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Last session, my players got into what was meant to be a fairly minor battle. The wizard misjudged the strength of the enemies and used both of his third level spell slots, and the druid acted sub-optimally, but in character, by using several of her healing spells to wake unconscious enemies for interrogation.

The idea was that after this battle they would enter the dungeon and work their way through to the boss encounter, so there would have been resource management consequences for those characters.

In fact, they ignored the dungeon entrance when they found it, and decided to carry on the way they were going and maybe come back and deal with it later if they felt like it. Yes, I know this is something I should have been more prepared for, but I thought I knew my players! (They usually like killing things and collecting treasure...) The town they were heading for was more than a day's travel away, and I hadn't intended there to be any more encounters along the route, so in the end I just said they carried on to the town, which meant they got a long rest 'for free' and didn't have any consequences of their decisions. (I'm not trying to punish them, but I think it's more interesting if they have to think about all these things and can't just blow all their spells on one battle a day!)

How should I have dealt with this situation on the fly, or when prepping for future sessions? Some ideas I had afterwards:

  • Have the next set of enemies emerge from the dungeon and start a fight, thereby trying to force the players to do what I wanted them to. I feel like I don't want to railroad them this much, and I already feel like I throw too many unavoidable fights at them.
  • Just keep talking about the entrance to the dungeon until they decide to go in, telling them that they see things that look interesting inside, or asking whether they're absolutely sure they want to keep walking. See above - railroading. And I don't want to get to the point where I'm saying 'look, can you please just do the thing I planned for.'
  • Let them carry on the way they wanted to, but invent another fight that I hadn't planned in order to force them to run short on spells eventually. See above - I don't really want to keep forcing them into fights if they don't want to.
  • Do exactly what I did, and let them carry on with what they wanted even though it makes me frustrated.
  • Something else, and if so what?

Answering some of the questions: Thanks for making me see that this is all basically on me. I think one of the main reasons for my frustration is just that I made a really cool dungeon and they ignored it - but that's my problem, not a problem with the players, no plan survives contact etc. And it didn't really seem like they deliberately made a sensible decision by saying that they were running low on resources or anything, they just carried on and said they wouldn't go in the dungeon.

They were here because they were heading for the town beyond, but they had no known time pressure to get there, and they specifically knew that on the way they would pass a dungeon full of monsters that had been terrorising the region. So I guess the best thing, as several of you have suggested, is that rather than try to force the PCs to do anything, I just focus on what the monsters will be doing - the situation in the region will clearly get worse because they didn't deal with the dungeon yet.

I've asked another question here about dealing with players with different aims.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It will be critical for answers to this question to provide experience-supported feedback, not just untested ideas. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Jul 23 at 23:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure this isn't a freeform brainstorming question. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Jul 23 at 23:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ To me it's more than 1 question. I answered 3 questions in my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Catar4 Jul 24 at 0:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here's an important question, relevant to your predicament. Why are your players supposed to enter the dungeon? What was the scenario that led to them coming to this place? \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Jul 24 at 12:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk Done, thanks \$\endgroup\$ – DM_with_secrets Jul 24 at 18:54
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This is where a "living world" pays off.

When designing the adventure (guardian/first encounter + dungeon, as you describe it) you'd intended that the party should tackle the first encounter, then go on to the dungeon. You expected your players to go with this plan, based on their previous behavior, but you don't mention any reason that the characters would press on.

So why would they? What was the in-game reason that the characters should run-not-jog, bleeding, from the first encounter into the dangerous dungeon?

Maybe you left that part out. Maybe you put it in, but it wasn't well understood by the players. These things happen.

Keep your living world front-and-center.

Assuming you've come up with some in-fiction reason(s) that the party should want to advance along your expected timetable, go ahead and reinforce this all the time. When I'm running campaigns* I use a mashup of a "plot advancement w/out party" chart and a front sheet to keep my eye on the ball. (Literally: when I'm running homebrew it's not statblocks sitting in front of me on the table: it's my front-sheet, a mind-map of connected persons/places/events, and notepaper.)

In your example it might be as simple as "the McGuffin-on-a-timer is in the dungeon." Let's run with that.

Once you have a sense of how the world is going to run if the PCs don't intervene, keep dropping info/hints/pointers to later elements in the chart: someone's power is fading because of the continuing McGuffin, or an NPC checks back frequently to see how the quest is going, a "random" encountered enemy turns out to have been on the same trail, &c. It's only fair to expect the party to go do the thing if they know it's there to be done.

