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Do What Now? Player Spontaneity in Role-Playing Games

Updated on September 26, 2015

How fast can you think on your feet in your role-playing games?

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Role-playing games are, at their core, storytelling games; from start to finish, all participants (players and gamemasters) are actively working together to craft an exciting story. While the details of the exact story, including theme, genre, and style are immaterial to the main goal (but worthy enough for further discussion), the most important element to the entertainment and enjoyment of the game is the collaboration among the players. As with many stories, twists, turns and other surprises can add excitement and make the story more enjoyable. How can one do this in a role-playing game? By being spontaneous and surprising both players and GM’s with unexpected decisions that, ideally, progress the story in a productive and fun manner. The most memorable moments in role-playing sessions tend to come from the outside-the-box thinking and off-the-wall decisions that players make in the course of the game. How can we be more spontaneous in our games?

Spontaneity as a Living Trait

It can readily be argued that being spontaneous is an inherent quality of a person rather than a skill to be learned; either you are born with it or you aren’t. Another approach is that many people may have the natural aptitude to be spontaneous more so than others. Assuming the latter, we can train and improve our skill at being spontaneous and strive to better out experiences at the gaming table because of it.

Hey! Yeah, You in the Back!

One of the most important reasons to develop yours skill at thinking on your feet is because you will need to do just that . . . A LOT! There is almost never telling when the GM (or another player, for that matter) will call upon you to add something to the narrative; or even answer the dreaded question: what is your character doing? Unfortunately, many players new to role-playing games are going to feel put on the spot (cause they are) and may not have a more meaningful answer than, “I don’t know.” This is unfortunate for EVERYONE. The player will feel less encouraged to be part of the process because they are not contributing; and the other players may feel like the former is being a drag on the flow of the game. It is to avoid these embarrassing situations that improving one’s spontaneity is necessary.

Know Your Rules/Abilities

Being spontaneous is not the same as being unpredictable. While some of your choices may not be predictable, it doesn’t mean that all of your ideas cannot be foreseen. Rather spontaneity comes from knowing how to make less than conventional decisions. This knowledge has to come from a solid foundation of understanding; namely, knowing the capabilities of your character. That in-turn means knowing enough of the nuances of the rules to when and how to stretch and bend them to accomplish what you want.

There are two main means to achieving such understanding: studying and communicating. Whatever your comfort level is with pounding the books might be, it does really come down to looking through the material (i.e. rules) and finding out what you need to know. Beyond that, take notes as necessary; make reference cards; whatever will help you remember the rules. Remember: you not only need to know the general rules of the game, but also any rules that pertain to your particular character. Knowing the specific rules for your character not only helps you out, but it will help the group out and the GM in particular; after all, if they can rely on you to honestly know the rules with your character, then that is one less thing they will need to worry about remembering.

Communication is an essential aspect to any gaming group (more on that in a future installment). When it comes to knowing the rules (and setting, actually), it is important to know when to ask questions to your fellow players and, more importantly, the GM. The GM is the de facto rules authority and arbitrator for the group (and should be, even if a clear rules-lawyer is present among your particular group); so it is vital that you make sure what you are doing or plan on doing will work as intended within the game. Ideally, you and the GM can come to a consensus when the rules do not have a clear answer. But, again, none of this can happen without you starting the conversation with your GM.

The biggest concern many players face when speaking with other players and, especially, the GM is that they are dragging the game out. Ideally, you will have group that does not feel that way; if anything, they want you to ask questions and especially when you are unsure of what you can or cannot do. Think of yourself as an investment: the more time and positive energy they (and yourself) are willing to put into you, the more it will pay out for everyone. So, again, please feel free, nay encouraged, to ask questions of your GM and/or fellow players.

Strong Visuals

Now that you have a strong sense of what the rules will allow (even if they require a bit of flexing), you can move onto deciding what you want to do. Where do you go next? Well, the next tool to help with seeing what your character can do is to visualize what they can do more clearly; in other words, actually try to see what they can do. By evoking a strong visual image, you can utilize your imagination more-so to not only develop more spontaneous content for your games; but also help better describe your actions and decisions that your character performs. As a secondary benefit, with a stronger visual image of your character you can provide a more in-depth and interesting description of your character when introducing them to new characters or scenarios.

Strong Vocabulary

The next step in your path to richer spontaneous role-playing is your arsenal; that is your words. Obviously you have a great image in your head of what your character looks like and what you want them to do, but now you need to properly communicate those images to your fellow players and GM in order to accurately convey the same emotional content beyond the actual visuals. There are numerous methods to developing your vocabulary; one particular way is through varied exposure of media. The idea is that by coming across unfamiliar or different words, you learn the words through practical context; then you can research the words afterwards to find the actual definition. Besides looking up words in the dictionary (or appropriate website), looking into a thesaurus for alternative words helps out as well. Lastly, many role-playing books will actually have key terms and definitions when necessary for the game; whether for rules purposes or for world-building purposes.

Scenery Game

Time to put your strong visual mind and newly heightened vocab to the test; time to play the scenery game. The scenery game is where you are given a location and then you have a set amount of time (say, thirty seconds) to come up with at least ten things that you would typically find in that location. Example scene: the galley of an old sailing ship:

  • Cutlery
  • Benches
  • Weighted cups
  • Plates
  • Hardtack
  • Apples
  • Barrels of grog (or rum)
  • Tables
  • Chairs
  • Stools

Scenes can be from history (as above) or they can be more modern/contemporary. Example scene: a middle class living room:

  • Couch
  • Television set
  • Night stand
  • Recliner chair
  • Remote control
  • Clock
  • Dinner tray
  • Lamp
  • Video game console
  • Stack of DVDs

Of course, scenes can be from any genre or setting. You should feel free to think up scenes that are more appropriate to the campaigns you are playing in. Example scene: an alchemist’s lab:

  • Beakers
  • Crucible
  • Fireplace
  • Potions rack
  • Worktable
  • Refuse bin
  • Burners
  • Sulfur
  • Coal
  • Tongs

Practice Makes Perfect

Now that you have many of the tools and training exercises that will help you whip a quick brain-drizzle on the fly, here is the most important thing to do with it all: keep at it. You will have plenty of opportunities to practice and improve upon your skills; take every opportunity when fitting. You can only improve with time and effort; and with that time and effort, you will truly shine among your peers during your spotlight moments. Enjoy!

Fun Video with RPG Anecdotes


On a strictly personal note, this is my tenth Hub and I wanted to commemorate the occasion with a dedication to my wife. I am unsure how far I would have gotten without her support, patience and love. Thank you very much honey, I love you ^_^

And now for a shameless plug . . .


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      L. Simpson 3 years ago

      Once again a great post, I remember the first time we played together, and it wad my first time role playing, and I ended up killing your character. It really put a spin on the game no one expected, but unfortunetly you had to create another character. That moment is still talked about today in our group!

    • Kym Debler profile image

      Kym Debler 3 years ago

      Awe sweetie thanks for the dedication, I really don't feel like I did much. Glad I could help with the motivation though.

      Otherwise I really like that you put a video here and the poll at the beginning :).