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This is my first time hosting a PnP session, and one issue I've run into is whether to let players know the health of their enemies. Should I show them the monster's HP number, or describe in varying levels of injury? I am also planning to introduce a monster that doesn't take damage from unenchanted weapons, but am wondering how such a futile attack could be played out.

Thanks for all your answers, initially I had the impression that DnD was typically played with combat stats being shown on the board, but now I guess that isn't the norm and even if it is, it still depends on the playstyle!

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Does 3.5 have a state like bloodied from 4e? –  Joshua Aslan Smith Nov 1 '13 at 16:08
    
I didn't know about the bloodied state, but that seems like a great way to go about a qualitative description of combat! –  xiankai Nov 1 '13 at 16:21
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@kiankai my knowledge of 3.5 is very anecdotal, but if you use 4e's bloodied as a way of signifying the halfway point in the monsters' hp it can help players identify which monsters are weak and which seem to have a big amount of health. I feel that giving players the HP amounts (total and current) for monsters is too much of an edge for the players. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Nov 1 '13 at 16:24
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@JoshuaAslanSmith No, it doesn't by default. It's a decent way of describing the health of an opponent in general terms, though. Note that HP total in pre-4e D&D are generally much lower though, so there is less of the "knowing the weak from the strong" effect that you see in 4e. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 1 '13 at 16:42
    
I play most of my tabletop gaming these days on Virtual Tabletops (Roll20, specifically). I've generally found health bars to be exceptionally useful; in a tactical game like D&D, it gives the players some information (health percentage), without being too much. In a game like Unknown Armies where the health of every character (including the PCs) is only exactly known by the GM, I've used bars as a quick reference for myself, and status indicators of wound penalty as quick reference for my players. (You have a -10 shift to your attribute rolls, so there's a purple dot on your token.) –  Brian S Nov 11 '13 at 20:44
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7 Answers 7

up vote 35 down vote accepted

You should avoid telling the players current/total hp values. The same is true for AC, save values, and attack bonuses of the monsters. It breaks immersion (suspension of disbelief) and also gives the players a large advantage.

Instead, describe the state of the monster. You can use the adjectives such as minor, major, serious, severe, critical, & grievous to describe the wounds the monster has suffered.

For the monsters that require magic you can describe a successful hit from a non-magical weapon that did no damage as: "You land a successful strike against the creature, however your sword did not pierce the creatures hide, causing little/no damage." The key is to signal to the player that they successfully overcame the creature's AC but are not using a weapon that can harm it.

I located a discussion thread on ways to describe DR of various forms to players here

Two goods ones I liked are as follows:

"The Skeleton's undead bones seem unnaturally resistant to your blow."

"The Zombie's rotting flesh absorbs the impact with little effect."

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It’s worth pointing out that you may want to give the players that advantage – if they’re new, say, or if you find yourself taking advantage of the fact that you know their values for these stats. But +1 since this is generally how the game is played, and how the rules assume it will be played. –  KRyan Nov 1 '13 at 17:04
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"If you find yourself taking advantage of the fact that you know their values for these stats"? You're not playing against them, so this seems an odd thing to say. Of course you know their stats - you're the DM. You're the one who has to make sure the math works out. That doesn't mean you should give the players the same kind of perspective. –  Erick Robertson Nov 1 '13 at 18:25
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I would make an exception for AC, though, as the players will find it out soon enough. The exchange is typically: Player 1: I roll 15. DM: You miss. Player 2: I roll 16. DM: You hit it. Knowing enemy AC may not help immersion, but it quickly becomes like turning a page in a book: if you're already immersed, it's almost unnoticeable. –  amp108 Nov 1 '13 at 18:33
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@amp108 - although there could be buffs or penalties that the players are unaware of that throw this off (eg. proximity to something, a timed effect, etc). –  detly Nov 6 '13 at 3:02
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If your experience turns out to be in any way like mine, players will quickly realise they need to prioritise their targets and will start asking you questions like:

"How badly is he hurt?" "Does he look like he's on his last legs?" "Have we injured that orc yet?"

