Unusual and Unexpected Decisions in Roleplaying

Player characters (PCs) will always think of things that you just can’t anticipate. Knowing how to handle these situations will help you to react sanely to their ideas (and will help you to feel comfortable dealing with such situations), which will help you to allow them their free will. Much of the solution lies within the sphere of improvisation; you have to be able to make logical, reasonable decisions as you go along that can take the PCs’ actions into account. Improvisation as a whole will be covered in more depth in a later article in this series, but we’ll get into a few suggestions here.

Your players will think of approaches to your plots that totally circumvent what you had planned. It happens! Instead of trying to crush any such attempts on their part, let them get creative. Not all of their ideas have to succeed, of course; their ideas might not make sense given the details of the situation, or the PCs might fail their skill checks, or any number of things. But at least give them a chance to come up with something new. Think about their ideas within the context of what you already know about the plot. Do they make sense? Do you think they would work? Can you move things around behind the scenes to keep the party from bypassing something important? (We’ll discuss the “fluid world” concept in more depth in a later article.)

A Brief Note on Power-Gaming vs. Cleverness

Some players like to get clever by looking for bits of rules (like spell effects) that they can string together in odd ways to have unusually effective results. Some people call this “power-gaming” (or any number of other derogatory terms) and consider it to be a very undesirable thing; unusually effective methods can be unbalancing, after all, and game masters (GMs) aren’t always sure how to handle this. In addition, some people do this sort of thing to the detriment of the other players’ fun, which can suck for pretty much everyone except that one player.

However, it can be difficult for a player to know the difference between cleverness and power-gaming, particularly if they aren’t at the extreme of this type of behavior, or their last GM allowed such things. After all, creativity is usually valued in roleplaying games. In truth, creativity is a continuum. What one person calls “power-gaming” is simply a point on that line. A different gamer would pick a
different point and call it power-gaming. There isn’t a big difference between someone who’s just very clever and someone who supposedly power-games, so you’re better off not worrying about labels and terms and blame. Just find a way to restore the balance! That’s a major part of your job as GM, after all: to make sure that the PCs go up against appropriate challenges.

Dealing with Unexpectedly Effective Creativity

Thanks to Douglas McAuliffe for the idea of this particular topic.

We’ll go into the topic of dealing with unexpected creativity by addressing the extremes of such creativity. Not all PC creativity is this overly effective, but it helps to have a “worst case” set of solutions to draw on. For less extreme problems, just pick one or two appropriate solutions and work them (or less extreme versions of them) into your game.

Considering Whether It Will Work

First consider whether it makes sense for the PCs’ strategy to work. Try to think of the little corner-implications. Try to mentally put yourself in the position of someone actually using or being on the receiving end of the strategy. Feel free at this point to tell your players that you just need to take a brief break to think about the implications of what they’re trying to do.

If you’re just too stunned to figure it out right now, or something bothers you about it and you can’t quite put your finger on it, then try something a little different. Tell your players that you’ll let it work this time, but that you’re going to have to do some research on it during the week. Let them know that you might tell them next week that you won’t let them do it any more, but that either way, this one time you’ll let it work. Then think hard about it during the week.

If you think that the game rules really are broken and that the players have found a loophole that just never should have been allowed in the game, you always do have the option to simply disallow it. You are the GM and you decide how your universe works. Try not to do this too often, though. Just as it can sometimes be hard to tell creativity from power-gaming, you don’t want to accidentally find yourself squashing simple creativity as a way of keeping balance. After all, there are other ways to maintain or restore the balance of your game–and some of them lead to great plots!

Maintaining Balance

You need to find appropriate challenges for the PCs. This is how you maintain the balance of the game and keep the party from running roughshod all over everything. Some of the cures for this rest within the province of improvisation, which we’ll cover in another article. Others are a matter of careful thought and strategizing. Let’s start from the idea that your party has come up with a wildly useful (over-effective) strategy that seems to be making everything way too easy for them (most creativity isn’t this unbalancing, but an extreme example can be useful). You could just find a way to take it away from them, but sometimes more interesting solutions can make for a much more entertaining game.

First of all, you have to remember that the PCs operate within the context of your game world. In the real world, rumor and hearsay exist. In the real world it’s hard to keep anything that’s powerful or dangerous a secret. As soon as one country comes up with something, another country’s spies tell them about it and they start work on the same technology. Most super-effective degenerate strategies draw attention, particularly when the PCs use them over and over. It’s important to remember this! This means that the party’s enemies will hear about that strategy. It means that anyone who hears about the party whomping all over everything will be afraid of them and will consider them dangerous.

