GM Advice: Looking for Trouble

 Whether they know it or not, your players are always looking for trouble.

In Munchkin, when you kick down the door, meaning you draw from one of the decks it means that you either find a monster you have to fight or you suffer a curse or you find an item. If you don't get a monster, you can go looking for trouble, meaning you put down your own monster to fight it, because that is what the game is about. You want to fight monsters to gain experience to win the game!

Rpgs are about looking for trouble and players are constantly doing it. They never think there is nothing on the other side of the door. If they kick down a door, they expect there to be something interesting behind it and if there is nothing immediately apparent, they go looking for it. They go looking for trouble.

For instance, you as a GM may have come across this problem. You describe a door. You don't really have anything planned about this door, you just thought it would be a neat door and set the tone of this area in the dungeon. The door is not trapped, not a puzzle, not even locked. This is just a neat looking door.

And then you are befuddled when your players treat it like this door is radioactive. They start rolling their checks, casting detection spells, poking it with a ten foot pole, seeing if it holds some great secret of lore. The door becomes everything in their brains for the next 10 minutes minimum. Finally, they get the picture that the door itself is nothing. You sense disappointment, just a little bit. A little bit of wonder leaves their eyes, but they light up again as they are eager to see what is on the other side of such a fabulous portal!

You groan inwardly and curse your busy hands which drew that damnable door! For on the other side of that door is... a broom closet. The whole song and dance plays over again. Disappointment wells up, preparing to break the damns of their polite, almost pitying smiles. You feel like the lowliest creature God ever condemned to existence. 

You didn't count on them looking for trouble.

This is not something you can stop, not something you can turn off. This is just a regular human response although it will not always manifest the same way. 

One contributing factor is genre. Dungeon games like D&D use little details to signal players to pay attention to everything, investigate everything, risk more encounter checks and resources to make sure they eek out every bit of treasure. It tends to create players that are hyper sensitive to anything out of the ordinary. In games that are science fiction or even just more genre or setting focused, that attitude changes a little, but the instinct is still there. They may not be poking every stone with a ten foot pole, but they are still looking for trouble.

So how can you, as a GM tired of feeling like a worthless worm, do to make your players stop such foolishness? You can do nothing. As I said, you can't turn this off. You'd have to find the most incurious lumps of barely sentient coal to find people who do not do this. However, you can manage this behavior.

You have to learn to be on the lookout for Doors so you can be in control of where they lead.

Here are some tips for Doors:

  1. Anything you describe in detail: If you take time and focus to describe something, expect your players to pick up on that and be drawn like flies to honey. This applies to things to things like elaborate doors, but it can also be something like a rug. If you have never described another room with a rug and then there's a rug, the players are going to examine it. If you describe the sconces in a room while you've previously just said that they occasionally dotted the walls and never mentioned them since, you better believe they're going to be pulling in those sconces.
  2. All that glitters: shiny, glowing, or evidently magical stuff is bound to draw attention. Players are tuned to look for treasure to take and magic to meddle with. If something glows with arcane light, players will notice. The only possible exemption that comes to mind is bioluminescent fungi in Underdark areas because they are so expected, but if you take any time describing them, you better believe they'll go looking for trouble.
  3. The weird, out of place, or quirky: Players will always try to adopt Zamboni the Tuba Playing Goblin. Remember this.
But what do you do with your Doors? 

You might be tempted to get rid of all but a few of your Doors, but I would caution you against this. Recognizing your Doors is something that will almost certainly become more natural to you as you continue GMing especially with the same people. The reason we have Doors is because players want them. They want to discover cool things and mess with them. They are expecting to find adventure around every corner and they are going to be disappointed if they think they've found it and it turns out to be nothing. 

That's what we want to stop: disappointment. We want to avoid feeling like we've pulled the rug out from beneath our players' feet. This is a learning process. It might mean you need to do more prep for now but once you get in the groove, you'll be able to do this on the fly. 

So let's look at an example scenario:

Berry Bad Doors:

You are cooking up a magical forest for your players. To sell the mystical vibes of this place you describe some glowing berries on a bush. 

Immediately, one of your players asks, "Do I know what kind of bush that is? Can I make a check?"

Oh no. Your innocent set dressing has become a terrible Door and now this poor fool wants to know where it leads. 

Here is a good rule: cool doors hide a challenge and a treasure. 

Players want something to overcome and something to profit them.

This player asking about the berries, she's playing a wizard, a bit of a witchy, alchemist character. She's looking to call upon her knowledge to overcome the problem of her ignorance in order to find some use for this berry that will profit here. All this shows off her character's personality and she built this character because this was an element of your game she wanted to explore. She probably even thinks you put this here just for her. Gulp.

So what don't we do?

You call for the check. She succeeds. You wave the berries off, saying they are just native to the forest with little use. You tacitly admit that they are nothing, a dead end. The player is disappointed. 

You also don't do this:

She fails the check. 

"You don't know."


Let's go back.

She rolls the check. Success!

"These are Moon Berries. It is said that Luna, Goddess of the Moon, created these to store her moonlight so it could be enjoyed during the day. They store moonlight and shine it during the day."

Notice that we aren't shutting down her curiosity but rather inviting her deeper. 

"Could we use them like torches?" 

Once again, your first thought might be to shut this down. Maybe you want your players to rely on torches. Maybe you think having these berries as a perpetual light source could be too strong. What do you do? Once again, we want to invite rather than shut down.

"The berries will cast dim light like a candle but they run out of light in total darkness quickly. However, it might be possible to breed a superior berry or maybe you can find a way to make them cast more light or longer."

