What’s the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity in an RPG? I’ve played in plenty of games where the GM laid down what they thought was an opportunity and what I thought was an insurmountable obstacle. And I’ve run games where the obstacles I created were instead interpreted as opportunities by my players. Is there any distinction at all?
The answer, of course, is both yes and no. In the end, all distinction lies in the eye of the beholder; how a player decides to interpret an event or new piece of information, either as an opportunity for further progress or as an obstacle that will funnel their actions, depends on their own mindset. But instead of dealing with understanding your players, this article will focus on how you can present opportunities and obstacles more clearly and what role each might play in your game.
The simplest thing to do when presenting them, and one that I favor, is just to make clear which one you think you’re putting forward. When you talk about the dragon that you know will be in the way of the PCs, saying something like “You’re pretty sure this thing would eat you for a light snack,” should be fairly straightforward. That dragon is probably an obstacle, at least insofar as fighting it goes. With each piece of information you give about the obstacle, you just add a little bit of fiction that helps to establish the severity of the difficulty involved in facing it (perhaps an observation that the PCs would make, “the thought of going up against these Mars Corp security guys gives you the willies”). In a game that I ran recently, I established that a wizard was Very Scary by telling the PCs a story about her turning someone giving her trouble into a fish and then eating the fish. The PCs are still trying to avoid that wizard.
But I don’t find obstacles nearly as interesting as opportunities. When offering opportunities, I try to follow the format of Apocalypse World; I tell my players that they have an opportunity, with or without an associated cost. I make the opportunity and the cost clear up front. Maybe the entirety of the cost isn’t immediately obvious, but it should be easy enough for the players to recognize: snubbing some fop at the front door in order to get into a party isn’t a big deal, but the PCs might know that the fop has the ear of someone far more powerful. Because it’s about giving the cost in context instead of misleading the players, be sure to clarify if it seems like your players aren’t sure what the ramifications or other potential future costs are.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that your PCs are probably capable of a number of different things, and that opportunities and obstacles are often only oriented towards a specific set of circumstances. That dragon that I mentioned above would probably make a hash of the characters if they tried to face it in a fight. If would literally eat them for breakfast. But in many settings dragons are intelligent, and maybe the PCs could figure out something that the dragon wanted that they could offer it. Perhaps they could sneak past it using illusions. Who knows? Your players are often ingenious and tricksy beyond your expectations, and they’ll come up with solutions that you never anticipated.
With that in mind, even when you think you’ve done an excellent job of showing whether something is an opportunity or an obstacle, remember to be open to your players’ interesting solutions or workarounds. Sometimes your players will flee from what you thought was a perfectly reasonable opportunity, and they’ll often present you with a bizarre but workable solution to the obstacle that you thought was nigh-well insurmountable. When that happens, go with it. Don’t punish them for not following your expectations of play, let them go ahead and do what they’ve been working towards (this fits with what Mattias said in Let the Heroes be Strong).
One final important note: sometimes the players’ answers will be rooted in a mutual misunderstanding about how the setting or scene works, and in these cases it’s best to give them a do-over. They can make their decision again when they can actually see the scene as their character does. It’s your responsibility as storyteller to make sure that they understand what’s going on, let them reconsider when there’s a miscommunication.
Go with the flow, and let the heroes do their thing. It’ll be fun.