Allowing for Player Improvisation

While working on a Tabletop RPG one-off I have been dealing with perhaps the epitome of player freedom in games. I’d like to start by defining where that freedom exists; after all, some of these games have extensive rule-books and deep systems within them. This complexity and freedom exist in a way that someone unfamiliar with the genre could easily view as antagonistic. However after substantial experience with Tabletop RPGs I’ve found that some of the most rewarding play and memorable moments are found through the imaginative overcoming of these complex constraints and the creative exploitation of loopholes within the world.

For those unfamiliar, a classic example is a trick within the DnD system capitalizing on an item known as the “Bag of Holding”. This bag has an infinite amount of space inside it and can carry an infinite amount of things, very useful, very magical, and often hard to find. However, if you have two of them you can put them at opposite ends of an arrow and when the arrow comes to an abrupt halt the bag on the back end will be propelled into the bag on the front end. When you put infinite space inside of infinite space the system resolves to remove all matter within a 20′ radius from the universe, boom! gone. deleted. This trick is very helpful when it comes to decapitating large dragons.

When designing with the knowledge and expectation that your players will be actively trying to exploit their way out of any box you put them in, how can you possibly hope to create a tailored or articulated experience. The experience you’ve spent hours devising if only they would stick to the plan. They won’t, at least not completely, and they shouldn’t. The idealistic answer is to meet player improvisation with Design improvisation. However that usually feels cheap, and often things get out of hand quickly. When you, as a designer with ultimate power to create and destroy, are met with opposition to your vision from someone with little creative control escalation and emotional investment can quickly drain the fun out of the room. In short…rocks fall, everyone dies…see you jerks next week.

So if relying on design improvisation is risky, what do you need to mitigate those risks of going too far to correct the path when your players go astray? One tactic that has seemed to work is the “trailer park narrative” (the name for which I just made up). While it doesn’t sound glamorous, it gets the job done. Let’s say you created the perfect dungeon experience up the side of this mountain, culminating with an epic and precarious fight atop the highest peak. Instead your players have doofishly decided to go wondering into the forest. You tell all your enemies and narrative moments to hold on tight as you plop them on some wheels and whip them around in front of your players. That Sherpa who was going to guide them is now a forest dryad, that treacherous rope bridge is now some logs floating in a bottomless swamp, and that epic mountaintop fight now happens among the boughs of the largest tree in the forest. While you still have to improvise how all these adjustments will be made, you have secured yourself a most precious resource: time. As they travel give them a small combat section while you think of ways to re-frame the first few structured encounters. You are no longer immediately thinking of new content and spewing it into the world of your players and so it retains much of that believably and consistency your original material had.

If pulled off well, your players will feel that they found this expedition themselves and that the world is truly explorable and you will get to show off all the interesting things you had planned, yay winning! Now the interesting projection would be brainstorming ways to adapt this technique to video games. The illusion of choice seen in many narrative based games is a good micro-example of content transposition. But adaptive context for hand-crafted content is perhaps worth a bus ride or two’s worth of thinkin’ time.

1 Comment

  1. Abhishek Singh

    Having recently gone through my first RPG, I couldn’t help but not as I read your points. This is true for most games and enactments but familiarity and experience with it definitely help you be more confident within your role. In RPG games, this is significantly more important as you dictate the limitations and pace of the world.

    To mirror some of your thoughts, our RPG had someone take a swig out of a flask that turned out to be holy water and eventually spit into the eyes of the antagonist and bite his tongue, which was very effective at killing him (albeit a bit weird). Our GM Eric also adapted well to the curve-balls that we threw at him. One of us kept a pet dog instead of inventory items and Eric used that dog to point us in the right direction whenever we were wandering aimlessly. He also changed the ending on the fly to prevent us from running too long. A bit of Improv and a lot of experience with such settings and players definitely go a long way in making you a flexible narrator!

    As for video games, RPG based games do give you the freedom in terms of skills and customization but true narrative freedom seems to be tough to craft. My favorite example is always ‘Heavy Rain’ but then the argument descends into whether it’s an interactive video game or a film.

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