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I'm next in line as DM so that the current DM can take a break after a campaign that has gone on for a year and a half. Our current DM is one smart cookie, throwing puzzles, role-playing, and combat encounters at us in engaging and challenging ways.

My upcoming campaign is low fantasy (Roman Empire) and very combat heavy because I know that's what 80% of the party likes.

I'm not saying I'm stupid or anything, but the current DM is already poking holes in the next campaign and looking for unexpected ways to exploit stuff. I know he's not intentionally trying to be an ass-clown, so how do I handle him without being aggressive or mean?

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Have you told him to stop being an ass-clown? That's gonna be step one for any answer. – DampeS8N Jan 30 '14 at 17:02
I've talk to him already, and reminded him that I'm not as experienced as him, so he should probably stop trying to break the universe. This question mostly refers to how to challenge someone that knows the rules inside and out. – Julia Jan 30 '14 at 17:05
I've been counted two stories by an experienced group of role-players, boasting how they managed to beat the GM (which is one of them, alternating). The first one was encountering a dragon in a submerged tunnel: fighting underwater is hard, so the cleric "splits the water" => the dragon dies as it could not breathe air. Oh... The second one was attacking a very prepared wizard in its lair, lots of traps, clever mechanisms. At some point, someone think of pin-pointing an object of his the wizard stole... and the group summons an earth elemental to dig straight toward it, GM lost 2/3 games... – Matthieu M. Jun 5 '14 at 18:33
... in each instance, the players outwitted the GM (and in the second, caught him wholeheartedly unprepared). But the GM did not resent it, and the players felt so proud of it, than now, years later, they still recount it. I am not sure it's a problem as long as everyone is having fun :) – Matthieu M. Jun 5 '14 at 18:35

3 Answers 3

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Here are some ideas for dealing with overly clever players.

Let the wookie win.

Sometimes the party does something clever. You can take it away in a contrived fashion and they'll resent you for it. Or you can give them bragging rights and they'll proudly tell all their friends about the time they took down a dracolich at level 3 with a potion of invisibility, a dozen tooth picks, and a squirrel. Even if it breaks your game session, this is something the players will look back on fondly.

Don't make your challenges winnable.

I used to throw challenges at my players with a solution in mind. Then I realized that there were four through seven players in my games. Even if I was the smartest person at the table, the sum of the things they could come up with was not a strict subset of the things I could come up with. They'll think of things I won't (and if they can't, that's my failure for picking boring players!)

The point is I stopped working out a win button for all my challenges. I'd usually have an approach or two in mind, but I wouldn't chisel away the difficulty to make sure that approach worked. Often my idea was just a starting point and needed one or two other contributions before it could work.

One of the advantages with this approach is that when the player does something clever to beat the challenge, you'll be delighted instead of disappointed.

(Note that I'm not saying make the challenges unwinnable. Just refrain from taming the challenge in order to make your win button work.)

Spy on your players

This is where you take advantage of the fact that the players will come up with things you can't, and exploit them for it.

I ran a thieves guild game a while back. Instead of dungeons we ran heists. I'd give them a goal with some weird premise for them to work their way around.

At first I mapped out everything. This wasn't feasible long term because I didn't know where they'd be approaching from. If I drew out the whole castle I might forgot the sewer for instance. It became obvious that I'd have to improvise.

The thing that was interesting about improvising is that the players really got into planning. They took longer to plan their heists than to run them. While they were planning, they tried to enumerate all the angles of attack and come up with contingencies for every way the target could defend itself. And they did this in front of me.

GMing that game meant taking notes of what they wanted to do and drawing really quickly. I sketched out maps of the paths they could take (usually as they scouted them) and listed the defenses they thought they could overcome, paying particular attention to the ones they thought of and then forgot midway through planning. I added my own ideas too and wasn't just poaching hazards from the players.

Anyway this approach let me use the players' cleverness against them. I was able to use it constantly in the heist format. Not sure if it's something you can do every session elsewhere.

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+1 For "don't make it winnable" present a problem, the players determine a solution! – Rob Jan 31 '14 at 11:40

Make him help draw up the plans

So, he's extremely smart and good at this. At least for your first few sessions, have him help (ahead of time) to plot things out, develop encounters, and develop puzzles.

