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After last night's session, my players and I had a long after-action discussion in which they expressed frustration at how their own in-game decision making has led them to circumstances that they find frustrating and un-fun.

I try to run the game in a way that is objective-based, but still fairly open - the players will have a goal, but may not know all of the details of what or how to accomplish it; they have to explore and make decisions, sometimes with imperfect information.

When planning the adventures (everything is 100% homebrew), I try to plan for a few decisions that the players are likely to make. One or two of them could be considered "optimal" - they give the players a quick path towards their goal. Other choices could be considered "sub-optimal" - they may force the players to take a more circuitous route to their goal, but they will always have a way to "fail forward".

Based on the conversation, my players feel frustrated for two reasons:

  1. They feel like they ended up in a frustrating and un-fun situation
  2. They feel like the decision that landed them there was really the only viable decision to make (what I thought to be the "optimal" decision was dismissed early on)

From my perspective: I do try to give hints at better options, but sometimes those go unnoticed. There are also times where if the party were to just push ahead a little further, everything would work out for them, but they change directions (of course, the players have no way of knowing this).

In summary, my question really comes down to two things:

  1. How to increase player satisfaction with in-game decision-making, given that they have to work with imperfect information?
  2. How to keep players happy while they deal with the consequences of making sub-optimal choices?

The party recently arrived in a city in which adventurers are not allowed to operate without the lord's permission.

They are presented with 3 options:

  1. Be conscripted into the army
  2. Pay a hefty "conscientious objector's" tax
  3. Face arrest

There are two additional options that I thought of, but didn't explicitly present, to allow for lateral thinking:

  1. Skip town
  2. Go into hiding

The players deemed options #1 and #3 unacceptable. #4 was likewise not an option because the quest that brought them to town was time sensitive and unskippable for broader campaign reasons. I gave them a hint that the area of town that they needed to go to for their quest wasn't frequently patrolled by the guards, hinting that Option #5 may be viable, but they instead choose for option #2 and pay out a large sum of gold.

(Had they pushed further down their main quest in the city, they would have found opportunities and allies that would have made Options #5 and even #4 more viable, but they had no way of knowing that at the point they made their decision.)

The party goes to the castle to pay the lord's minister who is disdainful of them for choosing to pay rather than be conscripted.

Almost immediately after leaving the castle, the party is attacked by a group of thugs sent after them by a businessman that they ran afoul of earlier. The players chose to attack the thugs lethally and kill them (even after I explicitly asked at least twice if they were dealing lethal or non-lethal damage) and then chose to wait for the city guard with the bodies after the fighting had ceased. (This is due to a personality trait of one of the PCs to implicitly trust authority.)

This winds them once again in front of the minister they had angered earlier, who charges them with "disturbing the peace" and gives them the choice of arrest or immediate exile.

At this point, the session was drawing to a close, and I could tell that the players were unhappy, so I gave them the opportunity to adjudicate it with the lord of the city in our next session.

So based on all this, it's not a single decision that has the players upset. It's a culmination of decisions that has put them in a tough spot.

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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. Relevant meta: Don't signal your edits in text. Instead, you should edit your answer to read as if it were always the best version of itself. Anyone interested in older versions can check the revision history. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Mar 9 at 0:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BillK: That sounds like the start of a good answer (rather than a comment). \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Mar 10 at 20:35

7 Answers 7

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It seems like your definition of an "optimal" solution is very different from your players' definition, and that's creating issues.

Other answers have focused on how you might have given your players more information, and designed a more flexible adventure, and I do think that's valuable. I want to focus on your play group's second complaint, though:

They feel like the decision that landed them there was really the only viable decision to make (what I thought to be the "optimal" decision was dismissed early on)

In the scenario you described, your optimal solution is one that preserves the players' autonomy and costs them the fewest resources (breaking the law to avoid doing what the magistrate wants). On the other hand, your players chose an option which cost them significant resources but minimized the amount of time they would have to spend distracted from their main quest ("screw it, we'll just pay the fee so we can get on with our lives").

