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Here is a situation that happened in a game that I was DMing:

  • The PCs had the option to ambush another group of adventurers, but this was highly risky: the PCs would be in trouble if caught. I informed the PCs of this, with the intention that they would have to decide if the risk was worth it.
  • One of the PCs (Bob) said they wanted to ambush them, and all the other PCs agreed, and formed a plan to ambush them. (Bob had just entered the campaign and this was his first session in the campaign.)
  • The ambush was successful. Bob even hid the body so that the victim couldn't be resurrected.
  • However, the PCs were caught (the PCs didn't do a particularly good job covering their tracks) and I had the authorities fine them, putting them into debt.
  • After the fact, the other PC's players complained, saying they didn't want to take the risk but felt forced into it because they didn't want to leave Bob to fight the other group of adventurers alone.

It seems to me like this pattern is likely to occur any time there is a difficult risk/benefit tradeoff in a scenario, and people have disagreements about what to do.

I can think of a few categories of options that all have problems:

  1. Just let Bob do the mission on his own: then everyone else doesn't get to play, and probably also Bob has a bad time.

  2. Do what happened above: Not really fair to everyone else, because they suffer the downside risk even though they didn't want to take the risk in the first place.

  3. Only have the negative consequences happen to Bob: Maybe that would work but then how would the game continue: how do you run a campaign where one PC is in prison but the rest aren't?

  4. Just have the PCs not get caught and avoid this situation: That sort of kills the whole risk-versus-reward part of the scenario, if the PCs can always avoid consequences by putting the DM in this situation.

Is there any good DMing advice for this kind of situation?

And also, are there any good ways to know if you are even in this kind of situation? In other words if everyone wants to do X, how do I know if it's because they actually want to do X or they are just going along for the benefit of another player?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Was it Bobs personal goal to ambush? Why would Bob not have submitted to the group decision, if it had been "no ambush"? Would that decision have had consequences for only Bobs character? \$\endgroup\$
    – nvoigt
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 5:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you playing any particular system? A lot of them have tools built-in to help guide you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 11:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FerventHippo Please do not write answers in comments. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 26, 2023 at 12:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the other PCs complained (whether in or out of character) about this behaviour, did Bob’s behaviour change? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 26, 2023 at 17:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder to everyone that answers belong in answer posts, not in comments. Advice to the asker about how to handle this situation is, by definition, an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 18:01

7 Answers 7

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Reading when people are feeling forced into a course of action can be difficult, and depends on a lot of factors - how well you know them personally, how good their 'poker face' is, your own social skills. Some players just always prefer to go with the flow and let others make decisions for them. There's no guarantee there, and at the end of the day if the players openly agree to a course of action as a group, then you as the GM should honour that decision.

It sounds like the actual issue here is that the players are unhappy with the consequences that they're now facing, and are looking to find a way to avoid them and have landed on somewhat throwing Bob under the bus as their course of action - this isn't great. With Bob being a new player, this is really something that should be addressed out of game, especially if these complaints from the other players were aired in Bob's presence - there's a good chance that chat would have left him feeling like he let the group down in some way.

You really want to stamp out that kind of blaming behaviour if you can, or there's a good chance that down the line a bad dice roll or a bad spell choice will lead to another blow-up and you'll see Bob leave your game.

In your place, I would have an open discussion before your next game about how in your game world there are consequences for actions like those that the players took. Those consequences aren't malicious on your part and they aren't punishments for the players themselves - they're just a part of the story, and they can lead in to new adventures as the consequences develop for the characters.

And I would emphasize that players are free to object to courses of action proposed by anyone in the group, and to debate them in and out of character, but that decisions should be made cooperatively. The fact that a decision ends badly doesn't mean it was the wrong one to make at the time, just like in real life - it's just another part of the story.

It may be that the players just don't want to face consequences at all, in which case there might be a mismatch between your expectations of the game and theirs. This is something that could come up in a session zero, but a discussion about it now is better late than never.

