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Due to a number of factors my primary playing group tends to take very cautious approach to gaming when I DM. The reason for this is likely that I don't tend to pull any punches, and generally enjoy challenging them by giving them difficult situations.

That being said, over time it has made them extremely wary of my dungeons, traps, and in general anything. They are typically exhaustive in searching rooms, doing checks and in general being safe. Mind you there is the occasional stint of excellent RP (when the klepto mage saw something shiny and just grabbed it). This does however cause me problems because I typically have to be even more elaborate with my next set of challenges which causes them to be more cautious.

This has also forced me to have to be very clear and decisive in some situations (such as declaring when they enter the room that "there is nothing interesting in this room and they can move on"). Otherwise we waste hours searching empty rooms that were just meant as filler.

How can I get my players to play a little more dangerously and spend less time worried about being prepared and more time enjoying the content? I would prefer to not have to scale down the encounters (too much) if possible.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is your goal here to just get them moving forward faster? Or are you just trying to get them to be a bit less paranoid? Or just trying to streamline their paranoia? \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty May 5 '17 at 17:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Before they started doing this did they regularly have 'bad things' happen to them because they didn't? ('bad things' being fairly broad, but includes things like springing traps, or missing out on important clues or items) \$\endgroup\$ – diego May 5 '17 at 17:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are no gazebos. web.archive.org/web/20080804140516/http://www.dreadgazebo.com/… \$\endgroup\$ – PipperChip May 5 '17 at 18:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ One reading of your question is "how do I make players less paranoid so I can screw them over with their lack of paranoia whenever I want". Another is "how do I make players not waste time with paranoia when it isn't needed". Can you please clarify? \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk May 5 '17 at 19:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PipperChip -- In the Gazebo story, it always seemed to me that the root of the problem was that the GM just kept repeating the words "it's a gazebo" without grasping the fact that this communicated nothing useful to the player. Eric had no clue what the word "gazebo" meant, but the GM seems to have assumed: "Eric must know that word; he just ain't listening carefully enough!" There could be parallels to Sh4d0wsPlyr's situation. If the two sides are acting on very different assumptions about "how should this game be played?" then they need to work on their communication. \$\endgroup\$ – Lorendiac May 6 '17 at 2:59

10 Answers 10

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What you're experiencing is, essentially, an arms race between the GM and the players. They feel that your content is deadly or punishes frivolity and react by being as careful and cautious as they feel they need to. This causes you to make the next challenge more difficult to detect, which increases their paranoia. And so on.

On the one hand, I commend you for establishing a world that feels so real to your players that they're investing this level of thought and care into their characters' actions. In my experience, that's not the easiest thing to accomplish.

On the other hand, the only way to deescalate the situation you find yourself in is to openly discuss this with your players. It feels like both sides aren't quite getting the game they're expecting. Maybe your players want more story and less peril, or maybe they're really loving the edge-of-your-seat situations you're giving them and are playing that to the hilt. Helping them see your perspective will also let you understand why they're reacting so strongly to your challenges. You need to be prepared to alter your game some if it turns out that they're just feeling overwhelmed by the deadliness, perceived or otherwise, of the encounters you run.

Opening this dialog can also have the benefit of helping them feel more comfortable coming to you with other suggestions, such as story arcs for their characters and input into the larger narrative. That can greatly improve enjoyment for everyone around the table.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, talking this out with your players is definitely the best way forwards here \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs May 5 '17 at 21:36
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Carrots and Sticks

The Stick

The problem is, you've built a world where they've been given the stick every time they've struck out to do something that you had planned to be negative. This has built up over time to create a situation where they don't feel that it's safe to explore - or necessarily worth it.

The Carrot

The good news is that it's not the end of days. You just need to patient and begin to create positive outcomes for their explorations. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't have the stick - but it does mean that your stick situations need to be clearer.

It's not that traps and negative outcomes shouldn't occur - it's that there should be signs to give the players (and their characters) a chance to find them.

