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Somewhat related to my other question.

At this point, the players in my game have travelled through a Kobold Empire. They have killed Ogres for them. They have slain a Dragon and given them back control of an abandoned temple. They have been told that they were only allowed in because the Kobolds were tricking them into slaying the Dragon. They have negotiated a reward (in gold and trade-rights) with the Kobold Ranger that was tracking them.

Now, they'll be heading to a nearby Duke, who will try to trick them into either doing dangerous jobs for the Kobolds without paying them for it.

At the end of the day:

  • They will probably not get the gold they were promised
  • There will most likely be no trading happening
  • The players might end up risking their lives more, at no real reward
  • The players might end up in the gladiator-pits if they play it badly
  • They may have accidentally made the Kobolds realise that there is a human city across the river that's trying to grow in importance
  • The Kobolds don't care if they or their friends get killed, and will not really help them unless it serves their own empire

Obviously, a lot of this is pretty bad. The players are pretty much outgunned and outwitted. They could cause the total destruction of the city they've been spending time building up. They could get locked in the gladiator-pits and face all its dangers. They will not get any of the stuff they were promised and they might even lose out on the reason they went to the temple in the first place if the Kobolds kick them out before they retrieve it.

But I also feel like this is something they're getting themselves into. The entire campaign is a sandbox placed on a frontier. There are no set goals, I don't really plan out the plot or world far in advance and the players are entirely free to take the story where they want. I never once suggested it would be a good idea to trade with this huge empire. I did tell them the Kobolds are xenophobic (to the point where the Gnome has been going around in a disguise for weeks) and manipulative. I even drove the point home with the Kobold Ranger telling them they were allowed access because the Kobolds were trying to get them to kill the Dragon for them.

If the next session ends badly for the player characters, how can I reïnforce that I'm just trying to portray the world fairly and this was all their own idea? I don't want them to feel bad (losing an rpg can also be fun) but I also don't want them to blame me for sticking them in an impossible situation. And ideally, I'd like to make them realise this without having to resort to out of game "Well, I did warn you here and here and here", because that tends to leave a bitter taste. Having the DM tell you after the game that you missed the cues is never fun imho.

Some information on the players: these are people I've known for around 10 years, because we do volunteer work together. However, most of them I only really see when we're working together or playing together, only rarely outside of these situations. This is the first game we've played together, although all have previous experience. We've been playing about once every 6 weeks for about a year.

- Aftermath -

Since we've played the previous session, I figured I'd share the conclusion. I took Wibbs' (and others) advice about expectations and signposting and started the new session by playing up the Ranger's lack of trustworthiness a bit more, which caused them to change plans and instead kidnap the Ranger.

Which turned into a very thrilling battle as the Kobolds (succesfully) managed to bust out their friend before scattering and leaving them alone from there on out. The players succesfully left the Kobold Empire and are currently plotting revenge (which I intend to let them have). Everyone had a great time and nobody felt bad, even though there were few rewards earned from this adventure.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing you haven't addressed that might help this question is how they have gotten this far without experiencing some negative effects to their actions. If the negatives all hit at once then the PC's are far more likely to be upset. \$\endgroup\$ – Patrick Mar 25 '15 at 12:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not really an answer, but if someone is negotiating services in bad faith like that kobold duke is, I would probably give the players a Sense Motive, probably with a bonus because of how bad it will be if they get tricked. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Mar 25 '15 at 16:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here's an important question: are you sure this is the kind of game the players WANT? The standard expectation for D&D play as a trope, is you do missions and you get rewards. Being manipulated and getting zero gain is realistic, but also not what people typically sign up for when you say, "We're playing D&D". If they're expecting trope-based play, they'll feel betrayed by you, the GM, and it won't be fun for anyone. \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 Mar 25 '15 at 17:28
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For me this is largely about expectations, signposting and player agency.

The first point is expectations. How much was the tone of the campaign discussed before you started? Did you make sure the players were aware you were going for a world where their actions can have negative consequences and that you would follow through on these? This might sound silly, as I'm sure for a lot of people what I've just described is where the fun of roleplaying is, but you'd be suprised how many players have the expectation that they are never going to fail.

Then there are signposting, opportunies to spot the bad stuff and if it happens then do something about it. If I were a player and the only warning I got that something really bad was going to happen was right at the beginning of an adventure 3 months ago, then I think I would be entitled to be a bit frustrated. People have short memories and cannot be expected to be able to identify the important bits of information in everything you tell them as GM, let alone remember it for weeks/months at a time.