On your options:

  1. It's generally a bad idea to split your group, especially if the split is a group of people doing something and a group doing nothing. Even worse if it's a single player taking a potentially risky course of action on their own. As a GM I wouldn't allow that at all - I'd ask the players to come to some kind of compromise that allows them to stay together. You're playing a cooperative game, you should be able to cooperate.

  2. What happened above is perfectly fair if everyone agreed to it at the time - it really is just their fault that they didn't raise their concerns and negotiate to a better course of action. I understand the thought of wanting to give some grace to the new player, allowing them to make some key decisions and drive their fun to get them into the game flow - but you have to commit to going along with that. Being bitter after the fact is not supporting that new player.

  3. Unless you have specific buy-in from the individual player, I wouldn't ever do this as the outcome from a whole-group action. And especially with a new player, punishing them alone for the decision that they made even though everyone else agreed will feel terrible for them. However, a session or two where one character is in prison could be interesting if you have an idea of how to run it and that player is up for it - maybe that one player could run an NPC for that time, or they could work collaboratively on their escape from the inside. But I would never force that separation on a player.

  4. Letting the players guilt you into skipping over consequences can be a slippery slope, but it's up to you to judge whether that's something that might be appropriate in this specific case. There were some mitigating circumstances - there was a new player, the others may have felt that they were obliged to go along with his decisions, and that new player might not have understood the possible consequences. It might help to smooth things over to give them a free pass with the qualifier that it really is just this once. Or you could lessen the consequences somewhat, give them a quest straight away in the next session that will wipe their debt entirely and get them back to a clean slate.

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Players will make choices they later regret - that's ok.

This is from lived experience both as a DM and player. As a player, I have chosen to go along with the party's choice - sometimes suggested by one player alone. This is "my choice". I thought in terms of what my PC would say to role-play the situation out - instead of getting into meta-gaming and discussing the choice out of character. At times, my PC has supported what seemed an "unwise" decision to me but I always keep in mind that my PC -all things considered- probably would like to stay alive!

It seems like the group assigned blame to the new player, which seems a bit unfair because they all decided to carry out the ambush. No-one literally forced them to. There were consequences -which you chose to enact in the story line. If anything they are misdirecting their discontent. I have felt cross (which is fine) at my DM at times for the consequences of something we tried out, where the outcome felt unfair, e.g. we try to disarm a trap and failed. But, the trap was something quite drastic. This happened when we met a homebrewed gelatinous cube that dissolved ALL our gear in a dungeon - including my focus. In the end it was fun, but I do remember feeling cross with my DM and wondered if a more-measured trap would have been helpful.

The point here is that, as DMs, we have choices of following through OR amending a story line; we can choose the severity of the consequence.

In one of my homebrewed settings, there was a group of sentient trees who where demigod-like and remained in the material plane: some were NG, some NE. When the group encountered an evil one, it was because I wanted them to see one. It backfired. I did not expect the group to go all-in into a fight with it, but they did! I had a choice there to wipe the lot out, or not. In the end -because all but one of the player where relatively new to D&D- I decided to teach them a valuable but not deadly or dire lesson. I let the fight begin and, of course, in the creatures first round it flattened one of the PCs. They quickly realised that the had bitten way more than they could chew and tried to retreat. I let the creature attack once again on their retreat - however, I allowed a powerful enemy of the creature to intercede (ancient dragon). This meant that while those two were fighting the party got to make a hasty escape. The point was to weigh up their choices more carefully in future, which they did. Interestingly, it led to more careful planning.

It sounds from what your group did is that: good planning as the ambush was successful! Yet, maybe their covering of their tracks was not. Putting them into debt may or not be the right call; that of course is entirely up to you to decide as a DM.

As a player, I have been at a table where an unwise decision led to up dire consequences like the permanent loss of a limb or sight or repeated permanent deaths of PCs. Needless to say, that campaign did not last long because the DM did not grasp what our group liked and that we were fond of our PCs and did not want to retire or create a new one every other session.