Methodology

This can be done either through narration or through offering rolls for investigation/perception. As you've said - you don't want your players to Leroy Jenkins an encounter/room/event, but you also don't want them to waste time. The key is to give them clues that there's something more than meets the eye and give them a chance to discover it.

Failing to do so may not your or their fault, though. You have to be careful because clues you think are obvious may not obvious to your players and you'll end up in the situation you're in now. It'll be a learning process, but this should help create a world where exploration is encouraged and rewarded - but also that it's dangerous and they players/characters have the tools to know when there's danger and how to approach it in order to get the positive outcome.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I hadn't considered this as "carrot vs stick" so much as "GM likes to challenge his players vs players want to keep their characters alive". Interesting perspective. \$\endgroup\$ – Karelzarath May 5 '17 at 17:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Karelzarath It isn't really a pure carrot/stick, but it's the idea that an action (or non-action) results in not-fun. That's the stick :) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 5 '17 at 17:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Its also worth mentioning @NautArch that I do reward them for overcoming a challenge. A good example being if they are a party of level 5 and wander into an area with CR8's and decide not to heed the warnings, but due to the extreme cautious nature of the party survive and find the rewards, they are rewarded based on that content (generally meaning also, that my parties are well geared due to this). I also occasionally give additional loot/benefits on the side to help promote this as well. Although I should mention - no punches pulled so everything is by the dice/rolled. \$\endgroup\$ – Sh4d0wsPlyr May 5 '17 at 21:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sh4d0wsPlyr playing the dice as they are rolled is the DM equivalent of "my guy" syndrome. When your players stumble into the over-challenging encounter, they're probably dead. See the Yakk's answer to help the party avoid this. \$\endgroup\$ – Tony Ennis May 5 '17 at 22:02
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Telegraph your punches, don't pull them.

Your problem is too much paranoia when it wastes time.

You don't like telling them "just skip this room". So do it the other way.

Telegraph when it is a good idea to be paranoid. The characters are presumably experts at adventuring. Instead of walking into a room and "forgetting to look up" and have a spider drop on them when they enter the room, tell them when the room is dangerous.

Something as explicit as "As you approach the room, your hair stands on end. There is something dangerous here." Or as subtle as "you see cobwebs and dried husks".

Don't have orphans -- surprises that are unconnected to something you say. And don't be too subtle with the hints; how they connect can be subtle, but the fact that it is something to wonder about should not be.

If you want players to not be paranoid when there is no reason, you need them to believe that only being paranoid where there is a reason is a good choice.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good thought re: telegraphing. \$\endgroup\$ – Tony Ennis May 5 '17 at 22:00
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Make tricks and traps more obvious.

Our group has rotated through a few DMs, some of which telegraphed dangers, and some of which have sprung traps out of nowhere. As you can imagine, our group was far more cautious when playing under the trap-springing DM than under the telegraphing DM. When every room might have a hidden trap inside, it's perfectly rational to spend a lot of time examining everything--otherwise, you're simply asking your players to constantly throw away an unknown amount of resources essentially at random.

Basically, you need to clearly establish safe and unsafe zones, and do it frequently. You say in your question that you have to be "clear and decisive," and that's exactly what you need to do more of. Right now, your players are treating every location in the dungeon as a dangerous area, because you've trained them to do that. Instead, you could try only highlighting rooms that actually do have traps or dangers. For example, a normal room could be described as "this is an empty room, you find nothing." whereas a trapped room could be described as "There is an angry-looking statue beside the door, and it is covered in blood splatters".

Just because the players know there is danger doesn't mean they know how to deal with it

One could argue that not knowing about the trap is part of the challenge, but it also leads to the problem that you describe in your question. Making dangers clear simply tells the players what they should focus on--it doesn't tell them how to deal with it. If the players notice pressure plates on the ground, what are they going to do about it? If there's a huge monster in the next room, how will the players deal with it? Many situations don't become easy just because the players know about them.

