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How often should you bait your players into slaughtering the innocent?


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We were sure they were highwaymen. They'd blacked out the windows of a dilapidated barn, refused to give our weary band of travelers hospitality, and then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate. Halfway through the enuing battle one of them shouted, "Save the children!" Cold dread swept over us as we realized we were killing refugees.

This kind of thing can be a cool setup for an encounter. It teaches players to investigate thoroughly rather than murderhoboing across the landscape. However, too much of this kind of fake out can give your players whiplash. Indeed, in the above encounter it turned out that "save the children" was moonshiner code for "save the hooch." By the time their still exploded we were a thoroughly confused band of adventurers.

Here's my question then: When does messing with your players' heads cross the line from good encounter design to needless mind games?

Comic for illustrative purposes.


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Personally I don't think you should "bait" them into killing innocents at all.
What one can do is make clear from the start that random encounters doesn't necessarily mean combat, but can be encounters with normal people instead that might require assistance or problem solving in some manner. That will give the players incentive to approach encounters with some degree of caution and give them reason to investigate a bit before judging if it's a combat encounter or not.

But really, don't bait players into doing things that will make them feel like crap. There's a very real chance that it won't be an enjoyable experience, which defeats the purpose of the game.


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I can see there being a reason for this in a The 2x4 is just to get the mule's attention sort of way. If you feel that you have to do it more than once though, you have a problem that this is not going to solve. Do your players default to "attack" because history tells them that this is their best survival option? Do they believe that your monsters always make them pay for hesitation? If you can't answer this, talk to the players before you deploy your hammer of god.


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Looked shady, told us just to go away when we talked to them, then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate

this stops them from being "innocent".
If they are innocent then a group of nice people should be easily able to talk with them and get the info they need.

That looks shady, Hey person here guarding this, may we lodge here? No you may not. What is the reason for this inhospitality? We are refugees and don't have supplies and don't feel safe letting strangers in.


I'll answer your question with another question:

How would it affect your game when your players start slaughtering the innocent on purpose?


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DRD1812 wrote:

We were sure they were highwaymen. They'd blacked out the windows of a dilapidated barn, refused to give our weary band of travelers hospitality, and then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate. Halfway through the enuing battle one of them shouted, "Save the children!" Cold dread swept over us as we realized we were killing refugees.

This kind of thing can be a cool setup for an encounter. It teaches players to investigate thoroughly rather than murderhoboing across the landscape. However, too much of this kind of fake out can give your players whiplash. Indeed, in the above encounter it turned out that "save the children" was moonshiner code for "save the hooch." By the time their still exploded we were a thoroughly confused band of adventurers.

Here's my question then: When does messing with your players' heads cross the line from good encounter design to needless mind games?

Comic for illustrative purposes.

This kind of bait/switch is why some people don't want to play paladins...

You want them to "investigate thoroughly" but when they do, they get attacked: "then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate". This will get them to change their actions: don't investigate anything and be pure murderhobo's. Trying to interact with with 'normal' people will get you attacked. If the 'bad guys' die before they hear their story, their conscience is clear. :P


Just be careful that in doing this you don't bait them into the 'slaughter of the GMs"

Dark Archive

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The more important question to ask yourself is, "Is anyone truly innocent?"


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RDM42 wrote:
Just be careful that in doing this you don't bait them into the 'slaughter of the GMs"

I've heard that dice can sting quite a lot when 'someone' gets pelted by volleys of them. And those [blank]ing 4 siders are almost as good as caltrops. ;)

Your Deeper Darkness wrote:
The more important question to ask yourself is, "Is anyone truly innocent?"

The survivors get to write the history. The winners are always innocent.

Dark Archive

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Roughly 3-5 times a session.


DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:
Roughly 3-5 times a session.

Is that to DRD1812 or how many of attacks from dice he gets for trying it?


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Oh so we aren't even hiding the troll posts anymore? Kinda lacks the subtly of the art but okay fine.

When did d20 games become a giant stage to tests morality and perils of humanity?

I feel like its pretty easy to give the PCs an out in this kind of situation, and not doing so is just you doing a Mister Burns behind the DM screen as they fall into "your trap".

Dark Archive

graystone wrote:
DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:
Roughly 3-5 times a session.
Is that to DRD1812 or how many of attacks from dice he gets for trying it?

