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The Trouble with Trolls

“Through the darkness lumbers a large humanoid creature with a rough, green hide. Its glaring face has a pointed chin and a crooked nose, while each finger ends in a claw.”
“Oh, it’s a troll. Who’s got acid or fire magic?”
“Your character wouldn’t know that!”

trolls [1]

No, not those kind of trolls, but they’re a little tired too.

More than a few players have stifled a sigh at that admonishment. If you’ve played any variation of D&D, and Pathfinder counts, you’ve probably run into this very situation. The players know what they need to do to defeat the monster, the GM gets frustrated because the characters shouldn’t be as knowledgeable as the players, and in turn, the players may get irritated at having to play dumb yet again. It feels like an everlasting argument.

It’s as if that slimy, green, regenerating jerk is trolling my RPG experience.

Last Friday, in a friend’s D&D game (5th edition), we players ran into this very situation. She’s been doing a great job with the game so far, but she is pretty new to wearing the GM’s hat. I don’t think she did anything wrong with the way she handled the situation, but it did get me thinking about the dilemma player knowledge vs. character knowledge can present to a game. I’ve played 1st, 2nd, 3.0, 3.5, 4th, 5th edition, and Pathfinder. I’ve run most of them. My somewhat unfair reaction to this familiar situation was very much, “Here we go again.”

As the GM, you work hard to keep the game a fun and challenging experience, but if players know too much about the setting or the mechanics AND they use that knowledge in the game in a way their character couldn’t possibly know, it’s incredibly frustrating. Especially when it allows them to easily stroll through what should have been a challenging fight. Metagaming can undeniably be a big problem, but unless you’re playing with immature players deliberately trying to cheat, it might be worth taking a step back to try and understand why the players are doing it and what you can do to prevent it before it happens.

It’s as if that slimy, green, regenerating jerk is trolling my RPG experience.
Familiarity breeds contempt. D&D has been around for over forty years at this point and for many of us, it was our gateway into the hobby. Think about how many times your players have faced trolls and how many times they’ve been asked to pretend they don’t know about how it regenerates or its weakness to fire and acid. Unless you’re playing with children or newbies just getting into the hobby, your players have probably been there and done that many times. Try and keep in mind how experienced they are as there’s only so ignorant they can make their characters. Especially when playing a game where the tactical considerations of combat are part of the challenge.

We could just as easily be having this conversation about any number of things experienced players have faced time and time again. Do they have to play dumb about dragons and their breath weapons? Can they know that vampires are held back by holy symbols and belief? Can they buy a silver weapon to fight a were creature without having to make a lore check first? What about knowing some of the tropes Cthulhu players have faced over and over again? Trolls just happened to be the critters that made me start thinking about this.

If you’ve got experienced players, you’re going to have to compromise or put a bit more work into the game:

Be clear up front what level of knowledge their characters have. If their characters are supposed to be ignorant peasants that only just picked up a sword to fight off a goblin invasion, they should know what your expectations are with ‘game knowledge’ from the first game. This may not solve every instance of this type of metagaming, but it’s better to state it up front than have the argument during the fight itself.

Let the players know what they know and chalk it up to folklore. Remember that most fantasy type settings should have a strong oral storytelling tradition. Evenings weren’t just spent staring at the wall and waiting for television to be invented. Just because they’ve never actually faced a troll before doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have heard stories about them. You could even use this to your advantage by playing up the horrific reality and violence of the creature when compared to their old meemaw’s stories.

Use more obscure opponents or reskin the common ones to be something else. If it’s that important that your players and their characters be unaware of what they’re facing, go the extra mile and find something uncommon for them to fight. Most games have huge bestiaries offering plenty of monsters and opponents of all flavors. Take a little time and find something less common that still fits your needs for that encounter. If worse comes to worst, take the stats and give the critter a makeover and a new name.

Have you ever had to deal with a tired trope that had no mystery left for your players? What did you end up doing to address the problem? I’m curious how other GMs have freshened up the game when the players have already been around the block a couple of times.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "The Trouble with Trolls"

#1 Comment By Sabrina On July 9, 2015 @ 3:25 am

I have a friend who regularly GMs zombie games. (All cards on the table… I’ve never played with him before, so my knowledge isn’t exactly first hand.) He has a rule called “The First 24 Hours”. Basically, the rule states that the PCs will never be harmed during the first 24 hours of game play because they’re acting in character. While the players know that they’re about to be thrown into a zombie apocalypse, the characters don’t. It makes sense for the characters to walk up to the moaning guy writhing on the floor and ask if he’s okay. It makes sense for them to be skeptical of a reported zombie outbreak, or do something stupid at first. If it were a movie the characters would go through all these initial stages and make it out alive, so why shouldn’t the PCs? His players are told upfront that they are free to act in -character for the first 24 game hours without being hurt by it.

So how does this have anything to do with what we’re talking about?