Make challenges worthwhile.

If you want your characters to play dangerously, you need to give them a reason to do that. My party has skipped quite a few rooms in dungeons recently, simply because they looked scary and there was no clear benefit to clearing the room. On the other hand, we were perfectly willing to charge into danger when it was clear that there was treasure at the other end of the room. If your players are constantly facing scenarios that are all risk and no reward, it's no wonder they don't want to engage with danger.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with this (and do it mostly). It was actually during the curse of Strahd that I picked up some of these traits (telegraphing the danger of an area, subtle hints in language/descriptions, themes, etc). Excellent ideas overall though, and I probably have not put enough of them into my content. \$\endgroup\$ – Sh4d0wsPlyr May 5 '17 at 21:10
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Use 5 Room Dungeons

These help keep the pace up, and define what players should be doing. Feel free to make it obvious that *besides the huge hulking monster in the room, the floor and walls are bare, except for large gouges the beast has caused in its rage. Or maybe they need to just sprint through, as the roleplaying challenge (see number 2) was convincing a dragon to give them 30 minutes in its lair or something.

Room 1: Entrance and Guardian

In this room, have a guardian to the dungeon (or anything else).

Room 2: Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge

Here, players with skills besides bashing stuff can be useful for once. Maybe there's a very powerful being that will only let you pass if you sing it the song of Thereald (possible side quest).

Room 3: Trick or Setback

The PC's (well-laid?) plans suddenly don't work out, one way or another. Use this to build tension. Maybe they hear something stirring in the depths, or drums from behind them. Maybe only half the item they were looking for is here, the rest is deeper in the dungeon.

Room 4: Climax, Big Battle, Conflict

Welcome to the boss level

Here is where a big baddie comes out, and people fight. Bonus points for epic terrain features.

Room 5: Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist

Here's where your players finally get da loot. And maybe a prophecy. Something to help the players connect more to the world.

Maybe Not Just 5 Rooms

This doesn't necessarily need to take place in a dungeon or in 5 rooms. This could take an entire complex of caverns or a wizards tower - you can drop this anywhere. It's just a collection of about 5 ideas, which means that you can be a very flexible DM in how you present it.

http://strolen.com/viewing/5_Room_Dungeon

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Look at exactly why they are jumpy, is it because they don't have much healing? give more healing potions as loot. Is it because they feel underpowered? How about a hireling or rescued soldier-of-fortune to help them along. Are they loot crazy mad looking through every nook and cranny? Add more wandering monster encounters (from all the noise).

Failing that - roll with it! Let them find cart loads of junk. I have one fighter who insists on mentally tagging then at the end of the adventure/scene DRAGGING just about everything to their cart outside. They don't sell it, they HOARD it in their farm, they are role playing so I go with it. They have a farm that is cluttered with monster weapons, broken tables, lamp stands - all itemised and laid out on a separate sheet. They want to practice taxidermy and want to preserve the "boss" kills heads - again I roll with it.

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It sounds to me like you have been giving them "dead" dungeons that aren't responsive to their presence. In such an environment, there is no in-game reason not to be ultra-paranoid and take 20 on everything they can. If they got caught off guard by a few traps, this would be the natural response.

The best way I know of to resolve this is to start the clock ticking. Make it a "living" dungeon. Give them a sense that doing an exhaustive search has a price on it. Have opponents that will take the time to prepare defensive arrangements or even go on the offensive while the search is taking place.

This can be done as a trade of sorts. As you force them to be more choosey about what they investigate, you should go easier on them with the traps. The players might get bitter if the traps are just as dangerous and they have less time to deal with them.

And never forget Tucker's Kobolds!

... Tucker ran an incredibly dangerous dungeon in the days I was stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C. This dungeon had corridors that changed all of your donkeys into huge flaming demons or dropped the whole party into acid baths, but the demons were wienies compared to the kobolds on Level One. These kobolds were just regular kobolds, with 1-4 hp and all that, but they were mean. When I say they were mean, I mean they were bad, Jim. They graduated magna cum laude from the Sauron Institute for the Criminally Vicious....

