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Out-Thinking Your GM
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.
the Rules of the Game
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
- 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.
What to Do about McDickium
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 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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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