Approximately 60 hours before I learned that my blog won the RPG Site of The Year from Stuffer Shack this week, I presided over arguably the worst D&D session I have ever run. The session started out well enough, but the last two hours were a complete debacle featuring players that were either frustrated, annoyed, checked-out or a combination of the three. As for my own response to the session, I was at first confused then disappointed. I started writing about the session earlier in the week but the news of the award lifted my spirits and put my reflections of the discombobulated session on hold.
With a few more days to process the events leading up to disastrous session, I’ve been able to analyze why the session went so poorly and list what can be learned to prevent similar problems. While my confidence was certainly shaken by the events, this post is not intended to make anyone feel sorry for me! And it is also not my intention to bash the players in my campaign. They have actually responded wonderfully in the wake of last weekend’s session and we’re in the process of getting back on track. Below, I present the details of the ill-fated session in gruesome detail and discuss lessons learned. Hopefully this brutal self-disclosure helps someone else out there prevent a similar episode from happening in her or his campaign.
“Fine, Just Force Us Into a Fight! No Use Trying To Do Anything Creative!”
The above quote, which I believe is close to what was actually said, was directed at me by a player in the group after approximately two hours of clunky and downright painful gameplay. Preparing for the session, I realized the storylines were getting away from me a bit (more on this in a moment) so I had every intention of giving the players more details about how to proceed with their quest. I wanted to simplify the plot and give the players clear choice points to move the game forward and bring some of the storylines to a close. My efforts were thoroughly unsuccessful, and it resulted in a frustrated group of players.
Preparing for the session, I had several beats I wanted to hit and then wanted the party to make a series of decisions that would either result in them confronting the leader of Ghost Talon or taking on members of Deathless Watch. The party has been working undercover to get close to the leader of Ghost Talon to capture him. I built out an encounter area with Dwarven Forge terrain that could be used for either encounter. I assumed this was a neat little trick since I could swap out the monsters (Ghost Talon or Deathless Watch) depending on how events transpired. Again, my plans blew up in my face.
To summarize the plot and give the players information, I had them walk into the middle of a speech by the leader of Ghost Talon. I prepared the speech ahead of time and was eager to perform it in front of the players. My hope was it would be a dramatic moment during the session and would answer dangling questions about the plot. I figured this was my Bond-villain moment when the leader of Ghost Talon explained his complicated plans and motivations. I turned down the lights, stood up and paced back and forth around the table while acting out the speech.
After the speech, members of Ghost Talon exited the assembly room, and the party had an opportunity to confront the leader of Ghost Talon. They allowed the moment to pass and were instead given the task of distracting members of Deathless Watch so Ghost Talon could execute an operation against Prince Rolan. So far, I had prepared for these options – if the party did not plan to capture the leader of Ghost Talon yet, then they would have a skirmish with members of Deathless Watch. In my mind, it was an Option #1 or Option #2 outcome. The party proceeded to debate Options #3 – #10 for the next 45 minutes.
Different players wanted to do different things. They questioned why they were still helping Ghost Talon, and wondered if they could go talk to Prince Rolan. They thought about informing Deathless Watch about Ghost Talon’s plans, but some players did not want to break their cover yet. Whenever I attempted to move the session along with, “What is your next move?” the players discussed new strategies or disagreed with each other. I never received a unified plan of action. The debate continued and they decided to go to the Deathless Watch barracks for the Ghost Talon attack, but then decided to parlay with Deathless Watch to avoid a fight. The players continued to say different things about their actions in front of Deathless Watch and by this point in the night, I realized we had approximately one hour left before the session ended. The leader of Deathless Watch, likely channeling my own frustration at this point, ordered an attack on the party.
That is when one player became annoyed and said the quote above. The party once again changed course and informed Deathless Watch of the Ghost Talon plan. The players assisted the Deathless Watch with fighting various Ghost Talon members outside the barracks. During the fight, one player checked out entirely, simply delaying actions and avoiding his turn. At this point, I just wanted to get the fight over with as soon as possible to pack up my things and go home! The fight was extremely mundane and after it concluded, I informed the group we would pick up next session and did not bother to create an ending narrative for the night.
