June 5, 2014
Using What You Have
Something players – both new and veteran –forget from time to time is one of the greatest strengths that a tabletop role-playing game has: near-infinite possibilities. Unlike in, say, a video game where players are only able to perform certain actions or interact with certain objects in the world, in a tabletop role-playing game, players are able to perform any action their characters are capable of; anything they think their character’s might be capable of that is within the bounds of the character’s ability and the game itself, and interact with anything and everything in the world. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in that “gamer” mindset and forget what is possible.
For example, in one Dresden Files game I was playing in, a spy from the Summer Court of Faerie was attempting to get away from one of the characters – a super-strong were-gorilla, and yes you read that right – and despite all the character’s best efforts, he could not get past the fey’s innate abilities. However, fey have one well-known weakness. Iron. Unfortunately he was not carrying anything iron so he improvised. He asked me “Is there a dumpster nearby?” to which I replied, “You are chasing the little thing through an alleyway, so yes.” At that, the player calmly described his super-strong gorilla-man hoisting up a dumpster and proceeded to beat the little creature with it.
The entire group was rolling with laughter at the idea of what that might look like.
Too many times I have seen players get frustrated when they cannot think of anything for their character to do or have any ability that is really useful in a certain situation. When this happens, it is good to remind them that they are not limited to what is listed on their character sheets. Players are free to improvise, and in fact are often encouraged to do so. Many memorable moments in gaming come from players going off the cuff and doing something spontaneous that goes well beyond “I swing my sword at it” or “I cast a spell.”
Of course sometimes having the option to do anything leaves you not having anything you can think of. Too many options can bog a player down and make them feel overwhelmed. Gamemasters, a good idea here is to give them suggestions. Maybe make them roll a quick perception check and, depending on how good they roll, give them some suggestions. Help them out. Then, as the game goes on, you will likely find yourself having to do this less and less as the players start to grow more comfortable with this style of improvisation.
This level of creative freedom is one strength that can never be matched by any form of gaming I can think of. No matter how many options or open-world features you put into a video game, you will always be limited by the programming and by what the developers/programmers thought of first. These sorts of restrictions do not exist in the purely imaginative medium that is tabletop role-playing games.
As always, thanks for reading and I wish you all good, and creative, gaming.
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