Secondly, when the party misses something in the chart, refer back to it. With some frequency. Your party bypassed the dungeon and went to town. The next day when they're on the way to the dungeon let them pass their rivals coming back, loaded with treasure. Or let the threat have grown worse. Or let it have moved. Just be sure the players know that yesterday they could have had this adventure, and they knew it, but they passed on it.


* - homebrew campaigns, at least; I'm finding recently in published adventures I'm not motivated to do all the "extra" work it takes to layer this onto someone else's material.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Heheh, we got a few of the same examples in our answers. Fun read. \$\endgroup\$ – Catar4 Jul 24 at 0:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Had to +1 just for the title, didn't even read it... if the world doesn't feel like it lives without the characters there is literally no point beyond a board game to it. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Jul 24 at 1:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is the right answer. Basically, the players are making a trade: Conserving mechanical resources by spending story resources. Going to town to rest keeps the party safe now, but lost time endangers the world. Players have to choose to feel the urgency of the situation, and can't without being told why. \$\endgroup\$ – aherocalledFrog Jul 24 at 15:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ My first idea was the last part you had. They can go back to the dungeon, but it was already raided by another party... So the largest part of the treasure is gone, and they are the heroes. This means that the NPC that has important information about another quest will talk to them, and the party needs to eavesdrop this conversation to be able to perform the quest, and has to do it quickly before the other party completes it... out of fiction, save the dungeon for another time ;) \$\endgroup\$ – frarugi87 Jul 25 at 9:38
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Their Actions Did Have Consequences

They made a decision not to put themselves in a hard, resource-depleted situation by not going straight into the dungeon. This turned out to be a good tactical decision and to pay off for them.

You seem to be asking for ways to make their actions not have consequences by ladling the same amount of encounters on top of them no matter what they do. That's railroading. It's literally the opposite of having their actions have consequences.

I hear that you feel frustrated, but why are you frustrated by the PCs not losing as many hit points as they could have? What is the underlying issue here? It doesn't sound like "they didn't go to my plot point." What it does sound like is "I wanted to punish them for decisions in one encounter even though they made up for it by their decisions in another encounter."

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    \$\begingroup\$ This. Don't punish players for wanting to live and making sound tactical decisions. \$\endgroup\$ – Pierre Cathé Jul 24 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I find that as a player I am always worried about stuff if I'm even missing a quarter of my daily resources, but as a DM I feel like things are too easy if they just get away. \$\endgroup\$ – Captain Man Jul 24 at 14:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep. Consequences don't inherently have to be negative. They can be negative, but they can also instead be positive, neutral, or a mixture. \$\endgroup\$ – 8bittree Jul 24 at 21:07
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It does look to me like you are asking for ways to better "railroad" or "control" your group, because you end up frustrated when they are left with resources at the end of a day in game or chose to do something different than what you have planned.

I also feel like there are 2, maybe even 3 questions in there, which would be:

  • What can I do to make sure my players are 'hooked' into the path I have planned/prepared for them?
  • What can I do to make sure my players spend more resources dispatching villains and have to consider managing their powers better?
  • What can I do to have my players thinking about the impacts of their actions?

What can I do to make sure my players are 'hooked' into the path I have planned/prepared for them?

I'll say that as a DM I try to stay as far away as I can from railroading my players and forcing them to go somewhere because that is all I have prepared.

The best way to do that, for me, is to always have random events/encounters planned that I can use whenever my group derails my "first plan". I do try to make those adjustable on the fly, like a ruined mansion that could hold orc raiders if my group is low level, or ogres if they are a medium level ... make them demons if they are level 20!

Also, having NPC(s) to stir the group with a job offer or by having them want to help them with a compelling story is often the way to go. D&D is not Skyrim and many players we believe are into it only for the fights will often surprise DMs exactly by not going into all the caves/dungeons/crypts they stumble upon, unless there is a story tied to the adventure.

What can you do to make sure your players consider the impacts of their decisions?

This one is easier said than done, basically "Show them! Show them with in-game consequences that the choices they have made have impacted the world they live in!"

Show them both positive and negative impacts of what they did. In the game that you mentioned, the players had the opportunity for a dungeon delve, which they decided to skip. Fair, it is their choice after all.

So now, about a day's travel away from a nearby town, there is a dungeon inhabited by monsters which are left unchecked.

Maybe those monsters will start raiding the region, attacking travellers, etc. and the group, on their way back, would see the corpses of those victims?

