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Not too long ago I started a campaign in Pathfinder 2e, and at a certain point I hinted at an enemy group's location and (superior) strength, while telling the party to go somewhere else and complete an objective. It was just foreshadowing, but the players went and tried to fight this group anyway, resulting not in a TPK (enemies are not interested in that, yet) but in the capture of the party. I will let/make the party escape, although with basically random equipment that they will recover while fleeing. But I'm sure they will do something like this again, because most of them do not think before they act. I'd like to know how I can deal with such a situation, aside from telling them directly out of game and/or railroading them.

The Scenario

There's famine in the region, and a convoy of merchants arrives in the characters' walled town while pursued by undead monsters created by this famine. The players are effectively informed of the famine, and the de-facto leader of the town's defenses tells them that the priority would be to set up a trade route with another town, which is apparently doing better. Before departing, the merchants of the convoy explain that, on the road to get to the PC's town, they were attacked multiple times: first by goblins, then by bandits, and finally by the undead. They also say that more than a third of the convoy was wiped out between the goblins and the bandits. They then mark the positions of the attacks on the party's map. The party departs and decides to follow the same route of the merchants, despite being slower (no horses) and less in number (the merchants were dozens of people).

The PCs get near the bandits' attack zone, and not far from it they find a big multi-family farm. They send the rogue to scout ahead and investigate; he notices that the farm doesn't present any sign of battle, but all the windows are barricaded and there's no one outside. He gets to the stables and sees from afar 2 people calmly tending to two horses. He can see they're armed, but can't make out their equipment exactly. He returns to the party, which decides to approach the farm. The farm is big enough to be divided in several buildings, so they get near one of them. They knock, no answer. They then get to another one and see there is smoke coming out of the chimney and hear a little noise inside. They knock and the noise stops (the people inside are slowly and silently getting ready for a possible battle, alerted by the knocking). They then get to the stables, but this time not stealthily, and the 2 people inside the stables get out while drawing their weapons.

A short dialogue commences, and the 2 people order the party to drop their food (revealing themselves as bandits). The party lies saying they don't have any, then the bandits order them to then drop their weapons and armor. The party tries to lie again to get the bandits to think there's an entire army unit nearby, but the far-fetched lie does not work. The party warrior then insults the bandits, and one of the bandits calls for reinforcements from the nearby building (the smoking chimney one). Battle commences when the same warrior from before charges the bandit. The party takes their turn, and the first 2 bandits "waste their first action" telling the party to surrender while 8 more get there in 2 turns. The right arm of the bandit leader even showed up for one turn, but said to the bandits "You can do this on your own, you don't need my help" and left immediately after. The party refuses to surrender until only one of them is on his feet.


Now, the party knew the bandits were not far from where they were, had the chance to notice that something was wrong in the farm, that there were armed people inside, that those same people were too relaxed considering there were undead and bandits roaming around the zone, that the first people (the ones in the smoking chimney building) didn't interact peacefully (or at all), they were also given 3 chances to surrender without a battle. I considered it clear that the PCs should not have tried to fight. And if it's not clear that they should not have tried to fight, I tried to at least make it clear that they were approaching a suspicious and almost surely dangerous situation.

The general course of action I predicted was that the party should have gotten to the farm later, first talking to the major city's authorities to set up the trade route and then cleaning it up, when they would have had more equipment, experience, and maybe allies. They could have even tried to talk to the bandit leader instead of fighting, but insulting the lackeys is not a diplomatic choice.

So, to sum it up, how do I deal with poor choices that PCs may make?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you clarify which game (and eidtion) you're working with here? Different games have different approaches to this kind of situation. In some, there's a clear black-and-white answer, or one or the other scenario should even be impossible if the rules are being followed. In some there's clear better and worse answers. In many games however this will be entirely a matter of opinion, especially so for just roleplaying in general. Without more information about the game at minimum, we can't ensure we're giving you a good answer so much as just our opinions. \$\endgroup\$ May 29 '21 at 0:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ I could clarify, but I'm pretty sure it does not matter. Surely you could make examples of games where you can resurrect/are immortal, where failure progresses the game, or even suggest to cripple the party but make them win anyway, but in the end I don't wanna focus on the game mechanics, I wanna focus on making the party take reasonable actions. After all, there is almost NO GAME where you cannot, well, lose. That said, the game is Pathfinder 2nd edition, and I write it anyway because surely someone else will ask. \$\endgroup\$
    – Snakehelm
    May 29 '21 at 1:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was more thinking of how PBTA games have clear rules and guidance on how to handle scenarios like this, or how in Fate games there's specific ways to respond to this not available in other games. I don't know PF2e, but its constraints and lack thereof are relevant. It's up to the question to be clear about the situation; whether the game is relevant is up to people responding to decide. Given knowledge of the game, people can assess whether this is reasonably answerable and, if it is, what the constraints and resources are for handling this situation in PF2e. \$\endgroup\$ May 29 '21 at 1:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's not clear whether you're asking "how do I avoid railroading players even when they make (what I consider) poor choices"; "how do I stop players making (what I consider) poor choices to begin with"; or something else. Could you please edit your question to make more clear what sorts of answers you're looking for? \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Jun 3 '21 at 6:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Snakehelm, thanks for the additional edits! I made a few more for readability - please feel free to revert/tweak if I got something wrong. Based on the additional details you provided, you may want to look at rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/3548, rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/45330, and rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/24297 to see if any of those help you with your issue. \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Jun 4 '21 at 23:43
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One reason they may be ignoring signals is they are not real signals.