Both.


Unassuming Local Guy wrote:
Oh so we aren't even hiding the troll posts anymore?

If that's to me, I'm not trolling. What the OP suggests has, and will in the future, result in conflict between the DM and players. I've personally see thrown dice after 'gatcha/catch 22' situation, so while it was said humorously, it has a point: It's seen as bad form by a LOT of players and people really do flip the table/mat when they get hosed.

If it was to The_Superior_Dudemeister, I think that has a point to. 1 'gatcha/catch 22' is too much so asking how many more is ok is kind of... Well, why not suggest an absurdly large number to illustrate the absurdity of the question?


You don't need to bait them, they'll find a way to do it all on their own -_-

Player characters are (somewhat justifiably) paranoid, have an unfortunate tendency to jump to conclusions, and respond to perceived threats with overkill. It's a recipe for tragedy, and the GM needs to actively work against such outcomes.

Silver Crusade

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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber

In all seriousness there is a place for this kind of thing, but boy howdy is it incredibly rare and it shouldn't be a GM "Gotcha" to the players but a tool for a particularly evil brand of villain.

A demon that possesses an innocent so the players have to figure out a way to get the demon out without hurting the host.

An arch-villain that mind-control's the player's friends and loved ones.

Or who puts those loved ones in full armor with convenient face-covering helmets so that when the players sneak up and kill them with an incredibly well organized ambush the helmet falls off and the PCs realize with horror what they've done and have to spend precious resources bringing their loved ones back to life.

That's some eeeevil but it's done as a personal attack on the players' characters, and their morality. It's something in the toolbox that you save for special occasions like when you're finally pulling out Tar-Baphon from the toybox, or taking down the Thrice Damned house of Thrune. It should be an emotional gut-punch, to drive a point about the irredeemable evil they're trying to overcome.

The original example is just kind of terrible, what was the point of the moral dilemma there? Just to confuse the players and make them madder at some nobody villains that really wouldn't have a major impact on the campaign? Lame. What was the emotional punch there? Confusion, is pretty much the worst emotion to evoke at a table.

If I pulled something like that, my players would be absolutely justified in throwing dice at me for just being a jerk. It also encourages players to just play neutralish characters, because then they're immune to stupid morality challenges that don't have any real impact other than for the GM (who holds all the resources, cards and secrets) to lord how clever they are over the players.

Silver Crusade

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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

To answer the original question... you pull nonsense like this exactly when you want every single one of them to refuse to ever sit at a gaming table with you again. I would never even play monopoly with someone who thought this was acceptable.


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DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:
It also encourages players to just play neutralish characters, because then they're immune to stupid morality challenges that don't have any real impact other than for the GM (who holds all the resources, cards and secrets) to lord how clever they are over the players.

Yep, you'll be amazed at the number of CN characters you'll have after that.


graystone wrote:
DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:
It also encourages players to just play neutralish characters, because then they're immune to stupid morality challenges that don't have any real impact other than for the GM (who holds all the resources, cards and secrets) to lord how clever they are over the players.
Yep, you'll be amazed at the number of CN characters you'll have after that.

This was going to be my response.

Surprise morality challenges and gotcha moments are what turn otherwise fine players into rampant murderhobos. These kinds of gameplay moments don't make characters care more, they make players care less.


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graystone wrote:
Unassuming Local Guy wrote:
Oh so we aren't even hiding the troll posts anymore?

If that's to me, I'm not trolling. What the OP suggests has, and will in the future, result in conflict between the DM and players. I've personally see thrown dice after 'gatcha/catch 22' situation, so while it was said humorously, it has a point: It's seen as bad form by a LOT of players and people really do flip the table/mat when they get hosed.

If it was to The_Superior_Dudemeister, I think that has a point to. 1 'gatcha/catch 22' is too much so asking how many more is ok is kind of... Well, why not suggest an absurdly large number to illustrate the absurdity of the question?

No my apologizes, this was to OP. I honestly thought this was a troll post in the vein of goblin orphanage/does the paladin fall type nonsense that gets in the way of honest to goodness bloodshed.

I'm amazed at how quickly people get bored with endless class combinations, 6 books deep of monsters and much more to play Chinese Room thought experiments and apparently trick their friends into war crimes.