Or maybe they meet a survivor of one such attack telling his story the next time they go to an inn? Have the survivor give details that will make the players realize where it happened, that they came from the same dungeon they discovered and that these people have died because no one did anything about this dungeon. Have the population be outraged and scared that they have monsters as neighbours, which is also another way for you to hook your players into going for that dungeon delve, if they also get a meager bonus from the townsfolk pitching in to employ them?

A more "passive-agressive" way to do it, if you want to give them a lesson (altough possibily a lesson that will also mean a boring in-game moment) would be to just plan the next thing and keep going as if that dungeon never existed ... but if the players decide to go back there after some time has passed, just have them go through a dungeon that has been cleaned by another group after they discovered it. This is not my favorite solution, but I sometimes do that with groups of players who constantly act as if the World around them is static, that no matter what they chose to do or how they chose to do it they will always "have a reward" then I just start showing them that this is not the kind of World they live in.

There is a fine line between "too much" and "not enough" freedom for players, I think the best way to deal with that is to keep allowing players to have their agency/freedom, but have them "suffer the consequences" when they do chose to do something that the DM judges is inefficient/idiotic/wrong/illogical ... and I do so by having the World around them being impacted by the consequences ... which in turn gives me ways to have the group be impacted by said consequences. Like maybe they go to shops to resupply but are told by every merchant that they don't have the supplies they need because no traders has come from 'insert name of the town they came from before finding the dungeon and coming to this town' in the last month?

Total freedom vs railroading ... there is an in-between

As a DM, you know that plans rarely survive contact with the players, that's basically what triggered your reflection. So you cannot plan that an event will play out the exact way you intended it to happen and you also cannot plan your encounters and/or the flow of your game on the fact that your players will encounter those with a certain amount of spell slots left. Trying to control the format of your game ends up being frustrating for everyone involved ... unless you script your game, which imho is worst.

If they manage their resources poorly, let them suffer the consequences instead of dropping hints and warnings to try and control their actions. If they enter a boss fight with no spells slots left, with a wizard and a druid amongst them, they will have a bad time in character and that's ok ... allow them to flee if they realize their mistake. If they don't, allow them to die and reroll another character with knowledge of the fact they might very well die if they get ahead of themselves.

But still, give them chances to flee instead of flat out being like "it's too late, you're all basically dead at this point". Have fun with it, have the villain pursue but eventually abandon if they get near the entrance (or any other ways you can use the setting to justify seeing them 'succeed'). If they keep repeating the mistakes, then teach them.

There are a lot of fun ways to manage a loosey goosey group; i.e. have your players feel the consequences of their choices, show them the world slightly changing from what they do or do not do, have them pay the price of "mistakes" and believe you me that after a couple such examples and close calls, you will see your players planning more and being more thoughtful of the results of their actions.

Last tip: make it all believable. Some creatures do what they do because they are dumb or act based purely on instincts. The monsters in your dungeon might not be the kind to raid caravans, or maybe they cannot stand the light of day or something? These can be changed "on the fly" to control the story, especially since your players have no idea what's inside the dungeon, yet. Play with it! Have fun :)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your point 1 I learned by hard experience. +1. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 24 at 0:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep, same here. I learned to do it in advance by being forced to come up with "something else, anything" on the fly a lot of times. And nowadays, I prepare very little compared to "what actually happens" in my games, instead relying on a bank of previous, tested ideas I can reuse from games to games. Also makes creating a "living world" a lot easier by virtue of having done it a lot before, out of necessity. \$\endgroup\$ – Catar4 Jul 24 at 0:49
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I think the real question you're trying to ask here is: How can I avoid letting my players take free long rests whenever they want?

In the situation you described, your group felt free to use lots of resources on a minor battle, because they knew they could just rest right afterward.

There are two approaches I use to avoid this.

  • One approach is time pressure: if the group is on a time limit, that gives them a finite number of rests they can take before.

  • The other approach is wandering monsters: if the group tries to rest in a dangerous area, I make up an encounter (or I have an encounter prepared) and I use that.

In either case, I try to communicate the time limit or the environment danger clearly, so that characters don't overuse resources on early encounters.


To answer your question literally: you need to have a clear reason why the characters can't just long-rest whenever they want, and you need to communicate that in advance so that they know to conserve their daily powers. If they overuse their daily powers and then you decide their actions should have consequences because that wasn't what you wanted, they'll feel that you're being unfair.

