This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Forty on 23rd May, 2023.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
Presentation always matters.
Sometimes with Dungeons and Dragons, you need to be direct. In combat, for example, being vague and misleading about enemies actions doesn’t do anything but confuse and frustrate people. But simple, obvious descriptions don’t always work for storytelling. In fact, there are many so-called purists who want to avoid as much out-of-game information as possible. Those are the kind of people who don’t want to hear “the giants are CR 9”. They want you to be creative and say something like “the giants are much larger than you, they have finely crafted armor, and they move like trained fighters who’ve seen a few battles.”
Now either way the point is “they will stomp you like base drum and drop kick you into next week before your initiative roll is done” but, again, the needy little nerds don’t want things spelled out like that. They want “immersion” and “believability” and “a bunch of things that waste my time and lead to players being immersed in corrosive – ”
Sorry…where was I?
Apart from players wanting more immersive and less metagaming descriptions for their play, even players who aren’t as invested in that sometimes like more subtle hints. First, it can allow them to use some of their characters’ skills or abilities to figure out what’s going on. It can also allow for more roleplay, with people playing devil-may-care characters trying to push through while more level-headed and cautious comrades hold them back or talk them out of it.
In some cases players can also feel like more direct warnings are stifling or verging on railroading. The thought is, instead of allowing the characters to discover risks and obstacles for themselves, the DM is putting up figurative warning signs and “Keep Out” notices to cut off the player’s choices before they even make them.
It may seem like a distinction without difference, since you’d be warning them away from something anyway, but it does matter. For another example, there’s a big difference between finding a note in my workshop that says “The KDM is around maybe stay inside” and walking out to the main room and finding her strutting around insulting Lennon.
Anyway, like I said, the note in advance limits my options before I even consider them. Vague hints still leave me with a choice, and choice is very important to players.
That leads to the question, how do you do it? And the reality is, it’s not easy. A lot of it depends on the group you’re with and how familiar they are with the game.
If you have a bunch of metagaming D&D veterans sitting around the table who sleep with their dice and cuddle their rulebooks, it’s actually easier to leave warning signposts. All you have to do is give vague descriptions of what creatures look like and they’ll leap to conclusions about what creature it is and recall the exact CR number from having memorized the monster manual. Honestly it’s almost the only time players like that are helpful to you.
So if you’re working with one or more of those around the table, just say something like “there’s a suspicious lack of dust on the cave floor” and they’ll immediately and gleefully inform the whole table that the cave is full of gelatinous cubes. I usually let them get halfway through listing the conditions it’s immune to before I light them on fire to shut them up.
Now because Ryu keeps telling me to try to be helpful, I will say that it’s possible to make that kind of knowledge work. If you’ve worked with the player in advance, either they or another character in the group might have the same recall ability. Intelligence saves for memory recall or skill checks like nature or arcana would give the character a reason to have the same knowledge as the player. My girl Tasha’s book has a whole section under “Parleying with Monsters” that tells you what skills can apply depending on what kind of creature you’re dealing with.
However, if you don’t have players with eidetic memories or if they’re committed to not using out of game knowledge, you need to use other clues. This also applies to situations where it’s not a creature the characters are facing, but a difficult skill challenge or an imposing figure.
Say you have a wall that the characters won’t be able to climb. You would have to come up with an in-universe reason why, such as the wall being covered in sharp spikes or reaching impossibly high into the air. It helps to tailor the reason to the environment. For example, if they are in an area frequented by giants, a hundred-foot high wall coated in ice wouldn’t be out of place. Whereas if they’re in the feywild, the wall could actually be a really high thicket of brambles. Either way, climbing is not likely to be a viable solution.
Now that doesn’t mean players won’t still try, and you need to be prepared for that. In most cases they will come up with at least a few ideas for how to get past the obstacle.
