GM Trick: Instant Gratification

Here’s another sneaky GM trick to use sparingly.

I believe I’ve written about this before, but as I was cleaning up old files this week, I came across this note and wanted to make sure I shared it with you before deleting:

Delayed gratification vs. instant gratification = GM takes advantage of human nature for instant.

A bit cryptic. Let me unpack.

I’ve read that humans are biologically wired to want instant gratification because we never know when we’ll be able to eat or rest safely again.

Carpe diem.

It’s certainly true at the game table.

This means we can trick players by appealing to instant gratification—a lever we can pull for better storytelling.

For example, perhaps we place two sleeping goblin guards at the front of the dungeon. Players will quietly pick up their dice and gleefully roll for the easy XP. They won’t check for traps or other goblins waiting in ambush.

As an intentional trap, the two laziest goblins were picked for guard duty. And the leader told them to expect no danger. So why not get some beauty sleep?

It’s because the goblins are actually sleeping that sells it. And chances are, excited players will focus just on the sleepers and put aside some of their typical caution for a while.

Likewise, we can position the best choice as long-term, then place a couple of short-term but riskier instant gratification options in front of a player. This usually works better if you can appeal to one player at a time. Groups tend to be a bit smarter because there’s often at least one who doesn’t want the particular thing as much as the others.

To trick a player like this, for example, we could offer them:

  • Highest quality custom armour: 1,000 gp and 8 weeks crafting time.
  • Good quality armour: 750 gp, 1 week to make fitting changes.
  • Low quality armour: 500 gp and get it now, but attackers who roll 1s against you get to re-roll because this armour doesn’t fit well and is cumbersome.

With money burning in their pocket, and an immediate need for better defense, many players will choose option #3.

Another example, based purely on instant gratification, is to taunt a character into making a bad choice. I could have Roghan’s foe perform a poor and insulting imitation of how Roghan walks and swings his sword. The goblin then yells, “Was yer’ mudda an orc?”

But then I groan in disappointment and tell Sandy, Roghan’s player, that the goblin seems to have fumbled its ranged attack and falls to the ground.

I’d bet a gold piece that, on Sandy’s turn, Roghan will rush at the gobbo for some satisfying payback, not thinking to take a safer route. Roghan hits the deep pit trap. A hatch opens in the ceiling right above the trap from which new foes rain down heavy rocks, fire beetles, and rot grubs.

I duck as Sandy throws dice at my GM screen.

Have more fun at every game!

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