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    \$\begingroup\$ ...and they'll be right. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Jul 24 at 17:39
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Offer an opportunity at a cost.

They made a smart tactical decision to not engage. Third level spell slots are powerful, and it makes sense that a group of people whose power was heavily based off the strength of casters would take time to make themselves as strong as possible. In real life, when soldiers are exhausted they don't deliberately fight people, they wait to heal and resupply.

You could force an encounter on them, but as you noted that's railroading. You could have someone else take the treasure, but then you've used up some of your work for nothing.

The big problem is that everyone in the dungeon is fresh and has all their powers, while the players are exhausted. They devoted a lot of resources, including healing spells and high level slots to do things.

So, reward them for that, with time limited benefits.

Rewards

Offer a secret passage. "The wizard had a secret chamber where much of his treasure was in/ a secret route to the boss lay, but with his death it shall fade within a day or two."

Offer a weakness. "Our people are seeking to fortify the defenses, which means deactivating the defences. If you attack now, you may catch them by surprise."

Offer a valuable hostage. "The local lord, rich beyond belief, is due to be sacrificed in a terrible ritual. You could save him if you got there soon.

This adds a time pressure, and isn't simple rail roading. They could say no to any of these things, they'll just face consequences, like less treasure, or stronger defenses, or a summoned demon and a dead lord. I've done this personally in play to great effect, and it's great fun seeing players debate whether to push on or recover.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the last paragraph alone. (the whole answer is good) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 25 at 3:53
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Being able to make encounters on-the-fly is an issue with some RPG's. D&D and some other systems have tried to make it easier, but there's still a matter of balancing encounters to the party.

Prepping as a GM is sometimes necessary if you're not good at improv, or system is hard to improv in. So, my recommendation is to just call it a night and let them know (honestly) that you weren't prepared for this part.

Then, what you do after can go one of several ways...

1) send them packing (kind of a dick thing to do)

2) hang out (go catch a movie, watch some tv together, chat and have a beer)

3) use the time to handle misc "bookwork" / upkeep. Maybe one of the PC's is ready to level; help the player with that. Maybe a player needs to add more to their back-story; have them flesh that out. Maybe the party wants to do a bit of shopping; RP that (very easy to do, b/c it should simply be some RP + looking up some costs in books + haggle rolls). Ask the players what they think of the campaign so far (but not in a "needy" way), and ask if they have any suggestions. This is what my group and I called "EMB" (extra managerial bullshit) that was necessary to do occasionally, but sometimes boring / tedious.

4) make the players help you with prep work for next session ... maybe there's a part in the adventure where you need to have them roll some dice for their characters, but you don't want to let them know what they rolled..so, have them pre-roll like 20 rolls. This is especially good for adventures that have some hidden skill checks or charts where special stuff happens. If you have some DM prep work, you can ask the players to make a bunch of rolls and write down what they roll, but they don't know waht they're rolling (they're rolling stats for a new encounter, they're rolling to-hits, etc).

The issue with modern table-topping is that most RPG'ers have already played CRPG's that provide open world experiences. So, they want to do what they want when they want.

And, given a choice, as others have already said, PC's will be more cautious then bravado. If they don't see any rush in doing something, and think there's plenty of chances to recover, then they'll go all-out on an encounter to try to milk it (eg: interrogating enemies, etc).

That's not something to be stifled. Smart game play should be rewarded.. and in your case (as others pointed out) the players were rewarded by getting to the next town to hang out and recover.

But, if you absolutely want to push them in a direction that you already have planned out, you need to leverage some trope...

eg: (note, most of these feel very railroady)

1) THE CLOCK IS TICKING .. PC's need to go into that place you prepped, b/c some event will happen in X time that they need to stop. EG: the princess will get murdered, a plague will get unleashed and threaten the town, etc. This adds a time pressure to the players. And, if they decide to dick around, then you follow through on the threat. If a party of adventurers doesn't accomplish the tasks given to them, then word gets around the kingdom that they're unreliable. So, there's consequences.

2) YOU SHALL NOT PASS .. the path ahead is blocked by unpassable foliage (but, wizard could blast it, so maybe not a good choice). The party comes across a massive encampment of enemies (like an army) and the are is crawling with scouts, so it would be prudent for the PC's to back-track to (the place you had prepped) and hide. You can even just be super-blatant.. like.. the party is surrounded by an insanely impenetrable forcefield and only has one way to go.. into the (place you prepped). (This method is super railroady, and PC's will get ticked off if there's no game rule explanation for it... EG: using a force field of nigh-impenetrability that isn't in the rule book at all is basically a big FU to the players. Sort of a "your PC's will never have this kind of power, but as the GM I can just make up shit any time I want, even if it breaks the laws of magic / physics in the game world I created." So, have to be very careful with that.)