This is where it can become a bit of a back and forth. Players may start with mundane options, like a rope. For the high wall, it’s simple enough to say that even the 18 strength barbarian can’t throw it far enough. But you also need to have a reason it can’t be levitated up, like nothing for the hook to snag on, and a reason why teleporting won’t work, like no flat surface to stand on. Though you could also allow the wizard to teleport up there and be stuck two hundred feet up catching hypothermia with no way to get their friends up there either.
You should probably allow the players to try a few different solutions, but watch the group if things start getting out of hand. If they’re spending an excessive amount of time coming up with wilder and wilder ideas for how to get past the wall or obstacle, and especially if it’s only one or two players that insist on continuing to try while others are zoning out, it’s fine to cut it off by saying something like “you don’t know of any way you can get past this with the resources your characters have.”
That said, be prepared to allow for particularly creative or clever solutions to work. That doesn’t mean you have to allow an idea to work just because it’s out of the box thinking, but occasionally giving the players a win for creativity helps everyone.
Except for the part where you suddenly have to scramble as the DM and scrap a lot of hard work you did.
With monsters the characters won’t be able to fight and survive, if the characters won’t recognize them, leaving indirect clues about their prowess or strength can work. Take a creature the characters have fought, particularly if they had trouble with it or if it was a tough fight, and put a bunch of dead ones near the creature’s territory. Or even have the characters come across a fight in progress between the creature the characters barely beat and the one they can’t hope to fight successfully. Seeing the new creature defeat the familiar one easily should clue them in about the creature’s strength without mentioning statistics.
Of course you still have gung-ho idiots who believe that every creature the DM describes is a bag of potential loot and experience and if they weren’t meant to fight it the DM wouldn’t have brought it up. If that does happen, what you have to focus on is avoiding a TPK.
So if the party charges the ancient black dragon at level 4, do not open with the acid breath. Hit the barbarian twice with the claws to do 30 damage, then use it’s 27 strength to grab the half-dressed moron, fly them up to a hundred feet or so and then drop them like a bad habit. After they’re done sweeping their friend back into a pile of goo the nearest cleric can put back together, they’ll know that attacking the creature is bad.
The other thing you can try is rumor and storytelling, but that’s iffy at best. Most adventurers are going to hear “don’t do the thing” and interpret that as “we should immediately go and do the thing.” The best way to avoid that problem is to make sure it’s not worth it for the characters. Don’t put a stupid bounty on killing the creature, and don’t have it be an immediate threat that’s destroying virgins and demanding crop sacrifices.
Unfortunately the larger point I think she was trying to make is valid. D&D is not a video game; players cannot “grind” to get gear or levels if you don’t let them. If you make it clear there is no immediate need or reward for defeating the creature, most of the players are going to leave well enough alone.
If the creature needs to be some level of threat, just not one you want them to deal with at that time, then present a more immediate concern. The dragon is terrorizing a city, but the city is five days’ travel away, and there’s a goblin raiding party literally camped outside. Again, most players are going to go with the obvious and immediate threat over running off to chase the bigger monster. Even if there’s a holdout trying to argue for going after the bigger bad, that’s where your good-aligned characters can step in and remind them that leaving a village to get raided because the dragon seems like more of a challenge is kind of a dick move.
And if there aren’t any good aligned characters, that’s simple too; remind them that commoners are a lot easier to kill and loot than dragons. I mean, your average nuclear family doesn’t even bother to set traps or hide their money in a remote cave.
We’ve given a number of specific examples but the basic idea is the same; you want to create or describe a situation where the characters and/or players can figure out for themselves that they aren’t ready for the particular challenge. Give them some room to explore before they hit the walls; let them try a few skill checks or talk to a few NPCs before they find out they’re facing an impossible challenge. Again, it may seem like a lot of work just to waste time, but most players will appreciate that you at least let them try a few things before finding out it was futile. Eventually they might pick up on the clues faster and spend less time pushing the boundaries, but they’ll still appreciate the hints rather than the direct blocks.