For ten years, starting in the summer of 1995, I ran a “Medieval Vampire” game, one very detailed and somewhat exhausting campaign à la Anne Rice, with two unrelated groups of players, and constant references to the books. This is when I first came up with the concept of the player’s wish list, around 97 or 98. At first, I expected to find the same idea somewhere else, already invented and exploited in some supplement. Over the years, I kept looking, but didn’t find anything like it anywhere. So, maybe I really invented this, after all. Hard to believe... but there it is.
Whenever I was out of breath or inspiration, or both, I created a few of these Lists and passed them along to my players, to keep them happy – and it worked extremely well, mainly because, as you are about to see, this thing allows players to (temporarily) become their own Dungeon Master.
Basically, it is just like the spending of good old experience points, except that these “wish lists” can impact both the storyline and campaign setting directly, whereas ordinary XP only impact the player characters themselves. Some of the stuff you put on a List will have implications well outside the scope of mere character sheets, and when the player’s choices are finally turned in, as a Dungeon Master, your hands are tied, and you have to implement whichever and whatever option you hinted at on paper.
Here’s how it works.
Let’s say you have four players in a classic medieval fantasy campaign. There is one Half-elf mage, one thief, one Human fighter, and one Dwarf fighter. Presently, they have just concluded a lengthy adventure module, and all return together to the human fighter’s modest estate. That’s when you hand out your Lists. Each player gets his or her own.
This is the Half-elf’s List:
30 POINTS TO SPEND
Identification of the gelatinous contents of the two mysterious urns found in the priest’s subterranean temple (end of last adventure).
Increased control over that tiny Ghost Bird that’s been following you since your Astral Travel of two adventures ago (one precise task, weekly).
Have your Master remove the curse on your newfound magical weapon, thus making it an ordinary +3 dagger.
Receive a letter from your friend Lord Ochtar, with fresh news about Sorcerer Island, and the pact you made over there in your very first adventure.
Near the river, find a beryl wand that could very well belong to one of Prince Bresh’s apprentices, providing a permanent +1 bonus in casting any Illusion spells.
An old travelling witch sells you her eerie Vellum Tablet, on which you can write any magic-related question you want – and an answer to that question will appear on the same page, three minutes later. Who (or what) is the author of those “answers”? The witch doesn’t know. (12 pages / charges left in the Tablet).
Now, the Human fighter’s List may look like this:
30 POINTS TO SPEND
Focusing every last moment of your free time on the study of royal proclamations and various Court documents, you learn the crests of every Lord and Knight in a fifty miles radius. You acquire the Heraldry skill, first level.
Add fortifications and a watch tower to your estate, with no extra costs in gold.
The antique tapestry you just brought back from the subterranean temple of Enhuyr, slowly turns into a bizarre map over the course of the next ten days! It appears to show the path towards another temple of the same evil cult, with two marked secret doors.
A village boy brings you back four of the precious +1 arrows you lost six months ago in Krick’s Wood, during that midnight ambush by the Goblins.
Your dog is gnawing on a human femur. Following it the next day, you discover the overgrown forest barrow of a monk. Collect 19 copper pieces, 3 silver pieces, and a mysterious clay amulet (possibly magic).
Blacksmith Oswen helps you increase your crossbow’s maximum range by 12 feet.
Of course, the thief and the Dwarf would also get very different Lists. You really share your Dungeon Master job with them individually: open a few doors here and there, make these suggestions, and let your players mull them over and come up with a choice.
Expect the players to be quite excited, and maybe ask each other: “What do you have?” Secretive players won’t tell. Collaborative players will put everything out in the open, every option, and try to make strategic decisions for the common good. Secretive or not – it’s all fine. This is their moment. Give them time to scratch their heads and ponder.
You can set a timer on the table, if you prefer to add urgency to this process. If you find a vintage alarm clock, even better: that ticking will drive them crazy.
