(Some of) my players are trying to role play in a meta-gaming sort of way.

For instance, I had an array of weapons in a dungeon, and when they took them, they had to make a Wisdom saving throw, else they feel ridiculously guilty and take 1d4 psychic damage. A few of the players tried continuously take stuff down, even though they had failed the Wis save. I tried to discourage them from this a few times, but they seemed to meta-game in the sense that: "Oh boy, my level 3 character has 21 hit points left. I'll take another one."

I was inspired by an episode of Critical Role I'd seen where a character had to make a wisdom saving throw when he killed someone with fire. He failed, and the DM described how he kinda felt guilty, and as a good RPer, the character spent the rest of the day somewhat depressed and guilty, but everyone at the table looked like they were enjoying it. But my players were willingly hurting themselves for a little more loot, in spite of the intended effects of the trap. I was trying to give them the cues that they should feel guilty, drop the longsword and walk away, but they seem to think about it in a different way.

To clarify, the guilt is magically induced.

Am I, as a DM, allowed to tell the players what they do when they are affected in this way? If not, how am I supposed to imply that they should drop the weapon and walk away? And in a different scenario, how am I supposed to imply the harshness/the to what effect of the magic? Are there any compromises between the two?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What were you trying to accomplish? Was this supposed to be a trap? \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeQ
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 2:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MikeQ I primarily used this room to disguise a flying sword trap, but did not want them to get too much treasure, as they already were getting a lot of loot. Additionally, I wanted to create a mystic, mysterious feel to my dungeon, thirdly I wanted to give my PC's a low level magic item or two, and fourthly, I thought it was pretty cool. \$\endgroup\$
    – Juicetin
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 3:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but I felt that that was kind of implied in the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Juicetin
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 21:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ To add context you may not be aware of, that player, Liam had discussed with Matt his DM about this particular character trait linked to his back story, therefore it was already baked into his character and he roleplayed it accordingly. If your players characters don’t feel that kind of remorse you can’t expect them to act in the same way. \$\endgroup\$
    – Richard C
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 0:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the issue is to much loot, don’t put it in your adventure, starve them for a while and reward them in other ways, maybe a favor they can cash in later, or a key item that is very specific to the next overarching adventure. \$\endgroup\$
    – Richard C
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 0:11

7 Answers 7


You do not control your players and cannot make them do things they do not enjoy

This is a cardinal rule of DMing. You are not the only person at the gaming table. If your players do not want to play a particular way, you cannot force them to (at least, not for very long, before they quit).

You thought that what you saw a player do in Critical Role was cool, and are wondering how to get your players to do that for you. You can't. The best you can do is get them to watch the same Critical Role episode and hope that they have the same reaction you do, and decide to want to do it for themselves.

That said, mechanically, there are two ways to handle magical mind control, and you should prefer the one that fits your players better.

Option 1: Use your powers of description to help them get into character while mind controlled.

This works well for players that already want to roleplay partial mind control, or who are at least willing to try it.

Most players are not actors. If you tell them their character feels guilty, they may have a hard time getting into character with that. To help them get into character, you use strong and emotional descriptions. Don't just tell them that they feel guilty, tell them what guilty feels like.

You pull the sword from the rack, and you feel as if your stomach sank into your feet. The sword, the walls, and even the air itself seems to judge you, and you hear their accusations echoing in the wind, Thief! Defiler! Unworthy!

Then, if they go along with it, give them inspiration.

Option 2: Dictate the full and complete effects of it to your players*

D&D has a lot of mechanics which punish players with heavy things (like dead characters) if they fail an encounter. This creates an expectation in some groups that player characters will, most of the time, cooperate and do what is best for the team, and anything else feels like a betrayal to the other players at the table.

Such players will not choose to act in a way that is against what they perceive to be the party's best interest. If you have such a group, present the complete effects of the control you are exerting, and make it clear what actions they are allowed to take or not take, and then leave them free to roleplay their character as they like in the space that remains.

When they fail the wisdom save, you say:

You are overwhelmed by inexplicable guilt. You put the weapon back on the rack, and back out of the room, and resolve not to touch the weapons again. You take 1d4 psychic damage from the lingering guilt even afterward.

Then, if they try to take the weapons again, do not let them repeat their save, instead, re-iterate the effect of the previous failed save, and make it clear that you won't budge.

You reach out to take the weapon, but the inexplicable feeling of guilt returns. No matter what you do, you cannot bring yourself to do it.

That said, you should only dictate emotions if they come from a magical source

In most circumstances, players are the final authority of their character's inner life. Dictating emotions or actions from a character without a clear external force acting on them is robbing them of their one and only source of narrative control within the game. Don't do it.

