Players often see their own solutions to puzzles you present to them. It is one of the reasons I tend to design encounters without any one right solution to them. Sure, there’s the obvious key at the bottom of a vat of acid and some tongs to fish it out with. But, the players decide to flood the acid out with create water. They don’t think about where that acid is going to go, only that water is going to replace it soon.
Sometimes it’s just a player being silly, other times they are being legitimate about their answer. So what happens when a player asks to do something that doesn’t make sense, or is just outlandish, or strange? What happens when a player asks a dreaded, “Can I do this?” The good news, there is no wrong answer. The bad news, there is no right answer… I’ll show you a few questions to ask yourself to help you find the best answer for your situation.
Four adventurers have been tailing a man in a black and blue cloak for a few days now. They’re after an artifact and think that he’s got it. They don’t know for sure, but the clues have lead them to him. As a GM I designed this NPC as someone who knows where the artifact is and is protecting it. He’s part of a council that protects this artifact and keeps it from evil hands. The players are after the artifact for payment. They don’t realize that their employer is in fact evil, and doesn’t seek to pay them when they get the artifact.
The scene for the night is set. The four adventurers are in a backwoods town, it’s after sundown and they occupy a table in the inn. They’ve been watching the cloaked man ponder over a cup of warm cider for upwards of fifteen minutes now. His face yet to be revealed. One of the players says he’s going to move up behind the cloaked man. “I want to stab him in the back and steal the artifact.” The other players look to him like he’s brilliant. They weren’t an ethically guided group and we know this already.
In a situation like this, I haven’t planned for a combat scene. Partly due to my own fault at forgetting how willingly they would kill for gold. And, partly for thinking they wouldn’t want to publicly commit murder. There I am at the head of the table, four sets of eyes staring back at me, each glistening. They’re waiting for the words “Okay, roll for the attack.” Instead… I ask. “Are you sure? May I remind you that you are in a public place? There are at least ten other men and women in the inn. They will surely see this act.”
In times like this, players often focus on the end goal, and not what will happen when they ‘act up’. I don’t want to stop him from doing what he wants, but surely his character would think of the situation. So, as a GM it is my duty to remind them and act as their conscience. If he still presses for a yes, that is absolutely fine. But, now he knows why the town guard will be searching for him and his companions. On top of that, the man doesn’t have the artifact and he kills his only clue. Sure, this changes up the adventure I had planned; but it’s not for the worse. The player opened up his own new adventure.
A dragon belches out a stream of magma and the five adventurers are scattered as they try to avoid the liquid fire hurtling toward them. Barely successful, they all rush behind a large rock to use as cover. The dragon banters in draconic, while trying to find where they went. “We want to wait for it to attack like that again, I want to throw this sack into his mouth!”
I ask, “Why?”
“When we set up camp I threw a bunch of potions in this. You said that I knew dragons used breath weapons. So I want to use the next one as a chance to throw this into its maw. Bill’s character is gonna cast fly on me so I can get close enough.”
“Alright,” I say “just remember you’re gonna need some good rolls for this stunt.”
“That’s fine! I think I got this!”
I reminded the player, they know certain death awaits. Instead, they make astronomical rolls when it gets to their turn and ready the action. Finally the dragon opens its mouth, and the adventurer chucks the bag inside with ease. “What do the potions do?” I figured it wasn’t fair to ask earlier, because if I knew, I may rule against it. When you know something silly is about to happen in a serious adventure, you tend to be biased. I try not to be.
“Levitation potions… All of them. We never needed to use the ones we looted from the abandon magic shop.” The player has a beaming smile. “And you told us that one potion was strong enough to hold upwards of 500 pounds.”
Indeed I did. I planned on them using those potions at a later time so they could haul stuff around. They found a magic shop that had these lined up on the shelves. The potion was common in this area, at least before the dragon wrecked it. Foiled by my own plans to help them. Ah well, too late now, his rolls succeeded. The dragon choked and swallowed. Soon it began its clumsy ascent upwards, and upwards and upwards. I waited for the players to attack. They figured, just let it float. With every beat of its wings it went off in a random direction. They filled its gut with enough juice to ignore gravity for a good while. They thought that, if the dragon was wise, it wouldn’t bother them or this area for a good long time. And, they were right.
They found their own solution, and I was rather fond of them ‘outsmarting’ me as well. It was silly, yes, but it was something they all worked as a team to do. How could I say no? Especially when they were reminded of the threat, and answered my questions as to why they would do it. Sometimes just asking a question like “why?” is enough. They’ll either realize it is too silly once they think about it again, or go full force with the plan and risk it all.
Hint at things…
My group got used to a once a night “GM hint” when they were beginners. This no longer exists with my group, but early on it was used each and every night. It was an invaluable tool that the players clung to unless they were desperately stuck. Now days I just watch them wriggle and squirm with glee. But they still continue to find and make their own dead ends. I like simple solutions to my puzzles. It rewards players who use their skills properly, teamwork, and moves things along at a nice and memorable pace. But even then, my players like to overthink a lot of things.
The scene: The players have wandered this abandoned and ruined castle for a good hour out of game now. They found a door that is locked, made of cold steel. They can hear noises beyond it. The castle was guarded. They went into a guard room earlier and saw a couple of guys playing cards. The guards were a bit confused and took them as other watchmen. The players were told to leave and get back to their duty. The players took this as a stroke of luck and did as commanded. Then proceeded to waste another thirty minutes wandering the same old ruins they’d already gone over. They found a cauldron of acid and insisted on a way to carry it.
Hint 0 and Solution: They found a room with guards in it. It was their resting chamber at that. Instead of press on against the baddies, they just left as commanded. Unintentional intimidation worked too well.
