The "conjurer problem". How to give players what they want without them conjuring it

I’m struggling with something.
Lately, I’ve been realising that a lot of problems with my RPG play have more to do with my own dissatisfaction, rather than my players’. They’re generally happy.

For me, I struggle to balance something.

  1. The players’ desire for a particular object, NPC, theme or arc
  2. The way to provide it without being contrived.

On the one end, the “conjurer player” extreme, we have a situation like

  1. The player wants something in the game, like unicorns
  2. The GM declares that they stumble upon a unicorn herd, or shop, or talking unicorn

This feels somewhat… I don’t know, contrived? Something irks me about this.
If the players look for something that could be found at any point, like wands or guns or a tavern, or the mayor, it’s usually a short way to that. But something very specific that’s clearly just handed out as player-service feels off to me.

On the other end, the “it’ll never come up” extreme, where

  1. The player wants unicorns
  2. I add unicorns to a 1d6 table, and it NEVER comes up.

I don’t know how to articulate this problem. Maybe it’s got something to do with “The Line”, maybe I’m afraid of giving players what they want, but… something irks me about “I want there to be X” just happening.

Does anyone else feel similarly? I need some help articulating and solving this.


Trying to wrap my head around the premise here:

This is not about an actual type of magic user class in a game, but a way to describe players “calling things into existence” by asking a willing GM? Is this correct? This seems what you’re trying to say. It was confusing to me. I’m working my way through my morning coffee as well, so I might not be awake enough yet.

If this is the case I’ve got some ideas. It all depends on the type or style of game you’re playing. In a lot of what’s called Story Gaming the players have a bit more authority over the narrative than in your more rules-as-written traditional game.

In a game like FATE each player starts with a type of currency (Fate Points) that can be used to influence the narrative, including just flat out saying “This is here”, and paying the point. GM still has veto. But those games usually have no random tables either. It’s more like a movie in that you move from scene to scene.

In Powered by the Apocalypse game some moves give you limited narrative control. Fully succeeding gives a lot of control, partially succeeding give some control, often combined with a tough choice, failing means very limited control. Moves can be custom made for adventures. Say you want to hunt a unicorn. A move could be written for that, with custom results.

In a more traditional game you could make your tables loaded. Making it a bell curve so it comes up more reliably, I guess? Or it can become a quest, where you work towards it, finding rumors, tracks, etc, and make it an adventure to find it.

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I frequently ask Players about their Goals and Desires for their Characters, it’s good information to have. This often leads to situations where they want something that might not be immediately present or accessible to them.

I like to use these as opportunities to encourage them to explore the world. Using your Unicorn Example, they would need to find out more about them as a first step. Perhaps consult a Sage that specializes in Magical Beasts (I hear that there might be one a few Villages over…), learn about their habitats and habits (this may entail a price). This might guide their future Adventures in those directions. They may also need to acquire knowledge of certain rituals or traditions or even items to approach them (notoriously skittish things, those Unicorns) and prove that their intentions were good.

I don’t really consider it solely my responsibility as Referee to produce the things they seek from thin air, but should they take these kinds of proactive steps and find themselves in a verdant glade where Unicorns were known to have been seen frolicking frequently, having completed the ritual, and wearing the raiment that proves them as friends of these Sylvan Protectors…then they’ve done the work to achieve their goal. The next step will be of course, convincing them to join their efforts.:slight_smile:

Sometimes, when I’m at a loss for an immediate answer to a question, I’ll not answer with “How” but instead “Where they can find the Answer.” In the past, I’ve reskinned the entries on my table here for things like this. It will sometimes buy me enough time to think of some interesting “next steps.”


I used to be quite restraint with immediately giving my players the thinks they ask for, as to not break there immersion with thinks randomly appearing.
That changed somewhat recently, because I consider immersion less important than just having fun (and also I’m more confident in my players keeping up their immersion) und because if players ask for something that represents a internal motivation and thus a good hook for an adventure/side quests/session.

I now generally follow this rule of thumb:
If they ask for something that could reasonably be there (a smith in a city, crossbow bolts in an armory or someones social media profile on the internet) I will always give it to them.
If they ask for something very specific (a alchemist specialized in Greek fire, anti-dragon arrows or someones location history) I try to still make it exists, but have them jump through some hoops to get it first (the alchemist is locked in his study and suspicious of strangers, the anti-dragon arrow is rusted and has to be tempered in a volcano or equivalent and the location history is private and you need the target to accept your friend request).