Unassuming Local Guy wrote:
No my apologizes, this was to OP.

Ah, sorry then. I've seen similar situations before, so I didn't dismiss the OP out of hand. For some people, this kind of thing doesn't seem to set off any alarms [or they ignore them].


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i would advise against doing this unless you make them aware of the possibility.

Example- the classic 'evil twins fought, and now you have to decide which one to shoot' scenario. The players know that it is a 50/50 shot of getting it wrong. And they can anticipate that.

I do not spring surprise sins like that.

I could potentially understand a situation where 'we were good knights, but they kidnapped our families and forced us to fight you'. Since it involves a legitimate and direct threat, it is easier to swallow.

But just tricking the players into killing unarmed innocents without giving them any clear adn well understood set up?


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Modules, Pawns, Roleplaying Game Subscriber

According to many, if not most, of my players... there are no innocent. Walking into the Godhome in Emerald Spire, the first thing the barb said when Slaagh greeted them was "cut him in half!" The struggle is real.


Well, how much do you want them to, in the future, accept that they'll be tricked out of morality if they attempt it? Or, how much do you want them to spend the rest of the campaign rolling constant Sense Motive checks, reading minds, avoiding combat with humanoids? How much did they sign up for the game knowing your plans to constantly subvert and undermine their characters' good intentions and make them feel anything but heroic?

In other words, I agree with Dudemeister.


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Me wonders the group you're playin' with.
I don't have to tempt mine at all....


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Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

I've played in games where the party doesn't even want to slaughter the guilty. Buncha redemption-happy do-gooders. :-)


Unassuming Local Guy wrote:
Oh so we aren't even hiding the troll posts anymore? Kinda lacks the subtly of the art but okay fine.

Not a troll. The title may be silly, but the question is in earnest. This really happened to me in a recent game, and I'm trying to get the community's take.

When I assumed we were dealing with refugees, I thought it had the potential to be an interesting plot hook. In my mind we would heal up the enemy wounded, apologize for the misunderstanding, and then ally ourselves with a desperate band of honest folk who had fled the lands of Lord Evildark. For my money, that's an interesting beginning to a quest chain. It was the "JK they were just moonshiners" bit that felt off to me.

I don't mind the (very) occasional moral dilemma. It's the jerking the players around just for shiggles that bothers me. What I'm asking here is where GMs should draw that line.


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Kitty Catoblepas wrote:
How would it affect your game when your players start slaughtering the innocent on purpose?

After publicly setting children on fire, one of my players was unable to comprehend:

a) Why it was wrong
b) Why the authorities where dragging his character off to trial.


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Adventure Path Charter Subscriber
Chess Pwn wrote:

Looked shady, told us just to go away when we talked to them, then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate

this stops them from being "innocent".
If they are innocent then a group of nice people should be easily able to talk with them and get the info they need.

That looks shady, Hey person here guarding this, may we lodge here? No you may not. What is the reason for this inhospitality? We are refugees and don't have supplies and don't feel safe letting strangers in.

Not buying it. Refugees fleeing an oppressive regime or other enemy may have very good reasons for keeping a low profile. They should trust a random group that shows up at their door just because they seem nice? i wonder how many other refugees fell for that ruse and got slaughtered by the people they were trying to flee...


Bill Dunn wrote:
Chess Pwn wrote:

Looked shady, told us just to go away when we talked to them, then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate

this stops them from being "innocent".
If they are innocent then a group of nice people should be easily able to talk with them and get the info they need.

That looks shady, Hey person here guarding this, may we lodge here? No you may not. What is the reason for this inhospitality? We are refugees and don't have supplies and don't feel safe letting strangers in.

Not buying it. Refugees fleeing an oppressive regime or other enemy may have very good reasons for keeping a low profile. They should trust a random group that shows up at their door just because they seem nice? i wonder how many other refugees fell for that ruse and got slaughtered by the people they were trying to flee...

Understandable motives does not an innocent make. If they attack random groups that seem nice, they are monsters and putting them down gets you an A+ on your Paladin exam.


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Anzyr wrote:
Bill Dunn wrote:
Chess Pwn wrote:

Looked shady, told us just to go away when we talked to them, then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate

this stops them from being "innocent".
If they are innocent then a group of nice people should be easily able to talk with them and get the info they need.