How Knowledge Spreads

  • A spy watched the battle from a nearby vantage point.
  • A monster (or other enemy) capable of speech escaped and told someone what happened. Heck, maybe he told a whole village about these awful people who massacred his friends!
  • Someone scried the battle.
  • A drunk PC boasted of the battle to an NPC (or an entire bar full of them).
  • Someone overheard a conversation between the PCs.
  • Someone who has prophetic dreams dreamed about the PCs.

The Consequences of Being Obvious

Many of these suggestions are provided within a context, such as dealing with an unexpectedly effective spell. They can be generalized, however, to apply to all sorts of situations.

  • The enemy could say, “cool! That’s such a good idea!” and use it (or something similar) against the PCs or their allies. Once the PCs realize that using their degenerate strategies blatantly and often just gives those strategies away to the enemy, hopefully they’ll be a little more sparing with them.
  • The enemy could come up with a way to counter the effect using spells, technology, or good old-fashioned ingenuity. Put yourself in their shoes — if you had to go up against the PCs, what would you do to protect yourself?
  • People could gang up against the PCs in the name of mutual safety. After all, if the PCs have this super-powerful weapon then they’re dangerous to everyone, right
  • Allies of the PCs stop helping them, merchants charge them higher prices, and so on. No one wants to be seen as helping such dangerous people.
  • Any components necessary for the strategy (spell components, for example) become controlled substances. Black-market prices for the items would soar. Law enforcement would seize stores of the item, search spell-books, arrest anyone who possesses the item without a license, and arrest any wizard who teaches the spell. Very few people would trust wizards in general. (Basically, treat the items involved as highly illegal and dangerous drugs.)
  • If the strategy is something that seems obvious once you look at it, then take it as a given that other people would have figured it out already. What are the consequences of that? How would that affect warfare and society? Is there a group of people somewhere who work to keep anyone from making the strategy public? (Either because they want a monopoly on it, or because they see the strategy as extremely dangerous.)

Appropriate Plot Challenges

Send the party up against plots where the spiffy thing won’t always help them:

  • Put the party in places where they physically can’t use the strategy (not enough room to use your weapon in this narrow hallway? Darn!).
  • Send them up against enemies that can’t be hurt by the strategy (a monster immune to that type of spell or weapon? Sucks to be you!).
  • Send them up against an enemy who’s smart enough to neutralize the advantage or come up with an unusual advantage of his own.
  • Involve them in plots where the strategy won’t solve everything (oops, you really need to take that person alive!).
  • Put them into positions where they have to leave their weapons (or other relevant items) behind.
  • If the problem is magical, there are usually limits on spell-casters in most games. Put them in positions where they have to use up their spells, spell points, spell components, or whatever and don’t have much left for the spiffy strategy.

The possibilities are endless. You don’t have to keep the party from using their advantage entirely, but you do need to make sure that it doesn’t unbalance things too much.

More generally, remember a few key concepts:

  • The PCs don’t operate in a vacuum. The people around them will react to what they do (or appear to do).
  • Their enemies don’t operate in a vacuum either! The enemy is also capable of researching, hearing rumors, spying on the PCs, and coming up with intelligent, creative strategies.
  • Creating appropriate challenges means that the smarter and more powerful the PCs get, the smarter and more powerful the bad guys they go up against should be. Sure, those bad guys should still have weaknesses and blind spots, but those flaws should be harder to find out about and make use of.

You get the picture. Too many GMs think of the bad guys as wacked-out loners who don’t even notice the PCs (or at least don’t pay a whole lot of attention to them). If your PCs seem to be succeeding at everything too easily, then maybe it’s time to make your bad guys smarter. Have them pay more attention to what’s going on. Let them come up with a few tricky strategies of their own!

Character Choices

Unexpected player choices sometimes come in other forms. For example, your players might want to play a different sort of party than the one you’re expecting, or different sorts of characters altogether. Instead of just dismissing their ideas out of hand, try to find a way to work them into the game. Of course you have to keep things like party coherence in mind, but often you can mine unusual character choices for interesting game material. You can also work together with the players so that they end up with characters that you approve of. (You can find more on this subject in our “Players Playing Characters” articles.)

A Word on Context

Many roleplaying game problems become much easier to solve if you put them in context. By this I mean the context of your game world. In another article I talk about using contextual clues to manipulate the party. This is just another way of saying that you shape the context in which the party finds itself (the game world) to influence the eventsof the game.

You have to keep in mind while you GM that there’s an entire world that goes on around the PCs. That world should be observing and reacting to the actions of the party. Use that! If the party starts unbalancing things, the world should automatically fight back in an attempt to restore the balance. This is one of the advantages to having a large world out there beyond the main area in which the game takes place–the party never knows what is going to take notice of them and interfere with their plans.

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