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Player paranoia

As a Storyteller, do you like to surprise your players? Do you try to ambush them with an exciting encounter? Have friendly non-player characters turn out to be villains? Only to have your sly attempts fail because your players don’t trust any NPCs, fortify their camps like they’re protecting crown jewels, and throw up a battery of precautions at every turn? Mine do. My paranoid, overcautious, overprepared tables used to drive me crazy — but as I came to accept it, I also realized that I could use it as a Storytelling tool.

Why are players so paranoid?

When you play a game, do you try to win? Most folks do. If the consequence of you not playing well was that your character dies, doesn’t that make you cautious? Of course it does! Most players don’t purposefully make foolish decisions. Now, I’ve gamed with some great players who are willing to decide that their characters are too upset to lock their inn room door or something. But let’s face it, RPGs incentivize players to calculate their risks. That’s why they set a watch when they camp through the night, and set out Alarm spells or other security measures. That’s why they don’t blindly trust NPCs.

And really, it’s our fault as Storytellers, too. Because we like to surprise our tables, ambush them for an exciting encounter, and have apparently friendly NPCs turn out to be villains. So we’ve taught them to be wary of those things.

For one reason or another, most players are going to be cautious. You might get some reckless characters now and then, but usually the rest of the party is going to strangle their friend for constantly getting them in trouble. And if you wind up in a group in which everyone is ready to throw caution to the wind, then maybe this isn’t a problem for you. The chaos might be a handful, but that’s just another part of role-playing.

Paranoia is our friend!

The goal of surprises, ambushes and reveals is to excite your players and get them amped up. We want our players on the edge of their seats! But if a Storyteller is constantly trying to pull one over on the party, then surprises, ambushes, and reveals can become commonplace and rote — your table is expecting them all the time. Prove them right and it just makes paranoia routine.

Making things seem dangerous but then turn out alright is one way of keeping your players guessing. They never know when it’s safe to lower their guard. Or keeping that guard up and then having things prove benign makes them start to doubt their paranoia, too. Which means that maybe we finally get to slip something past them.

Image: A figure holding a glowing cyan lamp to illuminate the cavern full of wrecked ships.
Art by Tithi Luadthong.

But you don’t even have to carefully plan reveals and hide them among a bunch of false alarms. Look at it from a more lazy point of view. As a Storyteller, I want my players to be paranoid and to be alert for danger. I mean, they’re going to be paranoid anyway. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve introduced an NPC and the players all look at each other to say, “That person is totally evil!” What this means, though, is that the players are doing all the work of spooking themselves out. All I have to do is have them meet a new NPC and they’re already looking over their shoulders.

In Tydalus — which I ran and wrote about for From Dream to Dice — the party entered a village that they were certain was evil, and were even afraid of the porridge served at the inn. Yeah, they were afraid of porridge. Is it unreasonable for experienced role-players to worry that food served to them might be poisoned? Not at all, that’s a reasonable assumption in an RPG. I’ve absolutely poisoned characters before. But the porridge was fine. I mean, it wasn’t good porridge or anything, but it wasn’t poisoned. My players took the creepy atmosphere that I was trying to build and ran with it, so they did the work of freaking themselves out about this town and had themselves on the edge of their seats.

Sure, when the village turned on the characters en masse and they were chased across town by a torch-wielding mob the players absolutely looked at each other and shouted, “I knew it!” But the important part was that my players were amped. They suspected that this town was rotten, but they had no proof. They didn’t know when the hammer would fall. They could be as paranoid as they wanted, and all I had to do was draw out the tension until it felt right to spring the next scene.

We quote the movie Pitch Black at our table constantly, and this line has become a favorite: Looks clear. Riddick — being the only character in the movie who can see in the dark — tells another character that it looks clear. When they make a move, one of the monsters rushes out of the shadows. But when he accuses Riddick of telling him it was clear, Riddick just says, “I said it looks clear.” Any time a character is searching for traps, scanning an area for ambushes, or judging an NPC to see if they are a spy, looks clear and an evil smile is my favorite response. But they rolled high to see through a deception? Well, all that tells the player is that they’re right and it’s all clear… Or that the NPC is really good at lying, which only makes them more paranoid.

Paranoia is its own reward.

Reward paranoia!

Remember that players are paranoid for a reason. They’re playing the game as intelligently as they can, trying to keep their characters alive, and to reach the end of your story. They’re going to make plans, take precautions, and check every chest for traps. Don’t sweat it if they find all your traps! Don’t worry if they suspect that your secret villain is villainous! Maybe you don’t get the pleasure of your laser-beam trap dicing up the characters, they get the pleasure of finding the trap and maybe the engineer character gets to use their skill set to disarm it.

When you reveal that the NPC is a villain, the players may not be surprised, but they get to feel vindicated. And humans just love being right. If your players are happy because the defenses that they set up around their camp protected them from danger, that they’re smart to have made the preparations that let them shrug off an ambush, that’s great! It’s fun, and that’s what we play for, right?

Paranoia’s just part of a player’s job, and it can be your friend. The Storyteller gets to play with when that paranoia is justified — and when it isn’t, so you can keep them guessing and maintain dramatic tension both, while rewarding them and letting them feel proud of themselves. It’s the best of both worlds.

So remember, it looks clear.



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Aron Christensen

Aron Christensen

Author and Storyteller for The RPGuide.