Updated: Aug 28, 2021
How many times have you seen this happen?
Player: "I use [ special ability | magic item | spell ] to do X."
DM: "Well, the way I run it...(proceeds to nerf and delegitimize the thing in question)."
Player: "Uh. Ok."
X = something shockingly creative that undermines the whole premise of the encounter [or] something that the player routinely relies on.
I've seen DMs nerf Find Trap so that the character perceives there is a trap nearby but has no idea what is trapped.
Me: Uh...ok? Why did I memorize this? Better yet, no. Hey guys, there are traps here. Seems too dangerous. Let's leave the dungeon and go...somewhere else? Like, read the spell description, right? "ALL TRAPS...BECOME VISIBLE [to the spell caster]."
It's easy. But as a DM you have to master this before you can move on to harder stuff.
Novice DM: "Buy hey man, this dungeon is all traps! The cleric is only 5th level but with her WIS bonus she memorized FIVE Find Trap Spells! This is going to ruin the adventure!"
Me: "Why will it ruin the adventure? It sounds to me like if the dungeon is truly 100% traps, the best thing to do is mop it up quick. Something like: 'You bypass trap after trap and finally reach the treasure. How are you planning to carry it all out?'"
Novice DM: "Exactly! That would totally suck!"
Me: "For who?"
Number A) You were the brain that opted for a mono-dimensional threat, right?
Number B) When a student (player) is exceptionally bright they pass out of Algebra 1 and 2...but then go straight on to harder maths, right?
I.e. The players mop up your failed trap dungeon in 10 to 15 minutes and return to town with the treasure. You dole out XP, and folks level up. But while training, word has spread of the great haul and the prowess of the party that bypassed all those traps. Count Kownt has sent for them and now requires (instead of assessing a treasure tax on their recent spoils) to delve a distant ruin in the Salt Wastes of Yen and bring back the Diamond Skull of Kosh. Rumor has it, the ruins are rife with hideous traps----which should be of little consequence to the party (says the Count).
Break it down:
The players feel cool because they think they cheated. They got the credits for the dungeon and whooped it up when they leveled.
But now...what's this? Count Kownt is ORDERING them to tackle more traps? Hm. Why do we have a bad feeling about this?
And well the players should suspect the worst, for that is what is coming. Your campaign is not one dungeon. At least I hope not. When players bypass a monster, a trap or a dungeon let them revel. The honeymoon is short. And there are rivers of tears ahead.
You will spend a good deal of the session leveling, re-outfitting, gathering some details about the Salt Wastes of Yen and then the party might set out. You are a proficient Dungeon Master, so the journey to the Ruins will take time. Fill the rest of the session with overland adventures as they trek across the wastes.
When the night is done, focus your energies on prepping for the next session. Grab a random map off the internet and bullet point the dungeon.
The ruins will be thin on actual traps but thick with illusions of traps or other obstacles. The cleric will dismay at first that her Find Trap spell is much less useful here. But she will adjust.
There are always harder maths.
And because there are always harder maths, saying yes to the players costs you nothing.
Allow them to capitalize on every spell and device and special ability. You MUST head into your career as a DM so-steeled, knowing that this will transpire. And that is why your dungeon must be worse than you think they can bear. You want them to cast Prot from Evil! You want them to NEED Prot from Evil in order to survive.
When Protection from Evil, ESP, Locate Object, Clairvoyance, Find Trap and Invisibility only achieve incremental gains, your dungeon is diabolical in the right ways.
Let me tell you a story from a game session that happened very recently.
Stone Tell. PHB p52.
This 6th level bad boy states, "The stones will relate complete descriptions as required."
The cleric, before she was killed by devils, cast this on a section of wall very near the treasury in the City of Brass that contained Queen Ehlissa's Marvelous Nightingale. Like literally just the other side of the wall.
It was the first time Evanore, the cleric, had ever cast the spell.
I laid it out for them.
The stones revealed the false treasury, the secret door, the method of opening it, what was behind it, the trap there, how to defuse it, the real treasury underneath and the contents thereof. I think the players were a little blown away at the level of detail I poured out for them.
But they had cast a SIXTH LEVEL SPELL at just the right location. Did they not deserve the win?