That looks shady, Hey person here guarding this, may we lodge here? No you may not. What is the reason for this inhospitality? We are refugees and don't have supplies and don't feel safe letting strangers in.

Not buying it. Refugees fleeing an oppressive regime or other enemy may have very good reasons for keeping a low profile. They should trust a random group that shows up at their door just because they seem nice? i wonder how many other refugees fell for that ruse and got slaughtered by the people they were trying to flee...
Understandable motives does not an innocent make. If they attack random groups that seem nice, they are monsters and putting them down gets you an A+ on your Paladin exam.

And if a handful of civilians tells a group of dangerous warriors they're not welcome and asks them to leave, and said warriors respond by sending one of their number to spy on the civilians and scout out the area in preparation for an attack? Do these warriors still seem nice to the civilians? Aren't they more likely to be a group of bandits or looters? In which case, won't putting them down earn the civilians an A+ on their own Paladin exams?


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Redelia wrote:
To answer the original question... you pull nonsense like this exactly when you want every single one of them to refuse to ever sit at a gaming table with you again. I would never even play monopoly with someone who thought this was acceptable.

I've had many, many GMs pull that on me. The term I use is Classically Diabolical. I keep coming back for more. But I have become that player who never takes ANYTHING at face value, who is always circumspect about the DMs plot hooks. And who almost always wants to take the party in a different direction than the GM wants.

Of course, I also tend to be the player who keeps the party from getting killed...


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pi4t wrote:
Anzyr wrote:
Bill Dunn wrote:
Chess Pwn wrote:

Looked shady, told us just to go away when we talked to them, then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate

this stops them from being "innocent".
If they are innocent then a group of nice people should be easily able to talk with them and get the info they need.

That looks shady, Hey person here guarding this, may we lodge here? No you may not. What is the reason for this inhospitality? We are refugees and don't have supplies and don't feel safe letting strangers in.

Not buying it. Refugees fleeing an oppressive regime or other enemy may have very good reasons for keeping a low profile. They should trust a random group that shows up at their door just because they seem nice? i wonder how many other refugees fell for that ruse and got slaughtered by the people they were trying to flee...
Understandable motives does not an innocent make. If they attack random groups that seem nice, they are monsters and putting them down gets you an A+ on your Paladin exam.
And if a handful of civilians tells a group of dangerous warriors they're not welcome and asks them to leave, and said warriors respond by sending one of their number to spy on the civilians and scout out the area in preparation for an attack? Do these warriors still seem nice to the civilians? Aren't they more likely to be a group of bandits or looters? In which case, won't putting them down earn the civilians an A+ on their own Paladin exams?

if they were bandits or looters they wouldn't have tried to talk in the first place, nor would they be likely sneaking around rather than just going and taking stuff.

Same with the other example, things chasing the refugees probably wouldn't be as nice and if suspicious at all would just barge in to check, not have one guy try to get more info.


Perfect Tommy wrote:

Me wonders the group you're playin' with.

I don't have to tempt mine at all....

Most PCs are murderhobos.


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DRD1812 wrote:
Unassuming Local Guy wrote:
Oh so we aren't even hiding the troll posts anymore? Kinda lacks the subtly of the art but okay fine.

Not a troll. The title may be silly, but the question is in earnest. This really happened to me in a recent game, and I'm trying to get the community's take.

When I assumed we were dealing with refugees, I thought it had the potential to be an interesting plot hook. In my mind we would heal up the enemy wounded, apologize for the misunderstanding, and then ally ourselves with a desperate band of honest folk who had fled the lands of Lord Evildark. For my money, that's an interesting beginning to a quest chain. It was the "JK they were just moonshiners" bit that felt off to me.

I don't mind the (very) occasional moral dilemma. It's the jerking the players around just for shiggles that bothers me. What I'm asking here is where GMs should draw that line.

Well I mean if it doesn't develop into anything further than yeah its just a dick move. If it was a hook (like you got arrested for it and met the quest giver in prison) or something more then I guess I'd be annoyed but yeah "hey look I tricked you nerds" from the GM would make me want to find a new gaming table. This actually comes in the vein for some other posts floating around the forums

Railroads v. Sandbox.

Trusting your GM.

TL;DR If it has a purpose then its less annoying, if your GM just tricked you for s+!~s and gigs then you've got a real issue.