If you want them to feel guilty for a reason besides magical mind control, give them a reason to feel guilty, then accept however they choose to roleplay in the face of that reason.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 3:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I commented this above but this adds to this answer as well. That critical role player was reacting in that way because it was linked to part of the backstory he had created with Matt for his character, therefore he roleplayed it that way, it wasn’t forced on him by the DM it was integral to the character he had created. \$\endgroup\$
    – Richard C
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 0:13

Matt Mercer and his player were making their own fun, outside the rules of D&D. You shouldn't expect it to work for you.

Critical Role is kind of the cooking show of D&D games. Experienced professionals are out there doing things that are easy and even fun for them, but which are not likely to be easy or fun the first time you try them in your kitchen and may even backfire horribly.

The most important thing about the player who couldn't save vs. guilt and went on to emote it for the rest of the session is that they knew Matt, and they trusted that Matt would give them something to do that would be fun.

The second most important thing is that, being Critical Role, the player was probably a professional actor of some description and had at one point spent four hours in a soundproof booth pretending that their soul was being burned by zenthium, which is not even a thing that has ever happened to anyone. Pretending to have a human emotion for an understandable reason is baby stuff.

In D&D, you as the Dungeon Master get to say things without restraint about the entire world in all its wonder and majesty - except for the tiny, tiny bit of it that's inside each player character's head. Your players are the ultimate authority on the things their characters are thinking. If you want to put a voice in their head, either it's not supposed to be there or, for some reason, there actually is a voice in this character's head that they cannot control.

You are, however, free to describe a situation that should make people feel guilty and take note of how the player characters react.

How To Describe A Situation That Should Make People Feel Guilty

The first thing you should understand is the ethics of heroic adventuring. In the absence of mitigating factors, when you present adventurers with a dungeon, regardless of alignment, they tend to assume that the dungeon and everything in it is theirs. Theirs to kill, theirs to break, theirs to plunder, because it's not like anything else can legitimately claim it. If someone else was responsible for it, it wouldn't be a dungeon. Or maybe it's bad guys who are responsible for it, and bad guys don't get to have cool stuff like dungeons when there are good guys around.

So the most important thing you can give them is a reason why the dungeon, or even just the part of it that is these weapons, might not be theirs. It might be:

  • An actual claim from someone the PCs respect. The dungeon is the burial site of the Order of the Emerald Heart, and in between the pilgrimages out there some monsters killed the novices set to guard it and moved in. Anything not of obvious monster make is the Order's - you're really going to take it?
  • An imputed claim from a stranger. The dungeon was built by a high-level adventurer or team of same who left on a journey some years ago and have not returned, and in the meanwhile something dangerous has broken in. Or possibly out. These things are mementos - you're really going to rob a house?
  • Someone else's, by a tradition they respect. Around these parts you're buried with your weapon; it's a common folk belief that you'll need it to continue to fight in the lands beyond. You're really going to leave the dead helpless in the hereafter?
  • Someone else's, by a tradition they might not respect. So the dwarves believe that when a weapon's time is done, when the person who it was made for abandons it, it should be returned to the earth. The dwarves also believe in showing off the things they've made, so in practice they just leave it up for display and rub some dirt and stone on it; if the earth wants more than that it's welcome to take it, but the earth's got time. All these weapons have been treated that way - if you just lift them and sell them, how likely is that going to be to tick off some dwarf?

And maybe they take the stuff anyway. Maybe they're greedy, maybe they're desperate, maybe they're gonna frame Drake and his stuck-up band of bravos. At that point, nod and write it down. You've got something to use for later. This not something you must use, this isn't a morality play, but if the PCs are incautious or unlucky, well, it's possible that someone cared about the dungeon, even if they didn't.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to add a specific to your general, the player in question, Liam O'Brien, has done voice work going back to 1989. Most recognizable (to me anyway) was Illidan Stormrage in World of Warcraft, and Doctor Strange in various Marvel animated series. But if you're a fan of anime English dubs, you've probably heard him in a lot of other stuff. So yeah, this kind of stuff is literally just a Thursday for him. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 19:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't remember the episode I might use to support this claim, but some of the interactions between Matt and Liam makes me sure that this was something they worked out ahead of time. In other words, Matt is NOT forcing Liam to do anything. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 19:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NateAnderson - That seems quite likely. I watched all the "behind the sheets" vids, and learned that Liam's desire to play again (and again) was essentially the impetus that got that whole group organized in the first place. He isn't usually super vocal about it, but nobody (perhaps even the DM) geeks out over D&D roleplay more than he does. Plus the character concept was his (including his nasty history with fire), not something the DM handed to him. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 21:01

The trap was not well-designed, and 1d4 damage was too little a cost.

Let's address the problem right away.