In other words, your players prioritized their main quest over something that they saw as a distraction from that quest. It's highly likely that your players are frustrated because they came to town with a very clear goal in mind, and everything they've had to deal with since they arrived has been an unwanted distraction from that goal. If I roll into town looking for Big Guns the Bandit Lord, only to have the City Watch demand I go to the king's house and fill out tax paperwork, I am understandably going to be annoyed. It probably irked them even more when, after burning resources not to have to deal with this unwanted problem, a combat encounter literally right outside the building forced them to deal with it all over again.

The problem isn't your players' decision-making process. The problem is that you gave your party five options for dealing with a problem they were not interested in dealing with.

Carrots are better than sticks

If you want to run the sort of game where players proactively discover solutions to the problems you lay out, you need to give their characters compelling reasons to want to solve those problems, rather than simply avoiding them. You can't just put an unrelated obstacle between them and the fun thing they were looking forward to, and expect them to engage. Players are far more motivated by rewards -- whether in the form of loot, character advancement, or story progression -- than they are by fear of consequences -- character death, imprisonment, or financial hardship. Sure, players don't like losing stuff, so they'll go along with stuff when they're threatened. They just won't have a lot of fun doing it, as you've discovered.

An example from my current campaign

A couple months ago, I had a situation vaguely similar to yours. The party's main quest involves chasing a villain from town to town, undoing the damage he's caused. When the party arrived in the next town, though, they weren't immediately sure where the villain was. I took the opportunity to introduce a side quest, but I didn't just have an authority figure demand that they do something. Instead, I offered the group an opportunity to make some money. The fighter was looking to get full plate armor, and the other party members needed new clothes and adventuring gear, so when an old friend came to them offering to pay them for some private detective work, they jumped at the chance. In short, I used an NPC they already had a connection with (roleplaying reward) to deliver a challenge, and completing that challenge meant making a large sum of money (material reward). The party was happy to pause their search for the BBEG while they played detective for a few sessions, knowing that I'd make it worth their while.

Once I had the player's buy-in, I was free to throw all kinds of obstacles in their path, because they knew that overcoming those obstacles would directly improve their chances of getting the reward they craved. But I didn't start making their lives difficult until after I got their buy-in for the quest.

How to turn sticks into carrots

In your campaign, you could achieve a similar effect simply by changing the order in which you presented your challenges. Let the party make their way into the city first, make some progress on their main quest, connect with some useful NPCs, and only then have the guards start interfering. But honestly, if the lord and the guards aren't somehow related to the quest the party is doing, and are just an extra bit of busy work for the party to deal with, it's probably best to just leave them out and save more time for the stuff your players are really interested in. You'll be amazed how much more industrious your players are when they're working towards something they actually want, rather than trying to avoid something they don't want.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It was tough selecting an answer because pretty much every one of them has valuable advice that I'll be incorporating into my game. I'm picking this one because it does a great job at cutting. to the heart of the problem. I realize now that I use sticks much more often than I use carrots in my scenario design, and that's the first thing that I need to fix. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 17:24
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Prepare tools, not plots, and have your tools interact with PCs.

One issue I see is that you're preparing an optimal course of action, rather than an optimal weakness an enemy has. I've often found DMs who do this have a particular way they expect the game to go, and punish players if they don't follow the railroad. As you explained, if they take a suboptimal route they will have a longer and more difficult path to the ideal place.

What works better is preparing tools. Enemies, encounters, maps. You can then use these tools to make an interesting game for your players. If they look like they're not having fun, dump some more fun tools in front of them. It's easy to move things around, NPCs have whatever thoughts and personalities you want them to. Wherever they go interesting things should be happening to them.

You noted the PCs had the theoretical possibility of gaining allies that made option 4 and 5 viable. Why not have those allies come meet them at the tax office? They can recruit them, and offer them support. NPCs that exist and just do nothing are pretty useless. Have your tools come interact with the PCs and offer them plot hooks.

