When You Don’t Know What to Do, Go for a Walk

Most of you know this already, but I’ll say it anyway. Player characters (PCs) in roleplaying games (RPGs) can’t solve all the plots by sitting in their living room. Right from the start you should get out and look at things, talk to people. The police and detectives in mystery movies solve crimes and other puzzles by going places. You need to do the same thing; you can’t expect your game master (GM) to bring everything to you. Check out the crime scene. Question the witnesses. Hunt down people the witnesses remember seeing and talk to them. If you have a contact with the police, query them. If you don’t, why not try to make one? These suggestions are easy to transplant into other contexts than criminal mysteries–just look around and be curious at the world.

But beyond that, when you’ve been to all the places you can think of and you’ve talked to all the people whose names you’ve written down, you can still do something more. You can take a walk.

Inevitable Frustration?

We all hit that point eventually in an RPG: your characters are sitting around a table talking over all the information they’ve collected. You think you’ve been everywhere, talked to everyone, but you’re stumped. You sit there for hours and you’re still stumped. Did your GM not give you enough clues? Did you miss something? Are you just not seeing what’s right under your nose?

It’s very difficult for a GM to plan things out so that you get enough clues to figure out the plot without getting so many that it’s too easy. Even the most experienced GM can misjudge things. After all, the GM can’t read your minds. He doesn’t know what you’ll catch and what you won’t, and he can’t predict which clues you’ll put together and which you won’t.

Roleplaying Imitates Life

You don’t have to break character to solve your problem. Most people don’t spend all their time in the house. A PC can go out to a restaurant for dinner or grab a sandwich at the corner store. He might take a long walk if he’s getting frustrated or even go jogging. He could look up an NPC friend for a new perspective on the situation. He could go to the bookstore for a book on the subject. Maybe he could go back to the scene of the crime for one last look, even if there’s nothing left to see. He could find a quiet park somewhere and sit on a bench to think. Pick up groceries. Play a game of pinball at the arcade. Fill the car up with gas. Lie down in a clearing and look up at the stars. Climb a tree. Visit a sick friend in the hospital. Dance at a nightclub. Drink at a bar. Buy a present for an old friend at a store; make a new friend over coffee at a cafe. Look into another plot that’s been neglected for the current crisis. Buy a painting for the house at an art gallery. Attend a party down the block. Go for a drive.

Many gaming groups gloss over these simple details of life in the interest of not wasting a lot of time. For the most part this works out well, but sometimes the simple details are exactly what you need. If you ignore the fact that PCs are likely to leave the house for such things, you take away one of the GM’s most versatile means of slipping in extra clues when he sees that the party is lost. This doesn’t mean that your character has to go for a walk every ten minutes or that these things have to take over the game. It just means that you should think of them once in a while, when they’re appropriate. In particular, when your character gets frustrated. That’s exactly the time when people tend to need a break–both your character and you.

There’s no need to go into a lot of detail; you don’t have to roleplay your way through the line at the deli counter, right down to the contents of your sub. Just a simple “I get lunch at the deli,” will do, and then the GM can tell you if anything interesting comes up.

You shouldn’t get upset at the GM if he doesn’t immediately respond by giving you another clue. But if you allow your character to develop habits like these, then it gives the GM the opportunity to slip in new clues when he thinks it necessary. After all, roleplaying is a cooperative effort. It may be your GM’s responsibility to make sure that the pieces of the puzzle are there, but it’s your responsibility to look for them, and to be available to receive them.

So if you can’t think of anything else to do, do what most real people would do–take a break. Relax. Go somewhere. Your GM, who’s been chewing his nails wondering how on earth he’s going to get that last piece of information to you, will thank you.

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