The Agony of Defeat

About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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34 Responses to The Agony of Defeat

  1. I think it sounds like quite the opposite, you have great players! I would personally love to get more unsolicited feedback from mine. The fact that they realized your frown and tried to turn it upside-down, by clarifying that they were personally invested in the storyline…that’s huge. It seems as if the only problem was that the time constraints of your session made you feel like you HAD to push the story along. But if the players are having fun, discussing the plot, and engaged in decision-making, there should never be an issue! I try to have the most holy amount of patience. If we need to spend all our time discussing one minute detail, as long as everyone is engaged and having fun, then let ’em at it!

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for commenting! The fact that the players are engaged in the story and attempting to “figure it out” is great, but I need to realize when the plot is getting away from me in terms of depth and complexity. The players should not have to spend too much time to figure out what to do next during a session. Some decision points and debates are good things, but I was picking up that the players felt powerless over the story. And that is something else entirely that I want to avoid.

      Your comment on time constraints is absolutely valid. I had a section on the time-constraint issue in the post originally but cut it due ot length . . . which is ironic now that I think about it!

  2. Being the player who “checked out”. I’d like to say that, it was my characters decision to stay hidden from attacking our “cover employer” in case the fight was witnessed (it was in city streets) or any enemies escaped (which 2 did). It did not appear they had any heavies which would require my character to help in order to prevent a defeat (and they didn’t). So, the intent was to leave an avenue open, with at least a small chance of maintaining some sort of “in” with the former employer in case we needed it. Since 2 of the enemies got away, I would say the move worked. As to what sort of “in” it gives us, who knows?

    For those reading, SDF-1 wanted to attack the Big Baddie the moment we got left with him and 5 friends, but I got out voted. or rather the order wasn’t given. Morgoth would have fire balled anyway. =) SDF-1 isn’t a complete automaton but he is submissive to the Sect Leaders orders. (Just a different RP angle)

    Anyway, to comment on the Chart, funny as hell. I had to laugh only because I’ve been fairly lost in the campaign for a while. Morgoth was easily angered or motivated by revenge/gold/information, so even though he was confused a lot, he would act in the moment, which summarily caused the party to act. Thus preventing this current situation. SDF-1, having been victim to a poor decision he followed blindly in the past (back story), prefers a more clear and defined line of action, often asking for Primary Objectives from the Sect leader. Current Primary objective is “kill/capture big baddie” via “infiltration”. Ergo switching sides in broad daylight is a bit confusing.

    The session summaries do help as do the recaps, but only to clarify some immediate objectives. I’m still a bit fuzzy on how some of the things on the new chart connect. I see the lines, but for the life of me can’t remember the connections. I think a deeper review at the table could help clarify that. Not so much in “how they connect”, but “how do our characters know they connect”. if that makes sense?

    Anyway, good read. We’ve all been there before, you’ll pull through. Or I’ll bring Morgoth back..

  3. docgratis says:

    As a player in the Id’s DM (I’m one of the new guys (actually the newest)). The DM deserves a lot of credit, for both keeping his cool during the train wreck, and for helping marshal our campaign…

    An excellent summary, and I think two points in this case that contributed to the “train wreck session” were A) group dynamic change of the loss of Morgoth (the de facto hothead, act now, leader of the party)

    B) the strange dangerous environment of Shadowfell without a trustworthy NPC/connection/Information source.

    The group has become less decisive (see A) at time when any action may be the wrong action (see B). (but that is not to blame the character or the player, in anyway) (and in comment to Morgoth/AJ/SDF-1 comment above. I didn’t take his hanging back as checking out, and the fight was over rather quickly and easily)

    For a metaphor, I see it like going over whitewater rapids, and tour guide decided he was just going to follow the lead of the rest of the tour group…
    In retrospection, there may have been paths that were cleaner and more effective than the one we settled into, or ones we could have actively chosen verses settling into this course, (aka attacking the ghost talon leader when we had the chance) but I am sure we will find out way out of these dangerous waters…

    I’m not sure that having the long running plot lines is a factor in this particular case.. But to be fair, I still don’t understand the doppelgangers roll in all this. ;)

  4. As an side, this sounds like an excellent series of questions for the RPG stack (especially as I keep talking about agency there.)

    Back on topic I’ve had games (and taught classes) like this. The best response is to pause, and if-necessary, abort the game for the night. One of the reasons for the bickering is that (Meier 1970) the problem has not been adequately defined and/or that the players schemata (Kelly 1955, but I should probably write a paper about intentional fictional schemata) do not correspond with yours/each others.