Give at least three hints to any puzzle

If you have an ideal solution to a plot, make sure it's heavily foreshadowed. If you think you're being too overt, you probably aren't, players can't read your mind.

In your example, I would probably have some people sneaking into the area in front of them, or discussing doing so. I would probably describe the guards as being stretched and having problems with monster attacks away from said area since they don't have many adventurers. I might have them be offered a smuggling job to that region by a local who would describe what it's like.

For the murder of people who try to kill you is wrong thing, I kinda expect people to kill bandits who attack them. If I didn't want that to happen in a place, I would probably have them be explicitly told that if they defend themselves lethally they'll be imprisoned, even if attacked first, have someone hung for defending themselves in front of them, and have an adventurer complain in front of them that they feel naked without the chance to defend themselves.

Be careful about having authority figures who are meaninglessly antagonistic.

It's one thing if authority figures are rude because you break their laws. If authority figures are rude because the adventurers paid their taxes and defended themselves against an attempt to murder them then you're basically presenting them with a chaotic evil government that they won't respect at all. Some PCs then go murderhobo, and often this leads to a lot of disrupted communities.

A key part of gaming is that that PCs should want to exist in the world which you make. Super antagonistic authority figures who hate PCs for paying them money are a good way to make PCs frustrated with your game. I would suggest you make the city lord have different priorities and be friendlier and more interesting to the players.

It also helps if you have factions. If the players feel that everyone they meet hates them, then they don't tend to be very happy unless they can murder everyone. You could say have a faction of the city that feels banning adventurers is stupid approach them and try to involve them in city politics. You could have another faction that is even more radical do something stupid and anger the common citizen who doesn't like their radical ways. Having a variety of perspectives in a town helps make them less frustrating.

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    \$\begingroup\$ 'meaninglessly antagonistic' authority figures - this is a great note. You could present a juxtaposition: presumably the lord instituted the tax option because it was worth it for his goals. He sees the benefits to his armies/guards/schemes from having an extra income source of this kind (for supplies, equipment, weapons, building upkeep...). Presumably well-respected middle-class individuals like merchants typically prefer this option. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oly
    Mar 9 at 11:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Maybe the minister they interacted with is a hawk, either materially-corruptly or ideologically invested (or both) in warmaking per se. As a lower official, they're less likely to either accrue or even witness (in a visible way) the benefits-to-warmaking that such taxes provide. Maybe they think the PCs (and merchants and priests and whoever else pays the tax) are softies or losers. Or contrastingly, maybe they are concerned for the welfare of the poor, who have no means to buy 'safety' from conscription in this way, and consider the tax an unfair class divide! \$\endgroup\$
    – Oly
    Mar 9 at 11:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ OP noted they had an optimal route and that NPCs who would provide basic info dumps and support would only exist if the players took optimal routes. That is fairly similar to making a plot- life is nice and easy if you follow the railroad, go off the DM's tracks and you get frustrating situations. I'm noting it's important to bring the plot to where the players are at. If you have NPCs who are going to deliver key information to the players, those NPCs shouldn't be non existent in a place nearby the players didn't visit. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Mar 9 at 14:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso I think Nepene Nep is right in this case, actually. I do prepare in terms of plots. They tend to be more of a railyard than a railroad, as Novak described below, but plots nonetheless. And I'm well aware of the 3 Clue Rule, but I don't think I was employing it as widely I should have been. For example, within the main quest mentioned in the Question, the party needs to find the location of the BBEG. I identified that as a place to use the 3 Clue Rule. I never considered using it for the other situations described, which is part of the reason I ran into trouble. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 17:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's best to find of your game in terms of nodes, connecting encounters. If your players can't find the next node, it's best to employ the three clue rules. For this adventure, the nodes would be the entrance hall to the city, the castle, and wherever they want to go in the city. If they get stuck in one node and nothing interesting is happening you should add in tools to direct them to more interesting nodes or solve mysteries in other nodes. Punishing the players because they didn't get to your chosen nodes fast enough is pointless- instead push them to more fun nodes. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Mar 9 at 18:13
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Free yourself from preplanned plot lines

First of, it is great that you are listening to your players, and it is great that you have players who trust you and address these issues with you. It also is really great that you are earnestly considering their feedback instead of trying to defend that what you were doing was right.