It's quite all right to be honest with them, perhaps not to the tune of "He's got 8 hit points left", but perhaps, "It looks like one more hit might do him...", or "He doesn't look in any way bothered by what you're doing...", and so-on.

4E's Bloodied condition, which kicks in at half monster hit points, is very informative for the players because of this. I would use it if I was still DM'ing d20 rules.

On the unenchanted weapon question, you have to give the players strong information as to what's going on. "You're amazed to see the creature shrug off the blow as if nothing happened..." for example.

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"have to give players strong information": yes, very yes. I once had a very frustrated player in a 2e game because they couldn't hit a gremlin; my description wasn't clear enough that this was a supernaturally-fast gremlin, so he thought I was just making him miss for no reason. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 1 '13 at 17:02
    
I also think 4e's "bloodied" condition is a nice addition here. It gives the characters some information about the state of opponents, but keeps the specifics vague - "did it take 4 hits to bring this monster down to 1/2 HP because it has a lot of hit points, or because it's inherently resistant to the weapons/spells we're using"? That's an interesting question, and maybe worth investigation in its own right. –  Mark Bessey Nov 1 '13 at 19:03
    
Considering how common DR is, after the character has fought several things with it I tend to just be “well, you can tell immediately that he’s obviously got DR to that...” I don’t mind using the game-term for this, because we understand that “DR” here is translated to whatever the characters think of that property as. Which might just be “damage reduction” anyway, considering it’s a reasonably self-evident name. –  KRyan Nov 5 '13 at 23:53
    
@KRyan, In fact, in 4e characters may make a Monster Knowledge check on their turn, and one of the things they might glean from it (assuming a strong enough roll) is what resistances and/or vulnerabilities to damage types the monster has. –  Brian S Nov 11 '13 at 20:48
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There are a lot of general play-style answers here, let me add a specific:

In a combat-focused play-by-post game I DM, I give the opponents' relative health status (as others have suggested). For the sake of fairness and consistency, I use the following table:

  % HP
Remaining | Description
          +
   100    | Uninjured
 75-99    | Barely Injured
 50-74    | Injured
 25-49    | Badly Injured
  1-24    | Near Death
     0    | Dead

It has generally been sufficient for the players to make some tactical decisions (dogpile the wounded one!), without ever giving away information a character wouldn't be able to intuit.

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I use a similar system in my virtual tabletop and it seems like a nice way to give a sense of where an enemy is at without revealing actual numbers. When your best damage does not even lower the health category of the enemy, you know he's a tough one. –  leokhorn Nov 6 '13 at 9:04
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What sort of game do you play?

My first inclination is to say no, absolutely not, monster stats are DM information only! But it occurs to me that not everyone plays D&D the same way I do, so I ask, how do you run your game? If you want your players totally immersed in their characters and knowing and experiencing what they know, you shouldn't reveal this information directly. Tell your players how wounded the creature is looking (JoshuaAslanSmith's suggestion to use the 50% HP bloodied state is great!) and how sluggish its movements are. This can be great for descriptive combat. This applies to all the creature's statistics for the most part, so you shouldn't be giving away its saves or armor class, although you can describe these things generally. In the specific example you list (creature doesn't take damage from non-magical weapons) you should describe that the creature is utterly unwounded by the weapon (or heals immediately, however you want to flavor it). Since the player rolled damage, it should be easy for them to figure out.

Alternatively, if your players thrive on extremely tactical combat and efficient use of resources, go ahead and let them know if you like. There's an argument to be made here in describing creatures, but if your players enjoy this method of play, there's nothing inherently wrong with it. These sorts of players (and many others, come to think of it) will figure out the statistics of these monsters through trial and error anyway, generally. Know what works best for your group. These methods aren't necessarily opposed to each other, either. You can still give a good description while giving away the statistic.

As a side note, this can decrease or increase the utility of certain spells (Avascular comes to mind) depending on your player's knowledge and use of these spells.

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+1: this is 100% a play-style issue, and as such, should always be tailored to the style and preferences of the specific group, and determined for each group individually. –  Matthew Najmon Nov 1 '13 at 18:50
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Ignorance is the assumed base state of the character.

