Reader Mail: Demon Swords, and Tricking Your Players

Magic the Gathering Card: Elbrus, the Binding Blade
The “Magic: The Gathering” card which inspired this question.

When I first started writing this blog, I foolishly wrote from a position of authority. Not because I thought I was some tabletop guru with a wisdom of 18, but because I was writing instructions for myself. Writing is a mechanism for working through my own ideas, so I can better understand them. Unfortunately, my readers didn’t know that, and I came off as pompous. It was a weakness of my writing style at the time.

To my surprise, though, some people have actually started believing I’m an authority on tabletop games. I’m occasionally approached with questions on how to run or design a good game. While I think there are probably better people to ask, I certainly don’t mind weighing in with my opinion. (That goes for pretty much any subject. Ever.) Plus it strokes my ego, which is always a pleasure. Sometimes my answers get pretty lengthy, and it only just occurred to me today that I could be posting this shit! So, because I’ve never been shy about ripping off Courtney, I’m going to start answering reader mail on Papers & Pencils. If you’d like to ask me a question, there’s a “contact” link right up at the top of the site.

Today’s question is from someone predisposed to believe I’m an authority on things, my younger brother. He asks:

“Is it ever a good idea to tempt players with power, and the screw them with it? In particular, I’m looking at a really hard-to-get sword, that doesn’t really do much. The first time it does damage to something though, it turns into a massive demon. The demon will fight with the PCs until all the enemies are dead, at which point it will turn on the party”

(Quote paraphrased for formatting & clarity).

Absolutely! The GM’s entire job is to challenge the players. Doing that in a creative manner is laudable. However, setting out to deceive your players can be challenging. It’s an important skill to learn, but if mishandled, your players may decide you’re just being an asshole. The goal is to challenge them, not fuck them over. To achieve this, I would say you need to keep two things in mind.

First, know what you’re doing and be cognizant of the consequences. You mentioned you want the sword to be “really hard-to-get.” Does that mean it’ll take them 4-6 hours of gameplay to reach it, or will this quest span half a dozen game sessions? The more investment your players put into finding this trick sword, the more frustrated they’ll be when it doesn’t live up to their expectations. Their frustration can also be compounded / exacerbated with ancillary rewards. If the dungeon where the sword is located also includes plenty of other treasure, the players will be less frustrated that their primary goal didn’t work out.

Of course, the GM shouldn’t feel obligated to add elements to reduce player frustration. Frustrating defeats make the game’s victories much sweeter. But the GM should at least know when they’re apt to cause frustration, and decide just how frustrating they want to be.

Second, and far more importantly, never trick your players by lying. Trick your players by glossing over important information, or omitting information which they could find, but probably won’t bother to. For example, when they first hear of this sword, perhaps it’s by discovering an ancient scroll deep in a dungeon. On the scroll is written something to the effect of “The great invincible demon terrorized the townsfolk until Sir Goodly Cleric showed up. The two battled for many days, but only with the Sword of GarbleBlag was the demon’s threat ended. The sword was sealed in the dungeon beneath the town of GlibbidyGob to prevent the demon from becoming a threat once again.”

Knowing the location of a treasure which defeated an invincible demon is a tempting adventure. The players may or may not notice that the sword did not “wound” or “kill” the demon, it merely “ended the demon’s threat.” Even if that were the only hint you included, it would be enough. I’ve gone a step further and added the additional hint that the sword needed to be sealed away to prevent the demon from becoming a threat again. Players will almost certainly notice this, but in my experience the chance they’ll decide the sword isn’t worth pursuing based on that hint is pretty small. More likely they think they’ll need to defeat the demon in order to get the sword, or that the sword will be empowered by the sealed demon. Players tend to think anything which exists, exists to empower them. The game is more fun when this isn’t true.

Providing players with hints means they won’t fall into every trap you’ve laid for them. And that can be disappointing. As GMs, we work hard on our content, and we want our players to see as much of it as possible. But in that desire lies the root of agency-robbing behavior. And anyway, when players fall into traps despite having hints to warn them away from it, their cries of suffering are much more rewarding! >:D

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