Suppose as the adventure is about to kick-off the DM invites some discussion about what each character has been up to lately and after hearing each monologue embeds a bit of his own story telling into each monologue to weave in hints of what's to come and to create a bit of unity/meaning. For example:

P1: I attended a rare sword exhibition.

DM: You noticed occasional prolonged glances from a hooded figure. As you left the show, you discover a hastily written note that somehow made its way into your pocket.

P2: I lost myself for days in an occult library.

DM: While burned out from your intensive studies, you drift asleep. As you awaken, you notice something written on the margins of the tome you had opened the night before.

P3: Totally uneventful until an uncouth-looking stranger tried to superstitiously slip me a piece of paper, which I, with great alacrity, intercepted and tore up into pieces. I then alerted authorities to his presence.

DM: ...

I can sympathize with player 3 because he's listened to what's been said before him, so he clearly knows what's coming. In a way it spices up things, where he/she might otherwise have to passively accept the foreshadowing elements that might at this point lost some mystique. However, it's also clearly a witty jab at the DM, forcing some kind of response. What comes to mind for me:

  1. Everybody have a laugh and move on to the actual adventure
  2. Brute force it: After you watch the town guard chase the man down, you were astonished to find in your pocket a note. His earlier note was just a distraction; a game of "thief chess" where he was up a move.
  3. Strict preparation game plan: Well, you never read the note to learn the secret meeting location to meet your teammates. Roll D100 to see if there is any chance you can reassemble the paper your ripped into shreds.

Each table may have its own comfort level for the above solutions. But for the purposes of this question, I would like to hone the craft of fighting wit with wit in such situations. In other words, form a response but not necessarily make it so punitive for the player in terms of the plot. However, it's hard to know exactly how players will try to trip up the DM, so it's not something that can be prepared ahead of time. Maybe a basic framework would help.


If my aim is to allow such DM/player interactions and form a witty response that accomplishes "yes, I'm aware you want something different" and still weave that player into the story in a way that does not give any material advantages or disadvantages to the other players, what kind of framework should I have in mind as I get placed on the spot in such situations?


6 Answers 6


There are two issues here.  The first issue is that your player is attempting to narrate actions onto DM-controlled NPCs, which is something they're not allowed to do.  The second issue is that your player is choosing for their character to not do the adventure.

Limits of player narration

You've written that the DM "invites some discussion about what each character has been up to lately."  But this doesn't mean -- it can't mean -- that players just narrate anything they want.  If someone said:

Oh, I killed a dragon and gained five levels and found a bazillion gold and now I'm king!


Oh, I ran into the villain at the corner store, and we had a nice chat, and he decided to retire and start an orphanage!

the DM has to answer: "No, you didn't."

The DM might add more flavor text to the rejection -- "well, the NPCs you're attempting to interact with weren't actually in the place you said they were, and even if they had been, your character isn't skilled enough to do the thing you described.  Try again."

Most players understand this dynamic intuitively, and they'll be careful to avoid narrating anything happening that their character doesn't directly control.  But if your player is deliberately crossing that line, and they're doing it in a way that breaks your story, all you can do is remind them that the line exists.

In the specific case you're describing, I'd probably say something like this:

Yes, that's very funny.  Roll Perception to see if you actually spot the stranger.

Or, if my plan for this stranger indicated they actually wouldn't be possible to spot:

There is no stranger, sorry, try again.

Refusing to do the adventure

Your player has realized, presumably, that this note is their story hook to the next part of the adventure. Your player is deliberately refusing this story hook, in a way that threatens that their character might not do the adventure.

It's possible to engage with this on its own terms -- you could just make up an excuse to drag them back in. I don't like doing this, because it always feels forced, and because in a real sense this is railroading the character into doing what I wanted.

What I've found works better for me is to not make up any excuses, and instead offer the player the choice to leave the game:

Of course you can tear up the note if you want, but then you miss the meeting and you don't get to do the adventure. Are you sure you want to do this?

This is my way of reminding the player that making sure the character wants to do the story is (at least partially) their responsibility.

The most recent time I had this happen, it was in a one-on-one game with a player whose character kept telling people she wasn't powerful enough to do the adventure.  The first time, I had an NPC assure her that she actually was that powerful.  The second time, I had an NPC say: "well, if you want, we could just run away together!" (and it was clear that doing this would end the game).

The player narrated her character deciding not to run away, and never brought up the topic again. After the game, she thanked me for being accommodating of her character deciding to take unusual paths through the game. I'm not sure if this is what she was referring to, but I'm sure it didn't hurt.


