That’s right, I want to help my players metagame.
You see, 5e made a paradigm shift in encounter design from 4e.
4e was very much like an MMO. Every encounter was scaled to the players, and was a self-contained entity. You were not supposed to have a real encounter that was unfair. No facing level 15 monsters when you are level 2.
That’s not the case with 5e, at least their intent. There’s definitely encounters that are supposed to be unwinnable, or near impossible to win. The players are supposed to skip the fight, run from it, etc.
My players don’t do that, but they do metagame, realizing that some encounters are for when they “level up”. So I’ve had to dredge my brain for the kinds of things I would do in 1/2e to indicate the hazards involved. Unfortunately, we don’t have the MMO mechanic of level over each monsters head, so I’ve needed to get creative.
Let’s say there is a black dragon’s lair in the nearby swamp. If I was to just say “they say there is a black dragon in the swamp, and it’s sleeping in its lair”, I’d be in trouble. My players would beeline for some dragon loot.
Instead, when I first reveal the existence of the dragon, it will be from the lizard men that revere the dragon. They will say that they have worshipped the dragon for generations, “as long as the Folk have been”. They also will say that when the dragon awakes, “the Folk have had to go into hiding, as the dragon devours scores of us. Such is the way of the Folk.”
- Metagame communication
If the players continue on to the dragon, I need to make sure that the dragon communicates its power in the first round of combat. Luckily, that is easy in 5e with a dragon. Just have it breathe, and the players will probably get the hint from the DC and the damage that it is time to run.
With another creature, I might give it some kind of fear aura for a round, or fudge the first attack roll and say “I hit AC 32 for X damage”. Again, this will communicate that the players are not in Kansas anymore.
- Make sure there are plenty of other railroad tracks
When the dragon is revealed, I need to make sure that at least one other hook is available. In this case, the lizardfolk will reveal that they have been trading their contraband ghostweed to a human, and by the description, the players can probably identify her. Now they have something else to do, and they can probably get the hint that the dragon is for later.