Sometimes you set something up to be a big fight or a fantastic puzzle, and the players think of a nifty way to get around the boss monster, or avoid actually having to come up with a solution. In those situations, it can be really difficult to judge whether to let them get away with it. It can be really frustrating for the GM who plans a complex encounter with a tough bandit leader when the players bypass it by dropping a piano on his head. But it can be just as frustrating for the players who went to the effort of sourcing a piano, getting it up to a third floor window etc. when all that hard work comes to nothing. Most GMs will have been on both ends of this – I know I have – so I thought I’d share my checklist for adjudicating this sort of weird encounter resolution.
The list runs from most important to least important. Having said that, it also runs from most obvious to most interesting, so skip ahead to section 3 if you want the interesting insights up front. You don’t need to run through the list in your head at the table; the main point is the priorities – what ranks where – and you can train those to become second nature. The list is mostly about encouraging the sort of inventive play you want to see in your game by rewarding it, and so by figuring out what that sort of play looks like. Have fun.
1: Is it plausible?
In a sense this barely needs mentioning, and it only gets the top spot because it is the obvious first check you can apply, meaning it can make or break a plan. If something your players attempt isn’t plausible by the laws of your world (and factoring in the tone of your game), it fails. Simple. Skip to the next section if you like.
One thing that does bear bringing up, if you’re still here, is the bearing of the rules on what counts as plausible. When I say “plausible”, I mean exactly what I said above, meaning the laws of the game world, and no more. The rules don’t come into it at all.
Consider my example of dropping a piano on a bandit leader. I’ll use D&D 5e as an example system, but the same goes for many other rpgs. 5e tells the GM to dish out damage from unusual sources in d10s. A piano to the head falls (pun intended) between 2d10 (avg.: 11, max. 20) and 4d10 (avg. 22, max. 40). That is it falls somewhere between being hit by a collapsing bookcase (2d10) and being hit by falling rubble (4d10). But a bandit leader has 60hp, meaning that even the stronger of the two options can’t incapacitate him, even with extremely good rolling (as in 1/10,000 good). The problem here isn’t some weirdness of the unusual damage table, it’s the fact that the hp system itself isn’t designed for damage not delivered by combatants using weapons or spells. As an example of this, the piano could floor a guard (11hp). The bandit leader’s skull isn’t noticeably stronger, it’s just that he is tougher to kill in conventional combat.
I’m fine with the fact that, in some situations (usually combat) for which an rpg is optimised, it turns into a sort of chess game. But I also want my players to be able to act outside of that framework, and I feel like it’s the GM’s job to allow for that. Plausibility cuts both ways – it’s not just something you can use to disqualify players’ more hare-brained ideas, it’s also a rule you should adhere to if they come up with something that by rights should probably work. If you don’t your players will lose their inventive spark, and stop coming up with ideas that aren’t explicitly spelled out for them in the rules already.
This is also why it’s worth asking players what they hope to achieve – their goal is the thing you need to assess for plausibility. If the players weren’t too fussed about the bandit leader, and just wanted to make a racket to cause a distraction, it might be permissible to have him survive; you haven’t jumped on their plan, you’ve just kept a hold on the reins. Conversely, you don’t want to accidentally step on a plan that seems like it merits a reward by not realising what the players hoped to achieve. Players often limit what they tell GMs about their schemes, so try to get to the bottom of what they’re actually shooting for.
2: Is it inventive?
Plausibility is a check on the more hare-brained stuff your players might come up with. But plausibility isn’t the be-all and end-all; rpgs are narrative experiences, not just simulations. With this point, we start to get into whether the players actually deserve what they are trying to get away with.
The point here is that you’ve set up a challenge, whether this is in the form of a combat, puzzle, roleplay scenario or whatever. If the players attempt to bypass that challenge, consider whether they’ve demonstrated ingenuity. If they have, then they may deserve the success. Again, this is relatively simple. GMs often fret about players missing out on the encounters they’ve prepared by bypassing them with cunning workarounds, which is a major source of bad calls in these situations, as the GM attempts to force through the encounter as they intended it to play out – picture the bandit leader emerging from the wreckage enraged and ready to fight.
But GMs needn’t have this worry, for two reasons. First, if the players have engaged intelligently with the situation and hatched an ingenious plan, your encounter is a success – that, surely, is what you wanted all along, even if you planned to get it in a slightly different form. Second, you can always hold onto content and repurpose it; if you wrote a really interesting combat profile for that bandit leader, use it for the next hefty villain. The players have actually saved you work; they’ve played a good game off their own backs, allowing you to spin out the content you have into more adventure.
