blind decisions

I remember once, DMing a dungeon crawl, saying something like “The path forks. Will you go left or right?” The players looked at me blankly for a few seconds before someone said, “Uhhh, we’ll go right.” I realized I had just presented the players with an uninteresting decision. The players had zero information, so they chose randomly.

I don’t remember what was to the left or right in that situation, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I had said, instead, “The path forks. The left fork leads to a dead end, and the right fork leads to an encounter with a troll.” This would also have been an uninteresting decision. No party would ever choose the dead end.

What I should have done was provide the players with some arbitrary way of differentiating the two forks – either hinting at what came next or making up some spur-of-the-moment random details. I could have said, “The path forks. Dust is piled high in the left fork and from the right fork you smell a faint sour odor.” This is just enough detail for a group of PCs to start thinking, come up with some half-baked theories, and make a decision that gives them the illusion of control.

Any random detail would do, even if you don’t know what the players will run into next. Let’s say that at the right fork, the players had found some detail that didn’t match with its destination: say a lavender glove leading to the troll cave. Either the players will forget about it (“Why’s there a glove written down in the party loot? I’ll sell it!”), or you will find some way to justify it (“Troll must’ve et a noble!”), or the detail will turn out to be a perfect fit (“The troll seems to be missing one lavender glove!”). Or it won’t be a perfect fit, and the players will come up with some cockamamy theory to explain it (“Must be a shapechanging troll disguised as a nobleman!”) which you can use for next week’s adventure. If you adopt the players’ theory as canon, and place a disguised troll noble in the city for the party to track down, everyone will end up happy. My inclination would be to make it a foppish shapechanging troll who wants nothing more than to be allowed to live a life of indolence and pleasure at court, and will provide the party with royal gossip in exchange for silence.

The barest minimum of choice differentiation seems to be enough. “Will you go down the hallway or open the door?” seems to be, while not thrilling, much more satisfying than “left or right?”

Want to add some wackiness? Why not use tables from the 1e DMG’s charming Appendices?

Like the Unexplained Sounds and Weird Noises table:
01-05 bang, slam
06 bellow (ing)
07 bong
08 buzzing
09-10 chanting

Or the Air Currents table?
01-05 breeze, slight
06-10 breeze, slight, damp
11-12 breeze, gusting

Or the Odors table?
01-03 acrid smell
04-05 chlorine smell
06-39 dank, mouldy smell

Or the General Dungeon Dressing table?
01 arrow, broken
02-04 ashes
05-06 bones
07 bottle, broken
(Below this table, it notes, “An interval of 60′ or more between each placement is suggested,” so keep that in mind.)

In the not too distant future, you may be telling the PCs, “From the left fork, you hear bellow (ing). From the right, you can detect a chlorine smell, and see one broken arrow every 60′.” Let’s see what your players make of that.

4 Responses to “blind decisions”

  1. Joe says:

    That’s a good point. We run into that issue too. I’m going to try to remember this so the group doesn’t just always choose “left.” (That’s what they decided a long while back–that if they have to choose a direction without any details they will always choose left.

  2. OnlineDM says:

    This is fantastic advice! I need to start running delves with random choices just so I can throw in bizarre little details and see what the players make of them.

  3. David says:

    This is a very good thing to remember. Always have little details.

  4. Rory Rory says:

    It would be awesome if the PCs habits of always choose left somehow became common knowledge in the game world and then suddenly all the villains are putting HORRIBLE traps down the left of every passageway.

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