Lets take your first point as an example. Have they been made aware that the Kobolds renege on deals and have a reputation for not giving gold? When was this and by whom? Was it someone they had a reason to trust? If their only warning was a brief encounter with a minor NPC 10 weeks ago then you might want to think about reinforcing this somehow.

Assuming that you've given them plenty of warning and they still end up with no gold, the most important thing is to ensure that you provide a way of getting revenge and/or recompense. I know if I'd been doing a load of dangerous work and didn't get the gold I was promised that I would want to do something about it. The most important thing here is to give players the opportunity to act in revenge/response to whatever has happened to them. Maintaining player agency when something bad has happened to their characters is key in ensuring they don't feel hard done by or upset. There is nothing quite so bad as effectively being told 'Haha! You don't get any of the money you were promised and there's nothing you can do about it!'

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My advice would be not to rub their noses in it unless they express displeasure at you rather than themselves. If the gnome's been in disguise for weeks then they surely know that they're in a "situation" of some sort.

If they're happy and you start getting defensive then you're probably going to spoil things to some degree. If they're unhappy and you start getting defensive then you're probably going to make things worse. If it does end acrimoniously then is the time to address it, not pre-emptively.

Maybe they're having a blast; so I think you need to judge their mood and decide.

What you describe all sounds like a great adventure, speaking as a player. Some of the best stories are the ones where you screw up and have to try to get out of a mess of your own making, or die trying.

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I've upvoted several of the good answers here already, just want to add something from my own experience.

During one adventure in my current campaign, my players took an action that seemed to me to be the height of foolishness. I confirmed with them, "you say you want to go in the tomb? Now? You're sure? Okay...".

They had a higher level party of evil adventurers following them, which they had just sighted sneaking around a few moments ago, they knew there was some kind of evil portal in the tomb that was the source of hundreds of zombies, they knew evil red wizards had been coming out of some of the tombs in the area, it was relatively clear and safe outside, but they still chose to go in. This baffled me. One of the party ended up dying in the first room inside the tomb, as the other party came down the stairs after them and they were sandwiched between a rock and a hard place.

I later asked them why they did something so foolhardy, and found out that they were under the impression that there were zombies everywhere outside and that they had to run into the tomb for safety. This was not the case at all. I thought that I was pretty clear about this, but apparently not.

So, what I'm saying is, if your players seem to be making a series of poor choices, there's a chance that the situation that they understand themselves to be in is quite different from the situation that you understand them to be in. Maybe have a conversation with them about all the things you think that they know, and just make sure that everybody is on the same page. Don't go into details you haven't divulged yet, spoilers about what's to come, or the outcomes you expect, just confirm the facts.

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I agree with @Nagora, but some ideas to tell them about this "in-game" if you feel it necessary:

While they still have a chance to get out of it relatively unharmed, maybe drop more warnings. Have them meet a human slave or something on their way to the duke that tells them to trust no one or something along these lines. After they have been burned, have them meet this guy again and tell them "I told you so". There might be multiple encounters of such kind. Alternatively, the duke could mock them in Bond-villain style and laugh about those stupid, greedy humans (or whatever race the PCs are).

In your sandbox world, the slaves could even be the hook to turn things upside down and offer the players the chance to free them and come out on top, either by the players initiative or after being asked for help.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I was just thinking along the same lines: it might be interesting for them to meet a slave from another race (for example in the waiting room before their meeting with the Duke) who was once an "adventurer" itself and enslaved instead of rewarded as promised. Of course, there is the issue of getting that dialogue started... maybe if the slave acted "spooked" or something some of those PCs would realize it with a Spot check and take it upon themselves to talk. Otherwise, having the slave snigger and, when called out, mock them for being so gullible, would not require the PCs to take the init. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Mar 25 '15 at 18:22
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Your players just got finished getting ripped off by Kobolds.

They are about to be ripped off by the Duke of Douche-tershire.

The fact that your players were willing to even try to work with kobolds suggests that their options were fairly limited to begin with.

Did you offer the players an opportunity to save an orphanage, and did the players then take a pass on that?

Doesn't sound like it.

I'm getting the sense that honest NPCs are as rare as hen's teeth in your campaign.

I'm also getting the sense that the PCs are not able to improve their relationships with the NPCs by way of Diplomacy checks or anything like that.

