In a recent episode of Panda’s Talking Games, my co-host, Senda and I were talking about how much space GMs give for players to solve problems. Not space as in time, but in possible solutions to the problem. This got me thinking because, in my 40 years of GMing, I have tried a number of ways, and I rather like where I am currently. So let’s talk about it.

Problem-Solving Space

Let’s make up a term to help describe what I am talking about. We are going to start on a small scale with an easy-to-solve problem: opening a recently found secret door. The door is locked and there is no visible handle, but it’s clearly a door. Also, let’s agree that there is an interesting set of outcomes if the players can or cannot open the door, otherwise, we would just let them open it.

So one way to approach this, which we will call narrow, is that there is only one solution to opening the door (a hidden button) and there is only one way to find the button (with a successful Perception check). Fail the roll…don’t find the button…don’t open the door.

Another way to approach this is what we will call broad. The GM will accept any reasonable solution the players propose, and depending on what is proposed will require a roll. Characters may use Perception to look for the button, Engineering to figure out the door’s mechanisms, use Strength and tools to pry it open, etc.

The broader the space the more latitude the characters have to solve the problem, and the more narrow the space, the fewer solutions exist.

So between the narrow and broad solutions, there is a space, a continuum of how the GM allows this problem to be solved. That is our problem-solving space. The broader the space the more latitude the characters have to solve the problem, and the more narrow the space, the fewer solutions exist. Because it is a continuum there is also a middle ground where there are a finite set of solutions the players can engage.

With concepts like this, there is a wide range of variability. As a GM, your general preference/style influences this, as does the game you are playing, the group you are playing with, etc. Even the problem the characters are facing could influence this, meaning that you could normally be fairly broad when it comes to problem-solving, but for a specific challenge in your session, you might have a very narrow solution. There is some nuance to this.

Narrow Spaces

Why might someone use a narrow approach? First, from a publishing side, it’s easier. If you are writing an adventure to publish, writing down a single solution is fewer words and faster than writing a broad range of solutions. Also, the GM can just override this during play and allow a broad approach.

Narrow problem-solving spaces are also good for newer GMs. There is a lot of work that GMs have to do, and using narrow spaces eliminates some of the adjudications that the GM would have to do. It also works well when you are learning a new game. It often requires less system mastery when you are using a narrow approach.

Narrow spaces are also good for players who have trouble making decisions. That could be new players or just players who are not comfortable with decision-making. The narrow choices keep them from analysis paralysis.

From the player side, a problem-solving space that is too narrow may feel railroad-y, feeling like they do not have player agency. Or it can feel like “pick a number”, meaning you have to divine the only possible solution. This can be frustrating to the player. Also, with t00 narrow of a space, a missed die roll can cause problems in your session, since a failure may prevent getting to a certain part of the story.

Why might someone use a broad approach? For starters, it is easier on your GM prep. In your prep, you only need to create the problem and perhaps a few notes around it, and then in play rely on your players to come up with how they will solve the problem. As for the players, they will feel a high degree of agency as they come up with solutions and you let them play out.

This kind of approach requires more at-the-table work; a higher cognitive load while running the game. You need to adjudicate the various solutions presented and determine which rules to engage depending on the solution. This also requires a certain amount of system mastery as well. The good part is that it is a very learnable skill and improves the longer you GM.

There is another advantage, and one of my favorites is that as the GM, you will often be surprised at what the players come up with for solutions. Not just surprised at the originality but also it will take the game in directions you did not expect. This surprise can create a burst of excitement and energy as you GM.

My Own Problem-Solving Space

Decades ago, I ran with a pretty narrow problem-solving space, largely from the fact that there was not a lot of information about GMing (this was pre-Internet), and the most common source of reference material was published adventures. I modeled what I was reading. I ran that way for a while only gradually expanding my space when prompted by players with alternative solutions.

That all changed in the early 2000s with the game Dogs In the Vineyard. In the game, Vincent Baker wrote (and I paraphrase) that the goal of the GM is to set up problems but not figure out the solutions. That was a watershed moment for me. Armed with that knowledge I started to expand the problem-solving spaces in my games.

By the 2010’s I decided to move from more traditional games to more indie games, the kinds that eschew prep, and all the solutions are generated at the table. In those games, my problem-solving space became quite broad and I developed the skills for how to play off the surprises the players threw at me.

Today, I have settled into a place where I play a mix of indie and traditional games, but I use a fairly broad approach, favoring the idea that as long as a player can make a sold narrative justification for their solution, I will accept it. I enjoy not having to solve the problems I create, and I think that the solutions that the players come up with are often better than what I would.