Think Outside the Box and Turn Spoilers into Benefits in 5E D&D
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted answer a question from the RPG community. This time around a player looking to play fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons for the first time followed the most classic advice for finding a game — offer to run one yourself! This first time Game Master comes in with a concern almost as old as D&D itself, explaining how a player in their campaign reads ahead in the official adventures they’re playing through and comes to each session with intimate knowledge of what lies ahead. Puzzles are solved with ease, hidden elements lay bare before them and crucial decision points fall in their favor far too often for the player’s claim of getting lucky. In the video Dave and Ted offer several suggestions for handling these situations but I’m curious if there’s any opportunity to make this work in the GM’s favor. Call it metagaming or cheating, can we find a way to turn spoilers into assistors? Let’s get into it and find out.
Tried and true RPG tradition
Since the earliest days of D&D players enjoy swapping stories of their adventures. In the case of published adventures or campaigns, which I’ll refer to as modules from here on out, comparing experiences connects players across different groups. Sharing tales of how your group smashed the Iron Ring in Night’s Dark Terror, navigated the tense relationships between factions within the Caves of Chaos or overcame challenges at White Plume Mountain gives players common ground.
Fast forward to 2020 and the enormous player base combined with abundance of groups to game with whether online or in person at events and hobby shops adds an additional spin to the scenario — multiple play experiences with the same content. I’ve played through quite a few adventures multiple times with different groups, including some I’d run myself, and at least skimmed through every official 5E D&D module from Wizards of the Coast. So my first reaction to the GM 911 in question is these are growing pains. I’m going to assume the players in this brave new GM’s group are new to the game same as they are, and while I understand how this behavior could be frustrating I firmly believe something will click for these players before too long.
RPGs like 5E D&D are strange animals. Unlike pretty much any other game there’s no winners and losers and this can be challenging to wrap your head around. Surely discovering every secret, defeating every enemy and gathering every bit of treasure is the goal of the game, right? There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach — who doesn’t want to be victorious in all their endeavors? At least a part of the psychology behind the GM 911’s situation stems from this desire to conquer the module in every way.
Is this cheating? In a way, yes. Except not how the GM 911 perceives. Coming to a game session with knowledge aforethought of everything about to transpire cheats the player themselves, robbing them of what could be an amazing group experience. Think about your favorite stories in film, television or literature and the protagonists whose stories captivate you. Now imagine they progress through the story knowing what lies around every corner, where all their enemies are as well as those enemies deepest secrets and motivations. They know exactly where the McGuffin required to achieve victory is located, how to get there while avoiding all trouble and they know ahead of time whatever narrative twists and turns await. Would you want to experience this story? Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it?
With all this in mind there are a few ways a GM can incorporate this sort of player behavior to make things easier for themselves running the game and add to the satisfaction of the whole group playing through a module together. Mild spoilers ahead for several 5E D&D modules but don’t worry — you’ll be able to turn these into an advantage anyway!
- Play the Mentor. Make this player’s knowledge part of their character’s personality and backstory. Perhaps they accompany the rest of the party expressly because they have prior knowledge of what awaits them. In Ghosts of Saltmarsh the first adventure, Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, finds the party investigating a decrepit mansion rumored to be haunted and hold treasure. The Mentor character may have poked around in there a bit prior to the module’s start. They know the general layout and perhaps some of the dangerous parts of the mansion. You might discover this leads to changing the player’s behavior too. Every so often change something and see what happens. In the context of the game it’s the character’s knowledge that changes too — this could be a dramatic turn of events for them and result in some interesting story developments.
- Enhance Player Agency. Whenever the player seems to defy reason and logic with inexplicable knowledge of the module, put their character — not the player — on the spot. How does the character know this? What compelled them to scrape the plaster off the wall in the Tomb of Horrors? Where did they learn about the secret entrance to the Redbrands’ hideout in Phandalin? This might be the best method to deal with the behavior because it hopefully helps the player understand how it’s the story of the party, not a checklist of module material, that makes the game memorable. As a bonus, extending this opportunity for increased player agency can inspire new ideas for the GM and bring fresh perspectives to the module as a whole.
- Spread the Attention. This method encompasses the entire player group and a bit of extra thought from the GM. When the party reaches decision points call on specific players to take action. When a party making their way through the Temple of Black Earth reaches an intersection ask the character in the lead which direction they turn. When Saeth Cromley and Barnibus Blastwind arrive to investigate the fireball in the streets of Waterdeep, have then direct their questions at a specific character to see what they can puzzle out. Employing this method might still mean the knowledgeable player continues their behavior, but now at least it’s mitigated by giving the other players a chance to participate too. If the outlier player chafes at this and grows frustrated themselves, perhaps even leaving the group, I can’t say it would be a tremendous loss because this indicates to me they’re rather selfish.
I hope some of these ideas give you some new tools to use in your games whether you’re a GM or player and even if your game groups don’t have players with these behaviors. RPGs are a unique variety of game with lots of nuance. In fact, while 5E D&D is my personal favorite RPG I’ll admit much of this nuance is not explicit in the rule books themselves. Over time players learn what they like and don’t like, what sort of games they enjoy and how they prefer to interact with the game. It can certainly be discouraging for any GM, and especially a new one, to manage these expectations and situations in a way that results in positive outcomes for everyone. But I assure you, if you’ve taken a seat behind the GM screen to run your own games you’re already showing exceptional promise!