Free Form Actions


I’m looking for advice on an idea:

My goal is to give players more freedom and agency for their actions. They are fixed within their set of spells and they are taking them literally. At the end my players sometimes say things like “I don’t know what to do right now”.

My idea is to give them more options with their spells, not binding them to specific spell descriptions and allow them to go with the flow of the moment. I plan an using ICRPG MAGIC’s “spell types” in combination with power words and rule everything else in the moment.

Example: A PC is familiar with TRANSMUTATION spells and he has a cloak giving him the powerword FOG. I’d allow him to transform in a fog entity for a couple of rounds (like he becomes hard to hit), or move through narrow gaps as a fog temporarily (to reach e.g. behind a locked door). Maybe he wants to transform the enemy’s boots into a fog monster (e.g. holding him in place), I’d allow that too. Main goal: support player creativity through free form actions (here: free form spell casting).

My question: I’ve got a non-magic PC in that group which would not benefit from that - which isn’t optimal imho. I’d encourage him to describe his attacks in more detail to e.g. allow for benefits. But I have no idea where to start here. For sure I’ll talk to them as a group.



IIRC Knave has a power word spell system that could be inspiration.

For the non-magic PC, remind them that damage isn’t always the best course of action - sometimes setting up the rest of the group for the win is more satisfying and actually also the best move for the moment.

I’d have a talk with the whole group to point stuff like this out when you implement these changes, just so you are clearly putting to them the why’s of the changes being implemented. Give them all the info.


last Saturday I threw a bag of spices and shot it with my crossbow to do an improvised blinding ability. I had no spells, just creativity, the props the dm left around the room and a need to make the swarm of eyeballs not be able to do things for a round.

Creative magic use often involves the player guessing or creating parts of the environment to use with their spells. The same can be done for sword and bow.

giving players easy queues for items that can be cut free making a trap activate or a burning lamp full of oil to shoot are easy ways to get them thinking on how they can use the environment to their advantage.


I attribute the choice paralysis and lack of imagination to video games, honestly. People have been trained that they can only do action X in situation Y.
So either they end up not knowing what to do, or agonize over what is the optimal choice.

So you might have to train your players. You can either straight up talk to them and explain it, or have some encounters where the enemies do it to the players.

If the enemies pick up things from the environment and use it effectively, that will spark a little something in their brains. Maybe have it be a recurring thing. Like they are in a mineshaft system, and there are exposed wood beams and supports everywhere. Describe that, and they probably won’t do anything at first. Then have an enemy rip out a beam and beat them silly. Or cause a cave-in on a tunnel section, forcing the players to find another way, losing valuable time.

OR, alternatively, when you describe combat, let them know what the enemies are going to imminently do. That way they have a pretty clear set of choices.

Example: Player A, it is your turn. Owlbear 1 is rearing up to slam into Player B, and Owlbear 2’s claw is mid-swipe heading to Player C’s throat. What do you do?

Not doing anything is not really an option. You have provided 2 very clear-cut choices. They can of course ignore those and do a million other things, but they at least have a backup plan. No way they will answer “I don’t know what to do right now.”

Another alternative: Provide non-combat options during combat.
Example: There is a wounded NPC bleeding out as monsters close in. They can choose to fight or use their turn saving the NPC.
Example: There is a control lever on the far side of the room. If someone can get to it, they can disable the golem that is throwing them around like rag-dolls. You might have to explicitly tell them that the lever looks like it controls the golems, or else they might ignore it.

If you make the non-combat option very rewarding, players will start to look at the environment for goodies. So even if they don’t know what spell to cast, they can default to searching the room for something they can use to turn the tide.


Some players just want to kill goblins.

Sometimes, a player who normally wants to manipulate reality just wants to bash goblins.

I suggest that sometimes the game is just about crushing goblins.

If you have a character that is being left behind because of lack of creativity…give them an item that adds flexibility.