3) YOU HEAR SOMETHING ... you hear some cries coming from (the place you prepped), .. or some other noise that may entice the players... (the noise could be valid.. maybe they hear the cries of someone being kidnapped.. maybe some trolls are carrying some humans off into a cave to eat them, and the party could save them while also getting roped into the adventure. Or, the noise could be a trap.. some enemies are making a noise to lure the players in... like making it sound like a damsel is in distress.. but actually it turns out to be a female enemy that's luring them in.) The "hear something!" trope works well with the "blocked path" trope.. in that you can make them hear something and lure them in to investigate, then once they're at a choke-point-of-no-return (eg: cave entrance) you can have something block their path (eg: cave in).

4) RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! .. just toss out an enemy that is so blatantly abusive that the party has no choice but to run for their lives. Make it an enemy that would logically be in the area. This often works for really difficult animals.. eg: just have some massive giant bear come at them, or a pack of dire wolves or something.. and the things are chasing the party. The party tries to think of a place to go hide... back to the cave they saw.. b/c they'll think they could at least choke-point the area to face fewer enemies at a time. Then, as the hard enemy gets near the cave entrance.. it stops just outside, as if it "senses an evil presence". Now the party is stuck between a rock and hard place. They can either go fight the hard enemy (which would most likely kill them and thus be suicide) or delve deeper into the place you prepped and hope they get out alive. This in effect pulls off the YOU SHALL NOT PASS, but herds the party while doing so.

5) KIDNAPPED! .. Ok, fine.. the party makes it back to town. They recover. Then they wake up in some predicament in the middle of the place you prepped, b/c they were kidnapped in the middle of the night. How did the party not notice anything? Because the inn room they rented is part of some conspiracy that works with the enemies at the place you prepped. They have secret openings in the inn room the party rented that vented in sleeping gas. Or, the party got struck by some suspended animation spell.. something (again, have to be careful with BS'ing this too hard, or players will clearly think they're being railroaded). This could expand upon the adventure after the party clears the one you prepped, b/c you cuold then expand it to make something more sinister going on.. eg: instead of just "the goblin cave" being some one-off place to go gack, you cuold turn it into a group of slave traders.. the goblin cave is a place where they do some business, but clearly there's stuff going on in town suggesting a larger network of enemies that have covered the lands that the party can investigate and try to stop.

So, those are some tropes to basically railroad the party.

I wouldn't punish them for doing what you wanted them to do.

My group and I (me being GM) used to joke in adventures, stories and movies about how it seemed like the game world (ran by GM) was basically saying "Your characters have gotten too powerful.. the GM must now blatantly try and kill them now." You don't want to come across as blatantly railroading the party as punishment for smart decisions. You want to foster smart decisions.

But, you can add subtle pressure.

But, ultimately.. you, as the GM, are not there to force your story on them. Yuo're not a stage director where the players are actors forced to perform your script. The players are there to make their own story. Let them do what they want. If you're not prepared for it, simply say "I'm not prepared for that part."

You should plan to prep a bit of stuff in your own time.. I wuoldn't go so far to make it feel like a new part-time job. Often just fabricating some random encounters or pre-rolling some stuff might help.

Not being able to play b/c you're not prepared for an area is sort of punishment for the players as it is. They came to play. If they realize they can't play, b/c you didn't have the area they went to prepared.. b/c they plowed ahead.. then they'll probably negotiate with you (if you're honest about it).

"Oh.. gee.. ok, so you have that cave area prepared and that's it? Ok.. well, uh.. we suddenly feel 'inspired' to head back there and investigate."

My old party and I used to joke that the players hadn't "unlocked that DLC yet" when I didn't have an area prepared...

"As you head towards the town (that I didn't prepare) a red flashing warning message comes up saying 'out of bounds'... you guys should probably head back, b/c that area doesn't work yet."

You can make a joke about it. Players will often find honesty and joking coming off MUCH better then feeling like they're railroaded. Because honesty and humor is human... you can't do everythihng, you can't have everything prepped, so just own up to it and make light of it. They'll forgive you, and chances are good they will then just railroad themselves in order to keep playing. Because you were honest about it instead of trying to be sneaky.

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