Were there not a hundred other treasure locations with equally deadly wards and guards in this adventure?
My responsibility as the DM is to reward good play, not manipulate a situation so that a powerful spell winds up being barely mediocre.
I'm focusing a little more heavily in this blog post on real mechanics vs one-off wild plans. Because I think it's actually easier for a ref to say, sure...what the hell...if you roll a 19 or 20 you succeed in your craaaaaaaayzeee. Because sometimes it feels painless to declare the odds and then react ecstatically alongside the players if those odds are beaten.
Still, some DMs can't even roll with that kind of situation. When the thief starts scrambling up the wall with an arrow of slaying clenched in his teeth and the DM knows what's coming next, the wall is suddenly becomes "very slippery" and the wizard she was going to aim at is actually, well, the cave is very dark you see...and the shadows of the stalagmites hide him. This is a case of False or Inflated difficulty. It's Difficulty Fluff. The DM usually begins musing aloud, warbling out never-previously-vocalized descriptions of why this plan is destined to fail. Few things underscore more explicitly to players that they should tune out than this brand of claw-back DMing.
If you find yourself feeling bothered that something was or is about to be too easy for the players, stop yourself. Challenge yourself. Take your momentary angst and focus its energy into a new branch of narrative: one that describes how effortlessly the players are overcoming the challenge before them. You will win points. Those points are critical. You will spend them all later at the completely justifiable TPK. At that future event, your players will nod that it was horrible...but fair. Because they will have to admit that you always try to be fair.
Now...beyond the situational and the one-off crazy plan, there are spells, items, special abilities and combinations thereof that shred a dungeon. When players get their hands on a Rod of Lordly Might and start forcing open doors with Storm Giant Strength: bypassing your traps and locks and puzzles...well, the temptation is high for the novice DM to start reinforcing all the "important" doors so that, ahem, not even a storm giant could break them!
This is BS, and you know it. It's another kind of Difficulty Fluff. You gave them the Rod. Presumably they earned it. It is right for them to revel and enjoy its fruits. And it is important that you serve them those fruits in a satisfying way, ofttimes revealing what horrors they avoided.
When you nerf----when you say no----the thing you are nerfing is interest in your own game.
Every no carries enormous weight.
With every no you are teaching your players that being actively engaged with what is happening is unimportant. It is unimportant because they are powerless to change what you declare is taking place. You have told them as much. With each no, player investment declines, engagement atrophies and creativity is strangled. The magical treasures you offer up as incentives lose their pull because players have learned that such devices actually hold less real power than advertised.
You want your players to be engaged and creative.
And so you must apply the same expectations to yourself. When your dungeon or boss encounter is destroyed by one or two clever actions, you are the one that must become more creative----not in that moment by thwarting them, but later: during design. Never fudge an encounter to bypass player creativity. You are on the honor system. You need to earn your DM card.
Here's a controversial statement: sometimes I think that low-fantasy play is a way of allowing the lazy DM to thrive. For in these settings the referee can relax into orcs and pit traps and bits of scattered story.
Yes, I know. I just offended you. It happens.
Relax though because I said SOMETIMES. It's not like everyone who runs low fantasy is guilty of being slovenly and indolent. But PERHAPS (in such campaigns) there's less incentive/need to contemplate potentially dungeon-breaking powers and abilities. Powers and abilities are kinda the point of D&D, my friend. It is the juice that fuels the plans of both high-level player characters and DMs.
The wizard can cast Passwall? Hmm. THIS has implications. And because it has implications you must account for it (and for all such magical shenanigans) in ways that magnify the range of challenges in a dungeon...and...AND in ways that allow players to feel smart.
You WANT them to feel smart. To feel like they got one up on you. They don't know that you want them to feel that way of course. THAT is your secret joy when they are reveling that they beat you. Your other secret joy is that because they beat you, they are ready for harder maths.
You can scale the above guidance both up and down on the High<----->Low Fantasy Chart.
If you push the slider up, you say: What about a Wish, Anthony?*
And if you push the slider down, you say: What about Heat Metal, Anthony?