I was trying to model an episode of Critical Role I'd seen... I was trying to give them the cues that they should feel guilty, drop the longsword and walk away, but they seem to think about it in a different way.

When designing challenges, the DM should consider the context of their game and their player's incentives. The DM can't simply cut-and-paste an isolated part from someone else's game and expect the same outcome. You wanted this to be some clever mental trap, but instead you handed them a room full of weapons at a small cost. Once they figured out the hazard, they made a calculated decision:

But my players were willingly hurting themselves for a little more loot.

Consider the tradeoff from the players' perspective. 1d4 damage is 2.5 on average, and with a Wisdom saving throw to negate it, the average is even less. So you gave your players a predictable choice, where they could gain a weapon at the cost of risking ~2.5 HP per weapon.

At 3rd level, that's a very affordable tradeoff, especially since the PCs are out of combat and can recover HP later via spells or resting. And even if you dictated that the PCs feel guilty, that's not a very effective deterrent. You need a better method for incentivizing the players' decisions.

How do you design more interesting and costly traps?

At minimum, traps and hazards should consist of a cost and a reward. The cost is the risk or consequence incurred by activating or failing the trap. The reward is what the PCs get if they bypass or succeed against the trap. Typically the reward is loot, or forward progress, or simply not dying.

When PCs interact with a trap, the players compare its perceived reward and its perceived cost. If the reward seems much higher than the cost (e.g. free weapons for some minor HP loss and a temporary sense of guilt), then you incentivize the PCs to engage the trap. Thus, to incentivize the PCs to avoid the trap, the cost or risk should exceed the perceived reward.

Hit point hazards are certainly feasible, and the DMG (Dungeon Masters Guide) provides a table of recommended hazard damage based on the average PC level.

Damage Severity by Level \begin{array}{|c|c|c|c|} \text{Character Level} & \text{Setback} & \text{Dangerous} & \text{Deadly} \\ \hline 1st-4th & 1d10 & 2d10 & 4d10 \\ 5th-10th & 2d10 & 4d10& 10d10 \\ 11th-16th & 4d10 & 10d10 & 18d10 \\ 17th-20th & 10d10 & 18d10& 24d10 \\ \hline \end{array}

For a 3rd level party, even a low-severity setback should have a cost of roughly 1d10 (average of 5.5) damage. And rolling a 10 on that d10 would certainly make the PCs think twice about grabbing another weapon from the rack.

However, if you want some game mechanic for representing a sense of overwhelming guilt, then the hazard's cost should be more interesting and lasting than simple hit point loss. Get creative here. Maybe failing the trap imposes a level of exhaustion, or a short-term madness option, or a thematically relevant spell effect.

Lastly, you can make traps more costly simply by reducing the reward. Much like a treasure chest that turns out to be a monster, you could have the loot degrade in value; if the weapons suddenly crumbled into dust, you incentivize the PCs to leave the trap and move elsewhere.


You should not unilaterally impose feelings on a character unless they come from a magical source, or have a pre-agreed mechanic for causing it. Doing otherwise breaks your social contract with your player.

The episode(s) of Critical Role where the mechanic you mention is used have a story based reason for them. Importantly the mechanic you mentioned is something that Liam O'Brien (the character player) and Matthew Mercer have worked out together, and is related to the character's backstory.

The details of that backstory and the mechanic are in this spoiler:

Caleb killed his parents using fire spells while under the effects of a spell that planted false memories in his mind (of his parents being traitors to the empire). This effect broke him and resulted in him being put in confinement. Since his "escape" any time he kills someone using a fire based spell and fails a wisdom saving throw the trauma of what he did comes back to him, stunning Caleb for a while (a minute iirc).

Without that agreement you are taking away the player's agency, which will reduce your players fun.

The exception to this is if the effect is caused by magic, in which case the players should have some way of removing said magic (or detecting the magic effect).


Trying to impose a character's emotion as DM can be one of the worst things a DM can do. Choosing how the character acts and feels is the role of the player. No player wants to be told how THEIR character should be acting. It breaks immersion and destroys any feeling of freedom the players have.

If a player is acting in a way that is blatantly counter to the character's motivations and backstory, mention it between games and talk about changing the character's story to better reflect the player's play-style. If they're stubborn and won't work with you, remember that you control everything BUT the character and the player. You can make consequences for their actions (they get kicked out of their paladin order). But you can't choose how they feel about the consequences.

If this is meant to be a magical trap, describe what is trying to cause a sense of guilt in them. Maybe upon touching the weapons, the player is bombarded with a vision of the weapons waiting for their master to return, how scared they are of being taken and not being there for their true master when he needs his precious tools and friends. At that point, it's up to the character if they feel too bad to take the weapons.

