Zugzwang in RPGs

When I was learning to play Bridge I would occasionally find myself in a position where it was my play or my lead and I had no idea of what to do. I would trance uselessly, not actually thinking effectually about possible plays, until everyone else at the table got bored and impatient, at which point my father would say “Play a card, any card. If you can’t think of a good card, play a bad card, because you have to play a card.”

There is no rule in RPGs that says that you have to do something when it is your turn. But you have to, anyway. If the player characters don’t do anything then the game won’t work.

One particular trap is when the players find themselves with not enough information to work out what to do. In that situation the worst thing to do is to forget about your characters and engage in futile speculation and argument. The next worst is to have your characters go to ground somewhere where the GM cannot get information to come to you and there engage in futile speculation and argument in character.

  • If you don’t have enough information, do something that will elicit information.
  • It is actually okay to have your character do something that makes the situation worse, so long as it allows (preferrably enables) the situation to go on developing. Characters suffer vicissitudes. That’s okay. They are supposed to.

When it is your turn to play, take a card out of you hand and put it on the table. The worst that can happen is that the game is not much fun, which is the same happens if you do nothing.

The only time we “take turns” is during combat and holding one’s action is an option. And if everyone holds, the NPCs can act.

Outside of combat, I make a very conscious effort to go around the table and ask everyone what they want to do and if they want to ask an out-of-character question for more information, they have the opportunity.

The only time I have run into the problem you describe in an RPG is with a particular GM who was incapable of having an engaging, natural conversation with an NPC and would sit in silence while he thought of something to say. This guy was also prone to analysis paralysis playing board games. We would have to kick him in motion by asking “Whose turn is it?”

I don’t quite think that’s right. RPGs aren’t usually described as consisting as an alternation of turns, but there is an implicit structure.

10: GM describes a situation;

20: character-players describe their character’s actions in the situation;

30: GM describes the results and the new situation resulting;

40: GOTO 20

If the players don’t do something at line 20 it turns into a monologue by the GM, diverges from the essential character of an RPG, and, in my view, is less enjoyable. So though RPGs are seldom presented as consisting of an alternation of plies for the GM and the character-players, and don’t state an obligation to play when it is your ply, I nevertheless urge character players to observe an element of truth in that representation, and to feel the zugzwang. It is my experience that RPGs move faster, go better, and are more fun when the player-characters are active, and I recommend to others that they ought to give it a try.

I’ve never run into this problem. It is a foreign concept to me.

If the players are stuck not knowing what to do, they’ll ask questions about the situation or what their options are and it becomes a two-way discussion. While there may be pauses while players think about what to do, they’ll usually be talking to each other. I only interject to clear up a misconception or maybe provide more context based on what I’m hearing from their discussion. I’ve never monologued as a GM to fill dead air left by the players.

But then, my favorite part of GMing is when all I have to do is sit back and listen to the players speaking in character to each other.

My favourite part is when the players are speaking in character to NPCs.

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I sometimes ask characters to restate the problem, to see if it helps then come up with a next step.

I sometimes say “That’s a very good question, and probably the key. What are you going to do to find out the answer?”

Sometimes the players slow down a bit, especially when everyone’s a bit tired. As GM, I find that often “OK, so what are you going to do” is enough to get them moving again. Or I’ll say “make a perception roll” and throw in some new clue.

On the player side, I sometimes feel that I have a rough idea of what’s going on, but can’t actually act (e.g. we know the magistrate is dodgy, but we can’t prove it in a way that would cause his superiors to believe us over him). This sometimes results in “let’s cause some trouble and see how things react”; after all the GM is no more interested in a stalemate than the players are.

Not sure about this. Not being able to think of anything to do is rare in games (endless discussion due to choice paralysis is more common), but I did run smack into it in a recent game. There was a certain amount of the GM being bloody minded in the mix.

An NPC had gone missing, we sent to find him. The game was going ok to start with as we got snippets of info from his neighbours and found a witness who saw him being thrown into a van. Then we worked out from clues that the kidnappers worked for Faction X. So now all we need to know is where they have taken him and how to get him back.