And in either case the DM has to embrace the power granted to the PC and magnify that power for the sake of the adventure while also balancing it through design of diverse/relentless challenge.
Say yes. You are not setting the stage for degenerate play that crutches on the same tired solutions time and again, UNLESS you do nothing to change the rhythm. If your players have a system for bypassing pit traps 100% of the time, why are you still throwing pit traps at them? Why are you playing the same note time and again? Heat Metal worked great on the recalcitrant palace guards...much less so on the comely enchantress and her trained jaguars.
I throw an occasional pit trap not to actually kill the party (though if it does, it serves them right) but to remind them of the hazardous profile of the place they are in. I don't expect PCs to die on pit traps. I expect them, especially at high level, to breeze over them. The pit trap shifts from hazard to scenery in this manner. Much like orcs (even 100 of them) switch from hazard to scenery for a party of 10th level fighters.
Thing is, this adjustment in perspective should be true for most every element of the game. What was once challenging must come to present no challenge at all by virtue of gained experience, new abilities and tactical know-how. Saying yes is essential to the level-up system of acknowledging achievements and tackling ever more daunting obstacles. You cannot open a module and read it as a list of encounters that are "meant" to cause the PCs trouble. Nor should you ever rank the encounters as more or less important sources of drama. The challenges in the module are not "meant" to do anything. Drama derives from dice and player choice and your occasional interpretation or reaction to those things. Drama does not stem from entering the throne room of the Hill Giant Chieftain. Rather, it stems from other variables surrounding that event, of which the DM never has full control. You see, when you have conceived in your mind of the "proper" way the encounter should unfold, you have lost merit for your DM membership card.
You must be prepared for the clever player to end the Hill Giant Chieftain quickly, easily, without losing a single hp, and with very little drama. I've said as much in other blog posts on this site.
What I probably haven't said as explicitly is that when you say yes to the players it forces you too, to become better and more creative. The Potion of Treasure Finding that the players believe you hate? You actually enjoy because you placed it there! You are hoping they drink it! Because you also placed a special cache of loot within range that the potion will ping. This is part of an elaborate deception laid by the lich to lure the fools directly into the worst of the dungeon's devious traps and terrifying guardians.
If the Players are using Detect Evil, cannot the evil cleric be using Detect Good (or Evil) to zero in on the party's location? Why are your monsters just waiting around to be acted upon? When you say yes to the Players, you are learning about devious schemes and your dungeon's denizens should be bolstered by the same sort of scheming.
In summary, be generous with your interpretation of powers the PCs wield and be willing to erase entire encounters for clever players while showering them with treasure. In so doing you are encouraging them to stay engaged and vocal and you are teaching them that your game rewards good play.
Fears of a Monty Haul campaign are grossly exaggerated: persistent ghosts of the 80's. We were thirteen back then. We know better now. And if you are hewing to the rules of AD&D you will find that even the most well outfitted 15th level fighter is remarkably fragile after only a few well-wrought encounters.
Make your dungeons deadly. Make them REQUIRE dungeon-breaking magic and dungeon-breaking tactics in order to conquer. In so doing, saying yes will become more natural, for today those characters play in the sun. But tomorrow brings harsher weather and harder maths.
and happy gaming.
*Wish doesn't break a game?
No. It doesn't. What helps me regulate wishes is to think of them as telegrams to a God or Power. A CEO wants a bullet point. Wishes should therefore be worded as a single sentence without semicolon. Wishes do not just come true of their own. SOMEONE grants them. I roll dice. There is a 60% chance that a benevolent Power grants a wish and a 40% chance the wish is granted by something malevolent instead. Short, concise wishes therefore help insulate against granter-malfeasance. Recall also that gods do not like to face off if they can help it. So, if by granting a wish, a god will piss in the face of another god, the mortal is probably going to be told NO...or the Wish will have to be amended / downsized.
Ah-HA! Anthony, you just said NO!
Indeed. This surprises you? Were you not reading the Slack messages between myself and each of my seven players (that I SO subtlety interspersed throughout the text above)? Alas, poor Monte, who pushes the envelope a bit harder than most, rated me at only mostly fair: 60% accommodating. SIXTY! (Here I sniff indignantly) If only I were a vengeful god...