The player said, “I climb into the rafters.”
I thought about it and said there really weren’t any rafters. Then I changed my mind and said there could be.
He climbed into them. He asked what he could see of the enemies’ activities.
I said no, there’s a dividing wall (and a doorway) between him and the enemies.
So he reluctantly climbs back down, and sneaks to the doorway.
Advice: No-one Cares about the Floorplan!
This is the classic situation where the player and the GM see a scene in different ways– and then the GM stops the game in order to hash it all out. The problem is (and get ready for this) the players don’t care how you see the room. They care about cool stuff they can do in this room.
The right thing to say would have been, “yes, you swing up into the rafters. From here you can make out the enemies on the other side of the chamber,” and then just describe what the enemies were doing (maybe calling for a Stealth or Perception check it I want to make him work for it). Because that was the point of the scene anyway; the floorplan was non-essential.
But instead I made the classic GMing mistake about rooms.
In this post-video game world, GMs can fall into the habit of thinking that floorplans are set – that rooms have rafters or don’t have rafters depending on how the gameworld architect (you) built them ahead of time. In this mindset, floorplan details are crucial because the player is “discovering” features that already exist.
But in situations like the one above, correcting floorplan details basically shuts down the action-approach the player had chosen (rafter-climbing) and forces him to do the approach the GM had envisioned (doorway sneaking).
The Holodeck Approach
Instead, try conceptualizing rooms as if you’re writing a movie.
In The Movies, rooms exist for one purpose: to give characters an opportunity to do what they do best – and either look awesome or fail spectacularly. If a character’s style is to climb into rafters and spy on people – then the room automatically has rafters and a good vantage point.
One way to do this is, of course, to install features in the room that match your players’ style. But if your players don’t pick up on your hint – or, gasp, if they want to do something else entirely, go ahead and let the room flex a little to fit their plan.
The other way to do this – and it’s harder because it requires you to “let go” a little – is to let the features of the room remain mostly undefined until someone calls specific details into existence. By saying “I climb into the rafters.” You’ll probably be “calling” for most of them, and doing so based on your notes – but give your players the authority to call for things too. They’re your co-storytellers.
Given the Purpose Of Rooms above, rooms don’t really belong to you – they belong to your players.
A Couple of Rules
Any time a player makes an assumption about the setting, treat it like he’s “called” for that item or detail on the holodeck. He mentions it – therefore it exists.
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The exception is, if a player calls for something that truly conflicts with your story. If you say no to a few things (“no, strangely there are no stairs up to that balcony.”) it will only make your descriptions stronger and arouse your players’ curiosity – they’ll know there’s something significant about the stairlessness of this room.
Players exploring the room can be very similar to players creating the room. Don’t be afraid you’re giving anything away for free – all you’re giving them is the kind of game they want to play. …and that should be free, shouldn’t it?