Beware the Brain-Tapping Elves

Advice Derailment Drama gming Player

Off the RailsIt was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was after school in the late nineties. We were hanging out, as usual, in our local pizza place, relieving them of their discounted pizza left over from the lunch rush. Oh, and we were gaming, which is why this is applicable.

Our party was mid-way through its epic quest to destroy the evil necromancer. This was the same evil necromancer from our last epic quest, whose party had met an ignominious end; namely, we had succumbed to a “new shiny” and had switched games. Still, we were pretty determined to slay the [email protected][email protected] this time.


We were on the frontiers of our campaign world’s dominant nation, near the secretive country of the Elves when we stopped at a roadhouse for the night. Inside, a PC struck up a conversation with a pair of elves. One of the them, studying the PC and his companions, said something like: “you’re out to slay the necromancer.”

The session may as well have ended there. You see, the player of that PC had decided that the elf had read his character’s mind. He’d apparently done it without visibly casting a spell. In our campaign world, psionics are only available to an evil “alien” race.

This left that player two possible conclusions. First, the elf was some sort of uber-wizard. Second, he was a disguised member of an evil race. Either way, that elf was an Interesting Thing.

That player proceeded to interrogate what he termed the “Brain-Tapping Elf.” No amount of explanation would suffice. The more the elf protested, the more the player was certain that he was hiding something. The player’s certainty was infectious. Eventually, most of the rest of the group joined in the questioning of the elves, which proceeded to drag on for a good portion of the session.

Behind the Screen

Our party wasn’t exactly a secret mission. We had been chosen at a grand convocation of Druids. We’d been making our way west for weeks or months. We were relatively high level, and had some quasi-famous PCs in the party.

The elves knew of the party. They saw a group of well-armed heavy hitters heading west, toward the oncoming undead hoard. They didn’t exactly have to be pointy-eared Sherlock Holmeses.

I’m pretty sure these elves were just scenery. They weren’t powerful, or vital to the plot. They certainly weren’t “brain-tapping.”

Nothing the GM did, however, could shake the players’ belief that these elves were important. They just took it all as evasiveness. He eventually had to say, out of character, “look guys, there’s nothing here.”

What’s a GM to Do?

I’m really not sure what he could have done differently. The elf had made a logical deduction. The player misinterpreted. The session was so badly derailed that the tracks weren’t even visible anymore.

Down the Alley, a Plot Wagon Flew

Should the GM have succumbed to apparent player demand and made the elves important to the main plot? I find this really unsatisfying. By this logic, the PCs are like spotlights that find Main Plot wherever they look. What’s the point of making decisions and puzzling out the mystery as a player if you’ll find the plot no matter what you do?

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the plot morphed accordingly. Maybe the elves are now important to the plot. How does that ripple of change get propagated through the story? This also gets a lot more plausible in games like Fate or Houses of the Blooded, where players are given more narrative control.

Should he have spawned a side-plot to satisfy player interest in these elves? This is a little better. If the PCs are the main characters of the story, then the “plot” is whatever happens to them. If they find adventure with a pair of formerly unimportant elves, what’s the harm? This solution has the danger of getting lost in side quests though.

Isn’t it Ironic?

Those options might have handled the players’ overabundance of interest in the elves. Neither, however, would have dispelled the “brain-tapping” hysteria. How does a GM handle such a reaction? Should it be handled at all?

Maybe our GM should have gone out of character sooner. After the first couple minutes of confusion, should he have just broken out the “move along, nothing to see here?” Again, this is aesthetically unpleasant to me. These sorts of mix-ups happen all the time in real life. In fact, it happens in stories so often that there’s a name for it: Dramatic Irony. You know, like in every plot of Frasier.

The problem is that while it may be effective for an audience, it’s not so fun for the characters. It’s even more frustrating when it completely takes over the session. While I try to avoid going OOC or using GM ex Machina to get the players back on track, it’s sometimes unavoidable. It’s certainly preferable to letting the situation spoil the session.

Is there a way to make Dramatic Irony fun for the players? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. The whole point is in the tension arising from what the audience knows that the characters don’t. In gaming, the players are both the audience and the characters. If the audience doesn’t know the joke, it’s just confusion.

The one exception to that is, of course, the Plot Twist. This occurs when both the audience and the characters learn that a thing wasn’t quite what they believed it to be. Sometimes realizing that you’ve been operating under false pretenses makes for a fun moment. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a good way to make a plot twist out of falsely accused “brain-tapping elves.”

What About the Players?

In RPGs we at times get carried away in the moment, letting a momentary whim dominate our decision making. This can happen in real life too, of course, but it seems to occur way more often in games. Perhaps this is because we don’t really bear the costs of our behavior.

Sometimes this makes for fun mayhem. Other times, though, it just makes for frustration. Thus, your responsibilities as a player aren’t limited to the scope of “playing your character.” Games are supposed to be fun, after all. While we’re playing our characters, we have to make sure we’re not derailing everybody else’s fun.

If the player who had kicked off the “brain-tapping elves” incident had stopped to think for a moment, he probably would have noticed that both the GM and several of the players were looking bored and frustrated. He might also have realized that there were more plausible explanations for the elf’s statement than mind reading. However, this particular player had a penchant for getting caught in the minutiae of a scene.

Those of us who were in that game have discussed the “Brain-Tapping Elf Incident” for over ten years now. In fact, it’s become a byword for game derailment. If you’ve been here before, you probably won’t be surprised to find that we came up with a theory as to why that particular player was prone to this sort of thing. Actually we have several: a love of argument, ADHD, plain ol’ stubbornness, and…

Computer-Based RPGs

Back then, you had to pay attention to every little detail in a CRPG. Anything could crop up as useful elsewhere in the game. The player in question was an avid computer RPG player, and we theorized that it sort of trained him to consider anything that stuck out in a scene to be important.

The End is the Beginning

We’ve had many other times when our games got derailed, but this was probably the worst. It seems to happen less these days. I’m not sure whether this is due to experience, maturity, or something else entirely. Unfortunately, I can still only come up with two possible ways to handle a player determined to make his own giant helping of red herring:

  • Go with it, and try to make it fun
  • Nip it in the bud out of character

Whichever way you choose, good luck, and beware the Brain-Tapping Elves!

Have you had your own Brain-Tapping Elf experience? How did you handle it? Want to defend old school CRPGs? Think we’re stereotyping Brain-Tapping Elves? Let us know in the comments!

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