Let me share with you some of the best GMing advice I have ever received. I learned it from the game Dogs in the Vineyard, by Vincent Baker. The advice, which was advice on how to run Dogs goes something like this, to paraphrase… Your job as the GM is to set up problems, but never to solve them. Solving problems is the Player’s job.
This bit of advice, along with a bit of trust, completely changed how I prep and how I run games. Once you internalize this bit of advice, and what you need to properly do it, your prep will be shorter, your GMing will be easier, and your players will feel empowered at the table.
So let’s talk about it…
In order for us to talk about the technique, perhaps it’s best if we start by showing what creating the problem and solution means. For that, let me go with an example. This is an example of prep for a “Fantasy Game”.
The Party must return to the city. The city guards are on high alert for their return. The guards at all the gates have been instructed to check anyone who enters and look for the characters. All the guards know what the characters look like, including their signature weapons, notable items, etc. The only way for the players to get into the city will be to scale the walls, which are sheer and dangerous, requiring a DC 25 check.
Ok. This is a bit hyperbolic, but I think it makes the point. The first three sentences create the problem that the players must solve; getting back into the city. It states that just walking in is not going to work, requiring that the players come up with a different course of action.
The problem is that the last sentence limits the solution to only one option. It is a highly probable one, but for imaginative players, it is hardly the only solution to this problem, especially one that has magic. So let’s build on that.
What happens with notes like these, is that if the GM takes that last sentence to heart, and the only way to get in is to climb the walls, then during play they will be making GM rulings to close off other pathways to make the players have to climb the walls. They will either be shooting down the player’s other ideas, or they will place blocks during the planning to steer them towards climbing the wall. In all, that is time and effort spent, without progressing the game.
Create Problems…Not Solutions
By creating problems and not solutions, what we are saying is the following: “We believe that the players are capable of coming up with a solution to problems presented to them, and can trust them to do so during play.” This can seem obvious, but sometimes when we prep we have an idea for something we want to happen in the game or we telegraph how we want the game to progress, rather than give the players the room to use their creativity.
So if the players are coming up with solutions, what then is the GMs job? Our job is then to determine how the rules apply and how the story will be affected by the solution.
Let’s go back to our example of getting into the city. So we present the problem to the players, through play. Perhaps an NPC warns them they are checking everyone at the gate, or they see wanted posters of the characters outside the city. Now we sit back and let the players brainstorm some ideas.
Once they settle on one we then come in and apply the rules and determine how the story is affected. Let’s do an example.
The players decide that the cleric, a brilliant scholar, may know from her studies of ancient passages that lead into the city within the ruins which this city was built upon. (Brilliant!). As GM, you decide a Lore check is in order (apply the rules) and if the check is successful they find a passage that is not dangerous and there won’t be an encounter, and if unsuccessful, they find a passage, but there will be some wandering monsters (determine how the story is affected).
Note, rather than using a simple binary, Pass-Fail on the Lore check, I changed the stakes so that the Lore check did not determine the existence of the passage, but rather how dangerous it would be. In doing so, the passage would always be there, but the Lore check affects what will happen when they go into the passage. This prevents a failed check from stymying this idea.
This technique does require that you are knowledgeable in the rules of your game as well as have a good grasp on the story of the game so that you can improvise your reaction to the player’s solution.
Knowing Your Rules
Once the players have a solution, you need to know how the rules apply to this situation. In most cases, this is understanding Task Resolution (i.e. skill checks), but your game may have other mechanics and procedures that may apply. If you are playing Cortex Prime you will want to decide if a solution is a Test, a Challenge, or a Timed Test. In a PbtA game, you would want to know which move covers the solution.
The way to know this is to learn your game. You don’t need to have system mastery for this to work, but you do need to know how your game works to apply the right mechanics. So study up as well as run your game. You never learn a game faster than running it.
The good news is that this technique is transferable, meaning if you know how it works in one game, you can abstract what you need in another game. If you know it’s a skill check in game X, then you just look for what rules there are for skill checks in game Y. Meaning that the more you utilize this technique, the easier it gets in the game you are playing and any games you run in the future.
Knowing the Story
Once you know how the mechanics are going to work, you need to know how the story is going to be affected. This requires two things.
The first, is you need a good understanding of what is going on in the story. If you are writing your own material there is a good chance you understand what your story is trying to do, and therefore you can extrapolate how the story will be affected by these actions. I also highly recommend something known as the What’s Going On Document, which my co-hosts and I talked about here on the Misdirected Mark podcast.
If you are using published material, read up on the background info, typically in the front of the adventure, to get a good idea of what is going on. Study it, highlight some parts, etc.
The second thing is that you need a good understanding of how stories work. The good news is that all your consumption of various media gives you a good background to this. Think about how your favorite show or movie might deal with the situation and go with that. If you want to sharpen that skill, consider books like Robin Laws’ Hamlet’s Hit Points, or any number of writing books about plots and stories.