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I don't do this to my players. Maybe I'm just getting old but having the whole "LOOK! Moral dilemma!" card played on me over the years soured me on that long before the 80s were over.


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knightnday wrote:
I don't do this to my players. Maybe I'm just getting old but having the whole "LOOK! Moral dilemma!" card played on me over the years soured me on that long before the 80s were over.

I suppose that got thrown out a lot more often, since everyone got penalties for going against alignment back then, right?

God, I am glad that got dropped. Just having paladin threads if bad enough. I would hate to have to have to hear alignment threads about people getting pulled every different direction just because the GM wanted to put an alignment change on them.


lemeres wrote:
knightnday wrote:
I don't do this to my players. Maybe I'm just getting old but having the whole "LOOK! Moral dilemma!" card played on me over the years soured me on that long before the 80s were over.

I suppose that got thrown out a lot more often, since everyone got penalties for going against alignment back then, right?

God, I am glad that got dropped. Just having paladin threads if bad enough. I would hate to have to have to hear alignment threads about people getting pulled every different direction just because the GM wanted to put an alignment change on them.

Sometimes, yes. Also played with people that thought what they learned in philosophy class was the height of wonderfulness and liked to drop these sorts of problems, along with the "do you kill the orc babies" into scenarios. Your character is a paladin and drinks? Falls. Looks at the barmaid? Falls. You guys are stealing from the dead bodies? Are you going to take it back to the victim's loved ones? You are EVIL@!!!


knightnday wrote:

Sometimes, yes. Also played with people that thought what they learned in philosophy class was the height of wonderfulness and liked to drop these sorts of problems, along with the "do you kill the orc babies" into scenarios. Your character is a paladin and drinks? Falls. Looks at the barmaid? Falls. You guys are stealing from the dead bodies? Are you going to take it back to the victim's loved ones? You are EVIL@!!!

That's why to this day I don't play a paladin. You get the wrong DM and it's a game if 'let's try to get the paladin to fall! let the catch 22's begin!" :P


knightnday wrote:

Sometimes, yes. Also played with people that thought what they learned in philosophy class was the height of wonderfulness and liked to drop these sorts of problems, along with the "do you kill the orc babies" into scenarios. Your character is a paladin and drinks? Falls. Looks at the barmaid? Falls. You guys are stealing from the dead bodies? Are you going to take it back to the victim's loved ones? You are EVIL@!!!

Evil is bad, but I can think of a GM that could get...creative... if they just wanted to apply alignment penalty changes.

"Did you jaywalk? You have turned chaotic!"


DRD1812 wrote:
We were sure they were highwaymen. They'd blacked out the windows of a dilapidated barn, refused to give our weary band of travelers hospitality, and then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate.

So to clarify: you met some people, they seemed a bit suspicious, they didn't want to talk to you, so you... trespassed on their land and broke into their home? Were you playing officers of the law with a warrant, or just random thugs? If the former, did you announce yourselves as such?

Personally, I would probably have a had a brief negotiation in between the trespassing and the violence. But people are allowed to own property and have no obligation to invite you onto it. So (assuming you weren't officers of the law) it seems like you weren't "baited" so much as "chose to do evil of your own free will".

Mind you, my answer to the actual question as phrased is "Don't bother. Either they'll do it themselves or they won't do it, so baiting them serves no purpose."


Chess Pwn wrote:
if they were bandits or looters they wouldn't have tried to talk in the first place, nor would they be likely sneaking around rather than just going and taking stuff.

That doesn't really follow. If I were a person of relaxed ethics hanging around with my team of three to five similar folk, I might not want to get myself into trouble with an unknown number of possible enemies. Therefore I might try to work out how many they were and how well armed before trying anything. Making up a plausible-sounding reason to talk to them might allow me to get close enough to gain useful information.

Consider the scenario the other way round: PCs set up camp for the night, NPCs ask if they can camp with them, PCs say no, then an NPC is spotted alone sneaking around, PCs attack because they are paranoid and then some people discuss it on the internet and say PC actions perfectly justified because hey, the TOLD them no, and then one of them was SNEAKING.

There is no "team good" here. Only shades of selfishness, determination to interfere with others, and paranoia. If you want to be GOOD, you really need to have higher standards than "we murdered them because they seemed suspicious of us and somewhat hostile when we were acting really suspiciously".


