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"Guess and Check" Encounter Design

Fauchard1520

Explorer
"Do you walk through the mysterious archway?"

"Do you drink the potion?"

"Do you push the big red button?"

If you're an old-school D&D player, you've probably got the necklace of strangulation and The Tomb of Horrors in the back of your mind. As such, the answer to all of the above is no doubt "hell no." My question is whether we, as GMs, should try to encourage daredevil behavior. Should gambling on a hunch and "unwary play" ever be rewarded? In other words, what kind of behavior do we really want to see at the table? "I drink the potion, what happens?" or the cautions "Dread Gazebo" approach (e.g. "I detect good... I call out to it... I shoot it with my bow.")? And if the answer is "mix it up," what's the right percentage? Should random chance scenarios be 50% harm / 50% help, or something else?

Comic for illustrative purposes.
 
I think that’s the weird thing with old school adventure design. There are times to be cautious and times that it’s just more fun if someone does the thing. At the same time, in the old adventures, doing the thing will more often just end up killing your character. I think the idea is to play smart, to test and check, and then decide if doing the thing is worth it.

When I want to hearken back to that style, I do try to mix it up. Most of my mysterious magic fountains will do something good for the first person to drink from it, and something bad to those that follow. And the bad is rarely that same sort of "you're dead, roll a new character up" effect.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad day
Old school did reward these types of things. Such as figuring out what magic items did by trial and error. But there was plenty of positive results just so players would try things and occasionally get the negative results.

And often had clues if you thought to look. Oh a magic fountain. Is it described as "pure and sparkling" or "surrounded by bones"?
 
My general rule on these things is:

1) There should always be a clue as to whether the results are negative or positive.
2) The GM should never imagine himself clever by using reverse psychology.
 

uzirath

Villager
Games get boring fast if the players (or their characters) feel like they have to be ultra cautious at all times. At the same time, the potential for negative consequences (especially for foolhardy play) can generate tension. So, I do think there needs to be a balance. The right balance, however, depends on the particular group, your GMing style, genre expectations, etc.

When I run standard fantasy, I avoid Tomb-of-Horrors-style portals of instant death. I try to telegraph the stakes of things. If you goof around on the lip of a cliff over lava, you get what's coming. If there's a potion of instant death, it would be a plot device that the group would know about, or it would be in the lich's private chest, or something like that. It wouldn't just be in a random loot pile. (A sleep potion, however, might be.) With each group I have to re-balance my approach subtly depending on their proclivities.

Mechanically, in my GURPS and DFRPG games, I encourage at least one PC in each group to have disadvantages like Impulsiveness or Overconfidence. These characters help get the group out of second-guessing loops. If everyone had such a disadvantage, the party either wouldn't survive or would need to spend all their loot on healing potions. (Though, a foolhardy party of clerics might be interesting!) Often the players will discuss this sort of thing during character design in session zero. In addition to wanting a balanced team (some brawn, some brains), they want a balance of personalities (some cautious, some crazy).
 

Imaculata

Explorer
I try to make it very clear to my players when they are in a dangerous situation, and when they are not. I don't think the trial and error approach is a lot of fun to my players. What matters is that what ever they do, it progresses the story in some meaningful way.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
"What is this, Death Test?"

mg21.jpg

That is what we used to say if it was too quick, because it seemed like a waste of time to go through character generation, and then have to go through it again? Either that, or use it as an excuse to drop out of the game, which also happened.
 

GrahamWills

Registered User
"Do you walk through the mysterious archway?"

"Do you drink the potion?"

"Do you push the big red button?"

If you're an old-school D&D player, you've probably got the necklace of strangulation and The Tomb of Horrors in the back of your mind. As such, the answer to all of the above is no doubt "hell no." My question is whether we, as GMs, should try to encourage daredevil behavior.
Yes, in general we should. Because if there was a catastrophic disaster involved in doing so, we would be complete dicks as GMs not to signal it. The Tomb of Horrors was designed specifically to break that rule; it is an exception to normal dungeon design.

If a GM has a big red button, with no way to get information on it, then if I push it I expect either something trivial, but probably fun to happen, or something with a mix of positive and negative consequences to happen. My first D&D game was a trap encounter like this: "You see a patch of flowers by the road"; "I sniff them"; "Save versus poison"; "12"; "you die". No-one nowadays thinks this is the way to design games.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
The context matters a lot. When the tension is dialed up to 11 and the fate of the world hangs in the balance, then yeah, quaff, push and stroll. That's sounds like fun. However, that's not the same thing as being foolhardy in a more general sense. The potion is the best example - why drink it unless you need to right now? The button and the doorway both feel like they'd mostly show up at key plot crescendos, and elsewhere it would be manky GMing to put something like that where children can reach it, at least it would be manky if there's no "warning label" (as mentioned above).