Noting Some Probable Solutions
Earlier, I said don’t write solutions in your prep, and now that we have discussed it, let’s now be more nuanced. You can, briefly, write down a few of the more probable solutions and leave yourself some notes, so that if one of those is chosen then you don’t have to come up with the mechanical part on the fly.
Back to our example:
If the players scale the wall it’s a DC 25. The players could try a disguise, but the guards are looking for that so any checks by the guard to detect disguises are at a +4.
The key here is that just because you wrote some solutions, you cannot steer the players into those solutions. These are just here for you to help you should the players come to one of those ideas on their own, to speed the game along, and to lower your cognitive load.
I have been fortunate enough to have the same groups for many years, so I know their personalities and I can often guess how they want to solve problems. So when I prep for them I will jot down what I think is the thing they are going to do, but I never push them at it. If they come up with something else, then we go with that.
If you are new to this, a few challenges can arise during play. I have noted some of the more common ones here.
What if the solution defeats the problem easily?
You present the players with the problem of getting into the city and one of the players remembers they have a scroll of group teleportation, that allows them to teleport into the city. You totally forgot about that scroll during prep, and now they are going to get into the city in just a moment. Is that a problem?
Not in terms of solving the problem. It is a legit solution to the problem and it consumes a valuable resource, so as the solution goes it’s good. But if you were hoping to get about 30 min of play done as the players plan the solution and then you play it out, then yes, your story may be going faster than expected.
But ultimately if the players come up with a solution that easily handles the problem, then good on them. Remember you are one GM coming up with a problem, and they are a group of people working on the solution. Sometimes they are going to outthink you. There’s nothing wrong with that.
What if they can’t think of an idea?
This technique relies on the players coming up with solutions. What if they don’t? Or at least the ones they have are mechanically impossible, or won’t work with the story? This is where you need to be a facilitator. You will need to speak to the players and help them work out the problem. This can be done by listing out possible skills that would work or reminding them of the powers they have, etc.
Quick example… Players are stymied on how to get into the city.
You say to the players…ok so you could use Athletics to climb, Disguise might work, Bluff might work with a bribe… if anyone had a contact that could help… some spells like invisibility or shapeshift could work…
The trick with facilitation is to present possibilities but not steer them into one. So use a neutral voice, present several possibilities, etc.
What if the solution is outrageous?
Not every idea is a good one. Sometimes the players will come up with a solution that is either not likely to work mechanically, will trample the given story, or is just out of tone for the game. In these cases, you have a few techniques to use.
The first is to make it mechanically impossible or so difficult that doing it is out of the realm of the character’s ability to accomplish it. Set the difficulty so high, or just say mechanically it’s not possible.
The second is to explain how the story will react to the solution. It might be that there will be a reaction to the solution that is undesirable. For instance, if the players decide they should just kill the guards at the gate, you can tell them that they can, but not before reinforcements will arrive and the whole city guard will be on alert and coming for them. Sometimes this is enough for them to realize that that might not be their best solution.
Finally, you can as the GM just tell them it’s a bad idea and to move on to another one. This one works great for ones that are not in the right tone.
Just Problems, Maam
Players are creative and smart. Use that to your advantage in your games. By creating problems and leaving the solutions to them, you free up so much of your prep. Just write out the problems that the players need to figure out and then at the table you will play through their solutions.
By having a firm grasp of the rules and the story, you can determine how their solution will play out at the table. This not only saves prep time but also it allows you to be surprised during play, which I find to be a very enjoyable feeling.
So keep thinking of problems and let the players worry about the solutions.
How about you? Do you use this technique? Do you write any probable solutions down? Enough? Too many? How are your players at solving those problems?
Great advice! Really specific and easy to remember and implement – I love that this will save GMs time 🙂
This has long been my approach, and I think t makes games more fun for me.
I enjoy seeing what my players come up with. Their solutions are frequently more interesting and entertaining than anything I’d have thought of.
Great advice about describing problems vs. solutions, Phil. The whole approach of “The gates are well guarded so PCs will have to climb the walls….” is very much how packaged modules were written in the 1980s. Thankfully the approach to how to structure great games has come a long way since then.
I use the same approach as you in writing adventures. I define the problem– the gates are well staffed with guards specifically looking for people matching the PCs’ normal description– then sketch out a few *possible* solutions.
The solutions are notes to myself. Writing them out helps me (a) be sure reasonable solutions exist and (b) respond smoothly in-game to things the players might try as I’ve already worked out the mechanics. Finally, (c) if the players are stumped for ideas, my list readies me to suggest ideas that might occur to them in character.
Great article. One trick I always use is to ask myself “Why do they fail?”. It doesn’t have to be with failed rolls, but in everyday activities.
* They are traveling to a new city. Why do they fail?
* They want to find their old friend in the city. Why do they fail?
* They want to get out of a house. Why do they fail?
That tiny question will always prompt me to come up with a hinder … and it’s up to the players to overcome that hindrance.
Ooh. I’m stealing that!
As a very experienced DM I don’t need much. But I’m always happy with ways to help me think laterally.
When I prepare I have a note that reminds me to enter “The Unexpected” at some point.
That also helps me a lot.