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I am planning a couple of scenes where the PCs could gain some benefits if they choose a particular route. For instance, when they first enter a certain town, they would be set upon by a group of local thugs – if the PCs end the fight with social skills, or through a display of feats, hence ending it without much violence, the townsfolk will be more impressed than if the PCs just beat the thugs down.

Or consider a case of some scenarios, such as The Haunting of Harrowstone (Pathfinder, Carrion Crown adventure path), in which certain actions improve the PCs' relationship with the town via gaining or losing Trust points. How can I hint that for a particular encounter, if the PCs pick a particular route, they may earn or lose Trust?

Usually, such information is withheld because it is considered "meta-game". However, seeing that everybody has different perspectives as to what 'common sense' should be, I would like to give the players some idea, but not to the extent of spelling out how the mechanics work. How should I go about doing that?

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There's nothing meta in the examples you gave. –  AJMansfield Jul 7 '13 at 1:15
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Common Sense isn't So Common

One of the difficulties in these kinds of scenarios is that the writer tends to think that these sorts of meta-goals are common sense, but that sort of thinking is lazy writing. What one person thinks is common sense is not the same to others.

So what do you do to make up for this kind of lazy writing?

Show, don't tell

As a game master, it is not only the rules of the game that you are adjudicating, but the whole mood. And your best tool in doing so isn't the rules, but your example.

In general, this makes for a more engrossing and immersive game; when the players can see things and make the threads come together in character and respond to your lead.

To give an example, when the players first come into town, do you merely start into the encounter? Or do you give flavor that may or may not be in the module as written? That flavor is important, and if framed right can help give hints into the systems that lie behind it.


As the sun begins to set over your shoulder, it illuminates the town in front of you in fading shades of red and orange. The people move along their daily routine, finishing their orderly days by taking in stock from the tables that line the street in front of their stores. It appears as if by night, the town will be completely asleep- other than the building at the end of the street, to which people seem to be flocking. An older child, helping finish the task for the day looks up shading his eyes at your entrance into town, and gives you a furtive wave. Seeing your weapons, and gear, an older man pulls him aside and speaks in low tones. The boy looks at your party with widening eyes before the man cuffs him on the head and points to work left undone.

As he prepares to get to his unfinished work, he looks across the street, and his eyes open wide again. He leaves the pile where it lies, running inside. Looking to what caught his attention, you see a group men step out of the shadows of the alley into the street. You wonder what they might be thinking- you're obviously better equipped, trained, and able than this riff-raff.

"New to town strangers?" the lead one says, stopping only when he's in front of your group in the street. The others keep moving, intending to cut off your progress.

You hear the sound of running from behind you, and see the young man beating a hasty path down the street, the older man watching his progress from the door of the store.


Show them what kind of town it is. Show them in the eyes of the inhabitants, and their actions and words. Allow them to get information, using the skills that they have... and don't make them roll if it's not necessary. If someone asks a question about the feel of the town as the escalation seems imminent, tell them- don't make them roll for it.

Conclusion

In the end, other than outright telling the group, there's no way that they're going to know everything. But you can do your part to drop the clues necessary, and then not let the system stand in the way of giving them the information they need if they ask for it. And then, if they don't ask, if they don't get the hints... well, that happens sometimes. And they can see the results, and those results can inform future decisions, as sometimes you have to fail before you can succeed.

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For a non-meta explanation:

When the party enters the town, have the gatekeeper give them an introduction to the city. One of the points he makes is that "Violence is abhorred here. The Guard keep a firm grim on peace and you'd do well to ensure things stay peaceful."

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Most players I know who need guidance about reputation mechanics in the first place will completely ignore that as simply local colour, and completely forget about it when the bar brawl turns fireballs-and-magic-swords deadly (as these things seem wont to do). –  SevenSidedDie Jul 6 '13 at 18:43
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@SevenSidedDie: In my view, if players tend to ignore such details, that means this style of play isn't what they're playing for, and perhaps focusing on the combat rather than the reputation mechanics (playing "kick-in-the-door style," as described in the 3.5 DMG) is more appropriate for them anyway. –  David Robinson Jul 6 '13 at 23:05
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There are current game styles that give the players a lot of meta-gaming capabilities in order to know about the story or even changing details about the setting out-of-character. But I understand this question parts from a more traditional perspective.

