Poker Face: Even DMs Make Bluff Checks
I’ve never acquired a liking for poker. I’ve tried my hand at it once or twice, but never really had much fun at it. The use of bluffing as a core mechanic for a game dependent on numbers seemed strange to me. Now that I’ve DMed, I understand the meaning and importance of the ‘poker face,’ especially when you’re trying to create a story and world for your players.
When a player whirls around and questions the motives of your NPCs or tries to pry the best course of action from a DM, a wise one will never give away all her secrets. It’s no fun feeding them information every step of the way. Now, I’m not above giving a little hint here and a nudge there, but for the most part I maintain an expression of utter innocence.
That’s because the poker face is essential to stealing the greatest ideas from your players. They’re fully capable of coming up with odds and ends for your stories that you wouldn’t even consider. Best of all, the players will likely give you credit for ‘coming up’ with something so awesome.
1) If you paint yourself into a corner, don’t panic. Your players will come up with something.
At POLYHEDRAL, I ran a one-shot Eberron adventure based on material from Expeditionary Dispatches: The Mournland Express (Dragon 375). The article describes a train that runs through the blasted remains of Cyre and provides numerous hooks to build adventures around it, leaving me to come up with the real meat of a session.
The gist of the story was that Alaria, the train’s conductor would teleport into the spectral cart – a phantom section of the train that emerges sporadically – and see her fiancée, Jarick. Jarick vanished on the Day of Mourning and Alaria spent years trying to find him. This was about two star-crossed souls who would finally find each other.
Except I thought: “No, it can’t be that easy. I’ll have to make this more interesting.”
As I began to describe the scene, I declared that while Alaria could see Jarick’s insubstantial visage, Jarick could only see everyone but Alaria. Everyone on the table started to freak out, including me. My big mouth had gone off, and I realized, I hadn’t thought of a way for the players to get out of this problem. Sweat started to build on my brow as I realized the mess I had made of the story.
But then the warforged swordmage spoke up. “Use me. Use my body. See through my eyes, to be able to see the one who loves you.” That would work, I thought, since the ghost I had created had the power to dominate. It had done so previously on the fighter. A warforged offering up his body to house the soul of poor Jarick was astoundingly poetic.
I couldn’t have predicted such a powerful moment, which reminded me that a good story wasn’t a DM’s job. A DM can supply the setting and a supporting cast, but its really the players who are the main actors and make the story their own.
2) If an important detail escapes you, don’t sweat it. Your players will always think of something more awesome.
My first campaign was quite ambitious, making extensive use of prophecy and getting the gods involved (all in the heroic tier!) As we drew closer to paragon tier, it was time for me to find a way to bring the first campaign arc to a close, and tying everything together was quite difficult.
I tried to hunker down and hammer out some strong story elements to be revealed, bouncing ideas off of Matthew, the DM’s Little Helper, and allow me to lift the veil on what the NPCs and villains were really up to. Truth be told, I had no idea what that was but in time I came up with lots of stuff to fill up the pages of my little DM notebook.
Come game time, I lost those notes and had to improvise with what I remembered. Using the Read Object ritual, the players tried to learn more about Gunther, the villainous rakshasa who had figured into the campaign since the second session. He was using powerful magicks to rewrite prophecy, but required repeated use to sustain those changes.
Originally, Gunther had written himself into the role played by the artificer’s father. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the father’s first name and could only go by his surname while revealing this. “You see the name Soulblade, erased and replaced with Gunther, in the book of prophecy.” I said, as I mentally wracked my brain for the first name. Of course, the whole time, I had my cool poker face on, revealing nothing.
And still, I could not remember the damn name. The artificer exclaimed in outrage, “That bastard! It was me who was meant to have risen in the ranks during the war, and marry the Tiefling and become Prefect to one of the levels of the floating city. He took all of that away from me!”
“Dude,” another player quipped, “The twins should have been your kids! You should have been a dad!”
The conclusion the players drew was completely different from what I intended. But when I saw how incensed the artificer was (he looked like he was ready to tear his hair out), I knew I had him hooked. I knew that the idea he came up with was far better than mine. So I just kept up the poker face and said nothing.
Later on, the player couldn’t stop talking about how great the game was and how “awesome my story was”. I gave him my best smile.
3) If you can’t connect an adventure with the previous one, don’t worry. Your players will MAKE those connections.
My next campaign was a straightforward one, filled with lighthearted fare. In the first set of sessions, an airship crash landed on an island infested with zombies conjured by a practitioner of blood magic. An unexpected second arc had me borrowing heavily from The Explorer’s Handbook, a 3.5 supplement for Eberron. I took the Seren Village, and plugged it into my world.
Like any good DM, once I started describing the village I allowed my creative energies to take over and basically made stuff up on the fly to flesh things out. I began to describe how there was only one woman in the village, a result of how any girl born who did not display a touch of magic by a certain age was summarily killed. The villagers also believed that killing the monsters and drinking their blood meant you gained the power of that creature.
Still, I was fully aware that I had nothing to connect this story to the previous adventure. I made a mental reminder to try to bring everything together at a later date, all the while beating myself up for being a bad DM. But then, as the eladrin swordmage and elven cleric discussed things out, they asked, “Do the villagers even realize that they’re performing blood magic?”.
I blinked. How could I have been so stupid? There was the obvious link! OF COURSE! It made perfect sense! They were also performing blood magic! For different motives, and without knowing it, but yes!
Of course, while I mentally did cartwheels, I kept up the poker face. I said nothing and shrugged. Then my players continued to come up with great ideas. Very discreetly, behind my DM screen, I wrote down all the good stuff they were saying. And saved it for the next few adventures.
In the end, it’s not just your story.
I love pen and paper RPGs for many reasons, and one of them is the collaborative component involved in storytelling. Perhaps my poker face keeps me from being able to credit my players for their great ideas, but I see the role of the DM as somewhat akin to that of a magician. I never reveal my secrets. I may have gestures and the smoke and mirrors, but it’s the how the players perceive it all, and their openness and willingness to believe that creates the magic.
My greatest tool as a DM is this: know when to shut up. Do nothing, say nothing. Sometimes the best bits of the game come from that.