I have never seen a player turn in his or her List within the first five minutes; they are always torn, unable to pick and choose. Even if you go into the next room for coffee, you’ll hear various groans and hisses, fumbling with the pencils and the eraser, nervous scribbling sounds, and then more fumbling with the eraser...
Another type of List is the Group List. The Dungeon Master comes up with but one set of options, and the players all get the same sheet of paper. So, the secretive aspect is not applicable in this case; the group has to come to an agreement, and spend their points together. It’s a different experience, but very interesting.
Imagine this next List being presented to a space opera group of three: Humanoid female pilot, Alien gunner, and Hologram scientist (why not).
20 POINTS TO SPEND
A chance encounter with a crippled android soldier provides you with a critical piece of information: the exact coordinates of Warlord Huwyd’s invisible asteroid. For the first time ever, you could have the upper hand in an ongoing conflict with this nasty arch-enemy of yours...
Skirting the Qëlyth Nebula, you came across the remains of a blown-up shuttle, and found a small container floating about in the void, with a +2 plasma cannon clip inside, compatible with your own ship’s armament.
Midway between Tolstar VI and the Herring System, you receive a distress signal from the Zip-N-Orbit spaceclub. Being so close, you decide to respond, only to find the club’s staff shot, and nineteen patrons dead or dying in the main room. “Umokh Raiders,” they say. One dying explorer gives you the access code to his base on a remote moon – a rather large compound with comfortable living quarters for six, plus a landing bay!
You get a rare audience with the Ozone Mutants headquartered on the Flat Moon, and they expertly upgrade every single one of your weapons (add +1 to any and all existing bonuses).
Brand new RHP (Remote Holographic Probe) allowing Xynt the Hologram to operate in outer space up to 500 yards away from the ship.
Needless to say, a big powerful item alongside crappy ones, with nothing else in between, doesn’t make for a very challenging List. Always aim towards those painstaking dilemmas. You put at least two major prizes on any given List, but you also want minor items. These things have to be flexible. Granted, the +1 arrows lost in Krick’s Wood are not that important – but you still have to include “small” stuff, in order for the players to adequately complete and adjust their spending. (If you get 30 points, you sure don’t want to spend only 25.)
For example, on a 30-points List, you should have one big 20-points item, one 15-points item, two 10-points items, and two or maybe even three little 5-points items. Your goal is for players to shop around and be conflicted: that is where the fun begins. With 30 points to spend, they could either go 20 + 5 + 5 or 15 + 10 + 5 or 10 + 10 + 5 + 5 or any other permutation.
So, our Alien gunner will love that plasma clip; Xynt the Hologram will want the RHP; both pilot and gunner would appreciate that upgraded weaponry (but not the Hologram – he is unarmed); all three would love a home base to stay at... What will the group decide?
Assuredly, you will hear many speculations. “Can we attain the very same result through normal gaming?” Players are ever so practical, and they will think of grabbing the useful / powerful items first... and then, maybe, try to learn about that major villain’s abode through ordinary in-game investigation. Question is: will it work? Really, it’s your call. You allow it, or you don’t. Not allowing it is an interesting move; when the next Group List comes, they sure will think twice about just collecting the cool stuff. (“Yes, maybe that lucky break, on the previous List, was indeed our only chance to ever locate Warlord Huwyd’s invisible asteroid!”)
The most daring and complicated type of List is the Campaign List. This is where you truly relinquish your DM powers and let the players steer the game in a direction of their own choosing. You simply put forward a diverse array of compatible scenarios and NPC elements, and let your DM-players shape the future for themselves.
Let’s go back to our first example: Half-elf mage, the two fighters, and the thief. The Campaign List they’d get could look like this:
5 POINTS TO SPEND
An earthquake strikes the kingdom, opening a gigantic fifty-mile-long rift and revealing numerous long-lost subterranean settlements. Adventurers quickly go down into that crevasse, enter some ancient ruins, and return with gold – thus ushering in a new era of “rift explorations” and (of course) rivalries amongst professional treasure seekers and ruthless looters.
