In an adventure that features a race against time or against unseen ememies, players will ask if they have time to rest, search, or prepare. If the adventure lacks a way to reveal how much time remains, such decisions become guesswork. Informed choices make roleplaying games fun, but guessing can just feel frustrating. Players wonder if their blind decisions really matter or if their choices just get ignored so the session tracks a narrative. Often, story conventions win, so choices don’t matter. How often do parties of adventurers reach a diabolical ritual seconds before its completion? Such luck! All those guesses led to the most improbable, dramatic conclusion. (I don‘t condemn it; I’ve done it.)
The movie version of the race to foil a ritual would cut speeding characters against shots revealing the cultists’ nearing success. For drama, a dungeon master could take the storytelling liberty of describing events the characters can’t see, but that gives players actionable information their characters lack. To play in character, does the group have to pretend they don’t know what they can’t know?
Some years ago, the multi-table epic adventure Return to White Plume Mountain suffered from such an information gap. In it, some tables worked to create a distraction to divert foes from other groups who might otherwise be overwhelmed. At the end of the adventure, groups that drew more foes faced more monsters. The best strategy balanced making some distration without drawing a lethal amount of attention. But the players lacked feedback revealing the rising threat they faced, so I wished for some divination magic that would give players a better sense of how their actions shaped their future.
I’ve considered all this as I prepare to run the adventure Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, a “punishing” tournament adventure sure to be relished by a particular group of gluttons for punishment. Author Sersa Victory favors competition over immersion by sometimes telling DMs to make metagame announcements or to issue challenges:
“Announce to players that ‘the constellation of living spheres of annihilation has been awakened!’”
“Tell characters that they have one minute to choose between supremacy for themselves or subjugation for their enemies.”
I imagine an unseen narrator’s announcements sounding across the necropolis, and the characters looking quizzically for the source, Instead, I want a way to bring these announcements out of the metagame and into the game world.
Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons scenarios would play better when the players gain feedback that would lead to interesting choices and added tension. Often, the characters have no ordinary way to get that information. Fortunately, D&D characters live in a magical world where divination exists.
After drinking this potion, you begin seeing visions or hearing phrases that reveal your progress toward whatever short-term goal you feel is most important. These omens may also reveal the most likely outcome of current activities meant to reach the goal. The DM chooses the frequency and the exact nature of the omens. The effects last for 10 days or until your goal changes.
By providing the capability in a potion, the DM controls access, so when a mission works better with extra information, characters can happen upon a potion that helps.
I like the idea for certain groups.
But surely using gods, faeries, demons, spirits and other powers accomplishes the same thing while adding depth to the campaign.
In my opinion the PCs should be VALUABLE to the powers that be in the campaign world. They should be pursued by patrons (shout out DCC) who want them as servants. Such beings should be able to provide information to those who serve them or those they are trying to seduce into service.
But the potion is nifty for one-offs, short campaigns and groups that prefer to hand wave gods and such. Not knocking the playstile. I have done it too.
Nice bit, David. Keep up the fantastic work.
Aren’t there a bunch of divination spells that do this? It think this gives away too much to a party with a cleric.
I think players and DMs forget the utility of augury (etc). Realizing the need for information can give them real decisions to make when selecting spells. Having to balance between healing, buffs and information should be part of the game for the cleric.
I enjoyed this article & its central theme is excellent – running a game where the party has to guess, & the resulting sense of futility & harm to the story & immersion is a genuine problem. Your suggestions belong in every DM’s toolbox, & encourage critical DM thinking, which I applaud. I also tip my hat to the replies I’ve seen so far – there are a multitude of ways to resolve this kind of problem. Deciding which to use seem, to me, a matter of knowing your players & your DM style. Hopefully more suggestions will follow.
This is the kind of material that would serve excellent purpose rolled up, with similar wisdom, into a DM/running the game sort of guide & I heartily encourage your consideration of such.
Love this, I’m going to take this concept and make a devilish contract locked in a special box that starts doing bad things the closer the contract gets to breaking. I could see lots of role playing opportunities to research the box, trying to understand why it started bleeding black ichor, studying how many stages the box has and how close it is to… whatever, gathering lore to decide to open the box or not etc etc which my players will love! Thanks for this!
Essentially, I was thinking the same kind of thing. Not the Potion of Omens, but some other kind of “this is getting worse/brighter/cracked!” indicator object that lets the players know they are on a clock, and how much time is passing, without telling them “you have 2 hours left, foolish heroes” or “regardless of when the players get to room 28, the cult leader is just about to finish…”.