Knowledge checks, detection spells, and other game mechanics show that D&D 3.5 expects characters to be inherently ignorant of the world around them and the monsters they fight: only a successful game-mechanic action like a skill check or a spell provides them with information.

But player knowledge is different from character knowledge.

This is something D&D 3.5 doesn't really talk about a whole bunch; most of its text talks about the character and the player as if they are one and the same. But they aren't, and therein lies the key: you can tell your players things that their characters can't know.

Withholding information cripples a large number of spells and class features.

D&D 3.5 is notorious for basing in-game effects on conditions that would be nigh impossible for in-game knowledge to cover: Information like current HP remaining, number of HD, racial types and subtypes--all of these can lead to a character wasting a powerful feature because they were forced to guess whether it would work at all.

Is this something you want? If you would like your players to simply guess whether their features will be fight-ending or totally useless, go for it. Narrate your heart out as the other answers suggest. Some information can be determined --like whether a creature has 3 or less hit points-- but a great deal cannot (for example, I know of no way to determine the exact hit points or Hit Dice of a creature in-game, short of throwing various conditional spells and seeing which succeed and which fail, until you've narrowed it down).

Why would you withhold information from the players that the in-game characters rely on but can never know?

Consider why you want to withhold this information: do you think your players are unable to handle separating character and player knowledge? Have they asked you to only tell them what their characters could know? Is it to force the players to identify more closely with their characters, or create a sense of mystery and paranoia? Or are you just doing it because that seems to be what the game expects?

What are the consequences of withholding this info?

Your players will quickly learn not to choose spells and features which rely on guesswork to succeed, and they're likely to become much more cautious about taking risks or exploring new places. This is perhaps realistic, but will slow down the game and limit the choices they consider available to them. D&D is not a game suited to realism, especially in terms of player characters' approach toward danger and mortality.

Here's my suggestion:

Give them what they need to know, and err on the side of too much information.

When such info is not necessary (as it often is not at lower levels), go with narrative descriptions like some of the other answers suggest. Be vivid and detailed and atmospheric. Your games will likely be the better for it.

But when withholding information would needlessly misinform your players' choices, give it to them upfront, in plain mechanical terms. When in doubt, tell them. Willful ignorance shouldn't get in the way of fun, and blanket restrictions on meta-game information will do that in 3.5.

(By the way, clever players track numbers and read manuals, and quickly figure out whatever it is you're trying to hide unless you become increasingly opaque in your GMing style. It's an escalating war of information and I've never seen it be fun.)

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This depends heavily on shatterspike1's point of "what kind of game do you play?" This answer assumes a story-centric campaign, while all of 3.5e's game elements inherited from earlier editions evolved within an assumed exploration-heavy play style (which deliberately blends player knowledge and character knowledge). This answer would be improved by making that fundamental premise clear up-front. Drawing a line between game elements that support story play and that support exploration play is useful, because then you know what to throw away for your particular play agenda. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 1 '13 at 17:49
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I think the focus on trial-and-error is one of the differences between earlier versions and later versions. Consider that pretty much only spells have the "does nothing at all if the creature is greater than x hit points or hit dice" failure mechanism. It adds some drama when a spell-caster uses one of their "best" attacks, and it totally fizzles. To a large extent, the fighters, rangers, and the like never need to worry about this problem. It's yet another price that Wizards pay for their huge power at higher levels. –  Mark Bessey Nov 1 '13 at 18:58
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@MarkBessey It's a difference between earlier versions and 4e certainly, but all editions prior to 4e can be played in multiple modes, depending on the tastes of the group/DM. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 1 '13 at 22:40
    
"clever players track numbers and read manuals" And experienced players may not even need to go to those extents. If you've seen 100 bugbears playing as 100 different characters, you probably have a pretty good idea of what that bear is going to do to you, and what's necessary to stop it. –  Brian S Nov 11 '13 at 20:52
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Levels of injury should be what you describe as rule. Almost all of the answers so far describe perfectly fine ways to do this.

Regarding the question of exposing exact monster stats (HP, etc.) the answer should generally be an emphatic "NO!" to showing or telling HP, AC, or stats for one very specific reason -- you completely lose the ability to fudge combat numbers as a DM.

