A Better Way
Let’s go back to my earlier point, that people naturally tend to make guesses about what’s going on based on whatever they think they know.
And a second point: You don’t want them to be blank slates. You want them to be uncertain.
Well, that’s easy.
To see how description heightens uncertainty, watch Matt Mercer DM for Critical Role. Mercer does an excellent job describing each new creature. But keep an eye on the comments of the fans in the bottom corner, as they guess at each creature: Even the veteran players struggle.
For example, the episode “AraMente to Pyrah” features a tense encounter from 17:40 to about 30:00. When Mercer describes the leonine monster at 22:18, fans start guessing based on Mercer’s description: manticore, sphinx, chimera, lamia, celestial lion, lammasu. The last guess, lammasu, is particularly interesting: It could only come from an old-school, veteran player. The lammasu doesn’t appear in 5th edition, and the D&D spelling isn’t the same as the mythological one. Yet that expert guess is wrong. It’s not a lammasu.
Mercer himself doesn’t name the creature for the party until after it is gone, at about 29:50. Yes, many fans get this one right, but enough of them get it wrong, even confidently wrong, that it illustrates my point: Describe, don’t name, and uncertainty will reign.
- Don’t label your creatures for the players. Just describe what they are seeing or hearing. As Justin Alexander has correctly noted, even if your description is spot-on, players have a tendency to misread clues. They’ll latch onto details that you might have thought were clearly unimportant and they’ll start to draw conclusions based on that information. That’s why Alexander urges GMs to provide at least three clues for anything they want the party to figure out. If they decide they’re looking at a troll, roll with that term, but make it clear that’s what you’re doing, like so: “The creature that you think is a troll rakes its claws across your chest.” They may still try fire on it at that point, but they’ll be half-expecting it to do something weird when they do.
- Do what you can to “seed” multiple interpretations of what’s going on. In the revised narrative below, the farmer (presumably an NPC) has his own opinions about what’s killing people in the farms of the Reach, and he should voice them. Moreover, the clues that Bettelfegne, Imevere, and Robijeign find might easily support multiple, conflicting interpretations. If you follow the smarter intelligence-check principle, you can ensure those multiple interpretations all emerge.
If you use the above two principles with my opening scene, with the erupted farm land, it might play out something like this:
“Acid,” Robijeign announced to his mounted companions as he eyed the wisps of smoke rising from the tip of his blade.
“Ankhegs, perhaps?” Imevere wondered aloud, lowering her hood to improve her field of vision. Where the fields met the woodline, something had recently erupted through the earth. A depression of churned earth and smoking, pock-marked rocks lay before them. A wide and rutted farm trail ended at one end of the eruption and continued on the other side.
“That makes sense,” said Bettelfegne, the priest, quietest member of the team.
But Ben, the farmer who had guided them to the spot, shook his head. “Dealt with ankhegs, lady. This ain’t them. Eruption’s too large.”
Imevere, of course, knew this. Warden of the Western Reaches, she was no stranger to its wildlife. But …
“It’s too large for one ankheg, certainly. But what about many?” she asked.
“Never seen ’em all boil up in one big spot like that,” the farmer said.
Bettelfegne dismounted and approached a partly uprooted tree near the edge of the eruption. Looking it over, he called out, “Could be a bulette.”
Ben, the farmer, guffawed. “Children’s tales. Never seen one, and I been in these fields longer than you’ve been alive.”
The three adventurers exchanged glances.
“Bulettes haven’t ever been recorded this far from the Swath,” Imevere said. “But they could always migrate. At any rate, the acid is more consistent with ankhegs.”
“Unless the wagon on this road was carrying something acidic,” said Robijeign, picking up a smoking chunk of what appeared to have once been a wagon board. It had been pocked by the splatter of something that was now smoking.
Imevere bit her lip and became thoughtful.
“I can save you all time,” the farmer said with a snort. “This is the work of the murmastrato, ant-folk. Kaene was never good about keeping up with his offerings.”
The three investigators traded glances again.
“Ant-people?” Bettelfegne asked.
“Local superstition,” Imevere said. “Insect fey, like the ettercap and grig. Like many legends, it could be based on something real. Maybe.”
“They’re real,” Ben said. “Seen ’em. Bloodthirsty extortionists, the lot of ’em.”
“Well, almost anything would be better than my second hypothesis,” said Bettelfegne.
Three pairs of eyes turned to him, so he finished: “Land-wyrm. Also known as the purple worm.”
Ben froze, thoughtful. “Aye, the great worms have been recorded in these parts, but not for several generations,” he admitted with a shudder. “My grandfather saw one, once. Its maw was nine yards across, tooth to tooth.”
“Nine yards? That’s … quite a bit bigger than the ones I’ve read about,” Bettelfegne said.
“Maybe, sir. But that’s my grandfather’s account of it, and I do not doubt him.”
Even if the three investigators decide they’re dealing with a group of ankhegs, they’ll remain uncertain until something rears up out of the ground and tries to eat them. Indeed, they may well remain uncertain until they’ve dissected the damned thing(s).
Put it this way: I have a clear idea of what they’re facing — but do you?
You don’t need to trick the PCs, punish them, or tell them to play movie-dumb. If you run a psychologically realistic game — one filled with conflicting ideas and devoid of clear labels — the PCs will learn to tread carefully, lest they trick themselves. †
♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. Graham has also written a Dungeon Magazine city adventure titled “Thirds of Purloined Vellum” and a fantasy novella titled Godfathom. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content.