This is part of a series I started way back in 2011.
As I was getting ready for last week’s Hoard of the Dragon Queen D&D adventure, I noticed one encounters featured an adult blue dragon. As written, the encounter assumed level 1 characters would attack it. It then made quite a point about how lethal that could be.
I hit me, hard.
- Size: Huge
- AC: 19.
- HP: over 200.
- Breath Weapon: deals on average 33 damage after successful save.
What.The.Hell? That’s a level one adventure?
Old schoolers may just shrug their shoulders and say “That’ll serve as a lesson about D&D returning to its roots!”
That’s no longer my style. I had to do something… I just didn’t feel like spending time doing actual hacking.
Later that evening, as everyone was settling down, I got an inspiration. I decided to have a discussion, not with the players… but directly with the characters.
Me: Hey Thinel (Drow Paladin), how do you feel about this raid on Greenest?
Chantal/Thinel (caught off guard): Huh… I think we need to help the city as much as we can.
Me: Knowing you wouldn’t survive a direct confrontation with the Dragon, how do you think the party should go about it?
See what I did there?
I went around the rest of the party asking a mix of open-ended and leading questions, everyone got smoothly into character.
They never faced the dragon, in fact, the more the town’s governor screamed for someone to take care of it, the more interested in doing other missions the heroes became. And a great game it was and I didn’t need to spend time hacking the adventure’s actual content.
As I mused on the session during the ensuing weekend, I realized that I might have rediscovered some of the best dirty GMing tricks I’d read in small-press RPGs like Dread. Asking loaded question can indeed steer a player’s action.
Having to limit choices available to players is a very common occurrence, it’s not a deadly sin to do it. There’s only so much you’ve prepared or are comfortable doing on the spot. The issue at stake here is not so much imposing limits to choices, but how you do it. Many players hate feeling railroaded or worse, being told they can’t do things their characters should be able to do “just because”.
So I suggest the following: Don’t railroad characters, ask them leading questions based on their backgrounds, beliefs and perks instead.
GM: Now that you screwed up and got surrounded by Carnage Orcs, how do you expect to keep the chancellor’s son unharmed?
GM: Okay, so you won your bet and snuck up to the Eternal Warden, you know he can’t be killed right? What’s your genius plan now?
GM: Congrats, you stole the duke’s daughter’s jewels, you’re now the most infamous thief in Camoor. No fence will touch it. How do you plan to get rid of it in less than 24 hours, smartass?
In that, your role becomes much closer to that of a movie director. You ask loaded questions that clearly state your high level intent for the adventure, yet you still grant your players sufficient agency to let them act to impact the story within their character’s beliefs and motivations.This is where you can tap into D&D’s new background, perks and flaws.
In fact, if you tap into those, you’re holding a hand out to the players to participate in the fiction you want to create. You acknowledge the choices they made at character creation by using it as leverage to get the action go in a direction you’re comfortable going.
This can also help with some of the more stereotypical problematic characters. For instance, a paladin becomes much less of a pain when you work with its player, by asking loaded questions.
GM: Are you willing to sacrifice your life and that of your friends to try to save this village rather than investigate the source of this evil so you can cut it at its head?
Lawful Stubborn Paladin: When you say it like that, I think I’d rather go for the big bad.
GM: Good talk.
Giving players significant choices within the confines of the world you manage, is where lies one of the most fundamental GMing lessons.
The approach I discussed today is but one way of doing it.
What’s your approach to deal with limiting player choices?