Don't try to solve the players problems for them

That's their job. You do not need to work out how they will overcome the challenges you present, other than being careful to not present something they clearly have no way of overcoming. Firstly, it may save you considerable, unnecessary work if you do not. Secondly, I am not really sure the work adds anything positive: when you work out solution alternatives a priori, especially if you decide some of them are optimal and others are what the players better should avoid, you make it hard for yourself to flexibly and openly react to their ideas. You're railroading yourself, so to speak, and with best intent will be tempted to force them subtly in the direction of what you think is the best course of action. D&D players tend to be pretty creative and resourceful, let them surprise you with what they come up. That way, the story can be more fun and surprising to you too, and both you and the players create it together.

Don't push the players into courses of action they dislike

In my experience, players hate it. They like to make their own, free decisions on what to do. Agency is really the heart of their role. The worst form of this is when you force a preplanned outcome on them: no matter what they do, this is how it will end. The classical example is a situation where the players are captured and imprisoned by an unsurmountable foe, because the plot of the adventure is their escape from prison. You are not doing that, they do have choice, but you are doing something close to it, by pushing them to take a course of action, for example by putting a hefty tax on the option of not being subscripted. And you keep them from doing what they want to do, solving their main quest, and that is frustrating to them.

Don't create a**hole authorities

It sounds like the players in your group are really trying to be good. You say they implicitly trust authority. Rather than go into hiding from the law, they bite their teeth and pay what you describe as a large sum of gold.

This is a gift for you, don't squander it. It can help you with adventure hooks, if authorities are good guys too and ask them to help for reward and recognition. If you instead consistently present authorities that abuse their power and treat them shitty, you will train them to not trust authorities. This sucks if your players want to be good guys fighting for the good cause, at least unless you present another faction that they can help and defend against the evil authorities. And will take a lever for engaging them from you. If you do create such authorities, be careful to have them be the exception, not the rule.

There also is no need for it. You say "the lord's minister who is disdainful of them for choosing to pay rather than be conscripted". That's not the lord's minister who is disdainful, that's you pushing back because they did not take the pre-planned optimal solution. Just as easily, the lord's minister might be delighted that he found some fools that were willing to pay a huge sum of money into the city coffers, just to forego subscription, and be super supportive of them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 "Free yourself from pre-planned plot lines" - my new mantra. Though, I might add [rigid or inflexible] somewhere in there for myself. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Thank-Glob
    Mar 9 at 16:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes to everything. Your last paragraph seems to gets to something that I think the OP needs to reframe a little. The OP sees their problem as "the players were frustrated with the results of their own poor decisions," but the GM is overlooking their own decisions to make what they saw as the suboptimal path full of humiliation and hard-to-avoid bad outcomes. \$\endgroup\$
    – CabinetCat
    Mar 9 at 16:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, yet another +1, and loud applause for this answer, which echoes my own thinking: your job is to create problems, the players' job is to propose solutions, then your next job is to dispassionately play out their solutions in the world you have created. I gave up working out how my players might solve my scenarios years ago; I let them do that - and in the process I've been served up some amazingly creative, collaborative, and well-role-played dramas. \$\endgroup\$
    – MadHatter
    Mar 10 at 20:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's not the lord's minister who is disdainful, that's you pushing back because they did not take the pre-planned optimal solution. This! It seems to me that OP is suffering from My-NPC-syndrome... Newsflash, the NPC is doing what you want it to do, OP, it is not some immoveable force of nature. \$\endgroup\$
    – fgysin
    Mar 23 at 8:57
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There Is A Fine Line...

...Between prepping for an adventure, and prepping a railyard. I don't think you're at the extreme end of railroading where it's your way or the highway, and all deviations from the plan/plot will be routed back as quickly as possible.

