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Thinking Outside The Box

By Skimble

Players are well known for coming up with actions the GM could never have anticipated. Give them an innocent-seeming maiden who pleads with them for help in dealing with some kind of heinous monster and they’re just as likely to kill her on the spot due to their suspicion that this is the lure in some kind of cunning trap.

Rather than being something to fear though, this propensity of players is something that can be encouraged and even, sometimes, rewarded.

Players always seem to enjoy resolving a scenario more when they utilise an unorthodox plan rather than taking the obvious route. Conversely as a player I have noticed that GMs are more likely to be lenient towards an unorthodox plan, either because they simply haven’t prepared for it in advance or because they wish to reward originality.

While this kind of thing can lead to “Crazy enough to work” or “Million-to-one chance” moments (which is perfectly fine in a particular type of game), the same sort of lateral thinking can be used more subtly in games that tend to be too serious to encourage the use of such tongue-in-cheek tropes.

How can a player use unorthodox solutions without straining credibility, and how can (or should) GMs moderate their application?

Every problem has a range of solutions

While a given problem may have a single obvious solution, there are always others that can be explored. Choosing one other than the most obvious can often bring a touch of spice to a situation that otherwise might be tinged with over-familiarity.

Of course the range of available solutions might be constrained to an extent by the personality of your character or by his past experience, but in part this can be assisted by the GM.

Let us take the example of a player in a modern setting whose character is urgently trying to get into a nightclub in order to prevent a friend of his from being attacked by one of their rivals. The only problem is that he is dressed in a way that doesn’t meet the dress code and the bouncers refuse to admit him as a result.

If the character’s usual solution to problems such as this is to whip out his wallet and offer a bribe to the obstacle in question then that is most likely going to be his first action. At this point the GM has the choice of either allowing this to work or putting a spanner in the gears and encouraging the player/character to come up with an alternative solution to the problem.

Letting the bribe work has the advantage of allowing the scene to continue with a minimal pause, keeping the overall pace high. On the other hand making the bouncer honest or finding some other way of stymying this option means that the character now has to find another way into the club or past the bouncer, worrying all the while that his associate could be attacked at any time.

If a character is more inclined to a wide variety of approaches to problems then the player can mix things up without needing assistance from the GM, weighing up a variety of different factors in coming up with a solution.

Example: Rather than talking his way past the bouncer the character heads down the street and sabotages the local electricity feeder box. This plunges the club into darkness and causes an emergency evacuation, whilst also making it extremely difficult for the character’s friend to be found and attacked.

Too many obstacles become frustrating

While players enjoy bending their minds around problems to arrive at interesting solutions, too many obstacles or too much obscurity in the puzzle just become annoying. If as a GM you tweak a situation to discourage the most obvious or common usual solution try not to go overboard in doing so. If a player feels like he is being blocked deliberately at every turn he will often just get frustrated and withdraw.

Example: The character tries to bribe the bouncer, but he refuses, offended. He goes to the back of the club and there’s a couple necking by the back door that will cause him trouble. The roof access fire-escape is rusty and doesn’t work. Nobody answers the phone. Raargh!

Try not to consciously or subconsciously limit the number of solutions

When you are constructing a scenario it’s perfectly acceptable to have a solution or solutions in mind as to how it can be resolved by the players. It’s even better if you have some ideas about how each member of the group can contribute to that solution. Equally, it’s fine to set up a situation and not know how it can be solved. Your players are a resourceful bunch, they’ll think of something!

What you should categorically not do is think up a single solution to the scenario and close your mind off to all others. That will just lead to too-many-obstacles syndrome in most cases. If the players are struggling to find a solution and the game is getting bogged down then feel free to have them notice additional details that may assist in coming to a solution or even have an event occur that alters the parameters of the problem.

Additionally, if they try something that seems plausible but you aren’t 100% sure would work, make it a habit to give it the benefit of the doubt. Using their own solution rather than the one you had in mind will tend to make the players feel good about themselves.

Example: In a recent game the characters were attempting to retrieve a locket that had fallen down a drain and then been dragged along it by a rat until it had become entangled with a root projecting through the top of the drain. It was therefore out of reach and a challenge to obtain.

I had not come up with a particular method by which the item could be retrieved, being sure that my players would think of something. In the end they put up a mesh at the far end of the drain and washed the locket through with muddy water.

This undoubtedly took longer than it needed to, but the players felt a strong sense of satisfaction when they finally took the locket into their possession.

Have fun with consequences

I’d always advocate this anyway, but the consequences can be particularly enjoyable when players use an unorthodox solution to a problem. Don’t use this as a way of punishing the players for being inventive, but instead use it as a way of deepening the story (introducing additional complications down the line does count) or even rewarding them for their creativity.

There is an exception to this rule of course if the majority of realistic consequences from the  action they have taken would be negative: In that case feel free to go to town.

If you’re trying to encourage thinking outside the box you should consider warning players about the stupidity quotient of the actions they are considering, though, depending on their characters’ intelligence.

Example: As a consequence of the nightclub being plunged into darkness and evacuated the players’ rival gets involved in a fracas during the push out of the building, shooting someone. He is hazily identified by one of the people in the press, and as a consequence has to lie low for a while.

In closing

As a GM know that player inventiveness can really bring some spice to a staid scenario. Be open to quirky or unorthodox methods if you think there’s any chance at all that they might work and watch the players get more deeply involved in the session as a result.

As a player, know that the GM will be entertained by novel approaches to problems and may well be more lenient in adjudicating such an approach than the most obvious one. Should there be unintended consequences to your actions (which there often will be), try to embrace the earlier point about failure being interesting and trust that the game as a whole will more interesting as a result than it otherwise would have been.

Have fun!

One Comment

  1. avatar

    shadebug says:

    Your getting into a club scenario was en entire episode of Toon for me once. They were hungry and needed to get into a hotel restaurant but the dress code meant they needed a bow tie to get through. After a whole load of chasing round Leonidas shaped bellboys to steal their bow ties, summoning Chuck Norris twice (he was, of course, appropriately dressed so had a lovely meal with himself before everything kicked off) and having a naval battle I think they instead ended up down the chippy.

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