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Hi, yes, hello! I would love to speak to this, because I have it on my mind almost consistently! I’m looking at a similar problem at work: Players want 5-star Gacha characters, but if you just give them 5-Star characters they don’t appreciate them, right?

So let’s talk about the real feelings behind it, for want of a better term. I promise you the issue isn’t that it feels contrived because pssst everything in RPGs is contrived. It is all deliberately created by us or system in some way, and that’s not a bad thing, right? I think I hear your understanding of that when you hesitate around the word contrived and say “something irks you” about it. The issue, as far as I can tell, is that it doesn’t give a feeling of build and success. It doesn’t feel “earned” some would say.

Same for the other version, but in the other direction. It feels earned. It’s earned. It’s so earned. Why isn’t it fucking here I fucking earned this piece of shit unicorn! Okay now I’m over it. I get the unicorn, yeah sure whatever, I’m kind of past it now.

So, let’s start at what “good feelings” look like for getting something novel (new spells, new rules, magic items, unicorns):

This is what’s called an anticipation curve, and it requires 3 things: A baseline, deviation from baseline (upcurve) driven by players WANTING something, and a point where the player receives a thing (red X). The natural response is to return to baseline (which we want, so that we can generate a new anticipation curve!)

So you’ve got baseline, and, if the player is asking for a Unicorn, they’re juuuuuust starting the uptick on their building anticipation. You’re totally right, if we give it too early, we’re bored. If we give it too late, though, as you said in your 1d6 example, we blow through it!

How do we keep it in the sweet spot? Well…there’s a few methods that are in-use across industry:

1. Save-and-Spend

This is giving it a price that is above the Player’s current holdings, and letting them save toward it. An example of this is Tom Nook’s loan in Animal Crossing. Take a soft currency, that is easily fungible, with clear avenues for players to earn it, and give it a price. This is what Vanilla World of Warcraft did with mounts. MOUNT, you want a mount? 40 fucking gold. Good luck, nerd.
FATE: You want to assert you have something, it’ll cost you a Fate point which will cost you a complication. Etc.
Key Benefits:
Players can self-direct the farming. Fungible currency means they aren’t locked into one progression path if something else comes along. Very hands-off approach.
Key Risks:
Overall very weak at anticipation building. Currency collection is too predictable, so players don’t get interested until they’re close. In fact the hardest part of this is just getting players to start caring at the beginning (“1000 gold for a mount. Might as well be a billion, I’m gonna give up.” for more see Millennial’s buying houses…or not buying houses, as it were.).
Your currency needs to be fun to earn as part of your core loop. Players will chase efficiency over fun, so if grinding peacebloom in starter areas is the most efficient way to make money, that’s what they’ll do until they crash their own engagement curve. Gotta be good with your economy and pricing too, as price moves it up and down the curve (as a function of playtime).

2. Blueprint-and-Build

This involves giving your players a Blueprint (clear directions) on what they need to achieve the thing. This is Dungeon World’s Ritual move (Players ask for an effect, GM tells them how to achieve it via steps). This is the pokemon chain that says “get 8 gym badges then you can defeat the elite four”.
D&D’s main pathway to magic items: To get the Sunsword you must adventure into the Red Temple and fight the Lich, taking the sword from his body (okay to get to the red temple I need…to beat a lich I need…)
Key Benefits:
Allows for short- and medium-term rewards to sustain engagement over time (“Defeat 8 gym leaders” = “new town” Anticipation “Defeat Brock” REWARD PLATEU, “New town” Anticipation “Defeat Misty” REWARD PLATEAU. Little hops are great.
Key Risks:
No fungibility means that player needs to ensure they’re on the right track. Falling off the track is a massive impact on player engagement with game overall. Not a good plan for players like me who seek novelty again and again (to mitigate players like me, break my reward into small parts and distribute as they pass each medium-term milestone [not the unicorn! “Here, have these hooves”]). An example of looking after me is “I want a bow that shoots elemental arrows!” “okay, step one, you get a magic bow. Step 2 you get fire arrows, then you get ice arrows, then you get light arrows”.