A side note is in order here: It’s sometimes worth paying attention to whether the players have resolved the encounter, or merely avoided it. If the players have merely circumvented an encounter, they may not have justified a reward. Again, don’t get carried away with what your players are missing; you can always repurpose content, and the important thing is that they approach the game in the right way. Rather than foil their plans, if they bypass an encounter, it may be more appropriate to inflict consequences on them down the line. If they sneak around the bandit leader, maybe he grows his band of brigands and begins raiding the surrounding countryside, causing problems for the players’ later endeavours. Err on the side of expanding rather than limiting the consequences of the players’ actions.
3: Have they put down a bet?
This is a really good heuristic, and also makes a good tie breaker if you’re unsure. If the players have put down a bet, that’s a point in favour of allowing their plan at least a chance of succeeding.
Bets come in two forms. The simplest is that of a cost: If a player drops a spell slot, spends stress, uses a once-per-day ability, loses hitpoints, expends ammunition, or even just uses up time when they’re on the clock, consider letting them succeed. A cost is extracted whether the outcome succeeds or not. The risk isn’t whether they will lose the resource, but whether it will be worth it. When a player drops a resource on attempting an unusual resolution, they are betting the resource on the successful outcome. The problem is, where this is down to your adjudication, if you rule flatly against them, they may feel like the deck was rigged, especially if they deem the attempt plausible.
This will feel more unfair with bigger costs, so you should modulate the chance of success according to the resource expended, as opposed to its effectiveness – the points listed above account for the effectiveness of the method. Spells and limited-use abilities are a good example here; both consist of options for engaging with the world in interesting ways, meaning that the player who expends one is voluntarily limiting their options until the recharge period on the chance of succeeding at resolving the encounter. If the attempt fails, that shrinks the character’s ability to interact with the world for no gain, making the player feel doubly constrained.
It’s sorely tempting to resolve this sort of bet with a die roll, and this can work, but with a few caveats. First, make it clear to the players that their efforts have increased their odds of success, and by how much. Otherwise the players might think you fudged the roll to keep your precious encounter intact. It may also help to build in graduated levels of success, so that, unless the roll goes really sour, the players get some sort of payoff for putting up the cost. At the very least, make sure (as always) that you aren’t deferring responsibility to the dice; part of cultivating a good relationship with your players is demonstrating that you can make calls that go against them when it’s fair to do so.
[A fairly specific note on costs in D&D 5e: Remember that a wasted turn, especially in combat, can be a hefty cost. To encourage players to think outside the box, demonstrate consistently that you’re willing to give players’ ideas a fair run (remembering that you can spin what they do as a free action), and see my post on running combat super fast.]
The other type of bet is a risk. this happens when players don’t know if they will lose the resource they bet on the plan. This most often happens when players risk taking damage, but also includes using items that might break, or abilities without a strictly defined limit (such as the Black Hack’s usage die mechanic). This type of bet lends itself better to making die rolls, as the player won’t necessarily have lost the resource they bet, so they aren’t paying up just to get a try – they may not have to pay anything at all. Part of this is that the format lends itself well to graduated success conditions; the player can lose the resource and fail, succeed but still lose the resource or, on a really good roll, succeed with no cost.
Because of this last possibility, players will attempt this sort of bet most often. Make it clear to them that they risk something, and don’t be afraid to extract the cost as a price on success. Losing resources makes the challenge feel fair, and should stave off any residual worries that your encounters aren’t performing as required, or that the players are getting a free ride.
So, when the players ask to do something off the wall, consider three things: 1) Is it plausible in the fiction?; 2) Have they been inventive enough to constitute a good gameplay experience?; 3) Have they spent or risked some resource to achieve their goal?
Remember to put yourself in the player’s shoes. When I play an rpg, I want to be able to try things that are unexpected, and have them have a chance of working if they fit with the reality being portrayed. Otherwise, what’s the point of setting the game in that reality?
At the end of the day, the checklist above is really about enacting a more basic but much broader process of rewarding the sort of play that you want to see. As such, your application of the formula might be different to mine – what I consider an innovative resolution, for instance, you might deem a cheap bypass (a surefire recipe for heartache), and not something you want to encourage. But it’s usually better to avoid splitting hairs; if you clamp down on players pulling off what you consider cheap tricks, they’re likely to take that more broadly as you being averse to any sort of inventive approach, and so they’ll stop bringing that approach to the table. Better to let a few slip past to establish some good faith, and then mould the playstyle you want to bring out in your players.