The underlying problem is that Player 3 is being rude

This aspect of D&D is essentially an improv game, and in an improv game it's everybody's responsibility to "yes and" their scene partners, and move the game forward.

We talk about this a lot from a DM's point of view... Don't railroad the players, maintain player agency, etc., but really everyone needs to lean into this.

Look, imagine an improv scene was happening, and one of the participants said "nah, nothing you said happens. Instead, nothing happens." It's a clear jerk move, with all of the problems of My Guy Syndrome.


As is always the case when dealing with rude people, the best response will vary a great deal depending on your relationship to them.

They're your best bud

Sometimes good friends give each other a hard time, and that's not a bad thing. You basically have two responses here:

  • Laugh it off -- Acknowledge the joke, and ask how they're really getting on with things.

  • Play along -- Roll with their choice. They said nothing happens; so they don't get to be at the meeting. Pull them in afterwards using a device appropriate to the story (relationships with other characters, coincidence, etc.).

    Note: This choice is also rude, so don't use it unless you have a good relationship with the player.

You think they're acting in good faith, but you don't see how to make it work

Just talk to them. "Hey man, this meeting is the hook. If you tore up the paper and had an uneventful night, how do I get you into the plot?"

Being the omnipotent DM with all the answers is good for the ego, but trusting your partners will get you better results, faster. If they have a plan that you don't understand, you blindly fumbling around the plan is just a waste of time. If they need something out of the story that they aren't getting, then blindly offering them alternatives until they find one they like isn't going to be nearly as fast as just asking them.

You think they're trolling you

Tell them to knock it off, and get on with the game.

Again, we all think it would be great if we could outwit every jerk who comes at us. We want to be that legendary DM who somehow turned every troll around, and seamlessly looped them into the plot.

But you have a responsibility to everyone else at that table. And the time you spend trying to wrangle someone who is actively trying to hurt the game, someone who will likely not go along with your plans gently, is time taken away from all the other players.


My standard is to play it straight.

The player has ripped up the note as a meta-game joke? Totally fine. In this situation it's hard to know exactly what the DM had planned, but if the note were something like "meet behind the tavern at midnight, I have an important task" then it just so happens P3 was out drinking late and stumbles out the back door of the tavern looking for somewhere to throw up - only to find P1, P2, and Suspicious Hooded Person standing waiting for them.

Sure, it's a bit of deus ex DM, but it's in response to a meta-game jab so it's not truly an issue since it's the start of the campaign.

If something like this happens during the game, the alternative is the same minus the deus ex DM (it's fine at the start since all starts are contrived, but midgame it's on the nose), have Suspicious Hooded Person ask P1 and P2 to go fetch P3 if that's what they would do realistically.

That's my method of tackling this issue - play it straight. Even ironic actions are actions, they have consequences and they affect the world.


Option 4. Roll for it.

Roll the contested stealth v. perception to see if they can catch who placed the note. Having found their note regardless of if they catch the figure who placed it, the player can choose to discard if they wish. Game continues.

I might even throw in a strength check to rip the paper, but have it rip on anything other than a natural 1... Just because it would be a funny failure, and it gives the players another moment of "Oh, wait, what?"

Option 5. Reward the player for their quick witt.

Something like:

The guard catches the hooded figure, turns him around on the street to face you, pulls back the hood... And it's just a pile of rags under the cloak. You get back to your room for the evening, and are surprised to find the door unlocked.

If they enter the room, perhaps something like:

Cautiously entering the room, you see the hooded figure sitting cross legged on the bed giving you a slow clap as you enter.

How the player reacts to this could bring the party together and create an unexpected combat, give them an opportunity to learn something earlier than the rest of the party or just a bit more RP time. Or, you could just reintroduce the note:

You find another folded note on your pillow.

They can still choose the disregard the note, but now it is obvious someone is trying to get in touch with them, and that someone knows where they sleep.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Option 5 is pretty good but I'm not totally sure how this is a reward. Aren't you just contriving more and more to force the player to eventually have to read the note? Option 4, sure fine, but if they pass the check you're back where you started, right? You just kicked the can down the road. I think option 5 has potential though, but it's not clear what kind of reward the player is after by destroying the initial hook of the campaign. \$\endgroup\$
    – user73918
    Jul 6, 2022 at 4:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Re: Opt. 5 - Not "contriving" at all. What would a shadowy/stealthy/mysterious hooded figure do if they saw the PC tear up the note before reading it? "Reward" doesn't have to mean loot or XP, it can also mean a special scene. Opt. 4 is just playing the game by the rules. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6, 2022 at 15:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good answer. I wonder if one of the root issues is that the player felt their agency would be undermined by having the note slipped into their pocket with no chance to dispute it... Setting up a micro-encounter with rolling could help respect the player agency while letting the DM keep the chance to do their plot hook. \$\endgroup\$
    – CabinetCat
    Jul 7, 2022 at 21:17

You use a normal DM skill - Coincidence.