This ability is of the utmost importance to having a fun session.

Running a game, you will inevitably run into a situation where something has gone wrong and combat is too easy or too difficult. Usually, this is because:

  • Players misinterpreted or overlooked something essential to the encounter.
  • Someone makes a series of REALLY bad rolls.
  • There is a serious "Oops!" regarding the difficulty of the monsters or villain.
  • There is a serious "Oops!" regarding the combat abilities of one or more player characters or friendly NPCs.

You will need to correct this by fudging. You can, of course, introduce a third party, power or situation to assist the players or NPCs, but if you do that more than a few times, you players will notice and it will decrease their enjoyment of the game.

Exposing exact HP or monster stats at any time makes this preferable kind of number fudging essentially a non-option. You are stuck "playing by the rules" all the time. This creates a significant lack of control over your own game.

DM (sighing) : "Nope, Phil, your dead. I rolled a 20, you can see the dragon's combat bonus, and you only had 10 HP left. Sorry."

If you choose to hide stats so you can fudge numbers, however, you have a number of benefits, including:

  • Relieving unintended tedious combat via quick monster kills (Lowering HP or mild AC fudging.)

  • Protecting weak or unlucky characters/ non-party NPCs/needed villains (Lower monster combat bonus/HP fudging/mild AC adjustment)

DM : "It looks like a small, magic ring...very easily missed..."

  • Increasing action -- It's much less boring AND far more rewarding to describe a character's last ditch effort to run up the back of a dragon to stab it in the eye, instantly killing it than it is to listen to a player bemoan the fact his or her character can only do 1d8 + 5 damage, and the dragons HP is still a 100 points to the good. (No fudging HP or AC! We all know the stats!)

  • Increasing tension -- Don't keep players hovering on the brink of death for every encounter but do push them a little once in a while. If your players have been smacking up on a monster, and the monster has been giving it right back to them, let them sweat a little bit. Adjust the monsters HP slightly so they have a small run of bad luck (a quick scare - can we kill it after all?) before letting them settle things with a mighty final blow.

  • It doesn't mess with XP -- Adjusting monster quantities on the fly can lead to experience imbalance (for or against players) as well as combat issues (merciless slog or legendary calkwalk). Adjusting HP, AC, and other monster stats during combat gives you the option to run your encounter with the exact creatures and XP amounts you intend WITHOUT radically altering difficulty or having to recalculate or fudge XP -- MUCH more important topics to players than subtly juggling a few monster stats.

  • It creates interest -- As a DM, don't be opaque. If players encounter a werewolf and have no silver, a simple acknowledgement they need silver weapons ("Yeah, Phil, you need a silver weapon") can save a lot of frustration. But throw them a curve ball by making a werewolf with higher than normal HP or have an almost full immunity to anything other than a particular kind of silver. If you expose the increased HP or better saves,however, you destroy some of the aura the players are likely feeling fighting a "new" old creature.

The only caveat to this is that frequent, almost non-stop fudging is usually a sign of poor encounter construction (you're new to running a game, you're terrible at math e.g. figuring out how much damage characters and NPC monsters can do to each other, or you're deliberately building encounters heavy -- 4e has this issue built in if you follow strict WotC printed rules).

Remember that fudging is not a substitute for well balanced game numbers and abilities! (player stats, monster stats and ALL in-game AC/DCs). Monsters with abilities to alter AC, regenerate HP, etc. also deserve special consideration since they do a sort of in-game fudging of initial stats already.

With all that said, you may get a majority of players that want open HP or monster stats... in which case you should give it to them. Good DMs listen to players.

But you should be absolutely clear (in your own mind, anyway) that this is a bad habit that brings down game play in general unless you or your players genuinely care more about rolling than most other things. Genuinely stat-focused players care mostly about their ability to be very successful, and monsters can have 10 HP or a 1000 HP... so long as stat-focused players can bring down a 1001 HP meteor to crush their enemies, they won't care. Open monster stats, especially HP and AC, only make players worry more about stats and less about the world they are creating with you as DM.

