5 Ways To Foil Your Players — RPT#560

From: John Grigsby

It happens all too often: your players are on a lucky streak where everything is going their way. They keep rolling criticals and even your boss encounters fall like wheat before the scythe.

Worse, your players feel cocky because of their run of success, and it’s grating on your nerves.

As the GM, your duty is to be fair and not punish them for good luck. But at the same time, it’s annoying and no fun for you.

Here are five tips to help you challenge lucky players without violating the fairness ethic of the GM.

Fudge The Dice

The simplest method is to fudge things a little in favor of the monsters. Don’t overdo it – just make a few minor adjustments.

If a foe goes down without a fight, give it just enough hit points to survive long enough to get in a retaliatory attack.

If the PCs manage to hit your fleeing master villain, rule he got wounded but did not fall. It’s dramatic license!

Your job is to entertain the players, providing them with a challenge. If they can beat everything with ease, it’s no longer challenging.

The party should gain victories, especially when they’ve been earned, but don’t be afraid to fudge the dice in your favor if players seem to be on a winning streak and the story or challenge level suffers.

[Johnn: Tip #1 might be obvious, but many new GMs reading this might not know you can change your game on-the-fly to improve gameplay.

This might be contentious advice to some. However, if you only make changes in the spirit of offering players more fun, then the levers you have available to you as GM are there for the pulling.

For additional tips, see:

Putting Fear of Death & Consequences into Players
http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=482

11 Dice Rolling Tips — RPT#138

Know Their Weaknesses

Everyone has a weakness. Maybe it’s Jenny’s fondness for all things cute, or Mike’s barbarian refuses to wield a magical weapon, or Frank’s wizard overextends his spells. Learn these weaknesses and capitalize on them!

If Jenny loves all things cute, throw in a cuddly-looking monster and watch her try to stop the others from killing it. This works especially well if you point out how helpless and cute it is. I’ve done this with displacer beast kittens and had the party at odds with one another over trying to kill the cute and defenseless little beasties.

Likewise, if Frank insists on using his offensive spells against every group of minions he encounters, just toss in a few extra opportunities for him to do so. He’ll happily blast away crowds of minor characters, while depleting his offensive spells before ever reaching the big boss.

As for Mike, if he role-plays his barbarian as being distrustful of magic and refuses to use a magical weapon, by all means, reward him for good role-playing. But feel free to toss in some monsters that can only be affected by magic. He should be awarded extra points if he finds a way around the situation without breaking his vow.

Make Them Work For It

Present them with a challenge they have to think their way out of.

In real life, not every encounter is fair and balanced for the experience of the person faced with it. So why should it be so in the game?

Well, because having a chance to defeat the encounter is what makes the game fun. Still, no one ever said that you had to make it easy.

Design a monster the players don’t have the means to easily defeat. It should still be beatable, but only if they figure out the secret. Maybe a golem is unstoppable until a specific rune is traced on its forehead. A lich, of course, can only be permanently destroyed by first destroying its phylactery, and a vampire’s coffin must be found and prepared before attempting to destroy the creature itself.

Pit them against a foe that can’t be harmed by the PCs’ current weapons. The terrain offers several means of defeating the creature, but your players must first realize this and then figure out how to use it to their advantage.

Think of the adventure design process like a video game. You don’t simply endlessly face monster after monster. There are also tricks and puzzles to be solved. Include these in your adventure and your players will thank you later.

[Johnn: Another great tip to use judiciously. Related tips for you:

Stand or Fall? Not Exactly Tips For Dealing With Tough Foes
http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=457

Sneaky Tactics For Weak Monsters
http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=348

19 Tips For GMing Powerful Characters — RPT#119

Make Death Matter

Death might no longer be a threat, making your players cocky, bored or static. Magic or advanced science can overcome even the eternity of the grave. Bring back the sting of death in your campaign.

The simplest fix is to declare dead is dead. Resurrection and raise dead spells do not exist (or no longer work). In futuristic campaigns, it might be possible to revive the recently dead (as it is in real life), but only if you get to them quickly. Once the brain has shut down, death is permanent.

Even if you don’t want to take it to this extreme, you can still make it difficult.

