Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #4: What is Your Intent with my Dungeon?

Let’s discuss a dead simple communication technique I learned very late in my Dungeon Mastering career.

I’ve often found myself faced with players that go to great lengths trying to explain what they want their to do during their turn. They’ll invoke powers, rules, mix it with what their characters say and think, often, creating a somewhat confusing mess. I’ve seen this in convention games and among some of my players, often hardcore storytellers. Such players often start elaborating about the context of the situation and what motivates  the character and then get lost somewhere in personal narrative.

When that happens, I lean toward the player, apologize for the interruption and ask “What is your character’s intent here? What are you trying to accomplish.”  This very often gives me the expected result: the player refocuses on telling me what he wants the character to do. I got that technique from the Burning Wheel fantasy RPG where it describes that each player action should be made of an intent and a task. From that point forward, I have asked that questions in nearly all my roleplaying sessions.

Whenever I feel a player struggles with deciding what to do during a turn I’d say:

“First tell me what is your character’s intent here, then we’ll work together to see how it can be done.” 

I also noticed that some players are loath to share their intent, fearing that I’ll counter it. I don’t believe in that GMing ethos, my job is to make sure you are properly challenged, not properly screwed.  I already put all the obstacles in the scene/encounter the players find themselves in. From that point forward, when players decide what to do I become, for the space of a few turns, their greatest fan. I encourage them to find clever solutions, play out devilish power combos and blow my well-crafted plans out of the water.

I highly suggest you strive to do something similar. Challenge your players BEFORE you know how they’ll react to your threats, then react to their decision in a way that makes sense in the story you’re weaving, not in the way that specifically thwarts their plans.

(With the possible exception when facing obviously more intelligent foes, then go to Metagame city, you at least have a story argument to stand on.)

That being said, I’ve also seen the opposite occur in some players. Given a problem or a combat scene, the player will go through his entire character sheet looking for a solution, usually the most efficient mix of movement and powers, and then try to build an intent behind the chosen task. I don’t mind that too much when the player manages to choose rapidly enough and manages an intent that makes sense in the context of the game. But when the player falters into analysis paralysis territory, I pull the same trick and attempt to pull back the player back into the story instead of the game’s mechanics. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth the effort to remind players that solutions don’t always lie on character sheets.

When that trick became a common habit in my playing group, we all collectively started focusing more on describing what characters did, and how success or failure affected the encounters we were playing. I believe it contributed to bring us closer to that fabled “roleplaying” that so many DMs aspire to.

Keep that trick in mind for those times a player gets stuck in a mental loop, bring them back to the most basic element of what RPGs are: Tell the GM what your character wants to do, the GM will help you determine what happens next.

So what’s your intent in your next game?


  1. Your tip of “what’s your intent?” is great, and I use it all the time, but often under another, similar, guise: “elaborate”. Where “what’s your intent?” is meant to cut to the bare bones, “elaborate” is a request for more meat. You might reduce a sort of RPG salad (mechanical terms, intended and actual actions, dialog, etc.) to a more reasonable set of instructions, but this process applies equally well to inducing a better game from “I roll perception”. You give good examples of honing down a bunch of malarkey into “well I really just want to push the bad guy into the lava”, but equally important, I think, is turning “I search for secret doors” into “I rap on the walls to check for hollow spaces or loose stones”.

    Together these two tools have worked wonders for me in adjusting the level of content I’m receiving from my players. Some days they just want to roll a strength check without description, and I have to tell them to elaborate on what they’re trying to accomplish (a check without an intent is pretty worthless!), and at the same time I’ll rarely get players going overboard as you suggest, and I’ll have to remind them to give their meaty content a backbone that’s easy to follow.

    Looking forward to more,
    The Hydra DM

  2. @Hydra: I agree 100% with you. “Elaborate” should be the second stage of that series of communication tools that DMs should use.

    Vincent Baker boils it down to its essence in Apocalypse World when he tells GMs that whenever a player says he wants to do something, they should almost always answer “Cool! How does your character do that?”

    Thanks for the insight!

  3. highbulp says:

    This is an awesome tip. The one challenge is that it requires that you trust your DM to follow through with it. I’ve found with some DMs that if I just straight out say what my goal is, they react with “oh no, that’s too powerful, too easy, doesn’t fit with my vision of how things will go down, etc,” and then shoot down any justifications I may add through character motivations or mechanics before I’ve even started. If I at least begin by explaining the character motivation and the rules bits (the things the game says my character can do), then they’re more likely to accept that my intent is feasible. Otherwise I get a lot of “my intent is to kill that guy!” “well you’re not going to be able to do that, do you want to try something else?”

  4. TheMainEvent says:

    I’m going to use this tonight when some of my fellow players are caught up in 20th level Pathfinder Paralysis.

  5. DarkplaneDM says:

    This post is DM gold. Amen to all. I use the “what are you trying to accomplish?” all the time and it’s wonderful. I also think you describe the DM’s loyalty perfectly. He’s the villain in preparation, but at the table, he’s the players’ biggest supporter. I find myself cheering audibly for the players when they kill a tough baddie, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that.

  6. Ashtoret says:

    Great post! I liked to read it, and the advice was simple to execute yet powerful.
    I have to ask about the “metagame city” part with the more intelligent creatures thwarting the plans and actions of PCs. In my latest session, the PC arrived at the final scene of the campaign, acting as companions for a villain they decided to side with against other campaign villains- a fox-woman who was bound to betray them eventually. I was consistent with her portrayal as a very intelligent, experienced, cunning, backstabbing bi*ch who wasn’t really a threat combat-wise, but managed to outsmart all the other bad guys (a lich, a dragon, an illithid and a hag) and so the PCs decided to help her quest. When the betrayal scene came, I already had pre-printed paragraphs from a couple months ago ready with descriptions of specific ways she had of thwarting their actions, calling every PC by name and announcing what I thought he would do and how she counters it. My in-game excuse was that she had many adventures with these characters and sufficient time to know what they will likely try against her. As you mentioned, I used Meta-game knowledge of different powers/ tactics/ playstyle of my players against them.
    Would you say it as fair, if it was meant to give a certain depth to my villain and drive the campaign to the conclusion I was aiming at, or is this kind of DMing to be frowned upon? My players do trust me, and they thought it was done tastefully and fit the story, but somehow I feel as if I robbed them of the chance to change their own fate. Note that they could surprise the villain with actions not in my printed paragraphs, and she wouldn’t have a response to these. But I know my players all to well, and she knew the adventurers closely, and so it went as anticipated.
    What do you think?

  7. @Ashtoret: Great story. I wouldn’t feel bad as you did exactly what I suggest DMs do, you planned your villain in advance, you played her according to a script and the players took fate in their own hands the moment they accepted to side with a known betrayer AND villain.

    Plus you got the ultimate validation, your players told you they liked it… and I think you knew they would. Anything else is DMing inner demons. 🙂

  8. I’ve recently been playing indie games like Apocalypse World and Psi*Run, where the GM doesn’t really do anything active, just reacts to the players. This intent and task breakdown works really well for that; the dice determine whether the task achieved the intent or not, the GM just has to figure out how the story twists to let them do what they want or not.

  9. “What’s your intent?” has been an invaluable teaching tool as well. I’ve started an RPG Club at the school I teach at, so I’m teaching all my players how to play.