The Problem with Pure Potential

I think we’ve all had this problem at some point, usually after a while of trying to keep our players on our nice pretty plot and discovering they’d really rather be finding things out. Heck with it, we think, next time let’s give them what they want. And that’s when the trouble starts.

We begin—and we turn our exploration-mad players loose on a frontier free for their shaping, a great expanse not merely brimming with, nor even overflowing with, but formed almost completely of potential. Either we tell them just to explore, or we give them a clear mystery and tell them “This is what I’d like you to solve”. And there are secrets, and little mysteries, that we tell them are there for the discovering. No rails to rebel against, no fences to confine them (though we might warn them that they’re probably not powerful enough to step over here yet, that’s where the things with the particularly long teeth are), just plenty of room to stretch out and make their own way.

And in the midst of this potential, these endless frontiers of discovery, deep forests and depthless seas, cultural mysteries and byzantine conspiracies, the players gather, and look to one another, and say “So…. What do you want to do now?” And there is much facepalming.

What happened here is pretty simple. We figured that the group wanted to play and wasn’t too interested in taking direction, so we decided that we’d create a sort of Berkeley-derived wonderland-in-potentia whose parts would spring into being as they were interacted with—in short, reactive GMing and reactive worldbuilding. (That, or we’ve got all sorts of detail but they have no way to know it yet.) We’re trying to avoid getting too hung up on an event, or wasting too much effort on something the group is never going to see, so we make like a modern company and create what we need as we need it. Theoretically, that should get us through the game with a minimum of angst.

The group, on the other hand, is looking for something that will tell it which way it should go (or which way it might go, or in some cases which ways exist in which going would be possible), so they’re waiting for something to show signs of existing and tell them “You can step over here, it’s not unformed primordial chaos.” The end result is that they shrug and ask each other what to do, or talk to the same two or three characters over and over unless those three characters introduce them to someone else. It might be because the characters themselves are unmotivated, but more often it’s because there’s so much sheer potential that nobody has the slightest idea where to start. If we’ve provided vague sketches of a lot of things they might be able to use, they might be paralyzed with indecision, or stuck on trying to figure out how to connect the characters to their potential resources. If they’re not sure what’s out there beyond the idea that There Be Dragons (or other interesting critters), they might just be stuck trying to figure out what options they have. Either way, it’s not going to get them anywhere in the plot.

Promising though pure potential may be, it’s not without its pitfalls. Don’t let a world’s potential sabotage you!


  1. Shinali says:

    This sort of reminds me of something I heard once, probably urban myth:
    There was a school and the students were always hanging around the fringes of the playground, trying to climb the fence, what have you. Some adults in power decided that these children ought to be free so they took down all the schoolyard fences… and the students huddled up near the classroom buildings.

    Sometimes when the bounds are removed, we realize that they were also keeping the bad out as much as keeping us in, and even superhumans get overwhelmed with too much unknown sometimes, even if they could defeat most any threat.

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