Alternatively, you can have the magical trap trying to magically charm the characters into not taking the weapons. At that point, you as the DM can dictate how the characters react while the charm is in effect, because the characters themselves don't have control of their bodies. But expect them to come back and try again.

You could also magically trap the weapons to give horrible mental images of what might happen if they take the weapons, and say the character pulls his hand back instinctually. At that point, the player can choose not to take the risk, or try to fight through the fear, at which point they make a wisdom throw or be frightened and incapable of moving toward the weapons.

In Critical Role, Matt Mercer worked with the Liam O'Brien on Caleb's madness, and relies on the madness table to decide how Caleb Widogast's fire trauma affects him. This is part of Caleb's character, and Matt only makes Liam roll a save after an agreed upon trigger.


So as well as the answers "you can't control your players", there's a bit more. It sounds like your players aren't feeling guilty because YOU've not described the situation well enough for them to feel guilty.

Consider these 2 examples, both about $5. You tell me which you think will make your players feel guilty, and which will result in them keeping the next $5 they find.

Example 1

You're walking down the road, it's deserted but the houses here are well kept, and a $5 bill flutters in the wind caught in a bush... The bush has lots of thorns on it, take 1d4 pierce damage.

Example 2

This road has a bridge passing over it - it reeks of urine; and has a couple of mattresses pushed to one side with a collection of other items. Just by the bridge in the hedge is a $5. As you pass under the bridge, you can make out in the dim light, a mother with her face in her hands weeping. She's stick thin, and it's clear she's not eaten in days. A child - likely hers - who is thin but clearly eats more than the mother, holds her leg also crying, begging forgiveness for losing the money that would let them eat.

As they insist on walking past and not offering the money, they overhear the mother talking about doing a favour for "uncle" Dave again for a meal, maybe he'll be nice and not give her a black eye this time.

If they still walk past ... 3 days later as they walk down another road by a stream, they see the body of a woman float by...

Make a will save.


Like any film, you can't feel guilty for someone you don't know anything about - which is why when there's a big gun fight and 20 guards die, you don't care, because you know nothing about them... In fact, some comedy films pick on this and then show the guards family being told; and it's funny, because the films they're mocking completely ignore the dead characters. When the main character dies, or even gets injured, you do care however, because you know something about them.


The answers posted so far are good, but I just wanted to add an odd thing that occurred to me. What your players did may be, in those circumstances, actually the rational decision in character.

I have an anxiety disorder, which results in severe phobias of certain things. (Well, it's more complicated than that, but anyway.) Doing various common actions or touching various common things throws me into several minutes of mind-scrambling, heart-pounding terror. No sense in it, just an automatic reaction.

Now, I know full well (well, except just AFTER doing the thing, during the phase when I can't think straight enough to feel sure of anything much) that doing the thing isn't actually going to do me or anyone else any harm.
So where avoiding it is going to be drastically inconvenient, and I don't think the reaction will be so intense that I'll lose my head completely, the rational choice IS to "take the hit", and sometimes I do that.

Now, in your scenario any real scruples about, say, stealing, wouldn't normally be enough to put those characters off taking those weapons. Otherwise you wouldn't have needed to use magic. Therefore, the extra guilt induced by the spell is irrational - they're not really doing anything that they personally would normally feel that guilty about.

If the characters tumble to that, it might make perfect sense (for them, not just for the players) to treat the guilt reaction as just another environmental hazard and soldier through it, BECAUSE IT IS. It's meaningless. There is no REAL reason not to take the weapons, other than temporary discomfort, it's a fake.
(The characters might even be more determined than ever to get the weapons, out of annoyance that something is trying to magically guilt-trip them when they aren't, in their own opinions, doing anything so wrong!)

The Critical Role scenario you mentioned is different - thanks for the explanation Illustro. It's still arguably irrational for the guilt to bob up again in this way (using a fire spell now doesn't alter what he did then), but it is real guilt about something real, and isn't in any way artificially induced either.

I can think of one or two ideas for using magic to make characters feel legitimately, not fakely, guilty about taking the weapons: think of a real reason why it could be wrong to take the weapons, then use magic to emphasise it, rather than to create guilt out of nowhere. If the room is, say, a tomb, you could have a statue of the erstwhile owner watching them, and have the statue look upset when they steal his belongings! But other posters have gone into that in more and better detail.

If they do rise to that, it would probably be good to have some kind of consequence for it later on - maybe a good deity, or something else with inside information like a fey, gives them an extra piece of help because it's touched that they let the poor ghost guy keep some of his treasures. It's asking a lot to keep deliberately putting yourself at a disadvantage in a game to avoid upsetting a fictional character, knowing that from your point of view nothing will change one way or the other. Having some kind of result maintains the illusion that he does exist, for the purposes of the game.


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