    Insufficient data (whichever construction (me, 2012) ), tensions, and bordeom can lead to a trainwreck. A solution is to pause, allow people to reassess the problem (perhaps say “I’ll be starting next week with this scene, and I’ll want the group to tell me what they will do then.” both allows tempers to cool, the definition of the problem to resolve, and most importantly *new* data to be gathtered through asynchronous roleplaying via electronic means and flashbacks.

    Still, a pause for thought is one of the best techniques here. And realizing that player arguing over solution tends to stem from an insufficiently articulated problem.

    (Just got my PhD, so I’m… kinda academic about everything right now)

    Ballsun-Stanton, B. (2012) Asking About Data. UNSW.
    Kelly, G (1955) The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.
    Maier, N. R. F. (1970). Problem Solving and Creativity in Individuals and Groups (p. 493). Brooks/Cole Pub. Co. Retrieved from

    • Note to mod. Could you edit in a link to the rpg stack exchange? I keep forgetting that not everyone knows what the RPG stack is.

    • Actually, I disagree. Pausing the game would have ticked us off. I would rather talk all night long and arrive at a solution or at least gain some clarity, than have the opportunity yanked away. We weren’t really “arguing” either. It was a discussion about options with a vast amounts of thoughts and possibilities.

      I do agree that definition of the problem, was an issue. Sort of. We knew the objective, but the when/how wasn’t clear to some of the players. (my opinion from observation)

      Basically what happened is one person made a move, which the DM took as a party decision, and that didn’t jibe with some others, so it spun us into a further discussion about “oh great, now what do we do?” Then during that time, the combat scene was plopped on us, which forced a hastened decision again. That’s where the top quote came from (from my perspective) I didn’t say it, so it’s only a guess.

      • docgratis says:

        I’m sure if we played more often if pausing would have worked, but with only playing every other week, the game time feels to valuable.. I agree that pausing or canceling for next session would not have helped.. in our case.

        We must work through this anger! ;)

      • Interesting. Would a series of requested flashbacks for clarification worked better?

      • docgratis says:

        I don’t think flashbacks would have helped really. The problem was not with the party not remembering what we were to do..

        The problem lay more with not knowing who to trust or if attacking the established “big bad” was actually going to help a worse bigger bad…

      • The Id DM says:

        I believe Worse Bigger Bad is the subtitle for the D&D Next Monster Manual.

      • I agree… We were presented with a bad guy, who hates another bad guy, with “evil” powers. Then there’s a third bad faction who dislikes them both. So the question was, Who is worse? Is there a way to rid ALL the evil? Does big bad guy fear the bigger bad guy because he is worse? or is he actually good? And how are dopplegangers tied to this in the first place?

        “and why, when I wake up in the morning, do I have this stiff thing in my pajamas?” – Richard Jeni

      • docgratis says:

        I may have invented “worse bigger bad” but I can’t take credit for “bigger bad”

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for posting those links. I think ending the session because it wasn’t going well would have created other problems. We only play twice each month so the time at the table is quite valuable. I’m not sure how flashbacks would fit into the game at this point because it takes time away from the players using their characters, and I don’t see that as a good thing. (At least at this point in time).

      I’ve received several emails from the players discussing the plot in addition to my players who are talking about the session in the Comments here. I’m confident we can get the storylines straightened out!

  5. On Agency:

    Plot, when planned by a DM, never survives contact with the players. I personally have adopted, as a practice, the determination of what the NPCs *have done* and what they plan to do, but not any over-arching “plot” /per se/. By keeping NPCs limited to the same temporal reference as players, players may express agency and have the NPCs respect their choices by reacting to them and creating consequences.

  6. alphastream says:

    Good stuff. I suspect most of us have these kinds of issues crop up from time to time. It is so hard to have overarching plot and to make it manageable. The simplest model is wheels within wheels, where things are left behind. The G-series into the D-series into Queen of the Demonweb Pits is a classic example. You aren’t in the Vault of the Drow having to remember some bit that took place in G2. On the other hand, the campaign can be less for that. I like your idea of keeping plot arcs shorter. It can be helpful to have immediate/short arcs that fall under the umbrella of larger plot arcs that give the campaign its purpose. We see that in TV, where there might be a few episodes that deal with a certain NPC/plot, and which fall under the larger issues the show deals with.