Anatomy Of A Trainwreck
I was aware going into the session that the various plot threads in the campaign were beginning to get away from me, and even tweeted the following several days before the session:
Think I just created a new #dnd catchphrase, "Sandboxed into a corner." As in, I think I've sandboxed myself into a corner in our campaign.—
The Id DM (@TheIdDM) April 25, 2012
I received great advice about how to contain the plot threads and streamline the campaign. One of the suggestions (from bandofmisfits) was to send out an email to the players before the session to learn of their intentions. The responses from players allowed me to prepare for a limited set of options. I felt like this was an excellent start, but I was very much aware that I needed to present information to clarify the goals for the party.
Lack of direction. Readers of the blog may remember that my players have been sent to The Shadowfell to undercover a mysterious plot that threatens the fabric of their kingdom, Cydonia. I wished to take the players out of their comfort zone and drop them into a realm where nothing seems to be safe. I was eager to have the players question loyalties and look over their shoulder all the time because Gloomwrought is meant to be an unsettling place. One error I committed is that I sent the party to The Shadowfell with no clear NPC to trust for directions and to move the plot along.
I wrote last year how I use the mission structure of games like Red Dead Revolver to give the players a hub for quests and updated plot threads. But I purposely cut off the players from any trustworthy source of information once they entered The Shadowfell. This did make them less certain of how to proceed, but it worked too well. They have interacted with various factions in Gloomwrought and all of them seem evil to various degrees. They simply do not know what to do and do not have a “mission hub” to go to since they are cut off from everyone they trust.
Coincidentally, Chris Perkins wrote about the need for a Know-It-All NPC this week:
If your campaign is anything like mine, it’s layered with deception, and the players need at least one NPC whose word they can trust and who will serve as a light in muddy waters . . . if the player characters are stuck, the know-it-all serves to guide them true.
The party’s Know-It-All is nowhere to be found at the moment. I sent them to The Shadowfell with a convoluted mission (more on this below) without anyone to guide them along the way. And since Gloomwrought has multiple factions vying for power, more layers have been added to an already confusing storyline. Learn from my failure and take Chris Perkins’ advice to heart; keep a Know-It-All NPC available to your party to clean up dangling plot threads.
Extended storylines. In our campaign, the party has learned that doppelgangers are impersonating high-ranking officials in towns throughout the Kingdom of Cydonia. They first learned of this plot in Level 1, and have been traveling from town to town to reveal the doppelgangers and rescue the high-ranking officials who have been captured. Each town they visit presents a hub for plot hooks, but the events still feed into the larger story about doppelgangers infiltrating the halls of power and influence in the kingdom. The party is now Level 14 and this plot is still not resolved.
The frustrated-DM side of me wants to be annoyed with players for not paying attention to the plot. Our group plays – at most – every two weeks, and it is a challenge to recap the most recent session. But the rationale-DM side of me realizes that I am the same way as a player; I don’t track the plot nearly as well as I should. As a player, I also forget what transpired in the most recent sessions, let alone events that happened approximately two years ago!
While I think players share responsibility on this front, I realize that I have allowed various plot threads to dangle for far too long. Long-running storylines become a bigger problem when players enter and exit the campaign and different times. I have a core group of three players that have been there since the early days of the campaign, but the fourth and fifth player slots have been filled by a revolving door or different players over the past two years. Thankfully, our group now has two players that are quite stable in terms of attendance and dedication but they have only been in the campaign for several months. Those two players do not have an understanding of the various plot threads from before, so approximately 50% of my players don’t have a clear grasp of the larger storylines from Level 1 – nor should they.
After the session, I created a PowerPoint presentation of important NPCs and factions in the campaign, which I sent to players. I have a player – the party’s Cleric (more on him in a moment!) – who writes a terrific session summary after each game, but it seemed the players might benefit from a visual representation of the plot. Also, my DM created a similar flowchart for the Scales of War campaign I’m in, and I’ve found the flowchart very helpful to keep track of storyline details.
The flowchart was the first step to “reset” the campaign. I informed my players that I did not use the term reset to blow up the current campaign and start over, but to ensure that everyone had the same information to move forward. Imagine pressing the Reset button at a bowling alley when there is a mistake with setting up the pins; the mechanism cleans the lane and allows the bowler to have a clear view of the pins. I wanted the players to have a clear picture of who they were targeting and why. I was pleased with how the flowcharts turned out, and I encourage anyone reading to steal the template and create similar charts for the players in his or her game.