Well, maybe not much. But I thought it was an interesting concept, and worth thinking about in regards to the topic of this article. It’s what I thought of after reading it. Perhaps there is a way to express to the players that they won’t be damaged (too severely) by playing in-character? It’s a little harder in this situation than it was in the above, but maybe you could still make it work. Perhaps the reward is greater if they defeat the troll (or whatever) without using out of game knowledge. Or maybe you could go so far as to promise, if this troll is supposed to be the first of many on a long campaign, that this troll won’t kill them if out of character knowledge would have saved them. It depends on the dynamic and the tone of your game, I suppose.

While I’m afraid this train of thought didn’t lead me to discovering a solution to this problem, I’m throwing it out there in case someone more intelligent and less tired than I can do something with it. At the very least, it got me thinking deeper about the problem.

Great article!

#2 Comment By Angela Murray On July 9, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

I think that’s an interesting way to handle the dilemma of what the players know vs. what the characters know. If the players know their characters are safe for at least the beginning of the game, they’re probably more willing to play dumb and learn things in-game.

#3 Comment By jengagne On July 9, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

That’s a great rule. Gets players in the proper groove for RP, too. Then they can be scared and startled because their chracters are scared and startled — not because they’re afraid of getting screwed by a dice roll or forgotten mechanic.

Of course later part of the fun of the game is rolling or whatever, but leading with the RP is important and good. It’s like a zombie game Session Zero.

#4 Comment By Solomon Foster On July 9, 2015 @ 6:51 am

There was already a post on this subject on Gnome Stew a few months back, and I’m pretty sure I commented on it, too. This post is better, though. 🙂

I think asking for players to ignore OOC information in something like this is asking too much. The problem is, with your PC in a life and death situation, how do you realistically play not knowing something you very well know? I mean, aren’t fire and acid going to be among the first things you try as soon as you twig to the fact it’s regenerating? How is a player supposed to balance already knowing the solution with their PC going through a logical progression of possible solutions?

Think of OOC knowledge as serious friction between the game world and the real world. Minimizing that friction as much as possible is an important GM job. If you want PCs to experience something for the first time, it’s a lot easier and more fun if the players are experiencing it for the first time, too!

And it’s so easy to do. These are red trolls, acid does damage they can heal and fire actually heals them! Or this troll is a wizard who has hidden his heart elsewhere, and nothing but finding it stops him from regenerating. Or maybe the way to defeat it is sunlight.

If you can’t be bothered to do that, then just assume the PCs have heard the popular ballad “Vladimir and the Troll”, which lays out in humorous detail just how you defeat a troll.

#5 Comment By Razjah On July 9, 2015 @ 6:54 am

I used to try to force the players to “not metagame” on certain monsters. Then I started using the PCs knowledge checks to work around the players game knowledge. “DC 15 to know its a troll, 20 to know its weak to fire and acid, 25 to know what you know.” Or something along these lines.

But now? We know how to kill trolls. They don’t even exist. We know how to slay dragons, kill zombies, defeat lycanthropes, vampires, and sometimes even eldritch horrors. Why the heck would people who live in a world with these monsters not know? If I want to throw the players a curve ball (and the PCs) then I change the monster. But not knowing about common monsters in a world with dragons and gods who are both active and clearly empowering their chosen people- not knowing how to kill certain monsters is just willful ignorance and too dumb to live.

So in my games, every villager knows to carry extra torches in Dark Forest because trolls live there. Of course, the common villager probably won’t do much of anything with that torch, but they at least know. We know how to take out zombies- but if an apocalypse broke out, how many of use can reliably make a headshot? It’s kind of like that.

#6 Comment By Angela Murray On July 9, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

Definitely good point on the zombie head shots. You may know what needs to be done, but not have the skills for it. Luckily the PCs are there to save the day. Hopefully. 😉

#7 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On July 9, 2015 @ 7:54 am

It was 2e I think that attempted to solve the problem by creating innumerable subspecies of troll, each with a unique weakness.

#8 Comment By Angela Murray On July 9, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

I’m not sure that really helped, but it at least it kept the players on their toes. 🙂

#9 Comment By black campbell On July 9, 2015 @ 9:11 am

I’ve been lucky that most of my game groups are comprised of people who don’t use OOC knowledge. They like the fun of having things go pear-shaped, then having to pull their fat out of the fire. That said, your best options if you want to surprise the player, rather than the character, are to create your own creatures, or better yet, use the Monster Manual against them — “Oh, you obviously got your knowledge from that long discredited tome…” and alter the creatures to meet the needs of your story.

#10 Comment By Azerling On July 9, 2015 @ 11:23 am

This is one reason I like homebrewed monsters. However, I remember the 2e monster manual actually had a lot of variants to help you counter this. Trolls, specifically, had 6 or 7 variants. Not all were weak to the same things, and at least one regenerated when hit with fire. My player’s reaction when they saw that… so betrayed.

