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Out-Thinking Your GM

In my advice to gamemasters, I've often commented that GMs need to be loose and adaptable, because the many heads of the players will always out-think the single head of the GM.
Yet, despite that caution, I've sometimes been surprised when my players have failed to solve a problem I've set before them. There's a logic to RPG problem-solving that players can apply to help themselves succeed.

1. Remember the Rules of the Game

This is most applicable if you know your GM is using a published module, but even when the GM writes his or her own adventures, the "rules" may be useful.

  • Clues are important. That toss-off remark by someone in the bar, the child's nightmare, the scrap of fabric you found ... these usually mean something to the game. Sometimes a clever module or GM will throw in a few red herrings, but in general such clues should be jotted down and reviewed later.
  • If the clues lead somewhere, follow. I've seen characters deliberately ignore clues that lead in a certain direction because they didn't want to go there. Oh, they did, eventually, but they resisted as long as possible because they really, really, didn't want to enter the sewers. Roleplaying your disgust at the notion is one thing, but don't let it get in the way of the adventure.
  • Be aware of the Rule of Symmetry. Although more applicable to older adventures than to newer ones, it's still generally true that buildings and dungeons are often symmetrical. So when you're mapping and suddenly the buiding or dungeon breaks the law of symmetry, take a few moments to look for a hidden door.
  • Remember the Rule of Right. If your characters find themselves trapped in a maze, keep their hand on the right wall and keep making right turns whenever they're given a choice. Eventually they'll find their way out. Notice that this doesn't work well if they're under time pressure, though. Or if there are secret doors in the walls.

2. Decide What to Do about McDickium

At some point in the shadowy past of my gaming years somebody coined the term "McDickium" to describe anything that exists in an adventure and outside the normal logic of the RPG world in order to frustrate the adventurers' usual modus operandii. For example, dungeons that can't be teleported or scried through. Why not? Uh, uh ... "latent magic in the walls." In other words, McDickium. The computer that can't be hacked no matter how high your skill is or how wonderfully you roll the dice? Clearly made out of McDickium. The person whose mind can't be read no matter how hard you try? Protected by McDickium.
A good GM will avoid McDickium. But sometimes even the best GMs leave the McDickium in and rely on those vague rationales — perhaps because rewriting the adventure without it would be too time-consuming. In that case, the characters can decide to think around McDickium by trying one tactic after another, or they can accept it and move on.
There's no good solution here — it's up to individual gamer personalities. I always tried to work around McDickium. Other players just grit their teeth and planned on carrying out the adventure the hard way. But at least now you'll recognize McDickium when you run into it.

3. Think Outside the Box

Over the years my players have come up with a few tactics that initially surprised me but that I've gradually come to expect and plan for. See if any of them will catch your GM unawares.

  • Think in three dimensions. Don't want to walk through the front door and assault the dungeon/hideout/complex? Think about ways you can go in through the roof. Or walls. Or floor. Or via another dimension entirely. Most hack'n'slash scenarios assume the characters come in through the entrance. Crash a bulldozer through the wall and you'll probably catch the bad guys — and your GM — by surprise. I played in a Shadowrun group that developed the "snake in a toilet" trick (turn into a snake and go up through the plumbing until you end up in the washroom) and used it several times to great effect.
  • Talk to nonplayer characters. Sometimes the GM expects you to do some reconnaissance before attacking; other times s/he doesn't. But there's a lot of information out there that players should be able to discover by simply asking, if they think of the right questions to ask. Here are few things to look into:
    • Supplies: If you're looking for a dungeon, a hidden stronghold, a remote outpost, look for the supply lines. Where do food and water come from? How were the construction materials for the stronghold gathered? ("Ayup, 'bout two summers ago I reckon we all noticed them construction vehicles were headin' out yonder to Devil's Point. Hey, where're ya headed so fast?")
    • Background: Talk to people who knew the villain, talk to family or teachers, pull out all the records you can get. Look for patterns of behavior, weaknesses, etc. If it's a monster, check with other adventurers who may have faced such a threat, or with societies that deal with such things (for example, Adventurer's Guilds, druidic circles, exorcists, UFO abductees, etc.). Forewarned is forearmed.
  • Consider unusual nonviolent solutions.
    • I had set up a killer adventure in which hapless villagers begged the characters for help because the evil sorceror's magical residues were poisoning their land. What did the adventurers do? They cased the joint and realized the sorceror was well-ensconced in his fortress and quite powerful. It was cheaper in many ways — life and resources — to simply move the village, they decided. They approached the evil sorceror politely and asked if he'd stop them if they transplanted the village. I had to think about it. Why would he, was my final decision. Better than having some annoying adventurers attacking him. So they did. Yeah, some of the villagers protested, but the adventurers had the money and resources to set them up in fertile cropland far enough away from the sorceror to prevent poisoning, and all in all it was a better life for the villagers than they'd had before. Of course, some adventurers would want to stop the poisoning of the land — but, as it turned out, not these. So I was out an adventure, but amused at my players' ingenuity.
    • In a Shadowrun game, we needed to search a suburban house. But how to get the residents out without gunfire? With the help of lots of bribes, contacts, and subterfuge, we impersonated city sewage workers and knocked on doors, evacuating the block "just for an hour until we fix a potential backup problem." Who wants their toilets to back up? It only took a few minutes to search the house in question and bail out as quickly as we could. I think the GM was just as amused as we were proud of our solution.

4. Compare Notes and Combine Tactics

One of the silliest things I've seen in a mystery I've run was the characters withholding information from each other. I'd given each some information that, if put together, would have helped them solve the mystery. But the characters never thought to compare notes. When you're faced with an adventure that involves some investigative work, split up to check all the records and carry out all the interviews you can, cover as much ground as possible, and then come back and "brain dump" together so that everyone knows what everyone else has found out.
Similarly, it's often worthwhile to work together to develop combination strategies. In one campaign I was in, the magic users compared notes and memorized complementary spells while on an adventure. In some cases they figured out how they could combine spell effects so that together they were far tougher than apart. Developing group combat tactics can also help — figure out who should stand where, what weapons are most useful in given situations, and how each person's individual skills can be put to best use during combat.
Any individual character doesn't stand a chance in the usual RPG adventure. But when characters work together, that's when they can out-think and outmanuever even the best GM.

As a GM, I always appreciate being challenged by my players' innovative approaches to the adventure, and I'm always disappointed when they fail to meet a challenge well. Your GM probably feels the same. So put your heads together and force the GM to scramble for a change!


originally written April 13, 2001


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