Starfinder Charter Superscriber

The situation seems fair to me, and nothing about it seemed particularly unrealistic. It's good for PCs to stop and think about whether what they're doing is right and whether they have any business starting stuff that could lead to violence.


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For the sake of clarity I should probably add that I think this is a poorly designed encounter because it doesn't DO anything unless the PCs do something silly, as they did. And I also don't approve of tricking people into falling.

But seriously people, if you think B&E followed by murder is fine because "they were suspicious", then it's probably best you don't play paladins.

Liberty's Edge

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I feel like there's a difference between "tricking" the party and putting innocent people in front of a party that thinks NPCs only exist as bags of loot and XP or servants and having them stand up for themselves.

Also, paladins should never fall from a catch 22 unless they deliberately take a third even worse option.


Hey. Maybe you should have left them alone.

You're not the grand authority on barns.


PrinceRaven wrote:
Also, paladins should never fall from a catch 22 unless they deliberately take a third even worse option.

That's 100% wrong. I've seen option 1, 2 and 3 make the paladin fall. Some games it's only a matter of WHEN a paladin falls, not if.

"Oh no, you didn't save the innocent villagers!! Fall!
"Oh no, you attacked the natives that are fighting back against the invading people!! [the villagers] Fall!!!

Cavall wrote:

Hey. Maybe you should have left them alone.

You're not the grand authority on barns.

But I'm a cleric of the god of Barns. All barns are my domain! ;)

EDIT: It really depends on the GMing style. Some DM's don't put in unimportant encounters and/or tend to say thing like 'if only you guys had found that holy sword under peasant hut 7, that fight would have been easy"... Some table effectively encourage prying up every board to figure out why you ran across a random hut in the forest.


Lucy_Valentine wrote:
DRD1812 wrote:
We were sure they were highwaymen. They'd blacked out the windows of a dilapidated barn, refused to give our weary band of travelers hospitality, and then attacked our scout when we tried to investigate.

So to clarify: you met some people, they seemed a bit suspicious, they didn't want to talk to you, so you... trespassed on their land and broke into their home? Were you playing officers of the law with a warrant, or just random thugs? If the former, did you announce yourselves as such?

Personally, I would probably have a had a brief negotiation in between the trespassing and the violence. But people are allowed to own property and have no obligation to invite you onto it. So (assuming you weren't officers of the law) it seems like you weren't "baited" so much as "chose to do evil of your own free will".

Mind you, my answer to the actual question as phrased is "Don't bother. Either they'll do it themselves or they won't do it, so baiting them serves no purpose."

Well, I think the problem there is the conversation of detail: ie- when you are dealing with an artificial work (book, paiting, movie, video game), the limits of time, space, and budget makes it hard to include things that are not relevant.

Thus, the fact that the GM even bothers to describe these people makes them suspicious. It is a chekhov's gun.

While they probably handled it poorly... the fact taht they thought it might be bandits was likely because the GM specifically decided to provide details in order to make them look suspicious. This can be further exasperated by a conscious decision in tone.

So when you have a battle game that heavily incentivizes getting first initiative and attacking first, and you have a GM that is sending you a bunch of signals to attack... it seems much more likely to happen.


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Starfinder Charter Superscriber

I always try to include some completely innocuous "encounters" so the PCs figure out that "attack first, ask questions later" is not a realistic worldview. They might come across kids throwing snowballs, or a wagon stuck in a rut, or some merchants arguing in the middle of the road. There's no danger and no adventure hook, just background color and a chance to RP if desired.


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Jhaeman wrote:
I always try to include some completely innocuous "encounters" so the PCs figure out that "attack first, ask questions later" is not a realistic worldview. They might come across kids throwing snowballs, or a wagon stuck in a rut, or some merchants arguing in the middle of the road. There's no danger and no adventure hook, just background color and a chance to RP if desired.

And if you maintain that style, then that is fine- it gives the players a set of expectations for how to interpret the content.

But if a GM wanted to, they could use their narrative style in order to only include innocent encounters when they are intentionally setting the PC's up for a warcrime. Again- the tone could have been deliberately set up so they think 'a fight is going to happen'. The GM can paint the world, and some choose to paint things camouflage.

As many a paladin has learned, it is hard when the GM is out to get you.

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