    I’ve also found that having a home and a cause helps. PCs and their players should have a sense of what is theirs. It gives them a center upon which other things can hang. Even in a Sinbad-style campaign it can work, if the ship is the center.

    And yeah, players don’t remember details. DMs really need to go back and hand the information when it is important and remind of the connections. I’ve tried sites like Epic Words (or Obsidian Portal) and they don’t really help (other than by helping the DM to remember because they took the time to write it up). It really needs to be in each gaming session that you re-introduce the concepts and underscore connections/goals/etc.

    • raddu76 says:

      Alphastream, as usual hit it on the head. I just finished a year and a half campaign of Dark Sun. I wrapped it up because there was only 1 in 5 characters who was invested in the main arc. Like you, we mostly played every two weeks, occasionally every week.

      What I learned and will implement next campaign:
      1)Keep the arcs short! In fact I’m going to have most arcs finish in 1 or 2 sessions. We just dont have time to play like we used to. Bascially what I figured is that these sessions will be longer than the Encounters sessions, but similar in design.
      2)Keep the details minimal, as Teos, said players dont remember them.
      3) Have a leader who, in the situation can make a decision and the group is willing to follow. IN the city it’s character x, in the wilderness, it’s y, in the dungeon its z.

      • The Id DM says:

        Thank you both for commenting. I tried to start an Obsidian Portal page for the campaign, but it would have been just one more thing for *me* to work on that my players may or may not have utilized. I attempted to enlist the assistance of another player (he provides excellent summaries) but we both lost interest.

        I agree with your three lessons learned. Once I tie this up, I’ll be moving in that direction.

  7. I really enjoyed the article on the know-it-all NPC, of which I have a handful in our now 23rd-level campaign. While the first one bit the dust (a very Joseph Campbell/Obi-Wan kind of moment), it was at a time the party at least had a clear goal. Somewhat like the Brotherhood after Gandalf falling in Moria. But when they reach such unknown territories I’ve found it helpful to have a sort of know-it-all light– a Reliably Impartial Observer.

    This character doesn’t necessarily give any clues as to how to solve a problem, but rather presents a basic outline of the facts. That there’s a battle for control between an alliance nobles and ambitious merchants, rushing to recapture power after the assassination of the city council, and the Thieves’ Guild, who have the support of the people after being a shield in the chaos, is something about any person in a city might know. But it (and the bias of the character who tells them about it) informs a perception and predisposition, from which they’re more likely to act by default if they can’t make a completely rational and informed decision.

    It sounds in this case (and of course I’m going only off your description) as if the party didn’t have a default preference for which they wanted to win and so inaction until the situation clarified became the easiest option. Or maybe that it was just ambiguity aversion, where they kept waiting until they could find/produce a situation that looked to have at least SOME certain outcome.

    That said, I run a relatively intrigue-light campaign, so more of this is based on how the party goes about exploring new situations that tend to be more just generally unknown than layered and complex.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting. My issues was the party is cut off from their Know-It-All NPC at the moment. I had even given them a magic ring that allows them to communicate with the NPC once per week across vast distances, but the ring was destroyed as part of a ritual to bring the Warforged to life.

      But for others who are looking for a way to keep their Know-It-All NPC in the party’s life, create a magic ring that works as a limited “cellphone/communicator.”

  8. wlkeR says:

    Flowcharts! I instantly fell in love and crafted a bunch for my campaign. Thanks for the tip!

    As for your “failure…” I think the rules (whether written or not) state that if things get bogged down, start a fight. This was never a good idea in my group, which, perhaps as yours does now, lacks an obvious leader. And they carry out their silly arguments even while mowing enemies left and right.

    What I do now is “if things get bogged down, turn things on their heads.” To that end, I’ve either got a few curious spirits/avatars/artifacts hanging about the party to shove them off cliffs of indecision, or use a random encounter table that sits on Google docs and each player may edit his or her allotment of randomness.

    Now these may sound like things to thwart your idea of plot unity, but the restless prankster spirit might end up to be a know-it-all (and offer reliable information as an apology for the inconvenience it might have caused), and random plot elements devised by players themselves might at least make the one who devised them all the more enthusiastic about what’s happening.

    • The Id DM says:

      I’m glad you like the flowcharts! I hope you find them useful for your campaign.

      I have incorporated player backstory and other forms of feedback into the campaign. At this point, I’m more inclined to streamline the story and experience rather than look for new ways to branch off in different directions. But those are good idea in the future when I have the players back to a “hub” they are comfortable with and have a clear sense of their goals.