But the way you're presenting this sets off my railroad alarms in several ways:

  1. The rigid and distinct options are definitely part of it. Again, not extreme railroading, but if you do this too much, your game starts to look like a flowchart. You start to think of it as a flowchart. And your plyers will eventually detect that they are in a flowchart. It's not the greatest feeling in the world.

  2. The clearly optimal/sub-optimal branches really reinforce that and make it worse. It's pretty natural for players in that situation to stop viewing the game as an exercise in creativity, and start viewing the game as an exercise in guessing what the optimal branch of the flowchart is. Not very spontaneous or rewarding.

  3. This might be more an issue with your presentation here, or it might be an issue with your presentation in the game itself, I can't really tell. But are you really presenting them directly with these options? "You can either do this, or do that, or do this clearly better/preferred thing"? Because that will definitely feel railroad-y and will absolutely get up the noses of a broad class of player.

Now, I feel your pain here, to a degree. There are some GMs who can, savant-like, do nothing but abstract situational preparation (if that) and just improv their way out of everything with no planning for specific situations or contingencies.

I'm not really one of them. I'm better at it than I used to be, but I also find it hard to avoid planning for a few major situations. There are some real virtues to that (making sure I don't accidentally plan an unwinnable situation, and always having on hand a few hints to throw when the players are just stumped) and I'm not telling you stop that entirely.

But I am suggesting that you plan and present things differently. Specifically:

  • Put more emphasis into situations, rather than specific paths through the situation

  • Let the players explore and discover what their main choices are, rather than presenting them up front.

  • Make major decisions meaningful, and challenging and/or difficult.

The last one is the most important one, and is where everything should lead to. So that begs the question, what is a meaningful decision? What is a challenging decision?

Well, for starters, they're not obvious. "Would you rather have a hundred dollars, or a thousand dollars?" That's barely a decision at all, because it has an obvious answer, you want more money. In your case, "Would you rather be drafted to fight in a foreign war, or just pay a large fine?" is also barely even a decision-- if you have the money, you fork it over in order to retain your agency. That's just a bummer.

For me, a meaningful decision is a choice between two or more alternatives that people might reasonably make, that affect the game in reasonable ways and lead to meaningfully different outcomes, with partially foreseeable outcomes. Even if they all accomplish the same primary goal, if the players get there in meaningfully different ways, that still counts.

And a difficult choice is one that the players will struggle with. People don't generally struggle with obvious choices. They struggle when the options before them are roughly the same in terms of pure, abstract goodness or badness, but have different pros and cons, require the expenditure of different valuable assets, or when they all achieve something but foreclose on other future options. This is not an exhaustive list. What I'm trying (and probably failing) to convey is that a good dramatic decision should give the players the chance to achieve at least part of a goal, but also leave a little bit of regret along the way-- regret for burning an asset, regret for not being able to check every single box, regret for stirring up some new adverse plot element, regret for sacrificing the ability to follow up on some other interesting plot.

This is, needless to say, not easy.

But if you can do this-- if you can set up situations for your players to explore, present some possible lines of activity organically, and roughly balance them with pros and cons so that your players have to really think about them-- I predict most players will react very favorably.

But Also, One Specific Point:

You mention one thing that really resonates with me, because it vexed me for a while:

There are also times where if the party were to just push ahead a little further, everything would work out for them, but they change directions (of course, the players have no way of knowing this).

The key to this is to provide your players with constant small bits of feedback and information in exchange for small steps forward. If you expect them to walk ten miles before you give them an indication that there is something at the end of that road, many characters will just bail. And they're arguably right to do so.

I learned this the hard way back in the days of D&D 4e, with its infamous skill challenges, where players would need to make a sequence of so many successful die rolls before a certain number of failures in order to overcome an obstacle. I love that mechanic. But the first several times I tried, the players just ended up confused and annoyed. They would need four successes, but give up after three because they could not tell how many they needed or even if they were on the right track.

Once I started giving them immediate and obvious feedback-- every success or failure came with a visible change to the situation they were trying to navigate, along with a sense of how close they were to ultimate success or failure-- everything started to come together.