3. Total Pity Timer

A total pity timer says “we’ll give you a roll on a d100 table, and if you don’t get it in 70 rolls, you get it”. The total pity timer needs to be before the engagement crash, but the “I could get it any time” builds anticipation like a motherfucker. Like, imagine if I got it on the first roll! How great would that be?!
Hearthstone does this with legendary cards. Pull 100 cards and no beuano? Your next pull is guaranteed. Key design choices are “do you reveal the pity timer to them or not”. Not generates more compulsive behaviour, revealing it generates more calculative behaviour. Pick your poison.
Rarely used in
Key Benefits:
All the fun of gambling without the chance of blowing out the top of your curve.
Key Risks:
Getting it first roll will still crash your curve (though not as bad). Need to make sure your chance is high enough to be worth it, but low enough that they’re not ACTUALLY gonna get it early.
Player feels very out of control, depending on how they generate rolls. This is why people on slot machines have rituals and prayer, because they don’t feel in control and are desperately trying to reassert that.

4. Incremental Pity Timer

“We’ll roll the d100, and every time you don’t get it we’ll add +1 to your roll next time. So EVENTUALLY you’ll get it, and every roll your chance goes up!”. A lot of games do this for little things like ammo. Zelda speedruns take advantage of this with bombs (chance goes up as your bomb count goes down). You pretty much have to reveal this or you’ll just be stuck in compulsive loops. Check the Key Risks on this.
Used a lot in Crit tables, like FFG’s Genesys: die on d100 table result of 130. Every other result is a critical injury. You roll +10 per injury (so +7 injuries, your table is d71-d170 and d130+ is death)
Key Benefits:
Builds chance as player builds anticipation. Really nice 1:1 alignment.
Key Risks:
Can cause players to value a roll as nothing more than “+1 to my next one”, which is a bit of a braindead short- or medium-term goal. Definitely don’t want them to be like “yeah just roll it so we can move on and I can grind out the next roll so I can grind out the next roll so I can grind out the next roll so that I can one day get it”. Kind of can have the same problems as “save-and-spend” but the perceived currency is “rolling”. Also, can have really bad feelings if the chance is too low (like if your Total pity timer is too high)

In both Pity Timer/Roll methods you can ease the burn by having some Non-Unicorn rewards. But that means I have to mention:

5. Unicorn Jackpot with High Volatility Payout
This is what slot machines do. Small payouts below the players input with a promise of a massive payout if they just keep trying. “you’ll get the unicorn if you roll max on a d1000 table! But this time you wiiiiiin A CHICKEN!” It maintains engagement for a long time because human brains are broken as fuck. It’s dogshit. Don’t do it. You’re better than this.
No RPG I know uses this. Good. If one does, I don’t want to know about it, just burn it.
Key Benefits:
Shackles your players to the behaviours you want. You get a special place in game design hell reserved just for you.
Key Risks:
You’re a monster.

Open to questions!


Player wants unicorns and expresses it.

GM quickly decides where unicorns exist in rheir world.

GM instructs player to seek information on unicorns in play.

Player seeks unicorns.

GM makes them earn it, turns out unicorns are on the other side of the deep dark forest.

Its an adventure!


This would be my approach. As a GM, I’m usually using a play-to-find-out playstyle. And most of the RPGs that I play are narrative heavy. So your mileage may vary.

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Not sure it helps, but I’ll share an experience. I’m DMing the Dragon Game with Icewind Dale for some friends. Two of them are sisters, pretty new to DnD. One is a druid, the other’s a ranger (coincidentally).

Druid, Goliath, became enamored with a random street cat I put in their path. Kept talking about wanting the kitty to be her friend. So I told her to wait for it. And I had the cat follow her across the Dale, past four towns, and she kept putting out food for it. Only when the cat needed protection from a homeowner’s broom and found that protection in the Druid did they become friends.

Ranger, Elf, wanted a crag cat. Sure, I’ll give you a crag cat. You are going to have to find it, still not fully grown, shortly after it’s parents perished to an avalanche though. You’re not just getting an adult crag cat pet. There were tears all around the table after that Mufasa moment, but she had also found her kitty.

And I absolutely love the imagery of a big goliath with a kitty next to a small slender elf with a monster.