Ring of extra action (name it better) they can use it for an extra attack, extra move, or to jump from a jump.

Or perhaps teleport for half a second…something a bit odd. You can move suddenly to a new location you can see for a half second, then you are back where you started, it uses your move action.

So I jump off the balcony with my spear pointed down, teleport to just behind the big bad, it slows down my fall as I teleport back and land on the ground softly!?!?
GM: sure roll to hit, and roll an extra d8 for damage.

Or some other bizarre loot.
Transform and item of the same mass, to any other non living item for 2 minutes.

Shield into a crossbow and quiver…and in two minutes it’s back!


Oh, I just thought of another thing you could do.

Have the players temporarily swap characters. Could be because of spell, or artifact, or just while they are in this room, everyone’s soul shifts to a different character. Whatever. Probably don’t make it too dangerous, so the stakes are low. It’ll just be a short fun thing. Have them overcome some obstacle while in different bodies. Maybe a little combat, keep it light.

The point is, players will see their character act very differently than what they would normally do. Might give them some ideas when they get their character back.

Another option would be to use a skill challenge (pretty sure Matt Colville has a video on it). It is lifted from 4e rules, but honestly pretty sweet. It is done thusly:

Announce: This is a skill challenge. Your party needs to accomplish X (get out of a tower before it collapses, chase a thief across the rooftops, successfully foment a goblin revolution, etc.)
Together, you need to accumulate 5 successes. If you get 3 failures, you all fail.
You can only use skills/abilities you are proficient in. You can only use a given skill/ability once.
Set the stage and begin.

This is a narrative structure that chains together a lot of action and resolves everything very quickly. It really makes players think outside the box, but at the same time, they have limited choices as they aren’t proficient in too terribly many skills. They’ll have to be creative to find ways they could use skills that might on the surface not be applicable.
See: for a detailed explanation.


This might sound like a weird option, but sometimes that paralysis is stage fright and fear of failure and loss avoidance—or all three! Let’s be real: people’s brains can turn to mush and go blank even among friends.

So if it’s their turn and they don’t know what to do, don’t pressure or force an act! That will probably just prolong the agony for all concerned. Make their hesitation part of the flow of the story. Their character is momentarily caught flatfooted or is shrewdly eying the situation waiting for an opportunity, or lost in thought trying to remember all the words to (Whoa) Black Betty (bam-ba-lam!)!

Once it’s clear a player is stymied, let them roll unmodified against Target…

FAIL: they have +3 they can use either to

  • block/dodge 3 points of incoming damage to self, or
  • add +3 to their next check, attempt or effort roll*

SUCCEED: they can do either of the above, OR aid an ally by

  • adding the +3 to an ally’s attempt or effort roll, or
  • block/protect the ally from 3 points of incoming damage.

(Btw, this is basically my default “Focus/ Prepare/ Help/ Evade all rolled into one” mechanic. When they declare a specific way they plan to help or prep or whatever, of course use the appropriate stat instead of unmodified. And give specific declared actions the benefit of rolling effort with appropriate bonuses as well. But if they want to keep their options open and undeclared, this is a fine balance to strike.)

*Depending on how pulpy vs. gritty the tone is, I may even let the player who rolled unmodified decide whether add the +3 after the roll… so that if they wouldn’t have needed the +3 to hit, they still get a little bump-up from last turn and don’t feel that sad trombone feeling of having “wasted” their advantage.


I’d solve this by giving players more loot options and adding more treats to the encounters, so they have options. Usually if there is a failing, it’s because of something I have done as a DM. Maybe consider designing an encounter or two where the mage has to decipher some mystical weaves of magic while the fighter keeps the horde at bay. And make sure they are stocked up on fun bits of loot: flasks of oil, portions, scrolls, a ten foot pole, a pry bar, a bag of ball bearings, and some glue. The best moments are when players look down and McGyver a solution you didn’t see coming.