I have given a friend of mine an apology recently for doing something that a lot of gamemasters can be guilty of. Realisticaly, I know better of but in the heat of the moment it just comes out. I was watching them play Watch Dogs helping out occasionally with hints to try and help, and when multiplayer started I tried to offer more hints and tips. However, as the timer got closer to being completely full and the opponent getting away, I was to the point of almost screaming at them what to do as the time was approaching and I was caught up in the moment of high tension. While I was trying to be helpful, it ended up causing moments of indecisiveness as they tried to sort through the provided information as well as their own thoughts on how to proceed.
It took me a long time of playing the game to learn and refine my skills. I did it through researching other players videos and posts, trial and error in gameplay as well as a bit of psychology and game theory experience I have. However, I cannot expect them to pick up the skills any faster with me coaching them by yelling from the sidelines. I did set up a new account and get to the multiplayer section so I can show them, but we didn’t get a chance to do that yet. So, my giving directions is no better than the audience telling a game show contestant what door to pick for a prize. Ultimately, the information overwhelms as they process too much information for the decision-making to handle. Just look at psychology studies like this one.
Everyone learns at their own pace, and we cannot change that. What we can do is attempt to give them opportunities to learn the resources they have available, how they can be used in different situations and how to judge what a good and a bad result are. It can be hard to remember this when you’re watching somebody do something, but if we want to assist in something they are doing it is more ‘show, don’t tell’, part of the same system you should be using for describing and such. You tell someone they could, or should, be doing something, you won’t get very far because of the fact that there is no way for them to see that in practice until they try it and fail. Instead, take on a role as coach or instructor, offering suggestions, advice, and other general tips and help, maybe even showing them how to do something to give them some context of understanding. That way, techniques can be refined by your experiences and adapted to their playstyle. Not everyone plays the same, so their skillset may not be the same as yours.
Blackjack wrote an article on this in Part Two of his Bitter Gamemastering Series. Both parts in this are good, but I’m referring to the second part, “Do This”. He talks about the same sort of behavior in RPGs and how we as gamemasters can instill the creativity into our players to get the sort of thinking beyond simple problem solving. I believe the player side of not doing creative things, whether in combat or out, is a mix of two main issues. The first is the information paralysis in the face of overwhelming information and options, such as when you consider exactly how many pages those combat sections are and usually as dry as math word problems. The second is simpler; if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Because the gamemaster knows the whole scenario from an external viewpoint, it can be easy to come up with solutions since you have nothing to lose if you take a risk and it fails as another npc can come in to replace them. Players, on the other hand, have a character they have invested time into and is their only view of the world and most do not want to risk losing that and making a new one. As such, any gamemaster will have moments in which, to quote Blackjack,
You just want to possess the player’s body for a few moments and have him shatter the coffee table, grab a piece of glass, and frisbee it under the door and into the NPCs foot.
He gives some ideas on how to solve this, sure, but it is not the only way. This Campaign Mastery blog talks about training players to becoming tactical thinkers which may work as well. Another way may be simplifying rules, or at least their presentation, to an easy accessable method first, before giving the crunchy statistics. A beginning player needs to know only what options are open to them, not how this one adds 2 dice and this one increases armor 3 points. The mechanical changes mean nothing to them when thinking of tactical moves available as a whole, since the first step is elimination of options they cannot do. Once they know what they can do, then they can start comparing numbers. For example, in an American Football videogame, most people only need to know the type of plays as player stats are irrelevant to their making a decision of what play to run.
Lack of information on all abilties available can alter your decision making and thus affect your experience and playstyle. In Super Metroid, players can reach areas in sequence breaking ways because of advanced game knowledge, as the player has a skillset outside what the game was expecting at that time. In tabletop, GMs try to stop sequence breaking by disallowing something to work. Without a good reason for disallowing, players will begin to refrain from suggesting things because they think they will be shot down and thus stop trying. Maybe you’re refusing as it is not in the rules or because you don’t want it to happen in their story, such as the fantasy game player who wants to discover gunpowder.
Instead of saying no, come up with a reason it may not work as they want it, like the character makes gunpowder but now magic users are after them for making them obsolete or the items are poorly contructed and go off in comedic ways like a Looney Tunes cartoon. It can discourage them from proceeding down that path or challenge them to improve it, but at least they’re trying things still.
It is especially problematic with disallowing something on the reasoning it will interrupt your story flow at the time but then later requiring your player to use it to solve a problem, such as having your enemies using alignment masking items to keep your paladin’s detect evil from working. Don’t expect them to suddenly use it to ferret out a bad guy without prompting after a few of those failures. You can make things challenging, but limit it to only a few occasions if you want them to not expect their use to fail. Otherwise, players will assume it will not work and resort to other things that they know work. Once they’re in a mindset of ‘tried, tested and true’, good luck getting them out. Look at comedy like The Gamers movies or Knights of the Dinner Table comics as examples as players first instinct to a problem in both is about how can they fight through it and get experience points.