consequences

If you are bailing them out of their bad decisions then they are fake signals, A signal of danger is lying if they are not suffering consequences. If you want them to act like decisions have consequences then they have to have consequences. If the 2nd level players attack an ancient dragon let it kill them, especially if they don't try and flee.

Don't "make them escape" let them decide they have to escape, preferably after they have been stripped of possessions and locked in cells.

Make them figure out how to escape or let the characters die if they fail. You should see actual planning on their part after that. Some of the characters may die in the escape and that is fine they will be memorable deaths. Even if escape is fairly easy, have the authorizes confiscate their possessions, they escape but now they only have the cloths on their back.

Once they start suffering consequences they will actually start planning.

Player decisions

Also I see a lot of you telling the party what to do, instead let them decide what they want to do. Your job is to tell them how to do what they want. If the players feel railroaded they may rebel against that by doing things you told them not to. As the DM you should not be telling them what they want, you should be setting up the situation so they want to do what you want them to do. The less hand holding you do the more active role they will start to take. I know with some premade material this can be difficult but you can incentive the things you want them to do, only the paths prepared should have any indication of rewards, and paths they should not be taking should come with warnings and stiff consequences.

Better signals

It is possible for warnings to be to subtle, which is why giving them a chance to evaluate the situation is important. After players say they are going to location X, don't start with "you arrive a location X" start with you reach a hilltop you can just see location X in the distance" or "you know you are close to location X and can hear noise in that direction" this gives them a chance to assess the enemy strength. Real people tend to have some waring about what is in front of them.

I had a group of players decide to fight an elder dragon, thankfully they decided to prepare by setting up illusions, which gave me the opportunity to show some of what the dragon could do, it wiped out the small army of illusions in a single round, and I made sure to roll damage dice where the players could see. They figured out they had to run very quickly, and fled down a stone tunnel and collapsed it behind them. This taught them that a dragons were actually dangerous, but maybe more importantly it also taught ME that simple verbal warnings of danger are not great warnings for players Players have been hearing X,Y, and Z are dangerous only to defeat it since they started playing. nearly every description of any monster describes it as dangerous, Most NPC's will also describe them as dangerous. Everything is dangerous so nothing is dangerous.

Instead show them what X can do, have an NPC describe what they saw, describe damage, let them see aftermath, let them witness X killing NPC's. Show instead of tell. If you must use NPC descriptions try to make comparisons to other monsters, give numbers, or describe the weird abilities the creature has. The next time my players found a dragon lair, they found dead half eaten monsters (ones that they had fought before so they had scale), they found scratches and tracks indicating the dragons size, and burned away sections of forest. they were more cautious but I was also better at showing them caution was needed.

Lets say the location you did not want them to go was an Orc encampment, if you start with "as you come over the hill you can see the encampment in the distance, You see wooden palisades, dozens of barracks, and smoke form hundreds of cooking fires." the players have some scale of the danger to work with. Now they have some idea of the scale of danger, and they should start asking questions, "how many orcs do I think there are in this encampment?", "Do I see any indication of weapons or mounts?" let them investigate from a distance maybe throw a scouting party at them so they can think (5 of them nearly wiped us out, and there are hundreds in that camp, maybe we should come back later). if they persist in attacking then kill them, a drawn out fight they lose can still be fun, especially if its dramatic, maybe a character sacrifices themselves to let the rest of the party escape.

Note for premade campaigns.

