Is Anything Really Possible in a Table Top RPG?

. 22.06.2016 . 0 Comments
Flash Fiction

Hyla had never been here before, perhaps no one had.  She had risen to the highest level that any of the ViaNet players had ever achieved.  The sensory nodes on her User Experience Suit (UXS) sent familiar prickly sensations through her body as she rose as all players do, from the crouched position at initialization.  Taking a beat she surveyed her new surroundings, this puzzle seemed to be unlike the others both in the sheer size of the space and for what lay around her.  It appeared as if she were standing in a colossal hangar of some kind, hexagonal concrete blocks perfectly fitted were laid out hundreds of feet in all directions around her, terminating eventually at what appeared to be dark grey featureless walls.  Before her their was nothing, simply titanic amounts of tepid emptyness stretching out to the far corners of the cavernous space, illuminated by minuscule dangling blue-white lights far overhead.  She sniffed and took a few steps, every sound felt muted.  A moment of dizziness struck her forcing her to focus on her hand and set her teeth to fight it.  The level provided no equipment, there were no clear objective markers, and no distinguishing features with which to fix a direction.

“What am I supposed to do?” she said aloud, then paused “What can I do?”.

The Possibility Hurdle

One of the hardest things that new players run into when getting into table top role playing is the possibility hurdle.  Just what can and can not be done in a particular situation.  I’ve recently had the opportunity to sit down and create a whole new character with a new GM and gave this idea some thought.  Now as far as I can see the list of available choices comes out of the interaction of three forces that are acting on the player, and determine what he or she is going to be doing in any given in-game situation.  The three forces that come into play don’t necessarily have the same amount of influence on the list of options, some may be more prominent at some time and not in others, and often can be a point of friction between the player and the GM when there is an imbalance between them.  Let’s break them down:

The first force that acts upon this list is the imagination of the player, and how well their mind’s eye is picturing the scene taking place.  Obviously what the GM describes is going to form the main building blocks in any scene, but imagining the situation with all the vividness which all of our inner five senses can conjure can play a huge role in filling in the gaps and painting a more complete picture and in turn a more complete set of options.  Ask your GM a lot of questions and get them to shine light on the grey glossed over areas that might be of interest.  Don’t be afraid to ask leading questions either, inserting assumptions or adding a bit of your own creative juices can be easily picked up by the GM and ran with (and if not, no big deal).

Example: “What are they wearing?” as opposed to “Are they wearing any unusual jewelry?”

Perhaps other GMs can back me up on this but there have been countless times throughout games that I have run where leading questions posed by players concerning things that they thought would be interesting were added on the spot, drastically changing the scene in ways that were never planned for.  Many minds questioning the narrative pushes past the script (or the DM’s notes) and opens many doors.

The second is the variable level of acceptance that is tolerated by the Game Master.  As a new player this is something you are going to have to learn, and something that often a point of friction between GMs and players at one-off convention style games.  Its not fun having your expectations dashed because your enemy can do something you thought was out of the question, or you planned on performing an action that gets shut down without a roll.  My advice to players is to ask a lot of hypothetical questions up front during the first few initial scenes to gauge what you could be able to do, and use that to set the bar for your further actions down the line.  GMs too can take action to help ease this potential disconnect by including narrative examples of other NPCs in a sort of monkey see monkey do sort of way.  I’ve found that a little pre-game and post-game talk can go a long way towards understanding what the players are expecting to do in the game, and allows me as the GM to make adjustments if those changes would make the game better (and they usually do).

The third is the limitations put into place by the mechanics and rules of the game system itself.  This is pretty straight forward and will develop as you become more familiar playing the game and using the designated powers or abilities granted to you.  Obviously game books and the like are put together to be able to apply a broad set of rules to many different types of in-game activities and so may not have specific rules for just what you find yourself doing in the game.  But the mechanics that determine what dice to roll, what stats come into the equation, and what detriments you may be forced to take can usually be found for similar actions and will give you a good estimate on what you can do.  I think it might be worth noting here that whatever the GM says overrides the rules set down in the game book.  While both factors play into determining what options you as a player have at your disposal, the ultimate authority on what can and can not happen is the GM.

Additional Reading
 If you’re interested in the imaginative and immersive experience I found the article The Illusion of Immersion by Angela Murray over at to be enjoyable and worth a look at.

Additionally The Same Page Tool by Christopher Chinn can be useful in getting everyone involved on the same page, and removing any misconceptions about what is expected in the game. 

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So there you have it, my thoughts on the possibility hurdle in a TTRPG.  But I want to know what YOU know; do you think that their are other factors at play here?  Has your group been burned by an imbalance of these forces?  Share your thoughts in the comments below or feel free to tweet them to me @Tanz444.

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Category: Game Mastering, General, Player Perspective

About the Author ()

Tanz is an enthusiastic GM, Blogger, and avid table top gamer with over 15 years of experience. His first brush with tabletop gaming was with Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Ed. Over the years he has transitioned from player to GM, and has run many types of game systems favoring games that bend toward horror and with a supernatural twist in contemporary settings. His DM style is one that leans heavily towards adventure path style play, preferring to give players options rather than unrestricted 'sandbox' style play or narration on rails. He regularly engages with the tabletop gaming community on twitter @Tanz444, his articles can be seen on various digital venues, and loves to GM at conventions whenever possible.

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