‘What the hell are we even doing?’ When to play like a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist.

By reading this article, you will:

  • Learn the Problem Solving Method
  • Learn 5 questions to fix your role-playing game

Every GM has seen their players become utterly lost. The PC’s don’t know what they are supposed to do, why they are where they are, or what the goal is. This is about the time when the players take out their phones, deflate into their chair, or start talking about something else.

Unfortunately, this is often the failing of the GM. Players may not know why they are motivated to do the thing, get the thing, or talk to the thing. Luckily there is an easy fix. In Psychology, a widely used form of intervention is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Part of this therapy is something called the Problem Solving Method.

problem solving method

As the GM, when you feel the momentum come to a halt, ask these questions to the players.

What is the problem that you are trying to address? and/or Why are you here at this location?: Remember, these are questions you are asking the players. If you, the GM, cannot answer these questions, it may be time to let the players open up a new thread. Moreover, this question is not a ‘gotcha. It is asking a simple question and lays the groundwork for the follow up questions.

Eg: ‘We heard from a city guard that there was screaming coming from Lukewarm Cave. So, we came to the cave to see if Janessa Breadbaker was inside.’  

Why does this problem exist?: This question may be redundant, but it only really needs to be asked if not addressed with the first question.

Eg. ‘Someone kidnapped Janessa Breadbaker last week. We intend to get her back.’

What are you going to do about it?: This allows you to explicitly ask the players what their plan is going to be. This allows for dialogue between players, but also lets you, the GM, get an edge on how to anticipate and manipulate the pacing of the game (See Cognitive Dissonance).

Eg. ‘We are going to wait until night fall and then send in the thief PC. Once she comes back with info, we will head in and save Janessa Breadbaker.’  

Are you sticking to your plan? This question sounds kind of weird, but it may be the most useful. If the beginning of the session started out with a plan to save a girl from a cave, but the party decided to talk to a village elder for advice and then got caught up in a thing that lead to a thing that lead to another thing, then this question is worth asking. Asking the party if they are sticking to their initial plan is a backdoor way of letting you, the GM, influence them to stay on track. Merely asking them how their plan is going gently reminds all the players to keep to a goal.

Eg. ‘We sent in out thief PC and she found that Janessa is tied up and is about to be sacrificed by a bog witch. We went in and slain her and saved Janessa at the last second.’

Eg. ‘Well…we were on our way to Lukewarm Cave, but then we ran out of food. The cleric PC reminded us that there was a priory just a few miles from the cave. The thief PC got caught trying to steal gold from the alms box and then we had to go on a quick mission to repent with the cleric PC’s deity. We are not in a totally different city.

Did your plan work? and/or What needs to happen next?: This question lets you analyze how the party got to where they are, how their plans worked out, and if you need to restart the Problem Solving Method from the beginning. In one of the examples given above, it appears that the party’s initial plan was not followed and the party ended up on a different thread. If needed, the GM could start the method over and ask the first question regarding the PC’s new situation.

That is it. These 5 questions are used by Cognitive Behavioral Therapists when tackling specific topics in therapy. If you use the Problem Solving Method at your game table, feel free to leave a comment below and let us know how it went.

Imaged used: http://www.notey.com/blogs/problem-solving-method-in-teaching

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