I’ve recently described being a Game Master (specifically those of us who built our own world and write or own campaigns) as similar to being a game designer, a game designer whose resources are extremely limited, whose content only gets played once (in general), and who can hotfix the game on the fly in response to player actions. That last distinction is a potent advantage I want to discuss today with respect to what Extra Credits calls Negative Possibility Space:
I’m going to extend the terminology in what I think is a valid way; a possibility space is a situation or place where a player expects something from making an effort or decision. It becomes a negative possibility space when the player’s expectation for their actions is met with disappointment, specifically complete lack of recognition. In a tabletop RPG, the whole game is possibility space, but the Game Master’s ability to hotfix the game on the fly means there is little to no excuse for possibility spaces at your table to be negative (which isn’t to say that preventing negative possibility space is easy).
Possibility spaces with the potential for a negative experience happen when the players stray from your planned material. Maybe they search a cabinet you didn’t consider important enough to fill, in which case you can invent some reward (e.g. a small treasure, a trinket, a story element, a trap) on the spot for their curiosity. It was to answer these kinds of situations I created Who Would Just Leave This Stuff, a systematic way to provide flavorful but low-power loot to players when I’m feeling too lazy (or the space is too unimportant) to invent something more relevant on the fly. Don’t be Game Master Hubbard, make an effort to fill the cupboard with bones for the players to find.
Other potentially negative possibility spaces are common in dialogue. The players frequently ask unexpected questions of unexpected people. Whether it’s interrogating a random Kobold they managed to take captive or asking the first guard they see in the city how to get into the thieves’ guild, it can be really tempting to take the easy route and have the NPC know nothing. This is a Negative Possibility Space and results in disappointment on the part of the players. Instead, think about what the character might know about the questions being asked. What wrong information might they have and repeat? What might they make up or imagine under duress? What might they say to change the subject? What lies might they tell to hide what they know? What fallout might occur if the wrong people get wind that the players are asking the wrong kinds of questions? It definitely takes a lot of practice to make up these responses on the fly, so even if you’re not satisfied with your first attempts, keep at it. As you get better at inventing these dialogues on the spot, you’ll find that taking advantage of this possibility space can create some of your greatest moments at the table.
In the course of general problem-solving at the table, the players will better than half the time come up with a solution you didn’t expect. If these solutions are reasonable, be generous in allowing innovation to succeed. With ideas that you haven’t considered, think quickly about what consequences make sense given the course of action, but try not to stall the game looking for a catch to the players’ plan.
The rewards and outcomes from players exploring the unexpected don’t need to be game changing. Usually they shouldn’t be. There’s no need to incentivize players to go off the beaten track, just reward them and make them feel like the world is more fleshed out than it is. Try to balance a satisfying experience exploring at the table with incentives to pursue the prepared material (after all, the material you’ve had time to think about is usually more satisfying that what you have to come up with on the spot). Never should a randomly discovered item outshine in power the rewards planned on the central storyline of your campaign.