GM Tips: Don’t try to trick your players

GM Tips articles offer advice and ideas for gamesmasters to help hone their techniques and run their games, these lists are not exhaustive but provide some tips to point a GM in the right direction.

The impetus for this article came about during a discussion about dream sequences with Rob and Thashif prior to an online Dresden Files game, we were discussing how dream sequences can be very entertaining providing that you’re not trying to trick the players into thinking it is real. How many times have you seen a similar thing in TV or films where the director sets up a series of shots to mislead you into thinking one things, only to pull the rug out from under you at the end and reveal that actually something else was going on?

This is fine when it’s a whodunnit or a murder mystery on TV where part of the fun is trying to unravel the mystery yourself and “outwit” the creator of the story to find the truth, it tends not to be quite so satisfying in games though for a few reasons:

1. The GM is the players window on the world.

The players in a roleplaying game have to rely on the GM to describe what their characters can see, hear and feel, unless there is a reason that their senses are playing tricks on them (perhaps a psychic attack or a some manner of drug) then the GM should generally provide reliable information to the players. If the players consistently find that their character’s own senses are betraying them then they will start to question everything, progress in the game will slow to a crawl as they debate every action.

2. Using dreams and visions as a “get out of jail free card” is very unsatisfying.

Dreams and visions can be used to great effect if the player suspects they are experiencing such a state, however, trying to save a character from death or retcon an element of the campaign setting by declaring “oh that was all a dream” can be extremely unsatisfying and sets a dangerous precident in your games; without an element of risk the sense of achievement when the player character do succeed is lessened, if the players think you’re going to pull them out of the fire all the time then you remove that sense of risk.

3. Dreams and visions generally only involve a single player.

Unless you can work out a way for your players to have a shared experience then it’s only going to involve one of the PCs, even if the other players are portraying their characters in the vision, they’re only dream versions of the characters. This can cause a lot of confusion involving character knowledge, when a few sessions down the line someone brings up some information because they’ve forgotten it was only a dream version of their character that discovered the Baron was secretly planning to overthrown the kingdom.

If you are going to run a dream or a vision keep the following in mind:

  • Let the players know that it is a dream. You don’t have to say to them that it is a dream, but dreams rarely follow the same logic as the real-world, have strange things happen or people behave oddly to let the characters know that they are not in the normal world.
  • Have consequences for getting harmed in the vision. Now if someone dies in a dream I’m not saying that their character should die in the real world, but certainly have some damage afflict them if they believe themselves immune to harm. Exhaustion levels are one good way of representing this, psychic trauma is another.
  • If the sequence is a dream have it reflect what the character knows or believes. Whilst a vision might reveal information that a character has no other way of finding out a dream should only reflect what a character believes or knows, if a character believes that an NPC as a traitor or evil in some way then (whether they are or not) you should reflect this in the dream, perhaps their hands are stained with blood or their shadow seems to lengthen abnormally and linger when they leave a room.

By not trying to trick your players dreams and visions can add a great fantasy element to a game, after all such things are a part of many fantasy stories, be honest with your players and these sequences will be much better received and will not detract from the dangers of the real-world in your campaign.


Picture is part of a Doré wood engraving illustration from The Divine Comedy labeled for reuse on Google Image Search, the original image can be found here.

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