You should be aware that often the people who root for open stats aren't familiar with the advantages of hidden stats (such as the DM favoring them when they make a bad roll), are people who don't trust the DM generally (players vs. DM style games, not the DMs well-though out world) or those who are rule lawyers who simply want an tweak/exploit advantage over the DM ("No, my character DOESN'T get hit because I have a +1 racial bonus for being a giant dick!"). This leaves you with a choice - play with hardcore math nerds (no judgements, many of these players are really nice people and like this play style) or show your players,though hermit-like with monster stats, you can be fair, honest, trusted to empower their characters, make the game fun and make combat descriptions as fun as stat juggling in the game. More importantly, remember open stats hinder everyone, not just the DM. So if a player expresses a wish to do open stats, you may consider exploring why a player feels this way. There are DM screens for a reasons.

Unfortunately, player perceptions of you as a DM, your game, or their characters will suffer more in all cases if you can't fudge numbers OR if players are certain you are fudging (e.g. they can verify it with open HP, AC, bonuses or stats.) Worst case scenarios will yield copious complaints by the players, with vows against their character sheets, swearing at monsters stats, condemning random dice rolls, questions about your "skills" as a DM as well as final, solemn resolution NEVER to play again...

On the other hand, with hidden stats (and some DM rolls), minimal judicious fudging, and well planned encounters, you generally get happy players who want to actually play in another game you are hosting, assuming you aren't crafting monster stats specifically to hammer them.

The bottom line is you can empower players MORE (without them knowing) if you hide stats. It also allows you to craft better stories or encounters on the fly. Some players may hem and haw, but if you are a good DM and can convince them to take a hidden stat approach that makes them feel a bit little more powerful than your creatures, in the end, you will find few players complain.

So you decide... which is better?

As for your second question, descriptiveness is a great tack here. But rolls and fudging work too.

DM : "You pierce the creatures skin, but watch in horror as its wounds close almost instantaneously... like magic." (Your first hint.)

After a few turns, and a goodly number of hints later, if the players still haven't gotten the idea to use magical weapons, either tell them fairly directly ("None of you are certain, but you suspect that perhaps, maybe, an enchanted weapon might harm the creature.") or allow Wisdom checks of some kind (Intelligence can work as well).

Note this assumes no one is actively using magical weapons. Make sure to give them any enchanted weapons you want them to have. If they are using the proper magical weapons, you should make every attempt to exaggerate and highlight a successful hit. A great part about hidden monster stats here is that, again, if you wish, you can fudge a successful hit with a magic weapon to demonstrate it is the only one that does damage by ignoring AC for a minute. This is literally impossible to do if the players know the monsters AC upfront. Smart players will figure its general AC out through a few successful rolls, but this is not the same thing as knowing definitively.

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While it's better for telling stories, what user9749 is actually doing in his last example is making the rolls useless. It does not matter if a character has invested in a skill or not, you will give him the hint nonetheless. If the players don't know this, it's an excellent move. Once I realized, every time I rolled a check I wondered if I passed because I made the right choices or because the DM fudged the DCs. So, beware! Some players will be unsatisfied by such an approach (even if this means both approaches are unsatisfactory and this means D&D is probably not what they want to play). –  Zachiel Nov 5 '13 at 23:59
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I think you missed some deletions/changes in the middle there with your last edit. A few paragraphs you left in no longer make sense now that the Tarrasque example is gone, so it's incoherent in the middle. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 6 '13 at 1:49
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@ SevenSidedDie Yeah, I rewrote the whole thing. Not as dynamic, unfortunately, but highlights some more salient points. @Zachiel Agreed. Ideally all DCs should be valid rolls e.g. within the realm of your lower specced party DCs, but just barely, while your higher specced party members should be properly rewarded for their investments. The example here is more about ensuring the players aren't cross at a newish DM who may not realize the best option is to give valid roles along with multiple avenues (not just visual clues) to discover monster weakness. –  Anaksunaman Nov 6 '13 at 5:00
    
heh, AC/DC's :) –  Adeptus Jul 16 at 0:43
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The original version of my answer to this question (for posterity...)

