A Con, A Cave, a Troll

by Simon Woodside

If you’re anything like the typical GM you have at one point or another asked yourself the following question: What do you do if the players don’t do what you wanted?

The question underlines a classic GM problem. As the GM you are expected to be a storyteller for your players (some games even call the GM the storyteller, which is just wrong). But at the same time you’re supposed to tell this story in which the main characters of the story (the protagonists if you will) have their own free will to wander hither and thither as they want to. What’s an honest GM to do?

Basically the idea of this article, as awful as it sounds, is to lie and cheat like a bastard and then make up for it later. You lie and cheat in order to make your gaming material fit what the players want to do. Then, later, after they leave, you re-write like crazy everything you prepared for the next game to make it fit what they did.

Lying and cheating to your players may seem like a bad thing but it all comes out right because actually you can give them a lot more freedom in the long run if you use this strategy. Anyway, don’t tell them you’re doing it, either. 😉

A Con, A Cave, A Troll

Perhaps it would be best to tell an anecdote that will explain the title of the article. This is a true story. I swear I heard it from someone who knows someone who was there, and it was all documented on some list archives at Monte Cook’s site that got deleted because they were too old. So anyway…

Picture an ancient gaming convention seminar on GMing. The speaker got up to talk about a game they once played. They prepared a troll cave for the PCs to explore. The players came to a fork in the road and decided to head right, where after a few hundred metres, they noticed up ahead, there was a troll cave along a ridge to the side of the road.

Unfortunately, the players didn’t want to risk a troll cave and they decided to give it a pass. So they went down the other fork in the road. What’s there? I’ll give you three tries to guess it. OK, time’s up, it was a troll cave (of course ……) Needless to say, the players were a little irritated since they didn’t really want to explore a troll cave. So they went back the way they came … and encountered another troll cave!

“How come we didn’t see it before?!” they protest. “Well, you just didn’t notice it before” replied the GM evenly. He had a troll cave ready so everywhere they went: troll cave. I have no idea if the players eventually gave in or what, but that’s beside the point anyway.

A lot of you are thinking this GM is a crappy GM and apparently, at the con, he took a fair bit of heat from the audience. But fundamentally he was right. He had prepared a troll cave. Why should he suddenly have to wing it just because his players didn’t want to play what he prepared?

A Slightly More Sophisticated Approach

I think the seminar presenter was a little simple-minded in his approach though. Think about how he could have covered his tracks and fooled the players. He could have said, all right, you go left, and there’s no troll cave. There’s an inn. Great, say the PCs, we go in and have a beer! He says, OK, the inn’s empty. Weird. The PCs are piqued. You hear a faint moaning sound from the cellar. The PCs go to explore. The cellar has a hole broken through the wall, and when the PCs explore they discover … a troll cave! Hah! Take that! The GM can always win 😉 (but don’t gloat or they’ll know …)

Clever eh? Just a little bit of simple misdirection, a change of paint, some window-dressing, and the GM has finagled the PCs into playing the very scenario they tried to avoid earlier. Are they annoyed? Well… that all depends on how the GM plays the scenario out. If the troll cave connects through elaborate tunnels to the original troll cave the PCs avoided in the first place, they might think that it was all played from the book, as prepared ahead of time. In fact … instead of being annoyed they might be supremely impressed at the GM’s incredible planning abilities. And if you can keep your grins of gleeful mirth hidden behind your hand, you can continue to play this kind of trick on the players endlessly.

But How Do You Justify Such Trickery?

I’m not going to justify this kind of behaviour beyond the obvious ? it will save you as the GM a lot of trouble and hassle when your players go the other way.

Actually, there is a way to justify it. The key is what you do after the session ends. At this point, you have a week, or more, to adjust your future plans. You’ve got time to take out the prep-work and make adjustments that take into account the players’ new direction.

In this specific example, the GM might scrap their previous plan to dive into a gritty underdark campaign and instead develop into an above-ground, interaction-with-the-locals theme. I’m just making that proposal based on what the PCs in the example seem to want. They seem to have expressed a preference, maybe, for building-oriented adventures over dungeon adventures. Don’t assume it, ask them. Use their feedback for your future designs.

If you do that, everyone comes away with something gained. You get to use your carefully prepped adventure even if the players cry havoc. The players ultimately get a campaign more closely tailored to what they want. It’s a win-win situation. (Just don’t spill the beans 😉


Dylan Hartwell

Nice site, I’ll be by more often now that I found you. Love your zombie posts, I’ve only done a few so far, but…



Simon – you inspired this Friday’s DM Dilemma, although it’s a followup to last week’s. Hope we can have a dialog.