When determining outcomes, I go back to the beginning of the Dungeon Master's Guide (pp. 4-6) where it says some of these important points:

  • "You're the DM, and you are in charge of the game. That said, your goal isn't to slaughter the adventurers but to create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, and to keep your players coming back for more!"
  • "[...] your role is to keep the players (and yourself) interested and immersed in the world you've created, and to let their characters do awesome things."

The DMG goes on to encourage DMs to get to learn what their players enjoy and is "keeping them engage", e.g. acting, exploring, instigating, etc. It sounds like your new player likes instigating and possibly problem-solving. That's ok. It's a balance. At my table, I try to keep a balance. I had one table that did not like the combat encounters (mostly); so I had to keep them brief and sparse. But, it meant I adapted the game to include a lot more story-telling, acting and exploring. They enjoyed the campaign a lot more once I changed tack.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments regarding whether quoting from the D&D5e DMG is relevant to a system-agnostic-tagged question have been moved to their own dedicated chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Commented May 28, 2023 at 2:14
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Give your players freedom

And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.
- Sir Terence David John Pratchett OBE, Going Postal

Bob was free to suggest an ambush or not. That freedom has consequences.

The others were free to follow Bob’s lead or not. That freedom has consequences.

The others are free to accept that it was their decision that led to the consequences or not. That freedom has consequences.

Bob is free to learn that leadership, particularly failed leadership, is difficult or not. That freedom has consequences.

Bob is free to tell the others not to be such a bunch of whiny babies or not. That freedom has consequences.

A screenshot of a scene from Futurama where the character Zoidberg dances on a table saying "freedom, freedom, freedom, oy!"

Your job as GM is to handle the consequences. Man, I love freedom.

This means, enable agency

Explain to the players as a group that they have absolute control over what their avatars do in the world but that consequences will flow from the actions they choose to take.

Explain that it is not your role to interfere with the group dynamic of the players/PCs in deciding what they will do in the world. If Bob keeps coming up with crazy-ass plans the others have to decide if they want to follow them and Bob’s player gets to decide what to do if they don’t. If that means Bob’s PC decides on a suicide mission, that’s on Bob and he can think about what his next PC will do in similar situations as he rolls them up similarly, if the other PCs leave Bob to die, consequences will follow just as they will of they decide to help Bob.

What you can and should do, is give them all the information their players would or should know to evaluate the likely consequences of their proposed actions before the commit to them. If the follow Bob’s crazy-ass murder plan are they likely to be caught, if they are what are the likely consequences etc.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For Freedom, and the right to dig up 81 kilos of iron ore, smelt it into steel with a couple chunks of meteorite, forge them into a sword and have that be inherited by the next generation! \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 19:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ This will lead right up to the freedom to leave the game, which is not the desired outcome. The OP is asking for advice on how to avoid that, not whether it is permissible by law. In other words, I don't think this is answering the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Corrodias
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 19:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ As much as I agree with this answer, I do think it would be improved by some advice on how to apply it to the OP's situation. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented May 28, 2023 at 2:16
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The root question - if you have a maverick dragging the rest of the party along (frequently under the Chaotic Stupid or New Player categories in my experience), then the best course of action is to talk to them about the kind of game experience they want or are expecting. Some players want to do extra zany things in game because they can't outside of it, others may not know what choices are available to them and assume - especially if they're video gamers - that combat is the solution to advance the plot, and others still may just in fact be that impulsive when the choices are placed before them.

Before (and even during) high risk choices, make sure the players understand them.

If you're all still getting used to each other play styles, consequences (or lack thereof) might not be what they expect. As an example, when I played D&D3E with my friends in high school we sometimes redid whole fights/scenarios when we realized we got certain things wrong in the rules. That game was rotating DM and episodical, so it didn't break anything. When I went to college, the first game I joined was an AD&D campaign that the DM had been running as long as I'd been alive so there was custom lore aplenty, and because of the number of players in the game the DM didn't shy away from lethal situations for the characters. We also had some veteran players who were less than forthcoming with useful information because to them, us students were just distractions from "their" campaign. Later as I introduced TTRPGs to people who never played them, their only experience was through things like Skyrim, Final Fantasy, or WOW, where you could only interact with important things and had scripted choices that were clearly displayed.