Hint 1: “It’s too heavy to carry.”
They want to scoop the acid out with a bucket they found and carry it to the door.
Hint 2: “The bucket boils and falls apart.”
How about this glass vial?
Hint 3: “The glass melts as if it turned to syrup.”
We want to push the cauldron over and roll it down the stairs. Inside we want to try and use on that cold magic door.
Hint 4: “The cauldron falls over and the acid spills out. It melts away the stone floor as you have already seen in some places. The puddle weakens the floor and the cauldron falls below. You all rush away from where it fell through and narrowly avoid the crumbling floor as well.”
They curse and saunter around again, continuing their search. I finally had to send the guards after them, using the crashing noise as an excuse. It worked. They finally searched the guard room and found the keys to the door. They were hung up only just out of arms reach of where they stood hours before.
Could I have told them? Should I have told them? I don’t want to simply tell my players “Guys this isn’t going to work.” For the most part, players are very stubborn. They need to find this out for themselves. Sure, it used up a lot of time. But, to this day, my players use this situation to their advantage. When referring to being stuck on a simple solution. I can always quickly come back with “The answer is just out of arms reach.” With a chuckle.
The silly one…
Every now and then, I just get someone being extremely silly. I reminded them of the consequences. I questioned them. I hinted that the solution they were going to get, wasn’t what they were looking for. But they insist. I don’t like to tell my players no. Not that it’s wrong, but often times, they find out that yes is no; but get to role play instead. I have two examples here.
The players just got into town after clearing a nearby crypt free of a demon worshipping cult. They returned to town and news of their success had not fully gotten out yet. One player just wanted to play a prank. He wanted to act like a cultist run into a nearby tavern with a torch and shout “Time to burrrnnn this place dowwwnnn!” The cultists had been known arsonists.
“Are you sure?” I ask. “They probably don’t know of your success yet.”
“It’s fine, it’s just a prank!”
“Why do you want to do this?” I ask, trying to make the new player re-think his actions.
“Just because, it sounds funny.” He says with a beaming smile. The entire table is nearly head in hands at the moment.
“Okay, but you’re likely to hang for this. You haven’t even changed and washed yet. You look dirty and unkempt. Almost like the very cultists you just defeated.” This was my final hint.
“Great, the prank will be hilarious then! I’ll say I’m kidding after I scare them!” The players know it’s going to be bad now. I could have said no, but why shoot down a new player? He’s clearly just trying to have fun. But, now he knows the result could and likely will be terrible.
“Intimidate check as you rush in with your torch and shout.”
“I rolled a twenty-three.”
I describe what can only be seen as panic as people rush to find any exit they can. Other men weren’t as impressed and decided to tackle him to the ground and shout for the guards.
“I’m just kidding!” He shouts from the ground.
The men’s insight tell them otherwise. The guards arrive. They tie him up. The other players had taken refuge elsewhere, they would only incite a fight with the guards at this point. Heck, they all had loot from the cultists on them right now. Surely they’d be misconstrued as cultists too.
Indeed, as the player shouted and pleaded that he was kidding, the guards searched his packs and found silver sigils of a demon lord, rare silk cloaks with the cultist insignia on them… He was sentenced to death and received a messy beheading right there on the street.
Was I over-doing things? Not in the slightest. I had warned every one of the consequences. I built up that this may be the outcome. The player now sulked that he lost his first character to something so silly. But, it was a good lesson learned. Just for laughs are fun, in the right cases. He knew it was nothing personal, and rolled up a new character. One with a little more self-control.
I could have told him no, right off the bat. He’d still have his character, and would have tried more silly stuff later on. But, I don’t want to detract from that. And, I want a new player to learn the game and the way I host it. We all look back on it and laugh now, and silliness is kept to a silly appropriate time.
Here is a time where I went with no instead.
The players have discovered a way to break the geas/quest spell in Pathfinder. The wording made a loophole and they intended to break it. It grants no save, and basically allows you to send someone on a quest or task and it becomes what they devote their life to. They won’t do something that means certain death, not knowingly. At the time, it was a widely debated spell already. They wanted to send their foe off to do something that seemed trivial and mundane. Basically, dig a deep hole. When it was deep enough, the wizard would turn into a dragon, another player would age him, and then they would scorch their enemy alive with no ability to save out of it. I didn’t need to ask them questions, hint, remind them, they gave me the information up front.
“No, that will not work.”
“It doesn’t lead to certain death, and certainly not knowingly.”
“The way I see the spell, it does. Once the caster has the intention of causing the death of who they cast it on, the spell bond is broken. He will have a chance to fight back at the very moment you shift into a draconic form or move to kill him.”
“That’s not what the spell says.”
“Correct. What the spell says is up to interpretation. I have interpreted it just so. At the very least it grants you a major advantage. I did not say he won’t dig a hole. Only that your actions won’t work out as planned. He will fight back as soon as you break the bond by intending to harm him.”
After the players discussed things with each other. They came to the conclusion that the spell can’t be broken under my ruling and tried to use it instead to gain a favorable advantage in the upcoming fight.
Why did I say no? It harmed the game state. If it worked as they said it did, they could simply breeze through the rest of my campaign. I might as well read them off a story of how the campaign ends thanks to them sending everyone into dragon death holes for crossing the group. In the end, no feelings were hurt, and that’s the ruling I use on quest to this day. Now, my players come to me well ahead of time when they think that a spell can be broken.
Sorry for the longer post on this one. It’s just best to speak from experience when it comes to such a tricky topic. If you have questions or want help email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or post a reply in the comment section below! ~Vexar