New GM: Enough Rope


Psychological warfare is one aspect of being a GM that I have not delved into much during my games, at least not consciously. Trying to use some of the tips and tricks Jim outlined in his posts becomes harder when you are too busy juggling all the other things you need to as an inexperienced GM. This is where something I mentioned last week comes into play: letting your players do the work.

So how does a GM get the players to do the work for them? By giving them opportunities to come up with their own solutions to problem. Sometimes these solutions will be so grand that you will not be able to come up with a counter to them that fits the situation. Occasionally you will have just given the party enough rope to hang themselves with. Most of the time, however, the party will come up with a workable solution that you can then undermine and force the group to come up with something new: sometimes better, sometimes worse but always more desperate as the situation deteriorates.

nooseLets look at an example from one of the hooks. Your PCs are tasked with defending a village against an army that is far too numerous for them to defeat head on so they have to get creative. Say that they settle on the idea of hit and run raids to gradually weaken the enemy. Perhaps the army could figure out how the party is sneaking in and out of the town and use that route for a raid of their own. What does the party do then? Maybe they are forced to seal that route and now have to come up with a new plan. And then you can undermine that one. And the next. Until eventually the party is at the ragged edge and grasping at straws for what to do. Then start the final confrontation with the leader of the army and see what happens.

Of course you don’t have to go quite that far. Sometimes it is fun to have the plan fall to pieces and yet still somehow work out. The party’s raids may have let the enemy know about the route in but the information given by the prisoners the party captured when the army raided in turn reveals a key weakness. Your PCs can then exploit that weakness and win the day. So their plan didn’t really work but it lead to the eventual solution.

Finally, you could have everything go the PCs way. This can be the most devious way of waging psychological warfare if you have already undermined a few plans. Simply let the PCs win. Have it be easy. Even way too easy. Then sit back and watch as they tie themselves in knots trying to find ambushes that aren’t there, traps that haven’t been set, and deceptions where there is only the truth. Overuse of this tactic will generally not work but if used sparingly the results can be spectacular.

The best part about using this tactic of letting the players do the work is that they will be more engaged and invested in the game since they are the ones calling the shots. They will be excited to carry out their plans and all the more devastated when said plans fall apart. Next week is another History Hook where will we see one of history’s GMs exploit that very idea for his own ends.


  • This advice is much more adversarial than I usually like to be, because it tends to spur arguments. I generally find that players don’t like it when their plans are used against them and develop a cynical attitude, believing that they’re constantly handing the DM the tools of their own destruction. Or, they endlessly plan and block each other’s plans to keep that from happening. At the same time, players intellectually understand that the game isn’t fun if everything goes right.

    What I’ve had a lot of success with is having players come up with their own downsides. That way, they’re not only engaged in their plan, but in the problems with he plan. They play directly into those flaws for the interesting situations they bring about, rather than dreading or endlessly trying to mitigate those flaws.

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