How to encourage linear problem solving skills

I have a lot of players who are either very used to traditional D&D style of play or new to RPG’s in general. Most of the problem solving that they employ either involves trying to kill it or is picked from a list of options I give meaning that the best and most creative ideas at the table are simply mine.

As much as I enjoy creative problem solving, I think there is a much more interesting dynamic of play when a player can experience the agency to own their solution or work together to come up with something truly innovative. How do I train the players to come up with something fun and unexpected when this is a skill they simply don’t yet have?

My current approach has been to give them three vague “leads” to get them going, but they have a hard time getting into more details than that. I try to ask follow-up questions like “What does that look like?” and “How would you attempt that?” but it still feels superficial when I get answers.


It seems harsh, but just stop giving them answers. If they can’t think of a solution, then have them take a different route – can’t figure out how to open the door that can’t be lockpicked? Guess you’ll have to take a different path.

I would presume your players do have the skillset to problem solve, but maybe they aren’t comfortable brainstorming in a group or sharing their ideas. There’s really nothing to be done with that except wait silently. If one of the issues you find is that you are quick to offer ideas or leads to avoid an “awkward silence,” try counting ten seconds before you say anything (this gives them the opportunity to think and you something to do while you wait). After that, ask a player directly what their idea is – not if they have an idea: give them the benefit of a doubt that they’ve already got an idea and just flat out ask them to say it out loud. And then ask everyone else what they think.

After all that, if no one honestly, truly has an idea, then the problem is just unsolvable. If this is consistent, it’d probably be worth having a conversations with your players about their interest in those kinds of challenges. There might just be other things they’d rather be doing and, considering the traditional or no background, they may not even realize it.


I try to tap into something outside of the tradition, especially something evocative. For me, that’s movies. I had a situation in Blades in the Dark where the PCs wanted me to provide all the details of the situation so that they could lay out a plan before they would commit to anything and I was sort of “ummm, no, that’s not how this works. Ok, imagine it’s a movie. What’s the most movie-esque, heisty-esque way to get into that compound?”

And then I gave tons of encouragement for their idea. This second part is very important. Even if their idea is only so-so, that’s progress, and you want to encourage that progress.


Here are some ideas:

  • Play a session of a GM-less game which requires players to be more proactive and creative. Fiasco is a good one for this because it explains its creative boundaries very clearly.
  • Introduce tools like Stars & Wishes to your game and use them to reward creative behaviour.
  • Spend ten minutes doing a ‘tone-setting’ activity in which each person talks about what parts of the game they like and don’t like so that you can all work to make the game more enjoyable for each other. Use your slot to say how much you value player input and see how they react.
  • Import an experienced player you like and admire to be a guest character in your campaign (or just to join it!). The newbies will gradually emulate them.

Maybe they just don’t know that they can introduce their own ideas in the fiction?

Depending on who was their GM in their previous D&D experiences some of them might even have been discouraged from contributing elements to the fiction.
I mean, to some players simply stands to reason that if the PCs are standing it means there is ground beneath their feet and they could grab a handful of mud or sand to throw in the face of an enemy. To others it might not be so obvious, they might think it’s against the rules or that it might annoy the GM.


This is a problem of agency not system. Open ended problems require open ended solutions and creativity. Conversely linear adventure design and set solutions push against player choice.

The most traditional sort of open ended play environment is a sandbox without a story goal. With its of interesting factional conflicts and many locations to explore, there’s no necessity to figure out any one puzzle or location, and so as a GM if your players can’t solve something no need to prompt them to - they can miss out on that game content until they can solve it.

It also helps curtail player murderousness if A) There’s no mechanical benefit for killing things. B) many things are easily able to kill the characters. C) Factions are even scarier then individual dangers. A small band of smugglers might be easy to bully, but if they have the backup of Tristero’s Silent Empire killing them is no longer a simple solution.

Now it takes a while to teach these ethics of play, and to learn them as a GM, but a few dead PCs and a TLK or two will usually mitigate the urge to attack everything and a few successes will get players excited about solving things.

Once the style is set you can complicate the sandbox with event clocks, active factions and such. This sort of complexity will also usually improve story complexity.

I’d also suggest trying out a system with no or a minimal skill system. As long as players can say “I roll to intimidate” or “I roll to search for traps” they have less reason to think what they might say that’s intimidating or what might be trapped and how. This also demands that the GM know the answer to those questions.