Actions players always take and choices players never make, part 2

This post continues a list I started in part 1.

Players will not mix and mingle.

Adventure authors come from a secret coterie of role players who enter a tavern or a royal ball and then spend the evening mixing and mingling with the non-player characters with no particular goal or objective in mind and certainly without ever rolling a die. I know this, because I frequently run into adventures that expect the characters to uncover clues and background as they aimlessly mingle.

I feel sure these dungeon masters do more than simply describe certain NPCs in enough detail for metagaming players to realize that they are supposed to meet. Whenever players do something because the metagame makes them think they are supposed to, the game suffers.

In Scourge of the Sword Coast, during the first session, players enter a inn that includes three non-player characters with information leading to adventure. The adventure suggests no way for the dungeon master to engage the players with these non-player characters, presumably because the writer just assumed the players mingle with the occupants of the bar. 

In practice, as a DM, if I want the players to learn what these NPCs know, I must find ways for the NPCs to engage the characters. For example, Vosson Raker might learn of characters’ journey and ask if they saw signs of gnoll raids. Edic Tilveram might ask if they came from Julkoun. Ledoris eyes the characters, wondering if they meet the description of the adventurers who shorted Filarion Filvendorson. No, this isn’t a big job—less of a job than inventing those names, but its not too small a task for the adventure’s author. I paid for the adventure and I want it ready for play.

For more on this subject, see “What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing” and “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.”

Hint: In a place where news travels by word of mouth, the locals will ask visitors for news.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

Players will assume that they can defeat every monster.

Before the days of plotted adventures and balanced encounters, this bias did not exist, but decades of storytelling and careful balance has taught players to expect only encounters they can beat.

Sometimes I write adventures that include monsters more powerful than the player characters. Either the monsters act as obstacles to be avoided, NPCs to be met, dangers to add time pressure, or distractions that can be lured to fight other threats. In short, some monsters can serve interesting roles other than trading attacks for 4 rounds. But setting up these non-combat parts always poses a problem because characters assume they can beat every monster, and should probably fight.

Overcoming the players’ assumption that they will never be outclassed requires careful effort. I make descriptions that weigh heavily on the characters’ knowledge that a particular threat is overwhelming. The characters live in the game world and should have some sense of what menaces they could defeat—certainly more sense than their players do. Sometimes I drop a colossal miniature on the table to emphasize the point. And still, when I want to avoid the risk of a total party kill, I must plan a way for foolish characters to escape the deaths they richly deserve. Too frequently, the party includes a reckless instigator or someone convinced that it has to be an illusion. “That thing can’t be as bad as it looks! Charge!”

Hint: Players justifiably hate being railroaded into an encounter they cannot win. They hate being taken captive. And they hate hate hate when their captors take their stuff. But if you present them with an easily avoided menace, tell them that their characters know in their heart that this battle will overwhelm them, and if they still rush in, then you can take them captive. Just give them a chance to win back their stuff quickly. Not because they deserve it, but because otherwise it will take them too long to update their tear-dampened character sheets.

Players never settle for a partial victory.

Few players join a Dungeons & Dragons game expecting to make compromises or to settle for less than total victory. Who can blame them? One of the joys of D&D is the chance to play the hero: To escape the compromises and lesser evils of the real world and solve every problem with an cunning plan and a quick sword. Still the fun of a game comes from the choices. Some of the best moments of recent battle interactive events comes when the collected room debates a shared, ethical dilemma. Should we free the enslaved elementals, or become their slavers to advance our cause? Should we surrender our city to the advancing forces of darkness, or should we destroy it, denying it to the enemy? While your game table may not decide on the future of the Realms, these sorts of questions enable players to explore their characters and make the game come to life.

In CORE5-3 Lost Refuge, the characters find themselves trapped with some villagers in the heart of a camp teeming with cyclops. They face the choice of whether to make an easy escape, leaving the captives to their fate, or assuming the greater risks of taking the captives along. The adventure assumes players will wrestle with the choice, but I ran this adventure five times and no party gave the safer option a moment of consideration.

As long as a chance of total victory exists, players will always seize the chance. Only when the choices become mutually exclusive will players begin weigh their options.

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

  1. Don Holt

    “Some of the best moments of recent battle interactive events comes when the collected room debates a shared, ethical dilemma. ” Well said. It’s obvious you know what makes a good adventure.

    I really like articles that give practical suggestions on getting players away from typical playing behaviors in today’s environment into better storytelling behaviors.


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