This has the obvious disadvantage that he will have a lot of knowledge that he should not (and that his character's especially should not). But A good player, especially with lots of GM experience, should be able to keep character and player knowledge separate and know when to step back a bit to let the others tackle the puzzles. As Zachiel pointed out, this also means he won't be surprised, which can be bad for his enjoyment. This situation of course is only temporary until you get more experienced.

Use a published adventure, tweaked to your setting

Normally I would say that a published adventure is a great way for a GM to get experience. Personally, I don't like using them because I like my own ideas, but they are great when you get started. They provide a lot of that planning for you.

Now, you said you already have your setting in mind, and it sounds homebrew, which makes it hard to find an adventure that fits easily in the setting. (I actually love homebrew settings, but there just won't be published adventures for them, almost by definition). But you can still use one and reskin things, or use it for inspiration and encounter balancing if you want your changes to go more than skin deep.

Use planning to your advantage

Its easy to be witty when you have lots of time to think. You, as the GM, have lots of time to plot and plan. The players often have to react more in the moment. Once you have experience, you can use this to your advantage and face intelligence with preparation.

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One more cons of the first point would be the player being unable to get surprised by things, which could get hime less interested. – Zachiel Jan 31 '14 at 13:41
-1: 1. The old DM is playing, not DMing. Making him design the game you run is kind of the opposite of the answer the asker is looking for. 2. Published adventures are not known for presenting difficulty to creative and experienced players, also asker is using custom setting - worst advice. 3. Pre-planned plots are great until someone thinks of something you didn't, which is always. This path leads to useless time wasted or railroading, always. – Jack Lesnie Jun 5 '14 at 13:46
@JackLesnie Everything you say is right. But 1. Yes, that is why I said for the first few sessions. Basically have the old GM be a mentor, well worth the temporary downsides. 2. Agreed, I even said I don't like them. But they do (normally) provide balanced encounters and a reasonable plot for a new GM to run with. Lots of people like them and they are a good way to learn. 3. This one I beg to differ. Its easier to adjust from a plan than ad lib everything. That is why militaries plan even though the enemy won't play along and we know it. – TimothyAWiseman Jun 6 '14 at 16:37
@Zachiel Good point. It is definitely comes with drawbacks, but as someone who has been on both sides of that fence at different ages I think those drawbacks are well worth it on a short term basis. – TimothyAWiseman Jun 6 '14 at 16:39

Make him help answer rules questions

He knows the rules better than you? Then proclaim him Rules Guy - if you're not sure, ask him for a quick up/down. This does two things: first, it prevents any arguments at the table from your main source of problems, and two, it gives him something to do other than try and outthink the table. :)

The Bane of All Book-Readers: Tweak The Stats

If he's the guy who can quote monster stat blocks chapter and verse, then tweak the stats. Swap someone's Fort and Ref saves, for instance. It doesn't take much to shake their presumptions, and once they know you're willing and able to change the stats, they likely won't even try to guess the monster. Sometimes it helps to make a really obvious change right up front - swap the statblocks of Orcs and Kobolds, for instance - that sends a big obvious "Your Book Knowledge Will Not Work Here" flag. After that you just gotta mix it up in minor ways to keep them off-guard.

And Remember:

Each DM runs their game a bit different. Don't be afraid to mix things up to get a game that you're comfortable running. There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking a different spin than the last guy, if you're more comfortable running it that way.

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"swap the statblocks of Orcs and Kobolds" Depending on the table, this could violate some expectations and come off as more confusing than fun. What works nicely though is to make up new variants they can't look up, so they don't have any expectations. – TimothyAWiseman Jan 30 '14 at 22:54
@TimothyAWiseman I don't know if there's a practical difference between making up your own variant and cribbing from a different creature (other than it's easier for a new DM to change a name than create a creature from scratch). But the key point remains that the easiest way to deal with a player who memorized the rulebook is to change it. :) – Allen Gould Feb 3 '14 at 21:10
If you are changing statistics you are violating well grounded expectations. That feels unfair to some people. If you are making a new creature (even if you are just reskinning something) there are no expectations to violate. At the very least, I would warn the players that the stats are being tweaked and make sure the changes make sense. Orcs are much bigger than goblins. If they are suddenly much weaker than goblins that doesn't just violate expections of people that have memorized the stats book, but also people who just pay attention to the physical descriptions... – TimothyAWiseman Feb 3 '14 at 21:28
Creative and clever play is being asked about here, not rules knowledge and memorization. The two are vastly different. This advice is not useful in that context. – Jack Lesnie Jun 5 '14 at 13:47

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