A bizarre vagrant tribe of jesters, riddlers and puppeteers settle down along the river, offering perfunctory gifts to every Knight and Lord in the vicinity. People soon find out strange things about these “riddlers” and “jugglers”. They are, in fact, powerful priests of an unknown religion, said to hunt down demons and evil spirits. Is that true? Are they good guys, or bad guys?
A dimensional altar materializes on top of Aker Hill, with seven irregular holes in it. One big asymmetrical gem pulses in the first socket, but the six others are still empty. According to scholars, the locations of the six other gems are hinted at in ancestral scrolls scattered in libraries, monasteries, and private collections across the kingdom. But what exactly will that altar do if and when all seven gems are gathered?
Deep underground, some sort of Elemental War ended up with the banishment and random binding of the leaders: five Earth elementals, eight Water elementals, and two Fire elementals. If a Human was to find the exact binding place of any banished Elemental, that Elemental would have to do his finder’s bidding for up to a week!
Count Enràug, a very rich old man, hired an architect to build him a huge tomb on his own land, but inexplicable things keep happening on that site: workers feel stronger, younger, and the sick ones even got healthy again. From as far as two cities over, more and more workers come to the site, wanting to get hired, while the architect keeps re-drawing that mausoleum, making it ever bigger and bigger...
Ten years ago an abandoned child was found on the steps of a temple. Raised by clerics and priests, that child now begins to display some amazing abilities: he says he can “feel” the magical things and places – and find them right away. He once walked straight into the wilderness, and dug up an enchanted ground stone maul nobody knew about. Alas, being close to that child also seems to trigger all sorts of eldritch nightmares...
The List above is an example of variety. That “rift” arc involves survival skills and lots of exploration in deep inhospitable tunnels. The “vagrant tribe” arc involves social skills and old-school techniques of investigation. The “altar” arc will test knowledge skills, library use, and maybe demand some puzzle solving. So, the players really make an important decision here – one that is going to impact their adventures for quite a while – and they indeed become their own Dungeon Master, objectively, if not subjectively.
Could an Elemental War cause an earthquake? If the group end up selecting those items together... possibly! Exploring that “rift” with the help of a bound Earth elemental would be nice. But having both “vagrant tribe” and “altar” could also prove very interesting... Or maybe an ominous “rift” plus “tribe” combo? And this gifted child, was he abandoned by that same vagrant tribe, ten years ago, and if so, why?
Once the players have chosen the parts, you take over and put them together as you see fit. If they picked “altar” and “mausoleum”, then maybe that mysterious architect is in fact the dimensional guardian of the altar... Feel free to mix it up. Lists are not mini CYOA books in that the details are still up to a real-life DM. You get the onions, beef, and celery – but will you serve a stew, or a meatloaf?
It’s fun to know what your players crave – so that you can go and write it for them, but still surprise them. Custom-made campaigns are the best.
Group / Campaign mixes
After playing for a few years, you come to a point where the characters are intricately linked to the world they live in. This is when the Lists you create can contain both Group and Campaign elements. An example:
Reports of Umokh raids have more than doubled in the last eighteen months, and there are not nearly enough military ships to patrol every route. On the Flat Moon, government officials have come to a decision: they selected a hundred independent starships, and “deputized” them for two years. Your own ship is among the chosen! But who are the other ninety-nine – and what if some of these crews abuse their new powers and try to make a profit while “enforcing the law”?
Finally, never be afraid to change the delivery system. Individual Lists can be handed over at the beginning of a game session instead of at the end. Or you can wait until the day after a game, and send each player his or her List via email.
For a Group or Campaign List, you can print the options separately on a series of cards, and give each one a title. The “rift” arc could then be called “What Lies Below”, and the “vagrant tribe” arc could be called “Unexpected Guests”.
I’m sure imaginative Dungeon Masters out there will find new twists and alternative ways to use this tool and have fun with it.
This is a small contribution to the RPG universe, but writing it and putting it out there was actually an item on my bucket list!