Now, I know you're not using that mechanic, because you're playing PF 2e. But the general idea behind this is still valid. If you only give them one hint that a certain path might be fruitful, it's very easy to miss that hint. And even if they follow up on it, if there is no further feedback that they're on the right path, they might abandon it entirely.

You hit directly on the problem yourself: "The players have no way of knowing this." That's really on you, as a GM, just like it was on me back when I was running a 4e game. The solution takes practice, but it's as simple as providing constant but gradual feedback and information.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for constant, gradual feedback. You are your players' only source of information about the world, so give generously. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tack
    Mar 9 at 14:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ "This might be more an issue with your presentation here, or it might be an issue with your presentation in the game itself" I think it's a combination of a) this is a particular egregious situation - powerful NPC presents the party with choices A, B, or C - most of my scenarios aren't like that, and b) I distilled it down to be even more extreme for the sake of the clarity of the question. But either way, I'm starting to see the error of my ways. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 9 at 17:22
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It's fine for players to be frustrated

You may have seen people talk about Fun as the ultimate goal of TTRPGs. But that's not the only way to play. It's completely fine for players to feel a wide array of emotions - sadness, happiness, fear, anger, disgust, empowered, amused, and yes, frustrated.

Give players an outlet

This frustration can easily be channelled into motivation. You have two very obvious baddies here; the minister and the businessman. All you have to do is plant a few seeds which will lead players to a satisfying conclusion - what if the minister is not popular in the town either, and turns out the local thieves guild have a plan to rob the minster blind?

It can be a learning opportunity

You stated that one of the PCs implicitly trusts authority. This could be a great opportunity for them to grow as a person. It could also be a chance for the party to learn they can be more creative with their actions instead of just doing what the authorities tell them to do. They could meet other people in the city who explain how they dodged the draft and the fine, this could help open their eyes to other possibilities.

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Pathfinder 2e Centric Solutions

Note: Previous tags on the question indicate the system is Pathfinder 2e

The other answers here are excellent! But here are some potential tools from various Pathfinder 2e resources that should help in your situation:

Story Points, from the Gamemastery Guide

A Story Point is generally used to

allow the player to suggest a plot twist that can be resolved quickly, or to establish a relevant fact or NPC attitude. It can’t determine the outcome of an entire scene or vastly alter the reality of the setting.

In this situation, your players could have used a Story Point to make the minister more friendly or understanding - maybe the minister already has suspicions about the businessman who sent the thugs, or himself was attacked by the same thugs earlier. Or perhaps there was a bounty on the thugs, which would help offset the large loss of gold to pay the non-conscription fee. Honestly, the whole Narrative Collaboration section has many good ideas, but this one stood most out to me.

Reputation Subsystem, from the Gamemastery Guide

It seems to me that the one of the potential things that upset your players (even if not spoken by them) is that they felt they took the correct action, but lost all of the benefits of said action by one somewhat wrong decision. Using the Reputation subsystem to represent the attitude of the lord of the city (and other city officials) can easily blunt the loss. Your players took a legal path and paid a large sum of gold to legally operate, which could earn them, say, 2 Reputation Points. Killing the criminal thugs in self defense, while still waiting for authorities, could lose them, say 1 Reputation point. That still leaves your players in the positive! Had they not acted in self defense, or had they ran away and hid after killing the thugs, they might have faced a much more severe loss. Overall, the Reputation Point system would make their standing less volatile, blunting the impact of a cranky city minister. It could also serve as a long term plot element if they'll be in the city for a long time! (See the general Subsystem rules as well).

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Are you forgetting the society (or similar) skills?

In your example you said you gave your players a hint telling them that the streets weren't very well patrolled by a city guard. But, you could have asked players to make a society skill check while they're considering their options. A player who passes the DC would just know that they could probably dodge the authorities and avoid paying the fees.

I like to use players who have high intelligence or wisdom characters the benefits of their characters' intelligence and wisdom by letting their characters have smart ideas and insights even if the players didn't have those ideas.

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