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I'm DM'ing for a group of mostly first-time players, and this is my first time DM'ing. At the end of last session they approached their first big dungeon (goblin fortress), attacked some guards, and let them escape inside. They're now blissfully camped out front of the dungeon. The guards escaped; the fortress is alert; they're camped out front. Obviously, there should be (fun) consequences for their sloppiness.

I know how to punish the players for letting the guards escape, like getting ambushed in the night, traps in the dungeon, enemies are ready for them, etc. However, how do I telegraph to the players that these things are happening because the enemies know they're coming?

Since we're all inexperienced, I'm worried that anything "special" I throw at them will be seen as "normal goblin dungeon". For example, I want the goblins to attack them in their sleep. How do I let the players know that's happening because the guards escaped inside and alerted their buddies, and not just something that normally happens? Punishing the players for being sloppy sounds like fun. But how do I let them know they're being punished?

I thought about having a hobgoblin yell something like, "Kill the sneakless intruders!" However that seems weak (why would the hobgoblin yell that?). Also, since some time has passed since the guards escaped, I don't think an audible alarm suddenly starting up is appropriate.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. the [new-gm] tag is for questions about issues specifically related to being a new GM (not just to signify that you are a new GM), so I've removed it; the [gm-preparation] tag doesn't seem relevant here either, since it's about how to convey certain info to the players, not about preparation techniques themselves. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 1 at 5:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ "(why would the hobgoblin yell that?)" Why wouldn't they yell that? I'd put in some more colorful language though... hobgoblins can curse, I tell you what... \$\endgroup\$ – WernerCD May 1 at 21:25
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One of my favorite tools as a DM is to let players discover text that hints at larger lore or world events. It allows players to figure things out without having to be told directly.

In your particular case, I would suggest that the goblin garrison would want to either send out scouts to keep tabs on the movements and activity of the hostile party that has given its presence away. Or send out a raiding party to drive them off or capture them.

While the party is camped out, have them notice some strange cracking in brush a little ways off. If they investigate, they might find a small number (perhaps even just one) scout. Don't tell them it's a scout. Have the scout flee but, in its haste to depart, it forgets its spy glass and satchel. The spyglass indicates that it was watching the party. The satchel can contain orders from Commander Hobbes the Hobgoblin (or whomever) that reads:

Forward sentries were waylaid by a small team of warriors. They managed to escape with their lives. Keep an eye on them and report back to me on their activity.

For flavor, you might also have the satchel contain a bit of paper with writing which details the party's actions and serves to indicate that the scout they drove off or killed was reporting back to the garrison.

Dusk. The armored one needs to shower. I can smell him from here.

Moonrise. Camp is quiet. The magical one is carrying a long wooden staff. It might be worth something once we kill her.

Midnight. They've changed watch. The rogue likes to twirl his dagger while he's keeping sentry. Mine's bigger. Should be easy mark.

Moonset. The priest is a filthy dwarf. Seems to have sharp senses. He's looking in my direction . . .

If the party fails to act on the possibility of a scout spying on them, force the issue and have a force recon team move in to attack instead (I'd give them a surprise round of combat).

Essentially, you're inserting some "noise in the bushes" into the scene. You can use that noise to reveal the presence of the scout or the goblin recon team, depending on how you want to play it or how much your players like combat. If you think "I'm going to have the noise be from a scout" and they don't bite, you can switch the scout out behind the screen and use the team to attack instead. The players will be none the wiser that you've changed things on the fly.

If you do go with the recon team attacking, bear in mind that the point of this encounter would not be to pose a real threat for the party. It's to act as a vehicle that allows the party to intercept the commander's orders thereby revealing the fact that the goblin garrison knows they are there.

Mechanically, this means that you'd pick creatures with an XP budget geared towards easy to medium encounter difficulty at most. If you do give them a surprise round, remember that this increases the difficulty of the encounter above the nominal value.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 great! Having a goblin drop an important note sounds cheesy and fun. That's awesome. Just to clarify, are you suggesting a second encounter after the scout (the "force recon team")? Would you have them also drop a note? \$\endgroup\$ – R Greg Stacey Apr 30 at 18:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RGreg I would pick one or the other. I've tweaked my answer to make that clearer. Thanks for asking! \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Apr 30 at 18:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Keep an eye on them and report back to me on their activity" - durrrr...ok, boss hobgoblin! Hey, you goblins what excaped from dur bad guys! Stays wheres I kin see you or...else! HEY, BOSS! Dey is sittin' here an' ain't movin' a-cuz I'm sittin' on top of 'em!!!!! (Goblins is very lit'rul-minded...) \$\endgroup\$ – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica May 1 at 14:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ "...it forgets its spy glass." And the PCs retire on their newfound wealth. giantitp.com/comics/oots0423.html \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical May 1 at 16:26
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In addition to Rykara's answer (which is pretty good imho), you can also go the more direct route:

When your players start taking their long rest, describe to them how they can see blurred movements in the shadows of the fortress (behind an open door, on the battlements, ...) hustling about. Introduce their long rest by asking them if, considering their initial assault seemed to have alerted the guards, they want to post guards that night.

