The Megalo-Huge Dungeon Blog (Part 3)

Managing Player Expectations

As I placed monsters on my dungeon’s first level, I started to compare the strength of certain creatures to the characters that might explore the level. I must first explain that I am trying to adhere to the idea that the first level of the dungeon contains first level monsters, the second level contains second level monsters, and so on. Characters would need to gain enough experience points to advance to higher levels before adventuring to lower areas of the dungeon unless they decided to brave the dangers and descend before their level advancement. Players have the freedom to make that decision, right? They can opt to risk the greater danger for greater rewards. It seems logical enough. If they know the risks and decide to face the challenge, they should be ready to accept any rewards or consequences that occur.

The first level of my dwarven dungeon has about 450 rooms. There are a lot of monsters, treasures, traps, and obstacles for the characters to overcome. I did my best to use the first level monsters provided in the AD&D monster tomes but also created a few of my own to spice things up. Even with all these creatures, I found there needed to be a wider variation of encounters and challenges. So, I started placing higher level creatures on the first level. This decision set off warning alarms in my head.

As stated earlier, if the players understand the risks of taking their first level characters to the second dungeon level, where tougher monsters lurk and hunt and choose to descend anyway, they must be ready for the rewards and consequences. So, if I provide enough hints and warnings about stronger monsters dwelling on the first level, should not the same be true? The characters could avoid these monsters until they were higher level. As long as there are enough experience points on the level to allow them to advance without engaging these stronger adversaries, it seems fair enough. Maybe. It all comes down to managing Player Expectations.

Players have expectations. Many assume that if a creature or obstacle is presented to them, it is rational to believe that the encounter must be within their power to overcome. Why would a dungeon master put monsters in a dungeon that the characters could not defeat? It does not make sense. The dungeon master could have a perfect reason for the stronger adversary, and the adventure might make perfect sense when completed. But, in the moment of gameplay, when the descriptions are said and the dice tossed, no one sees through the inevitable player tunnel vision. And, as the characters’ hit points (and bodies) begin to drop, tensions can rise. Your best intentions as a dungeon master can end with a player throwing down his dice, slamming his hands on the table, standing up, and shouting, “You don’t know how to play! You suck as a dungeon master!” While you sit behind your gaming screen and watch your player storm out of the room, your vision of the glorious ending does not mean much anymore because they will never get the chance to understand it. I know. I have been there. I was the dungeon master. Hence, the warning bells in my head.

I remember running the game with only a couple of players. They were first level characters. I told them that a dragon was harassing a kingdom and that brave heroes needed to defeat it. I expected they would travel the lands, gain levels, and eventually defeat the dragon. The players sought out the dragon’s lair to learn more about it. They thought more information would be helpful. I tried to dissuade them from this course of action by having them see the dragon flying high in the sky. The very sight of the dragon filled the characters with dread. But they kept going. I had it fly over their campsite at night, circling their fire until they put it out, trying to show that it was aware of them. But they kept going. I explained that as they approached the lair, the land was barren. There were no animals in the area, just piles of bones. But they kept going. They reached the dragon’s mountain, climbed up the ledge to the entrance, and then were unceremoniously eaten by the dragon. That was the fateful day that dice were hurled, insults shouted, and the player stormed away. They expected that I, as a dungeon master, would not have the dragon attack them because of the level discrepancy and that they would be able to gain information without danger. Our expectations were not aligned.

Players have expectations. This statement is true. I have them as a player, and it can be very frustrating when you think you should do something and find out later that the dungeon master expected you to avoid it.

For example, I was playing in a campaign where we were exploring a dungeon. A monster that was too difficult to fight guarded an area, but it suggested that if we answered a riddle, it would let us go by. As a player, I expected that this was a puzzle, not a fight. Answering the riddle was the course of action that we should follow. After all, when did anything ever go wrong with a riddle game? So, we accepted the challenge. We answered the riddle. Then, the monster ate us. This outcome was frustrating as a player. I felt that this was an unfair situation. We found a challenge, analyzed the situation, decided upon a course of action, and concluded the affair with a correct answer. But, the game master said that if we had understood the clues we found in the dungeon, we would have known the monster would always eat us. There was a path that was neither combat nor riddle-solving that would have allowed us to win. Looking back on the clues we had found (over a few weeks), a case could be made for this point. As players, we had forgotten some of this information. This outcome was not the fault of the game master. This outcome was my fault. I saw a monster, decided it had to be overcome, and railroaded my party into the riddle game and our doom. Sometimes, players can convince themselves that a course of action is correct, even when clues and signs point to something else.

If the dungeon master manages player expectations in advance, it can go a long way to mitigate any problems. You should not fight every monster you encounter. Not every monster you meet should be evil and intent on eating you. There should be a variety of interactions that keep everyone on their toes and not railroad players into being bloodthirsty murder machines (though some may want to be). These ideas can be explained (or foreshadowed) through interactions with NPCs. If the players are given enough information in advance, they may be afraid of and avoid encounters because of what they heard or learned. That is, if they paid attention.

So, I am putting some stronger monsters on the first level. I will warn the players about them through rumors and NPC interactions in the town. I will stress (gently) that some first level areas should be avoided until the characters are strong enough to overcome them. I will do my best to set the players’ expectations as to what I am thinking as a dungeon master. If they choose to explore the dangerous areas anyway, that will be their decision as a group. Hopefully, some players will be wise enough to avoid them until they are ready. Otherwise, I could be in for some flying dice.