At that point we ran into a brick wall. Everything we tried to obtain more info provided zero information because either:

  1. We failed the dice roll to get more info.
  2. We succeeded but the GM said there was no info to be had from that source/method.

So the game lapses into silence and I announced “I literally have no clue what to do next. I’m all out of ideas.” The other player said she too, was all out of ideas. (We were down a player that session).

I’m not sure how we could have made the situation worse? We don’t know where the missing guy is… and we’ve started a random fight with the people in a nearby supermarket???

It was the sort of system where if we’d kicked in the door of a random facility belonging to Faction X, we would die in a hail of bullets. The system is quite lethal and we are not the SAS.

Endless choice paralysis is often the underlying problem, but bad GMing occurs sometimes too.

I find that the typical situation is that, in, say, a murder mystery, the PCs are called to the scene of the crime, examine the body and its surroundings, and then argue themselves into exhaustion. The do not canvas nearby places for witnesses. They do not interview the victim’s household and associates. They don’t try to trace the victim’s final movements. They do not investigate the victim’s finances, lawsuits, and arrest record. They don’t go anywhere or do anything. Mistaking themselves for the readers of a whodunnit rather than characters in a thriller, they wait for the next page to have another clue on it.

Of course that’s the entire basis for the Gumshoe system. (That bit of it, I quite like. The enforced spotlight-sharing, rather less so.)

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Ah. In my experience, that only really occurs in these two situations:

The players have a few risk averse people who won’t do anything that might put their characters at physical or social risk. Like the Werewolf game where the PCs refused to go speak to journalists or cops or social workers who knew stuff, because the journalists/cops/social workers might possibly, maybe, perhaps, get the teeny, tiniest inkling that they were werewolves…

Or the second one: the game contains one player who is a naysayer.
“We could do X…”
“No that’s too dangerous.”
“We could do Y…”
“No, we aren’t good enough at mountaineering.”
“We could do Z…”
“No, we’d need a mink coat and a diamond tiara and we can’t afford those.”
etc etc

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Yep. Those guys are the worst.

Maybe the second-worst. The worst are the kibbitzing non-players who persuade the players that their Heath-Robinson caper can’t work and they shouldn’t try.

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I forgot the other option… the groups who want the NPCs to do the plot for them.

GM: There’s been a murrrrdurrr.
Players: We call Sherlock Holmes and ask him to solve it.

EDIT: though I suppose they are, technically speaking, doing something by trying to get the NPCs to sort things. :slight_smile:

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I’m reminded of (I think it was) Parkinson’s personalities found in an organisation: the man who remembers the last time this was tried and will tell you all the reasons why it didn’t work then.

(Which as I see increasing numbers of people in tech trying to build community platforms badly because they don’t learn the lessons of the previous generation I regard as an increasingly valuable viewpoint, and not just because it’s likely to be mine. :slight_smile: )

I think that a big part of the problem here is the concept of the GM’s role. If I’m running a mystery, I want the players to solve it, just barely. And I feel the same way as a player: that’s more fun than either a failure or an immediate success. (The same applies to other sorts of challenge, except perhaps the bare power-fantasy of being the baddest ass in the world.) So if both players and GM accept that their goals are basically identical, one can have an enjoyable time just barely succeeding at things. Let’s call this the cooperative play style.

But there’s also the adversarial GM, the “killer dungeon”, the sort of play style that leads to long checklists of exactly what to do when approaching a door because if you once forget to say “I’m putting on my gloves” the GM will get you with a contact poison. In that style of game, it often seems that the world is full of bear-traps outside the immediate circle of light: do anything, without getting it perfectly right, and the GM will say “aha, got you”.

That’s never been my preferred play style and I don’t think it was especially common even Back In The Day, but once a player has been sensitised to this approach it can be hard to break them out of that feeling. Another symptom is that they avoid taking disadvantages (in the GURPS sense, like dependents and bad habits and shady pasts): a narrative hook becomes merely a way for the GM to screw them over, not a way to make a challenge more complex and more personal.

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