Let's talk about dragons for a moment though. So yeah, doorways are for walking through, and buttons are for pushing. But are dragons for killing? I'd submit that they are not, or at least not necessarily. So I guess I'm saying there's a line here somewhere, probably right before I charge the Ancient Red Dragon with my 2nd level Paladin. Maybe we can coin a phrase like moderate foolhardiness to cover this concept?
 

the Jester

Legend
"Do you walk through the mysterious archway?"

"Do you drink the potion?"

"Do you push the big red button?"

If you're an old-school D&D player, you've probably got the necklace of strangulation and The Tomb of Horrors in the back of your mind. As such, the answer to all of the above is no doubt "hell no." My question is whether we, as GMs, should try to encourage daredevil behavior.
HELL YEAH we should. But these things shouldn't be reliably good or bad; you should never know whether eating the weird fruit will melt your face or give you a free level, unless you discern clues on the subject.
 

Fauchard1520

Explorer
HELL YEAH we should. But these things shouldn't be reliably good or bad; you should never know whether eating the weird fruit will melt your face or give you a free level, unless you discern clues on the subject.
Well we all know how likely players are to pick up on clues. There's the "three clue rule" after all: https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule

More generally though, what do you think the percentages ought to be? Is it a 50/50 on weal or woe, or should random acts be rewarded slightly more than punished...?
 

the Jester

Legend
Well we all know how likely players are to pick up on clues. There's the "three clue rule" after all: https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule

More generally though, what do you think the percentages ought to be? Is it a 50/50 on weal or woe, or should random acts be rewarded slightly more than punished...?
It should depend on what it is. For a "touch of Chaos" type of thing, I prefer about a 30:30:40 ration of good to bad to neither but odd (e.g. "hair changes to a random color"). I do like having weird fountains, magic pools, eldritch meals, etc that give pcs the opportunity to take a chance, and I try to make most of them noticeably different from the rest. Heck, some are even reliable- drink from this fountain and you can smell gems- but before someone tries it, you can't be sure what a given incidence might cause.

But one thing that often gets overlooked with these instances is that the pcs have ways to check their odds. From "I feed some to my canary" to "Let's make the goblin prisoner try it" to "I cast augury", the pcs can always obtain some kind of clue if they just work at it.
 

Fauchard1520

Explorer
Fortunately, I have a player, my youngest son (age 13), who ALWAYS takes the risk. ;)
As a GM, I always want that guy in my group. It can get old if it's a "look at me I'm being silly" sort of thing, but more often than not I just want to see the encounter actually do its stuff. It's no fun with the fireworks fail to go off because no one would light the fuse.
 

Campbell

Adventurer
It obviously depends on the game. When it comes to old school design I am much more of a Moldvay fan. I don't favor gotchas that are more targeted at the player, but make little sense in the fiction and are not meaningfully knowable. Still I let the chips fall where they may.
 

Darth Solo

Villager
You need to ask this question?

GMs ALWAYS have to teach players. They're all over the place! Without GM guidance, players will usually arrive at a nice TPK.

Consider their limits --- then, educate them.

The education is how they grow to be GMs.
 

Ovinomancer

Explorer
You need to ask this question?

GMs ALWAYS have to teach players. They're all over the place! Without GM guidance, players will usually arrive at a nice TPK.

Consider their limits --- then, educate them.

The education is how they grow to be GMs.
The TPK the GM built, set up in play, and then executed? Yes, surely the GM must educate players to play how the GM wants them to play or else the GM will punish them. This is right and proper. /sarc
 

Lanefan

Hero
It should depend on what it is. For a "touch of Chaos" type of thing, I prefer about a 30:30:40 ration of good to bad to neither but odd (e.g. "hair changes to a random color"). I do like having weird fountains, magic pools, eldritch meals, etc that give pcs the opportunity to take a chance, and I try to make most of them noticeably different from the rest. Heck, some are even reliable- drink from this fountain and you can smell gems- but before someone tries it, you can't be sure what a given incidence might cause.
This is more or less the ratio of effects on my wild magic surge table.

But as for actual dungeon design - as a DM I tend to prefer high risk-high reward and (to my characters' everlasting detriment) as a player I'm often the one who takes the gamble; and far too often it's because no-one else has the nuts to do it.

But one thing that often gets overlooked with these instances is that the pcs have ways to check their odds. From "I feed some to my canary" to "Let's make the goblin prisoner try it" to "I cast augury", the pcs can always obtain some kind of clue if they just work at it.
Absolutely. Augury is sometimes the best spell in the game...but casting it Every. Single. Time (as some would have us do) gets boring in a hurry and is a drain on spell resources.

Reveal, True Sight, and all the various Detect xxxx spells are also handy here; better yet if someone in the party has an item that can do such.

But trial-and-error in general is 100% the way to go, and that "modern" game design has removed so much of this - e.g. items are now auto-identified after a few moments use - is to me a disappointment.
 

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