#11 Comment By jengagne On July 9, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

I really want to highlight the “if” in this sentence:
“If it’s that important that your players and their characters be unaware…”

I’m sure some GMs just assume by default that somehow it’s more fun, or somehow important, when actually it won’t necessarily be. So that “if” says to me, think about it first. Does it really matter that this be a secret? Is it your goal to frustrate the players, or what?

It’s probably an instinct born of the GM’s role to know everything but only share it when the PCs find out… but as Angela points out, at least some things should really be part of the common folklore of the world.

#12 Comment By Joseph Collins On July 10, 2015 @ 4:40 am

Great comments – totes agree with Folklore knows about trolls and the fire-loving Red Troll but I would just like to add this: I can remember meeting a troll for the first time (Keep on the Borderlands, circa 1978-9). Our DM (my older brother) never let us near the Monster Manual or DM’s Guide (they were like the Necronomicon to us) and once the troll bits started joining together we freaked and set the scuttling bits on fire. It worked but it was a natural reaction to the situation…

#13 Comment By Jeff Wells On September 2, 2015 @ 10:58 am

That reminds me of one fairly epic gaming session my group had. We were playing Deadlands and hunting this weird scarecrow monster that was extremely tough. We had barely survived one combat with it but managed to drive it off. The next day while hunting for it we noticed scarecrows in various fields on the countryside. We decided to start burning them sort of “just in case”, and lo and behold that night the scarecrow was nowhere to be seen. It turned out that the scarecrow was vulnerable to fire (which makes sense, but there aren’t a lot of fire attacks in Deadlands so we didn’t think of it), and during the day it must stand in a field as a normal scarecrow and is completely helpless. Thus, by burning scarecrows “just in case”, practically on a whim, we’d casually killed this very scary monster without even realizing it.

It might seem a bit anticlimactic, but it was one of the coolest RP moments I’ve participated in.

#14 Comment By Svafa On July 10, 2015 @ 2:26 pm

I generally just let players make the decision on what their character would know, either writing it up to folklore or personal experience and preparation.

I also create a lot of my own monsters, and any fight that actually matters (i.e. important to the plot) will invariably have a custom made monster with at least a few surprises and likely a little bit of a puzzle/rotation that can be learned and exploited for an easier victory.

For instance, for a troll, I’d beef up its hp and give it some way to counter at least one of its weaknesses. A simple solution would be giving it an item with resistance/immunity that the party could loot/steal. Another would be to add lots of water (rain, waterfall, or deep pools) to make applying the weaknesses difficult. My last idea, if it’s intended to be a brutal, but not difficult fight, is to add some sort of constant environment damage that the troll can regenerate, like a poison cloud that encompasses the entire map and deals just under the troll’s regeneration in damage every turn.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that I’m happy to let players use their knowledge, but I’ll also let the monsters use that same knowledge and make it difficult to abuse their weaknesses (but I always try to ensure its still possible with a bit of creativity or preparation).

#15 Comment By Kveld Ulf On July 13, 2015 @ 11:09 am

I have used all these methods at some point or another, and while I love twisting expectations, I find that the easiest solution is, for me, to allow the players to know what they know… but they need to justify it via roleplay.

Just a quick “How do you know that?” or “Where did you learn…” and a minute or so for a quick response…

“My father fought a troll in the war. It tore through half the soldiers before it was chopped down… but then it started to put itself back together. They thought they were doomed until my Father noticed it avoided the camp fire.”

That way, I don’t fight what they know as players, and they add to their character’s story. If they cannot think of how they know it in a manner that fits their character, they are usually good enough to check themselves.

#16 Comment By FutureOreo On July 13, 2015 @ 5:35 pm

As a 3.5 player, I like to solve this problem by using monsters that will freak out compulsive metagamers but otherwise don’t affect things. For example, I wouldn’t just throw in a troll with fire and acid immunity but is vulnerable to cold and electricity – it’s just too obvious of a dig at metagamers, and it actually punishes them.

A good example of what I mean is the trolls in Monster Manual 3. Most of them have fast healing instead of regeneration. If metagamers are expecting regenerative trolls with vulnerabilities, they may panic as the trolls “regenerate” any kind of damage done to them, perhaps not realizing that they’re really doing lethal damage until the troll drops dead – but they are still able to fight the troll just fine, acid/fire or not.
In 3.5 at least, it only takes a few feats for a monster to become mechanically weird but still balanced – for example, a shadow with the Ghostly Grasp feat will probably surprise players when it starts upending tables in order to make difficult terrain, but it is otherwise just another shadow (who is wasting opportunities for strength damage in order to upend the tables).

My goal is that with enough monsters acting just a little out of the ordinary, people can’t completely rely on their OOC knowledge when fighting things, resulting in fights that always seem fresh.

As for games that don’t give you so many opportunities to tweak a monster within the game rules, however, I suppose that direct changes to the stat block and a heavy deal of playtesting are the way to go.