Actions players always take and choices players never make, part 1

At conventions and in organized play, I’ve served as dungeon master for a lot of adventures from other authors. Every adventure author makes certain guesses about what the players will do. Typically the authors guess pretty well, but sometimes they make guesses that are utterly wrong. Sometimes authors waste pages accounting for actions that no player will ever take, or fail to account for obvious choices, forcing the dungeon master to scramble to bridge gaps. Of course, many dungeon masters create their own adventures, so the author who guesses wrong is also the DM who wastes time prepping, or who winds up scrambling.

Even though no author or DM wants to run a railroad, even though seeing players make surprising choices ranks as one of the best parts of being a DM, we can all benefit by anticipating our players actions a bit better. Over time, I have learned some things players will always do, or never do, in a particular situation.

dungeon adventure

My list includes examples drawn from Living Forgotten Realms adventures. I selected these examples because I ran each of the adventures at least five times. Through several plays, missed assumptions about how players would act stood out. The adventures still worked. I can attest that I enjoyed running all these adventures and that my players seemed to like them too. I also pick on Scourge of the Sword Coast, simply because I just finished reading the adventure in preparation for Dungeons & Dragons Encounters.

Players never report back to authorities.

In CORE5-8 The Dantalien Maneuver, players take the job of scouting to discover if Thay forces have crossed the Umbar River to invade Aglarond. Once the characters learn the answer, they are to report back on their findings. The adventure puts that instruction in bold. When players report back, they get their next mission. I suspect report back appears in bold because as soon as playtest groups spotted the Thay forces, most started freelancing. Once players get a whiff of a problem to solve—those Thay forces invading—the DM will be hard-pressed to swing them back on course. When I ran this adventure, I had the patron repeat the crucial importance of reporting back without delay, yet all of my groups struggled mightily against the urge to act, and many went freelancing.

Players will follow every lead to the end.

ELTU3-6 True Blue also sends characters on a mission with instructions to report back on its completion. The players seek some notes and materials for Lord Krieger of the Iriaebor Council and Andrielle, a priestess of Chauntea. After gaining the materials, players learn that Andrielle might be doing something unsavory in her tower. With their mission accomplished, they face the choice of either bringing the notes and materials to Krieger or going straight to Andrielle’s tower. The adventure wastes several pages exploring what happens if the characters report back to Krieger first. I say wastes because no players ever report to Krieger first. Never.

As soon as players gain a lead—word of suspicious events at the tower—players follow the lead to the end.

The latest encounters season, Scourge of the Sword Coast, flirts with a similar problem. As the players complete various missions for the people of Daggerford, they discover clues pointing to trouble in a particular location. While the adventure assumes that players will wait to the climax before investigating the location, I suspect that most groups will investigate the moment they identify the location.

Next: Part 2.

2 thoughts on “Actions players always take and choices players never make, part 1

  1. Don Holt

    Oh what a different RPG environment do I live in! Or should I say what a wonderful group of players I have the fortune of hosting.

    My players use the world’s resources to help accomplish what needs to be done. When the University of Tarnston was invaded and seized by the king’s nephew, it was the adventurers who escaped and alerted the king’s uncle what his kin had done. It provided this uncle evidence that his nephew, the king, was out of control and caused him to eventually support the “rebellion” against the king.

    My players not only report to authorities, but actively seek their aid, and sometimes become appointed as the authority. In fact, your place in society in my game is a more important measure of player success than leveling up.

    I think the biggest difference is in play philosophy. In D&D, it’s all about the characters. More often than not, one of it’s main rewards is boosting player ego. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    But an RPG can be so much more. It can be a story about decisions in our lives and celebrate our struggles for justice, win or lose. I’ve had my players walk in to the start of the French Revolution, where mayhem is breaking out all around them. I had them challenge the Rabbi’s on the inherent evil nature of Lycanthropes (pick any discriminated against group in our world.) One of my players ran a series of sessions where we helped a group of refugees. Sometimes the players succeed, sometimes they fail – but at least they tried. The stories are human.

  2. Pingback: 5 Situations That Tempt Every Dungeon Master to Railroad Their Players | DMDavid

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