Under the traditional way of gaming, player make their characters' decisions based on their knowledge, their own common sense and their characters' personality and motives. Since that premise, pointing before hand the outcome of each decision goes against the spirit of the game, as players should made themselves, think about that themselves and not feel they are guided to the best choice.

The best way to accomplish that is out of game, before starting the actual game, talk about the players about general principles ("talking is more profitable than combat", "your actions will affect your reputation with different actions", "you shouldn't spend too much time exploring",...) that applies to the adventure/campaign.

Once the game has started, I usually only hint when a player is about to take an action that is very risky or perjudicial, or when a player is very lost and is blocked and stucking the game.

When the session is over, you can talk to your players about the decisions they made, how they affected, and the possible outcome of other course of actions. Easy with that, because you don't want your players feel you are telling them how bad they game, and how many decisions would be better. A pair of examples should be enough to illustrate them about next choices, and you can surely praise some of the decisions they made.

Last advice: you're right, everybody has his own idea of what is a common sense. This is also true to the GM (or the module writer). Some decisions that makes sense for him can result illogic to the players and viceversa. So, give an opportunity to the selected course of action, even if sometimes doesn't sound as the best idea.

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If the game you're using has mechanics for trust and the like*, engage those mechanics. I would start with something small and simple so they can see the effects their actions have before you make them deal with an entire town. For example, present two families or groups that are obviously rivals and that both offer quests; their cachet goes up with the group they help and drops with the one they "spurned". Once the players know the basics of how it works, make them worry about more important decisions. Unless there's something truly secret about the mechanics, I want the players to know how it works.

* If it's a mechanic of the game, I wouldn't even label this a meta-objective.

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I've done this with one group. It was a last resort, but it definitely worked.

This particular group was opposed to running away. They thought anything that I put in the game should be an appropriate challenge for their abilities. I wanted to see them run because I was running an all rogue thieves' guild game and there should be getaway scenes, dammit!

I got around this by telling them there were two kinds of encounters. There were fight scenes like what the players were used to. There were also getaways. They functioned exactly like combats, but getting off the map was the win condition. Losers were sent to jail.

For the first few getaways I told them that's what we were doing. Later on it was up to them to figure out if we were playing a getaway or a combat. Later still it was up to them to realize that what I told them was a getaway was actually a winnable combat.

Anyway, it was heavy handed but it worked.

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I am not exactly sure what you are trying to accomplish, here. In a sense what you are asking for should just be under the general "reward good roleplaying" idea, and more or less all systems should provide some advice on this.

Anyway... to address your question I suggest the following:

At the start of the campaign (or of the adventure, if this makes more sense or it is logistically more appropriate) you could provide a brief list of mechanical rewards, hopefully tailored to the specific personality of the PC.

This has the drawback of working best with systems that have karma points, experience points or something similar, though. Especially if the granularity of the rewards is fine.

(i.e. if you get 1-2 experience points for completing a single adventure, this method is less practical than with systems that give you tens or thousands of experience points, because it would influence character advancement too much)

So, for the PC who has mostly social skills (and is described as a diplomat/manipulator instead of an aggressive fighter) write "you get an extra 10% for a confrontation that involves you are resolved in a pacific way"... the fighter may get something like "10% for a fight (not a confrontation) that ends in a victory for your side, and nobody in your party gets more than 1 light wound").

Be extra careful when designing these "meta-objectives" not to fuel interparty rivalries through this (unless, of course, you really want this to happen).

I deliberately choose an example where the Fighter type will not automatically charge in hoping to get his/her +10% reward. That may perhaps work for a Berserker type, but a fighter should be able to judge if a fight may involve losses on his side, and in that case a diplomatic way to defuse the situation wouldn't be seen as a way to "steal my extra xp and give these to the Diplomat".

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