Regarding the question of exposing exact monster stats (HP, etc.) the answer should generally be an emphatic "NO!" to showing or telling HP, AC or bonuses for one very specific reason --- you completely lose the ability to fudge combat as a DM.

A quick scenario to illustrate the importance of fudging...

(Scene: A small, dimly lit game table where three hunched players have been handed their asses for over an hour in an epic final battle against the legendary Tarrasque -- a creature which can only be hit with a roll of 20, has six attacks per round, rushes for double dmg, tramples, paralyzes with fear automatically with no save, reflects damage from magical attacks back to the caster, regenerates, is immune to most non-magical attacks, immune to all non-magical weapons, immune to all psionics, severs limbs on a roll of 18 or better, and requires -30 negative HP and a "wish" spell to kill...)

Erika the Elf : "Yes! We've almost got him! Sandor, get ready with that f***ing wish!"

Sandor the Mage : "I'm so ready... we're having barbeque Tarrasque tonight!"

Grog Kneebiter the Perpetually Angry Drunk Dwarf : "OH YOU HEAR THAT TARRASQUE!? YOU GOIN' DOWN! YOU GOIN' DOOOWWWNNN!!!

DM (needing to pee for the last half-hour) : "Go ahead Erika. Make your roll."

Erika rolls a perfect 20, adds in all her combat bonuses, uses her best character power, enables her Magical Longbow of Egregious A**-Kicking's most special ability and looks down at the handily placed Tarrasque HP stats provided by the DM (which just recently told them they were about to kick the Tarrasque in its legendary balls) and (deep breath)..... realizes that she only managed to get the Tarrasque to -29 HP, not the -30 HP required by the rules.

The DM, sighing, rolls for the Tarrasque -- which promptly (and literally) bites Erikas head off, proceeds to trample Grog Kneebiter (whose going now now, hmm?) and gores Sandor into a spicy wizard kabob himself. All three adventurers are dead.

The End.

Oh, except for two hours of copious bitching by the players, vows against the character sheets stats, dice rolls and DM, as well as solem resolution NEVER to do that again...

Now, imagine if the DM alone knew the Tarrasque's true HP...

Erika rolls a perfect 20, adds up her combat bonuses and three pairs of burning eyes look at the DM expectantly.

DM (grimacing, realizing Erika's roll isn't quite enough) : "He wobbles... he shakes... he falls!"

(Here the DM has unilateraly decided to give Erika the missing point of damage without anyone else knowing - HP is hidden so no one except the DM does the subtraction math.)

Sandor cast a profanity laden "wish" spell, and the Tarrasque does goes down, really and truely dead. The players get the 100,000gp worth of diamonds the creature drops, magical blood and adamantite skin to make near invincible armor with, realm-wide fame and goodwill, barbeque Tarrasque for dinner and last, but not least, a new, if unweildy, chamber pot in the form of its head.

Oh, and you get happy players who want to actually play in another game you are hosting.

The End.

So you decide... which is better?

As for your second question, descriptiveness is a great tack here. But rolls and fudging work too.

DM : "All right everbody. Roll a Wisdom check, please. And no, Phil, Grog Kneebiter doesn't need to know why..."

All three players roll. The DM decides 10 or better is a good number to successfully pass -- > almost a give away, really.

(One or more players pass -- success!)

DM : "Erika, Sandor, you two are certain this type of creature need an enchanted weapon to harm it." (Sandor saw the necessary creature in a wizardly book of some sort, and Erika is a 250 year old elf who has a lot of cumulative knowledge of wacky creatures).

(All players fail -- gargh! Fudge time...)

DM : "None of you are certain, but you suspect that perhaps, maybe, an enchanted weapon might harm the creature."

(Everyone collectively slaps their foreheads)

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Note that the fudge option invalidates the both failed rolls in these examples. This is a last ditch tatic and should not be be made use of extensively or players can lose faith in their characters and stats. Ideally a mixed approach of information for your second question (town legend, written works, rumors, observation) and valid rolls (for both examples) should be used in place of fudges whenever possible. –  Anaksunaman Nov 7 '13 at 18:47
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