Roleplaying the Galaxy: You'll find I'm full of surprises
There’s an immense amount of freedom in the realm of tabletop roleplaying. As a game master, it’s your job to plan for all of the wackiness and potentially terrifying opportunities this inherent freedom presents…as best you can. Unless you’re Grand Admiral Thrawn, Darth Bane, and Admiral Gar Stazi all rolled into one, there’s no way you can be expected to account for the numerous avenues your players might take to achieve their goals. And, as a player, it’s sometimes difficult to see the lack of invisible walls, strict rules, and hand-size limits that accompany activities such as video games, sports, and board games.
The good news here is that, while it should be encouraged to think outside the much larger box of RPGs, a player is by no means under any sort of obligation to play in a way that makes them feel anxious, or like they’re desperately trying to keep up with some outlandish expectation. As I’ve probably reiterated to an annoying degree, this is a game. The purpose is fun. If a player wants to stick to their basic character skills and a straightforward play style, they shouldn’t be shamed for that. It can even provide a stabilizing presence for players on the other extreme.
Which is not to say that players who love diving into bizarre approaches to whatever challenge lies before them should be scolded, either. So long as everyone’s having fun and feels heard, there’s no wrong way to scale a wall, bypass a door, or blow up a superweapon. And, most importantly, in the world of tabletop roleplaying, the bizarre sometimes, spectacularly and hilariously, works.
Regardless of disparate playstyles in a group, however, there is a method that allows a game master to ensure that even the most straight-edged, no-nonsense player is able to shock and delight their GM and fellow players alike, and it’s the easiest plan one can possible execute; willful ignorance.
So as my meaning is not misconstrued, I’m decidedly not saying that a game master should have no idea what’s happening in their campaign. That’s the quickest way of ensuring that everyone is confused and frustrated by the first encounter. Rather, I’m advocating selective ignorance, in this case specifically toward a player character’s abilities.
This may, at first, feel contradictory to my previous advice that a game master have a clear idea of his group’s strengths and weaknesses, but the two can comfortably exist alongside each other, I assure you. The easiest way to put it is to point out that, while a group of players may not know the precise abilities of one another’s characters, they are easily able to identify who the party’s duelist, medic, grenadier, and sniper are. They likely don’t spend their time perusing one another’s character sheets, and neither, I submit, should their game master.
There is, for me, at least, one caveat. During character creation, especially for new players, the game master should provide whatever assistance is required (and hopefully requested) in helping to clarify the rules, until reasonably confident in each player’s familiarity with how the game operates. I’d even suggest looking over each completed character sheet with the corresponding player to double-check for mistakes from either party.
From there on, though, barely give the things another glance.
Which can be easier said than done. Some players will like to continue checking in that they’re progressing their character correctly (which is absolutely within a game master’s duties), and you may even want to scan through the stats of a less mature player, if it becomes evident that they’re…bending the rules.
But beyond that, unleash your players to craft baffling or awe-inspiring blends of skills for their character that will delightfully confound whatever traps and dangers you may have in store.
Again, this isn’t to say that a game master shouldn’t do any research on the many abilities their players might unlock. Personally, I just find it fun to skim through the various trees and skill tiers to let my mind wander at all the cool possibilities, maybe even snagging up a few for high-powered NPCs. Whatever your take on such things, research beforehand is essential for allowing your players to whip out game-changing tricks without everyone spending the next twenty minutes wading through minutiae about how said trick might be implemented.
And, whether the player in question is a “plotter” or a “pantser”, letting yourself be blindsided by a shiny new ability can open up the door for exciting turnarounds in battle, as well as fun roleplaying opportunities.
A basic example of this approach in action occurred during my current campaign set during the Yuuzhan Vong War. Our Mirialan Jedi, Layni, had found herself caught up in a veritable nest of intrigue in the Corellian capital of Coronet, involving secret operatives of the long-thought-dead Pius Dea, the Vong-placating Peace Brigade, and card-carrying members of an upper-crust band of zenovores, the Discerning Palates (an idea I expanded on from the Dark Times comic; basically, rich humans who eat aliens).
At the mercy of the self-proclaimed Contispex XX, Layni watched as her new friend Khalleon, an officer in CorSec, was gunned down, dead instantly. I’m always a bit shell-shocked when a new NPC unexpectedly dies on me, but Layni lost no time in rushing to her fallen friend, utilizing her potent Force healing abilities to resuscitate the still-warm body, well within the one-round time limit of the power.*
I’d known Layni’s player was focusing on Jedi healing intently, but I’d been caught up enough in the moment to have forgotten when Layni had managed the same feat a few sessions earlier…though with the aid of her Force-using allies and bolstered by the presence of a Force nexus. Now, alone, would she be strong enough to fulfill the mechanical parameters?
Khalleon lived, and the day was eventually won, a well-placed call to the officer even later mobilizing a contingent of the Fifth Fleet to the party’s aid in a desperate battle over Shili. How might things have gone, otherwise? No idea.
All of which points to the final trick in a game master allowing their players to surprise them with their abilities; forget. I know few people can actually do that on command, but I essentially mean that you have more than enough craziness clashing around in your head to keep straight for the campaign. Knowing what’s important to hang onto to keep things moving smoothly and what can be left to the collective memory of the group is something that’s learned with experience. Or maybe you’re a natural. In which case, congratulations on your infuriatingly vivid memory!
However you actualize an environment where the twists and turns of tabletop roleplaying can be just as nail-biting for you as they are for your players, may the Force be with you!
*No, I don’t think this is game-breaking, as a good doctor can potentially do the same thing, in real life.