Aside from telling your players out-of-character that actions have consequences, this is obviously more or less the bluntest way to tell them in-game. I don't think choosing that approach's necessarily bad, though - players can be pretty blind when it comes to interpreting the DM's hints, or generally realizing that actions have consequences.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! I might be thinking too subtle - I hadn't considered being blunt like that. Does blunt/direct make the game any less fun for players? \$\endgroup\$ – R Greg Stacey Apr 30 at 18:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RGreg Not necessarily. One of the issues you'll face as a DM is the fact that things that seem blunt and obvious to you are far from obvious to the players. The risk of not providing enough opportunities to learn/realize something is that players flounder because they don't know what to do. That's why you'll hear about things like the rule of three for dropping hints to players. It's almost always better to err on the side of being too obvious. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Apr 30 at 19:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree on the sledgehammer-style hints. Be blunt either this way or with descriptions, even if a bit unrealistic: The fortress sounds loud alarm horns, watchfires are lit, the spider cavalry gets called to assemble... The players are new, give them some help. \$\endgroup\$ – Phil Yardman May 8 at 22:44
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To connect the goblin ambushes to the guards they let escape, you could include one of the guards in the ambush group. Make a point of saying something like "A goblin at the front of the group seems to be guiding them, and yells 'There they are!' as the attack begins. You recognise the notch in her ear and the charm hanging from the hilt of her weapon - one of the goblin guards you let escape earlier has come back with friends!"

This directly tells the players there's a connection between their earlier choices and the current situation, expressed through a combination of clear in-character events the characters notice and a little out-of-character explanation to help the players draw the right conclusions. Straightforwardly connecting dots for the players like this isn't always a good idea, but with new players who are still getting the hang of how RP works, it helps them get used to what kind of conclusions can be drawn.

You can continue this - when they start entering the camp, the goblins might be in strong defensive positions behind barricades, with another of the escaped guards saying something like "See, I told you! The humans are coming!"

The language barrier is an issue if you're intending to make heavy use of language proficiency in your game and none of the PCs speak goblin, but you could replace the specific reported speech with just telling the players that there are goblins who are clearly guiding the rest and doing a lot of yelling, and that they recognise these as the escaped guards. That said, you'd be within your rights as a GM to just assume everyone's speaking Common if you don't find the language barrier interesting to play with.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! I'll use this, along with a dropped note and just describing extra movement on the fortress. That seems like a good "rule of three"! \$\endgroup\$ – R Greg Stacey May 1 at 17:09
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Goblins and PCs can talk to each other

If you spring a trap on the PCs, let them have a chance to capture a prisoner, who they can ask questions about why the attack happened. Or if the PCs get lucky and detect the attack before it happens, let them overhear conversations between the goblins that explain why they're stepping up their patrols.

Obviously, this is easiest if one of the PCs has taken Goblin as a language they know, but most goblins speak Common too, even if they're not likely to use it among themselves. But maybe the goblins have some Orc allies (or whatever non-goblin humanoid species you prefer) that they communicate with in Common because the goblins don't speak Orc and the orcs don't speak Goblin.

If you don't think you can avoid a conflict being a fight to the death (because the players won't accept a goblin's surrender), and the players are oblivious to the threat that might be coming, you can of course decide that your goblins aren't inclined towards subtlety. Maybe rather than a sneaking patrol, the fortress blares out horn fanfares and bangs on drums as the war band assembles outside the gate to attack the PCs' camp. The players can't miss that!

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how do I telegraph to the players that these things are happening because the enemies know they're coming?

How about just telling them? You can frame it as something a fighter-type would know from their experience and training, or just give it as common sense:

"So, those were probably guards on perimeter watch, and they escaped into the fortress. The goblins certainly know you're out here, so they might be preparing ambushes within the fortress, or they might send someone out to fight you at night, when their darkvision will give them a big advantage. I'm just sayin'."

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For an inexperienced party I would go for the classic night ambush with a twist.

The twist is that once the fight starts they recognize some of the goblins who attack them as the same guards who got away.

On top of this I would have the goblins employ tactics to attempt to counter what the party did to beat the guards in the first place.

For example you could have goblins try to tie up any melee fighters by throwing nets and wielding shields while using dodge actions to bog them down while assassins and archers focus the healers and spell casters. If anything was particularly devastating in the last fight have the goblins plan around it (or use it for themselves). For example have them use bestow curse to weaken a pivotal member (or if you want to really spank the party have a goblin use a scroll of fireball on the tightly packed party).

This should teach that the enemy can and will react and adapt to threats and to scare the party into being smart or scared (both excellent outcomes).

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Assuming the players have set up proper watches during the night, allow them perception checks to notice things like guards marching on the turrets with torches, unexpected increased activity and noise, perhaps an advanced squad that's come to deal with the group that beat up some of their guards.

If all else fails, then the party wipe should hopefully be the best way to learn. If this situation does happen, then be sure to explain that the guards having escaped were able to alert the keep, and their taking so long didnt help.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd like to avoid a TPK, since that could be discouraging for my group. The suggestion about describing a visible "unexpected increase in activity" sounds good. That's in line with what I'm looking for, although I'd like to more explicitly telegraph that's happening because of the players. \$\endgroup\$ – R Greg Stacey Apr 30 at 18:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RGregStacey Have them roll some kind of knowledge or wisdom check after making the observation and provide the information on their success. \$\endgroup\$ – Fering Apr 30 at 18:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RGregStacey Honestly, if I were in your position I'd just say "You hear shouts and sounds of activity from inside the castle. Unfortunately it seems like the goblins who escaped your attack were able to raise the alarm." No need to beat around the bush. If there's something you want to tell the players and it's reasonable for their characters to see, just tell them. \$\endgroup\$ – Kyle Doyle Apr 30 at 18:43
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The fortress is alert--people are at combat stations rather than attending to their usual business in the fortress. This has allowed a captive the ability to execute their escape plans. The captive is aware of the party and deliberately heads towards them seeing them as the safest way out, especially when they bring the information of what has been going on.

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