Not the cleanest response but it serves our purposes. In fact, depending on the player, the idea of breeding a longer lasting and brighter berry might be right up her alley. It also creates a gold sink and opportunities to have a task to tend to during down time. By the end of this process, you will probably be satisfied that they put enough work and gold into this endeavor to justify having a couple of free torches made from berries grown in her garden. Or maybe the player explores using mirrors to maximize the amount of moonlight that is shining on the berries, super charging them. Or maybe she tries to imbue the berries with a light spell charged off their natural magic. 

In any case, you probably have a player who is now invested in her ability to create something useful to the team that shows off her character and allows her to get invested in your world. She might even start a side business of selling berry torches to other adventurers. These are all things that should be encouraged rather than squashed.

Even if she failed the check, you shouldn't say, "You know nothing." Rather continue to invite her in.

"You know these are Moon Berries, but you don't know too much about them. However, you know where you can go to learn what you're looking for. You could go to the Library of Atten, the druid's circle of the Whispering Falls, or you could go to your mentor, Delila La Fey."

Each of these ways has a quest just begging to be made. Any of these locations could hold adventure. The Library of Atten? Maybe there is a Knowledge Eater infesting the place. The druid's circle? Maybe they will give you their knowledge if you help them defeat the arcane machines that are chopping down the trees of the forest. The mentor? Kidnapped. Find the culprit and rescue her!

This might sound like a lot, the good news is that you will probably have time between sessions to prep. If it seems like too many options, cut it down to just one potential source of information.

By recognizing your Doors, you could have some of this done ahead of time. Even if you didn't recognize this Door, with right ethos and a little improvisation, you can make this into a satisfying rather than a disappointing moment for your players. Your player got a challenge to overcome and a way to profit from the experience. 

Another example: the Morose Knight

This is an example from a game I saw recently. If anyone recognizes it, I don't mean to cast shade on the designer or the GM. Both the scenario and the person running it were great. This is just my two cents on how this encounter could have been improved.

The party encounters a grimly depressed giant knight in immaculate and valuable armor sulking and making vague grim statements followed by chuckles like a Dark Souls character. 

This is just Zamboni the Tuba Playing Goblin by another name.

The party approaches and they are looking for trouble. They ask the knight who he is, why he is so sad, what's his backstory. They ask all the questions. Finally, one of them asks if he knew where the object of their quest lies and the knight gives them the information without trouble. The players are kind of gobsmacked. They are looking for something to do with this giant knight, looking for trouble but not finding anything to grab onto. 

You see the GM just gave away the information which could be fine, but it left the players dissatisfied. Remember we want a challenge and a treasure. The GM gave away the treasure, the information, which honestly makes it not feel valuable. The information was given so freely that the players are now looking for a different treasure. We humans tend to think that nothing good comes cheap. Players tend to think that if they get something easily, then there must be more to get with hard work.

Now I think maybe the GM was trying to tempt the players with their greed. Look at that shiny armor, right? Don't you wanna try and kill this guy and take it? That is not a bad way to go about it, but it clearly was not something that this party was latching onto. 

So the players try to convince the knight to come with them and join them on their quest. The knight won't do that. The players try convincing the knight that life is worth living. He's not going to be convinced. The players try convincing the knight to just go somewhere more comfortable. Nothing.

This is classic looking for trouble behavior. The players want to do something with this knight. He is an obvious Door and they are acting like players act. 

So what would I have done?

I would have maybe had the knight offer to play a game to relieve his boredom and if the players win, they could have a knife made of the same metal as his armor or something like that: a minor magic item or a consumable, or indeed withheld the information and have that be the prize. Alternatives include, having the players tell him a sad story to deepen his despair, or surviving against him in combat for a few rounds. Either way, they would win their information and/or some prize he has on his person.

See what I did, I included a challenge and a treasure, something for the party to overcome and something for them to gain. After such an encounter, I can imagine the players might still try to get this guy to come along, but once they figure out that's not happening, they would still have left this encounter satisfied.


To improve your GMing, understand that players are looking for trouble. Realize that they are going to kick down every cool Door and expect a challenge and a treasure behind it. Invite them deeper into your world rather than putting up walls. Players expect adventure everywhere so give it to them.


  1. This is all great advice. Having played in your Weirdways campaign for a while now, I can say firsthand you live up to these ideals. I always appreciate how much you're able to lean into whatever weird, wonderful, whacky ideas we throw at you.

    1. Thank you Max! I'm so glad it's been a fun ride!

  2. I've definitely been guilty of saying "they are just normal berries for the love of god." There's something to be said for the less is more approach to information design where if it isn't something the players can meaningfully interact with, don't bother saying anything about it. The writer in me instinctually wants to describe everything, but the DM knows I really shouldn't do so unless there is, as you say, a challenge and a reward there for the players. This is great advice.

    1. My thanks! Yeah this can be a frustrating thing. Information design is difficult and players latch onto weird things. I think that a lot of this can be solved with improvisation though. I mentioned it earlier. You don't have to prune all your Doors even if you don't have something immediately prepared for it. If you kind of get the right ethos down, you can improvise something to make even these incidental Doors more interesting. If you can manage it, its very freeing.

  3. This is great advice at a sorely needed time! I'm running a game for a bunch of players new to TTRPGs as a whole and they don't have the N/OSR conditioning that sometimes helps gms predict player behavior (which is cool!). At the very least, thinking about what you're telegraphing - knowingly or otherwise - is a good first step to preventing disappointment. Awesome post, fam.

    1. Glad to be of help! Even relatively new players tend to have these habits. I remember when I described the tiles of a floor to some new players. One, the thief, decided to try and parkour from torch sconce to torch sconce rather than touch the floor. The other two players just walked in. There was no trap. I had just focused on the floor and even this new player picked up on it and got suspicious.

  4. The giant should have been like the turtle in Neverending Story, needing to be caught in a logical debate trap to cough up the information.


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