I would be doing a disservice to not add a footnote here regarding how one of my players – a Cleric of Pelor no less - responded to the flowchart. He sent the chart (pictured below) to me while copying everyone in the gaming group with one line of text, “I got your completed diagram. I’m sending it off to the whole group.”
I speculate that a lesser man may have taken this joke too personally, scooped up his dice and quit the campaign. But he is one of the core three members of the group and I’ve gotten accustomed to his sense of humor over the past two-plus years. My actual thought process upon opening his email was, “What is this? I don’t understand. Oooooh, I see what he’s doing here. Very funny, j**k-off!”
Change in group dynamics. In terms of player characters, the strongest personality in the party throughout the campaign has been a slightly-homicidal Tiefling Wizard, Morgoth, who is a fire Magic Missile first, ask questions later type of character. He has served as the mouthpiece for the group during most social encounters, and there has been a fun exchange between him and other members regarding who “the leader” is in the group. The players have a running joke about what the party is called. The Wizard dubbed the group Morgoth’s Marauders while the more-congenial Halfing Rogue, Griffo, advocates for the party to be known as Griffo’s Gadflies.
Recently, the player of Morgoth became restless with the Wizard and wanted to change characters. We privately communicated to develop a logical way for the character to leave the party and for his new character – a Warforged Barbarian labeled SDF-1 – to join the party. I was very pleased with how this transpired and the player sent out some great emails to detail his backstory and integration with the party. As a Warforged, his backstory states that he is a follower of basic commands such as “Protect master” and “Defeat enemies.” As such, he is no longer active in social situations since he literally follows the lead of others. The change in dynamics has been enormous in terms of how social encounters are playing out at the table now.
Without an assertive, let’s-just-take-action-and-see-what-happens voice at the table, every decision point has featured more debate, conjecture and argumentation between the players. This is not a bad thing in and of itself because it is wonderful for me to listen to their ideas about what is happening in the campaign world; it gives me seeds for later plot hooks or takes the game in new directions that I never anticipated. But it also grinds the game to a halt if allowed to go on too long.
I previously spoke about a concept known as The Johari Window, and how each player at the table has a relationship with everyone else at the table. I mentioned that playing D&D is even more complicated because on top of these relationships, there are relationships between each player’s character and the other players’ character. Even though the same five players were sitting around the table, the dynamics of how decisions were made and how the game progressed completely changed. Even though I anticipated the dynamics of the group would change when Morgoth exited the party to pursue his goal of locating the Crystal of Ebon Flame, I underestimated how much difference it would make.
Although the last session was a complete and utter mess, my players have rallied around me. Unsolicited, I received individual messages from different players offering support within the 24 hours after the session concluded. After I sent out the flowchart to “reset” the campaign, the players have been discussing the plot and offering ideas back and forth about their next course of action. They have also provided me with encouragement, stating that they are invested in the campaign and the current storylines.
I’ve said it numerous times throughout the life of this blog, but I’ll say it again. I think it is crucial for a DM to be open to feedback. The session was a humbling experience; even though I knew preparing for the session I had some problems in the campaign, my plans to solve them thoroughly failed . . . and somehow made things worse! I could close myself off to feedback and just plow ahead with my campaign disregarding the realities of how I contributed to the problems. But not acknowledging my contributions would be a mistake, and I’m sure it would lead to players departing the campaign rather quickly.
From this point forward, I’m going to introduce brief storylines that take a few sessions to resolve, not a few years to resolve! I’m going to ensure that the players have access to at least one NPC that can assist with clarifying the plot when things get too complicated. And while deception, mystery and intrigue are interesting angles to include in a campaign, I need to remember to keep the plot simple.
I would appreciate any comments or feedback you might have, but please do not speak ill of my players. I want to assert again that I’m not looking for readers to tell me, “Your players suck!” (I already know that. I keed, I keed!!) However, I’m perfecting willing to have readers tell me, “You really suck!” I just ask that you explain why I suck and how to improve.