Each of these games comes with a different dynamic between player and DM, and all of them deserved clarification on the social contracts around the game. Once the players start to understand how to extrapolate the actual threat level of a risk beyond "make a roll, maybe it fails and we try something else".

Having a grittier campaign is neither better or worse. What matters is that everyone in the game agrees to the gaming experience that's happening.

  • Did Bob know that while an ambush was a possible path, that consequences could still find them after the quest/mission was complete?
  • To that end, did your other players know?
  • Were the players just as eager as Bob in the moment? Exasperated sighs with "here we go" are different from "Let's try it, I don't have better" and a far cry from "Yeah! Let's kick some keister!" The level of complicity in the moment can be discrediting for their regret later.
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Your question is about "how to handle it if one player wants to take a risky course of action that nobody else wants". The short answer is: usually, ask them to vote. If one player wants to go it alone, you might need to kill their character off if appropriate, or to ask them to leave the group.

But I think there's a different issue here, involving how you are treating your player characters.

Try to avoid "punishing" the player characters.

Players want to feel that their characters are awesome and capable and successful. Being punished is none of those things. Being punished makes your players feel like their characters are powerless and humiliated. Your players won't like it.

In my games, I do two things:

(1) I don't put the adventure near an all-powerful authority. Usually the players are the authority. If there's a city government, it's weak and ineffective.

There might be an evil authority nearby. Maybe if you commit a crime, the Dread Guard comes searching for you, and you can choose to fight them or flee.

But I'm never going to say: "Okay, well, the government finds out what you did, and they come and arrest you -- don't bother rolling, they automatically succeed -- and then they haul you on trial and find you guilty and take your stuff."

(2) I try not to offer the players choices that would lead to them being punished. Choices that would lead to combat are fine. Choices that would lead to getting caught in a trap, sure. Combat is fun; getting caught in a trap can be fun. But getting punished, no.

In the example above, that means I don't offer the players the opportunity to commit a crime. I don't say: "there's an innocent victim standing over there carrying a load of money, do you want to murder them and take their stuff and hide the body?" I actually don't even include rich NPCs in my games. If the NPCs aren't rich, then the question of murdering them to take their stuff doesn't come up.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This isn't a bad answer overall, but it makes some assumptions about setting that are really not warranted. For example, in e.g. Shadowrun or Blades in the Dark there is very likely to be a powerful authority nearby. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 15:32
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Did Bob’s behaviour stay the same after the other players complained about this (whether in our out of character)? I would definitely let such behaviour slide both one and two times and let the character suffer the consequences of such behaviour, including the ire of the rest of the party. However, if the situation keeps arising and there are signs that the group does not enjoy exploring these consequences or communicating in-game about them, I might try:

  • A one on one talk with the player do find out why they do not want to coordinate with other players who want to
  • A renewed session 0 including the whole group where topics about consensus and decision making are raised - do the players agree that consensus is needed on every decision or are initiatives by individuals which ”force the issue” accepted?
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In my experience, you have a group of friends playing. Sometimes there is that one person, who likes to play, but isn't really into the serious of it. If their actions blow up the game meh, in their mind they just start another game session and oh well. They enjoy the game, mainly because their friends are there and it is killing time, but they aren't really too invested in either their character or the plot lines.

Unfortunately because this character is a friend of some sort, you can't just boot them which IMHO is the best solution. So you have to manage them.

  1. Get them more involved in the plot. Typically these types of players are kind of around the edge of the adventuring party. Make them integral to the plot, make the story about them. The idea is to try to get the person invested in really role playing and become attached to the character and the plot line.

  2. Pray. I thought I might have a list of ideas but other than the above I do not. Do the above and pray it works out!

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