Also if you are using premade material, like an official book, don't be afraid to say, "look guys this area here is for later in the campaign, and I don't have anything for it prepared" that gives them two signals one it is not happening this session so if they do decide to go there you have time to prepare, second that that area is probably too hard for them. Also often they will forget about that location once they get involved in the prepared location. This is also the reason I make my players tell me what they plan on doing next session and the end of the current session.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok, the first point is what I'D LIKE to do, but the players would probably whine (especially because a TPK on the first session is real bad for everyone, GM included). The second point is what I tried to ask before the question was edited for being "opinion-based": if I should railroad the players more. I don't railroad them, and this event happened just because of that, because instead of telling them "DO THIS" I said "The first thing to do should be this". Lastly, point three: I agree, but sometimes it's just not possible to show. Should I write the scenario that happened in another thread? \$\endgroup\$
    – Snakehelm
    May 30 '21 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Snakehelm yes giving a specific scenario will be much easier to answer. (this is what happened what went wrong is going to be much more helpful for you. And I disagree that a TPK on the first session is bad, most TPK happen in the first level or two. If everyone agrees to a realistic game in session zero, then start acting like should have plot armor a tpk is fine. I had a player decide to slap the king in the first session and the guards killed him on the spot and took the res prisoner, it created a much better start to the game since the players now had to escape and avoid civilization. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    May 30 '21 at 14:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok, I will write the specific scenario in a new thread, even if it gets closed. It's just to link it to this and explain further. \$\endgroup\$
    – Snakehelm
    May 30 '21 at 14:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Everything is dangerous so nothing is dangerous. I'd go even further than that, and say that in many cases describing something as "dangerous" is actually used as a signal to tell the party "the path that advances the story is over here". "Dangerous" is often used as a synonym for "interesting" which implies "this is part of the narrative, and that uninteresting, undangerous stuff over there is not". \$\endgroup\$
    – tbrookside
    Jun 4 '21 at 13:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ That is... unintuitive? I'm used to saying words with their exact meaning, so dangerous means dangerous. The situation may also be interesting or advance the story, yes, but then I wouldn't have told players that certain things should have been done first. It seems to me like being direct is becoming the only way to communicate... \$\endgroup\$
    – Snakehelm
    Jun 4 '21 at 14:38
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Here's how many DMs (including me) do this:

Give opportunities to scout

Try to avoid moving the group directly into combat.

Alice: "We're going to go fight that orc fortress!"
DM: "After a long journey, you arrive in front of the orc fortress.  The guards see you coming and sound the alarm.  The gates of the fortress open and two hundred orcish warriors come charging out to fight you..."

Instead of doing that, try this:

Alice: "We're going to go fight that orc fortress!"
DM: "After a long journey, you arrive at a hillside where you can see the orc fortress.  The place looks like this (draws map).  You can see two guards on watch right here.  The fortress is on a hill and there's a stream behind the hill.  You can see some groups of orcs patrolling around the forest.  You see a larger group of orcs heading to that village over there, and what looks like a supply wagon coming up the road from the village to the fortress.  What do you do?"

By doing this second thing, you're giving the players options: 

  • they could gather information in the village, maybe even talking to some off-duty orcs 
  • they could infiltrate the supply wagon, or sabotage it somehow 
  • they could check on the fortress's water supply, looking for a secret path in through the aqueduct, or even try to poison it 
  • they could make some sort of plan to sneak past the guards 
  • at the very least, they could fight one of the patrolling groups of orcs, to get a better picture of how skilled the orcish soldiers are

If the characters do a fight against a group of orcs and find it too difficult, this also gives them the chance to change their mind about attacking the fortress.

Not everything the group does will let them scout in this way.  But we have a whole other question about how to telegraph difficulty levels.

Support your players' choices

The player characters are the heroes of the story.  As the DM, it's your job to make sure the story is a good one.  If the player characters have decided to go fight an orc fortress, then it's your responsibility to tell a good story where they fight an orc fortress.

That means you can't say: "oh, I had previously decided the orc fortress was too tough to fight, so now you all get captured."  Instead, you say: "okay, let me revise my notes about this orc fortress and scale it down so that it's an interesting challenge for a group of your level."

You won't always be able to do this.  Sometimes the group will make an obviously terrible choice and you'll have to play that out.  But in those cases hopefully you can at least give them the chance to scout and realize they've made an error.

Don't offer them bad choices

If you tell the group there's a monster nearby, you have to assume that at least some fraction of the time they'll decide to fight the monster.  (In fact, your players might be assuming that you expect them to fight the monster, and they think they have to fight it in order to do your planned adventure.)

If you put a monster in the adventure, make sure that you understand how it will generate a fun outcome if the group decides to fight it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The first option was used, they completely ignored informations and signals, don't ask why. The second option is the standard when someone effed up, but aside from the fact that this is not the case, if everything you throw at players is trivial stuff what's the point? Might as well write a novel with input from other people. And beside at level 1 even just bad luck can ruin you, so while it may be a solution, it may not work. Last option: what good are warnings, foreshadowing, etc..., if players ignore what you tell'em they should do? Must I assume players are dumb? I hope not. \$\endgroup\$
    – Snakehelm
    May 30 '21 at 1:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Must I assume players are dumb?" Well, actually... I wouldn't call it dumb. It's more like tunnel-vision. But yes, that's probably a good place to start. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    May 30 '21 at 5:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Snakehelm Deciding to scale the challenges to your players and let them help write the story is not making things trivial, it is running a player centric campaign. This is in a sense different from an "open-living world" but both are valid styles. Also, even making the challenges trivial is not necessarily a bad thing if everyone is enjoying it. That style is not for everyone, but it does fit what some people want. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 2 '21 at 15:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Valid point of view, I do not particularly like such a campaign style, IMHO it loses much of the "Game" part in RPG. \$\endgroup\$
    – Snakehelm
    Jun 2 '21 at 15:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I do not particularly like such a campaign style" would be a good thing to tell your players. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Jun 5 '21 at 0:33

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