Perhaps the ritual of resurrection requires a rare magical ingredient that must be gathered fresh.

Or maybe priests are prohibited from aiding those not of their religion. Of course, a mission undertaken in the church’s name could help overcome this.

Finally, it is always possible for a GM to simply say it doesn’t work.

[Johnn: I like this advice, but when instituting setting-level type of gameplay like this, be sure to back it up with The Big Question.

Have an answer ready for the most important question of all: Why?

If players accept the reason Why they are restricted by or denied something, the limitation will play just fine.

The best ways to do this, in order:

  • Game it out. Make the PCs choose to accept this limitation and change the world because of it.
  • Game it out. As a consequence to PC actions, the new rule is in effect. While players did not choose this result, at least they understand how it came to be and their PCs’ role in it.
  • History. Baked into your setting is the limitation and it’s just part of gameplay. Mid-campaign, you can stage an event to bring about the new reason death matters. If you can’t make the event interactive, at least make it a good story for NPCs to tell.

A couple of related article for you:

7 Tips to Keep the Fear of Death Alive in Any Campaign
http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=438

PC Death And Your Campaign
http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=381 ]

Roll With The Punches

This happens to the best of us. You’ve spent all week preparing the group’s foray into the great swamp of Gyar, only to have them decide (for whatever reason) to enter the desert of Jumba instead.

Awhile ago, I spent two weeks designing an adventure set in a sunken temple in a swamp. The place was filled with appropriate encounters and tricks, with the lowest level half-submerged. On the night of the adventure, the group suddenly decides, despite all clues to the contrary, that the temple lies in the middle of a desert. Two weeks of work, wasted!

Well, I wasn’t about to go down without a fight. Yes, I could have simply railroaded them into the swamp, but it is important in my campaign that the players have a sense of control over their own destiny.

So, I lifted the whole temple out of the swamp, dried it out, and dropped it into the desert. I took a 15 minute dinner break to change a few of the key encounters to more desert-appropriate ones and the rest was converted on the fly. I even had the lowest level half-submerged in sand. The players never knew the temple had been in the swamp.

Underhanded? Maybe. But it preserved continuity. A good DM learns to roll with the punches and come up smiling. Never let your players get the better of you (or if they do, don’t let them know).

Action!

Great tips, John. Thanks. Readers, the advice you just read covers the trickier aspect of GMing.

Great GMs handle the subjective parts of the game with aplomb. You make things up as you go for the best interest of fun, gameplay and story. Sometimes your decisions go the players’ way, sometimes your decisions create setbacks.

I challenge you to use one of John’s tips next session. You only get better at this stuff by doing it.

Pick a tip and decide how you might apply it.

For example, for Tip #2: Know Their Weakness, take out a new page and write down what you think is each player’s to one or two weaknesses. Can’t think of any, then that’s your homework. Observe next session to see if you can find it.

With weaknesses charted out, brainstorm a few ways you can exploit each weakness that’ll make your players laugh, have an Aha! moment or shake their fists at the villain.

For Tip #1: Fudge The Dice try fudging next session even if you don’t need to. This helps you in two ways. It helps you think on the fly. A critical skill for GMs to develop.

It also helps you practice the art of bluffing. Another key GM ability.

So give at least one tip a try next session and let me know how it goes. Find me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ILoveGameMastering

Or drop me an email letting me know how it went.

Graphic of logo used as divider

A Brief Word From Johnn

Congrats to the Initiative Tip Winners

Last issue, I ran a short contest to get help for an article I’m writing about initiative.

Thanks to all the RPT readers who wrote in with their tips and ideas.

The article will appear in an upcoming issue.

Meantime, three lucky readers have won a copy of Creative Mountain Games’ ebook, 30 Things Can Happen.

  1. Aki H.
  2. Mark of the Pixie
  3. Chris C.

RPG & Autism Survey

RPT reader Ylanne S. sent me this request:

Hi Johnn,

I was wondering if you would be able to help me with a research project I am part of. Our study is exploring the habits, attitudes, experiences, and behavior of Autistic roleplayers compared to the habits, attitudes, experiences, and behavior of non-Autistic roleplayers.

We need survey responses from Autistic people and non-Autistic people. The link to the survey is: Call For Participants