Schrödinger's Gun GMing: The MacGyver Theory

Welcome to another article in the Schrödinger's Gun GMing series!

Who's the king of improvised solutions? I give you the fictional character whose name has become a widely-recognized verb: Angus MacGyver, hands down. MacGyver uses the same ideas I'm shooting for in Schrödinger's Gun GMing to improvise solutions to real-world problems on a physical level. Yes, there's the engineered convenience caused by the writing staff of a late-'80s television show to blame for his success, but bear with me here.

Consider that an ordinary bathroom or closet has all the elements needed to create something story-changing for someone clever enough to pay attention and combine the elements correctly. And why is he so clever? Because he assumes there's a solution hiding in plain sight, very much like using Schrödinger's Gun GMing assumes that what happens next in the story follows from what the characters decide to do next.

I can't seem to find the one quote that sticks with me from the show, so I'll work from memory. When asked about how he learned to cobble together the MacGyverism of the week, he talked about his mentor. I'm probably butchering the quote here, but he said, "He taught me that any problem can be solved with whatever is in the room at the time."

How Big a Room Do You Need?

You've got an entire campaign world to draw from, filled with NPCs and groups and Carrots and Sticks. Expand your room as much as you need when you need to find a solution to whatever problem you face. Use your world's gods if you must, though too much Deus Ex Machina tends to make players believe that their actions don't matter.

It seems very Zen - your players are part of the problem when they decide to do something completely unexpected, but even when they go off the rails they hand you the seeds that grow into a logical reason for their decisions. And the other characters that populate your world will react in a way that makes sense to them. All of those decisions are contained within the room of your game. All those decisions flow from the players' experience of the story through their characters.

MacGyvering Your Story
How does this help us run a game using Schrödinger's Gun GMing? By adopting a MacGyveresque outlook and attitude. In my mind it boils down to three ideas to keep in mind at the table.
  1. Pay Attention. The players will let you know how you're doing and what they will tolerate. Also pay attention to your Plot Stack and how to draw in hooks from a PC's background. These sources will let you add in twists where your players will least expect them. Also pay attention to when something has stopped working so you can move on to something else as soon as possible.
  2. Be Flexible. This mantra should be inscribed at the top of every scrap of paper a GM touches in the course of game prep and runtime. Don't get too wrapped up in your story plans or you'll bore your players to death. If something happens, never be afraid to go off script and run with the cooler idea.
  3. Try Something. In almost every show, one of the supporting cast asked MacGyver if he was sure that something he came up with would work. He invariably answered, "Nope." He tried it anyway. If you don't go out on a limb and try something crazy every once in a while, you're editing out awesome opportunities.
Maybe this was where Schrödinger's Gun GMing originally came from - an unflappable hero improvising his way through unexpected events with whatever comes to hand. Macgyver works in the physical realm, but we GMs do the same thing with the story we create at the table.

As Susan, my drama professor from College, always said when advising someone on making a decision, "Use your intelligence guided by experience." Sage advice. I'll leave you with another MacGyver quote to mull over:
"You know, when something's broken, the easiest thing to do is just throw it away, go on, and forget about it... But if you just step back and take a look at what you've got, sometimes you find a totally different way of making it work."
Allow yourself to see a totally different way of making it work and chances are you'll make an amazing game.

Thanks for reading!

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  1. Wombat, I advise caution here unless your gaming group is on board with this style of shared-storytelling game. If the players come to feel that the next plot point is always behind the door that they choose (or the second door they choose), then those choices can feel meaningless. You touch on this in your article specific to divinities but it really applies throughout. A puzzle-solving, objective driven group may hate this, though again a shared-storytelling group may revel in their ability to shape the very structure of the story.

  2. Absolutely true. RailSchroding is a definite hazard, where the player choices cease to matter in favor of the story the GM is trying to tell. At times it's tempting to beat the players over the head with that kind of power, but I'm going for a more adaptable style here where the GM and players work together, even if the players don't fully realize it.

    Yes, some groups may absolutely hate this approach. That's fine. This isn't The One True Way by any stretch, just a set of tools that I've found useful. I hope that every GM can get at least one thing out of this series, no matter what kind of group they have. I won't mind if they ditch the modules in favor of mining character backgrounds to populate their Plot Stack, though I'm hardly expecting it.

    Thanks, JohnDunk!

  3. Who are all these players that are constantly coming up with better ideas than the GM and why are they never at my table!?!? ;)