The sub-text is that adventurers who can slay dragons and ogres are a dime a dozen in this setting.

It's the player's fault that everyone and their Dutch uncle is trying to rip them off? Really? REALLY?

If you have populated your campaign setting entirely with sociopaths, then you need to own that.

I encourage you, in the strongest possible terms, to provide your players with at least one NPC they can trust. One character that they can turn to who won't rip them off or slit their throats in their sleep.

Even Quentin Tarantino puts a handful of honorable thieves in his movies. Take his lead.

If I was a player in this campaign, I'd just assume every NPC was going to rip me off until you gave me reason to think otherwise.

Stay on this path and I predict you will be looking at a growing number of empty chairs on game night.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Keep in mind the Duke in question is also a Kobold as all this is still taking place within the Kobold Empire, and it was entirely their choice to go meet the Duke; they requested an audiance with him as their reward. It wasn't my idea. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jun 8 '15 at 10:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ What were their other choices as rewards? \$\endgroup\$ – ShaneMRoth Jun 8 '15 at 10:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Kobolds wouldn't have minded "first pick from the Dragon's hoard" or something to that extent. They might be manipulative bastards, but that doesn't mean they don't understand that buying people off is cheaper than having to fight them sometimes. It's the choice of trying to get involved with politics with a far more powerful entity as a group of fresh leaders of a small city that was a really bad one on their account. (At least imho) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jun 8 '15 at 10:29
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While playing a game scene, with players actually in character, you can suggest some intelligence rolls or skill rolls that let the character perceive a possible fraud or unexpected outcome if they proceed blindly in that direction.

You can also avoid the roll and just give in the information as coming from the character skills without involving random factors, or take a covered roll just to let player knows it's something tested on character skills

When this happens, you can talk directly to the player giving him a clear sight of consequences, without having him realize what's your game master plan. Having the information this way lets the player choose between following his character intuition and prepare for what's going on, or just get the bad things.

Another possibility is to take everything off game and talk with player in explicit manner, without spoiling the campaign events: let them know the events may come out very far from what they expect, and ask for players expectations, and that's your actual concerns. They may answer that's everything is fine, or that they expect this to come and are willing to handle it.

From my experience, the situation that should be avoided are:

  • having the players as game master antagonists.
  • have the characters in a dead end, without foreshadowing the event

Last, but not least, I'd suggest you to separate better the game content from the actual fact you're playing. As a game master you're responsible of the game content, more than players are, but you cannot solve everything just keeping it coherent or smooth on your side.

You have to earn their trust on how you handle game content, and to have this effect you should be able to put your content plan aside even if it's less coherent or you need to change it on the fly during your play. When something you're preparing can upset the player its probably failing this responsibility.

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I would be thinking hard about how this treachery could be revealed IC so that your players have as much information about the possible outcomes of their decisions before they make them. That way they also have the opportunity to outwit the kobolds too if they play smart, which gives them as much agency as possible.

One thing that might happen on arriving at a duke's castle could be some misunderstanding resulting in the characters being dropped in jail on their arrival where they might meet the last person who did a job for the duke. If they avoid this perhaps someone actually seeks them out to warn them.

If they have been given the information and they still go ahead, then it is very much their decision and they can play out the consequences.

If I was DM and it all started going really badly for the party, a desperate flight through hostile territory is a pretty fun and tense game so I'd be looking to offer some opportunities to escape and get out of the empire at exceedingly high risk...

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Well, that's a tricky situation.

Fortunately, this can be solved by sprinkling some NPC action, before they go to the duke. You said that your campaign is a Sandbox. That's really good, because that enables you to just plant side quests anywhere, anytime. Quests that give, in fact, what your players need: fun moments.

Before they get to the duke, assault them. Make them be kidnapped by some strange organization of kobold and humans that just want the to people to get along. Make them a group of rogues specially good at collecting intel and acting on the shadows, using a vast network of caves below the city and a few magic items.

Make this group warn them, explaining that the Kobolduke is just using them. Give your players decision points that they can use to change what they are doing! If you just "go along" with them, without providing those "plot-twist chances", chances are that your players will just ride the wave and keep doing whatever they are already doing, without questioning if they indeed should do that. If you make them stop and think, however, things can be pretty different.

If they stick to the "Kobold-Helping", them, wash your hands. You warned them ingame, via an NPC, an they still went on with the Bad Idea. If they switch sides and defect to this rogue group... well, you will have a far better time with them, without grief and sorrow!

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