countless tutorials on the internet for making all sorts of DIY props that could be implemented for use in any table top game. When their need is fulfilled they can be used for another game or placed on a shelf in the game room as a trophy or achievement that you and your players can admire and reminisce about how that silly pendant almost got you all killed.

Now, depending on the game your playing this last technique may or may not be useful but in my experience this has never failed to yield amazing results. It’s an exaggeration of the card trick. The old disappearing trick! This is something that always fueled even more intrigue and focus. You actually take a player aside (taking dice and character sheet if need be) into a separate room and running a brief mini-encounter for them.

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Cool story, bro!

I did this when circumstance or empty space on a card made note passing impractical as well as to allow the players back at the table an opportunity to openly speculate on what was going on in the game or make plans without me in earshot. Basically, they could make plans without having to worry about me doing any meta-gaming to subvert their efforts. I wanted them to surprise me as much as they wanted me to surprise them.

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My favorite example of this is something I pulled in that same ‘Spycraft‘ campaign. The players and their characters were unknowingly trapped in what was basically ‘The Matrix“. One of the players died and rather than just have them spend the rest of the session making a new character, I decided I would give the character an interesting send-off as well as give them one of those “Woah!” moments that they could bring back to the table. It also helped develop the lore of my version of the setting to the players but that wasn’t as important as the reveal I had just come up with.

Then I took him aside and gave him the following narrative.

Your eyes suddenly snap open and your breathing is coming in strained heaves of your chest. You’re sweating but have chills like you’ve never felt before. Above you is a bright white light. You think for a moment that this is it – the light. You’re dead. Something then obscures the bright, white light. Your eyes begin to focus on four faces. The Agency director, your cell commander and two men you’ve never seen before are securitizing you. Your find yourself strapped to a gurney, your muscles tearing against the restraints. “Well? The Agency director says to one of the unfamiliar figures. The unknown man nods. “Alright…” he says, “…we’ll take this one”.

To say he went back wide eyed and shaking with excitement is an understatement. The other players were stunned and asked what happened, I just said that the player could tell them after the session and carried on with the game. So the death of a character doesn’t have to be quite so final. Players and GMs alike should use it as an opportunity to add depth to the grand story arc while at the same time, giving a character a unique exit from play.

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Just because a character died doesn’t mean their story is over

Any tweak to game mechanics or house rules that keep the players actively engaged in your session should prove to be a welcome addition to any game. In the end, it’s a shared storytelling experience, so why hold back on anything that cultivates a more visceral experience for everyone? Of course this is by no means the sum of the tricks I keep up my sleeves, but of course the first rule of magicians is: never reveal your secrets.

Well, not all of them.

Do you have any tricks you pull to add intrigue and mystery to your games? Leave a comment below and share your tales of toying with the sanity of others!

Never split the DM!

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About The Guy In The Hat (7 Articles)
Author / World Building Expert / Game Designer / Voice Actor / Researcher of Fandoms & the New Mythology in Pop-Culture

1 Comment on Tabletop Tuesday – Always Mess With Their Heads

  1. My DM does stuff like this on occasion. It really does mess with us as players, and I’m sure he gets some sadistic glee out of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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