Great article. (I’ve got the feeling I have seen it before, but that does not mean this article is not worth repeating)

I want to add that the most important line in this article is:
Don’t assume it, ask them. Use their feedback for your future designs.


Da' Vane

The issue was that the GM prepared a troll cave, and only a troll cave. This left the GM forced to trying to get the PCs to head into the troll cave, whether they wanted to or not – he had no back-up planned at all. He never assumed for a moment that the PCs might not want to explore the troll cave.

If he had thought about the assumption, then the GM would be more prepared, and could have provided alternatives to the troll cave. He could have asked why the PCs might not want to explore the cave, and give them incentives to explore the cave right not, or have the encounters from the cave come out and meet the PCs anyway. Trolls are often as dangerous outside their caves as they are in them, for example.

Often, especially with tournament games, the GM doesn’t have the luxury of preparing additional material. They get what is provided, and that’s that. Sometimes players can be annoying, and deliberately obtuse, but in general if the GM turns around and says “This is the adventure – you are exploring a troll cave.” The PCs will go along with it. It’s not ideal, but in circumstances like tournament play, few players should actually be signing up for an adventure they don’t want to play – and you don’t sign up to explore the Troll Cave of Mc Big Gribbly Troll and then say you don’t want to explore a Troll Cave.

Heck, I’ve played living games where I’ve deliberately thrown away characters for the simple fact that I’ve paid to enter the module, when bad luck ends me with half a party of crippled characters that just made me want to turn around and slap the player because I could swear they were trolling me, just because when I sign up to explore the Temple of Elemental Evil, I want to at least get into at least one room. Sure, we were a TPK, but we were a 1st level party who took down stone giants and wyverns in our first encounter simply because we had no way of escaping the grizzly fate, and there’s no way I’m spending a double slot (the was 8 hours!) wishing I had ended up with a better party rather than a halfling paladin who could only fight on horseback and a half-orc barbarian with an intelligence of 3. Oh, and I was playing an Elven Evoker who had Abjuration as an opposed school, and a spellbook designed for a generalist where half the spells were prohibited. Still, we totally broke that module at Gen Con UK, skipped about 7 levels of encounters, and died in our first combat with a level 9 encounter against said Stone Giants and Wyverns. We even managed to kill one of the giants as well before our gruesome deaths. Did I mention we were 1st level?

This is the danger of assumptions – and tournament games are full of them. But sometimes, you just have to go with the assumptions or face the fact that the alternative is spending four hours playing with Magic: the Gathering promo decks. Which would you rather do? It shouldn’t be the GMs job to get the PCs to explore the cave – the GM could have started the game with the PCs already exploring the cave, and all the troubles are solved. Who cares if the PCs don’t have a choice in the matter – it’s assumed that when it comes to tournament games, by choosing to play in it, the PCs are making a choice. You wouldn’t boot up a copy of Halo and then complain about wanting to play Mario Kart instead – that choice was made when you booted up the game.

For home play, both the GM and the PCs have more leeway. The GM should think more about what the PCs are likely to do, and if it needs preparation, find a way to defer it to a later session when the GM can give it the attention it deserves. This is why planning is always good at the end of a session, since the GM can then plan the various story needs of the plan ahead of time for the next session. When all else fails, there’s no harm in the GM turning around and telling the players that they need some more preparation time – players will generally prefer to give the PCs some time to come up with something good for what the PCs want to do next than go through some half-cocked makeshift encounter because the GM has been caught off-guard.

Of course, then there’s the things the PCs don’t have control of – site-based adventures are easy to avoid, but event-based ones are not so easy to avoid, and there’s nothing stopping the GM from going ahead and running these anyway. In the real world, life goes on when people don’t do anything – so the same should happen in-game too. After enough life-threatening assassination attempts, the PCs will generally decide to do something about it… or die. That’s when you can reveal it was all part of the plan by Mc Big Gribbly Troll – he sure get’s around, and doesn’t like people who ignore his famous Troll Cave…


I think the observations about assumptions are dead on. Expectations should be leveled so everyone is on the same page. That includes asking the players if they want to get into a gritty underdark adventure in the first place. It also includes telling the players you want to run a gritty underdark adventure.

I get the impression that the DM didn’t know what the players wanted or their style of play otherwise he could have penned a more acceptable scenario.

thumal dwarfbane

how can you not want to explore a troll cave? i hope the troll smashed their empty skulls in. all hail the game master!

Comments are closed