Luck, chance, and fate all play a part in a lot of stories. Used poorly, it's seen as a plot hole or lazy writing - deus ex machina. Used well, and it's seen as interesting and exciting. The key is to use it in such a manner that it's both positive and negative for the main characters. They are protagonists - they experience extreme situations by chance and choice, both negative and positive ones, that's kind of why the camera is following them and not following John, the baker down the road who has a daily routine that doesn't vary a lot.

In the sense that someone is trying to discretely contact someone, you might not use luck. But when the party is split in two and lost in the fog-shrouded woods, they stumble upon the rest of their group while being chased - at perhaps the worst time to find their friends. Etc etc - this is all very normal part of story tropes. The disguised son of the hero is the one he ends up being partnered with on the boarding boat, juliet and romeo miss each other by minutes.

So in general, you use coincidence - mixing it up to make good and bad coincidence, adding complications, generally making it less of a 'you are together now' and more of a 'things are happening, and oh, as a side effect, you are together now' as one of the tools to drive the story and steer the path of the characters - either towards interesting outcomes, or towards material you have prepared.

This is one of the major tools you use - another is swiftly changing the world around people - the town they headed to instead of the town you thought they'd go to? You've said it's famous as a trade town for silks and coffee imported from the far west. So the ghoul coven that was going to be in the basement of the ruined church in the town you thought they'd go to? It's in the basement of a ruined coffee shop that used to be frequented by traders, now. Same coven, same ghouls. They didn't come in as part of a traveler caravan - they now came in on a boat. But they're the same guys, same characters, same goals, same visual references, etc.

For the scenario you outlined though, you don't need to have PC #3's boss assign him the mission of investigating a strange note that someone brought in that said they'd found mysteriously in their pocket that leads to a clandestine meeting in a warehouse (that the PC's and other people are at, which leads to the offer or the bloodbath or the curse or whatever hook you have prepared), or have some other situation create a reason for that PC to show up there by chance/fate/coincidence/etc.

Someone wants this guy to go to a place or do a thing or whatever. The note method failed. Why would they not try another method? So this is description - not gameplay - but the player has made their intention clear. They are going to resist being tempted. So you say 'An urchin is paid to give you a message, which you ignore, a messenger bird arrives in the middle of your tai chi class and won't leave til you take a paper scroll from its leg, which you burn, and so on, until finally a hooded figure manages to get a message to you in some manner which says [contents of message]". Basically, they get their cake (to be wilfully resistant to the plot/genre savvy) and you also get your cake (the plot continues) by using the power of glossing over a long series of events in description.

'Sure, that happens, and then' is a great way to allow people to do what they want and still get to the stuff you want to happen. You control the world and timing of events, after all. If people go fishing for 3 days, you can just make the goblin attack occur 3 days later. It's a coincidence that the timing lined up, sure - but stories run on coincidence. And it's not exactly a good coincidence for the characters. Now they are in the path of a goblin invasion!


Don't mess with the player's agency

First things first, the DM should learn this valuable lesson: players are not passive idiots for you to manipulate. These PCs eat breakfast seventy yards away from three thousand orcs who are trained to kill them. They aren't going to let a mysterious hooded stranger anywhere near them. Fantasy graveyards are full of PCs who let an NPC get too close.

If you want to do those kinds of shenanigans then play it by the rules. Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) versus passive Wisdom (Perception). If the players detect the stranger they can intervene, if they don't they can't.

Now, there is no rule saying you can’t do this. Equally, there is no rule against you saying “your character caught the plague and died. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Similarly, if they want to tear up the mysterious note then they don't get to know what it said. If they miss something, they miss something. That's also player agency.

What's done in character (by the DM or the other players) really happens.

  • \$\begingroup\$ By the rules, the player only rolls if there is chance of success. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6, 2022 at 3:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @J.A.Streich which perfectly illustrates the problem with what the DM is doing. If you are doing something to the PC, you have to be able to fail. Otherwise, we’re in bolt from the heavens territory of DM fiat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Jul 6, 2022 at 4:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dale M Very interesting, this is definitely a tied-for-first answer. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7, 2022 at 1:04

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