I highly recommend the read.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed the emphasis can be on minor but damaging/ annoying monsters coming out of through gaps in the wall etc. if they stay still for very long. \$\endgroup\$ – user2617804 May 6 '17 at 2:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think that introducing Tucker's Kobolds or anything similar, would make the characters less paranoid though - more the opposite. The "in kind" way to respond to those kobolds would be slowly demolishing the dungeon from the outside in. \$\endgroup\$ – Errorsatz Jan 30 at 20:16
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Your players are careful, because you didn't leave them other choices. They have to be, because carelessness is punished. Since your aims are challenge and realism, there's little you can do to solve that problem.

However, you can make them focus their efforts where it is interesting and rewarding for everyone. The answer about "telegraphing" is an excellent approach, but it can be improved with some story telling basics.

Detail vs. Fast-Paced

Every good movie or book uses this very simple approach: When the stakes are high, describe in detail, time flows slow (even in movies, very often slower than real time. There are so many x minute countdowns that actually take two or three times as long to count down in movie time). When things are not important, skip or accelerate - e.g. the famous Indiana Jones travel maps. And when you need tension to be high, add a ticking bomb (i.e. time pressure).

Skipping

It is ok for the GM to take control of the situation and accelerate it. You can bring the "nothing of interest" part into the game. Simply announce that they are searching the room carefully, checking every corner, and in the end their characters are certain they didn't miss anything. Let them even find a few small treasures or disarm some simple trap where they'd have a 95% disarm chance anyways. You can make it quite obvious that you are skipping over non-interesting parts - many movies do it, many books do it ("later that day...").

Detailing

You can be the same obvious when things are interesting. Describing the room in detail is a great way of telegraphing that you want the players to pay attention, in the same way that virtually every movie in the world tells us who the main characters are simply by showing them doing not important things.

Ticking Bomb

And at the climax of your story, add pressure by putting a time constraint. However, if you do that there must be one additional part for that to work: Under pressure, mistakes are made. They must be recoverable. If you look at your favorite movies, the climax is typically a jumble of things going as planned, things going wrong, last-minute saving rolls and a bit of luck. If you want fast-paced action, if you want your players to make fast decisions based on incomplete information, it must be possible to make a mistake and recover, otherwise they will find different ways to game your time restriction and take speed out of the game again.

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Time pressure

Otherwise we waste hours searching empty rooms that were just meant as filler.

Your players are screwing around because they have all the time in the world, so why not? Introduce time pressure. A thousand action movies have introduced some device to put the characters under pressure and make them rush and take risks, which make it an exciting movie. You can do the same.

Examples:

  • They must rescue the princess before time runs out.
  • They are poisoned and have to get to the antidote.
  • Evil Otto is coming. In the old arcade game Berzerk - what, you don't remember Berserk? Anyway, screw around too long and a bouncy smiley face shows up and bounces slowly towards you. Can't kill him. Gotta move!

I think for a dungeon the Evil Otto idea would be best: something slow but relentless is coming after you and you need to stay ahead of it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While this can mitigate the players' urge to turn every rock, it hampers exploration, at least in my experience. If they know the critical path to the antidote princess, players will bee line to it if an Evil Otto is right up their back, and counteracts the OP's desire to get them to explore. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 May 8 '17 at 3:09
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A suggestion might be to try a game with a very different expected format, like the World of Darkness or Star Wars.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi, Sarah Z. welcome to the site, take the tour, if you have the time, you'll get a little more knowledge about the site and a bronze badge to boot! About your answer, while we do accept frame challenges, we also expect the answer to first answer the question posed before saying "don't do that". If you can edit your post to address the question, it is now acceptable to answer with "try this system", we also expect the suggestion to offer a reason why they should try it and how it helps them. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 May 8 '17 at 3:03

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