I’m Becoming Predictable

After a few months on hiatus my D&D 5e group started out into the uncharted territory of Tier 3 play (levels beyond 10). They’re traveling to a cave that will allow them passage through the mountains to a desert land beyond. For context I prepare travel portions of the game by doing two things:

  1. Every town on my map gets an encounter or mini-situation.
  2. I roll for random encounters every 6 miles of travel. (Assuming I know where the group is going and what route they are taking I do this before the session so I can give each encounter a little thought.

There are five players in the group: Sam, Mariah, Ian, Rob and Adam. Adam and Rob do not factor into this story directly but all of these people have played D&D with me in some capacity whether this game or some other game.  Here is a little transcript that represents what happened when they approached the first village on this new journey.

Me: As you travel along the road you come across a run down village. The few people you see seem gaunt, like they might be starving.
Mariah: If we go in there we’re going to get eaten.
Sam: Cannibals seem a little tame for Jesse.
Ian: We should just ride on. (Everyone agrees)
Me (three miles further down the road as they circumnavigate the village): As you round the bend and are about to pass the village completely, a man in priest’s robes flags you down and says, “Strangers!  Will you not join us for our festival feast today!”
Mariah: I am rolling Insight!  (scores 20+)
Me: Oh yeah, he’s definitely carving you up with his eyes.
Mariah: I TOLD YOU!
Sam (later, after the game was winding down): Was that village always cannibals or did you change it after Mariah said something.
Me: My notes literally say “Cannibal Village”, you got me fair and square.

It seems that I have become predictable or I have a tell or something. Upon reflection it strikes me that some DMs would find this irritating or call this interaction metagaming or something. But as I have no particular investment in how any one encounter happens, it was just funny. If anything the game was more fun because Mariah so accurately predicted the nature of the encounter just by my initial description.

This story actually extends a little bit into the next day. Sam asked me about the history of the village and wanted to know if it was founded as some weird cannibal sanctuary or if they had resorted to cannibalism after some disaster. I confessed that I had not thought that hard about it. I told him that I knew two things. First, the village was in a weird spot, a U-turn on a mountain road. Second, for a long time now I have been talking about how dangerous that road is because it justifies the weird taxation scheme of the nearby city.  So I just asked myself, “What weird dangerous people could possibly live here? I wrote down ‘Cannibals’.”

Sam told me that to him that suggested it was founded as a cannibal village. I replied that if they had actually gone into the village they would have found that a lot of the populace had already turned into full-on ghouls. I said “Calling it a cannibal cult probably would be a fair description.” And Sam was quite satisfied with that answer.

So here again was me and a player casually deepening a bit of lore around a one-off village the players will likely never visit again. This whole process basically made an encounter the players more-or-less avoided almost more fun than many of the encounters that did happen.

Again, what I think this highlighted for me is how there’s a subtle message under “don’t metagame” which is “don’t acknowledge each other.” Mariah knows I make every little town a horror movie waiting to happen. Her calling me out on making this one so obvious made me feel understood (and a bit challenged to try and at least hide it a bit better next time). I know Sam likes to nail down the “whys” of things even if I have to sometimes enlist his help in figuring it out. These were all good things.


2 responses to “I’m Becoming Predictable”

  1. Style Is a Positive Thing

    I like to think that my style is a positive thing. From how I frame scenes, which is consistent across game and idiom, to where and when I challenge the players in a given situation. This is part of the art, part of the social reason people with us. My own struggle is to take those moments and give them substance, weight, and verisimillitude. And also not to let style override play, which it often will do or for style to become performative. 

    But predictable? I am not sure I would worry over that. What if you thought of it as episodic? Or simply good preparation? You have a note on each town or village that can inform situations should the players go there. I think that is good groundwork. 

    • If I’m not mistaken, Jesse

      If I'm not mistaken, Jesse isn't tagging the predictability a problem, and even calling it that is more clickbait than topic.

      I like your focus on personal style, which is related to – or perhaps a developed form – of my general interest in agency. I'm considering the trend I'm seeing across a lot of different people's posts right now: once the medium seems to have become non-problematic, the door opens for a genuine and often not particularly directed arrival of idiosyncracy. I like it a lot. It's the positive side of "this is how I play," when it is no longer based on defense or compensation, and no longer tied to a given set of systemic expectations.

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