  9. my sandbox went through a similar scene, but we recovered
    go minimalist?
    try running a game with: a wilderness map with a few keyed encounters and some random encounter tables, a vague idea where the dungeon/ruin/adventure is, and let the story develop as the players succeed or flourish

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for the suggestion. That is how I started the campaign but it’s become more complicated as I kick different plots down the road. I need to conclude some plots before introducing new NPCs and storylines.

  10. Wayne says:

    When running a sandbox, I’ve found if difficult to anticipate how the players will react to any given situation. One time, i racked my brain and made a flowchart of 7 or 8 potential outcomes (only 1 of which was combat, and it had it’s own 3 outcomes).
    My players, without a moments thought, came up with option 11, and i had to wing it for the rest of the session. Shortly after, i read one of the Rules of being a DM:
    “No plot survives contact with the pc’s…”

    Obviously it’s not true, but it’s a friendly reminder that you can’t anticipate everything…

    Having said that, it’s a pretty good thing that your players are involved enough to even talk about the plot for 45 minutes! If the session only has an hour left, politely suggest that they make a final decision, pack it in (probably early) for the night, and open the next session at the logical next step to said decision. This gives you an extra week (or 2) to really prepare and make it seem like that 2 hours of discussion was worthwhile!

    In any case, I know at least some of your players, and they seem to be pretty responsive above. I’m sure it’ll all be fine in the end. Cheers!


    PS – glad you enjoyed that Know-it-all article!

    • The Id DM says:

      Yes, the players have been responsive, which is great. And I agree that trying to brainstorm “all” options the party will take it usually fruitless as they’ll come up with an option you didn’t anticipate. I’ve certainly nudged the party in certain directions at times, which is railroading, but I think that is acceptable if it means the players land in an area that is prepared.

  11. benensky says:

    1. Just like any relationship sometimes you learn by screwing up and finding out never to do that again. I had a similar disaster. I saw a one shot encounter in dungeon magazine where the party had to do some espionage to get someone out of a prison. I thought my gamers would enjoy something different and find it fun, Just the opposite.

    Here is how iwentnt down. They were told by the NPC who hired them there weroverwhelmingng forces in the prison if the alarm was sounded and they would probably die. Knowing that they headed to the prison. They had fun getting over the wall and killing thGardrd animals in the prison yards, but when they got in the prison my group of hack and slashers were frustrated.Every-timeme they wanted to go head on with thGard’sds and attack, I reminded them that the NPC told them if the alarm was sounded and aoverwhelmingng force oGard’sds will come and kill them. They found no pleasure in trying to figure out what they could do to avoid thGard’sds and sneak around the prison to save the NPC held there. Theeventuallyly said “This sucks can we dsomethingng different?” I called it a night and told them next time it would be better.

    2. I am sorry tMerrel’srels and WoC suckered you into that Shadowfell crap. Like the Underdark spending too much time in those dark settingsannoyingying and boring. I do not mind going into a dark swamp, graveyarddungeonngon for a few encounters and getting out. However, too much time in the evil-lands just grinds on me.

    3. I send out a summary of the last game before every session. Then I refresh my players with a synopsesnopsys with questions and answers at the beginning of each game night. I do this because I have players that are new, returning from missing sessionsesions and just want to get in and hack and slash and do not care to remember any details. People who remember the quests, know the NPCs and details of the town or lands they are in gtokensolkens to an attack, save or damage. Thereusually usaly from three to eight handed out. They stack and are transferable so it has been standard for my group to save them focrucialcrucal apex encountercouter and all throw altokensolkens in to hit or do damage to kill the big bad guy, convince the king theInnocentnocent or make a saving throw so sodoes doese not fall over the cliff. Just an idea for you to try, it hasusefulsefull for my group.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for commenting. Yes, I give out +1 tokens for between-game contributions (roleplaying through email, etc.) and for in-game actions (“cool” moments, roleplaying, etc).

      As for The Shadowfell, I really like the setting, and I think it would work a bit better if the party had one person they could trust somewhat or if they weren’t dealing with ongoing storylines from 10 levels ago.

  12. Joe says:

    As a new GM this was a great read!

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  16. Hey! Thanks for writing this article. (Even when I’m 2 years late :) )

    Look, the Chris Perkins Know-It-All NPC link is now:

    And now back to the game!

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