Our heroes are sent on a gnomish airship to act as security for crucial peace talks to end an 8 year-long global conflict between sentient machines and numerous factions of the dying world of Sikkara. As negotiations start, a portal bomb goes off on the ship, summoning a rampaging demon. At the same time one group of negotiators falls on the other one and all hell breaks loose. Our heroes eventually prevail, identifying the son of their patron as the ring leader of the operation. Now comes the time of finding the other bombs on board before the ship explodes.
Our last D&D session wasn’t one for the books. Caugt in the home stretch of seminar season, I found myself prepping the game just a few hours before the actual game (as in, right before). My plan was to have the whole game session revolve around a Skill Challenge-like scene where the remaining bombs would be searched for, found and potentially deactivated or triggered by PCs.
I also put a “timer” on the game in that every minute that passed saw an increasing % chance of having one of those chaos-driven bombs explode. Whenever a bomb exploded (whatever the trigger was), some monster from the elemental chaos would spew out.
This time, I chose Slaads from The Plane Below (graciously offered by Wizards of the Coast) because I wanted to weave a sub-story about them taking an interest in the party and how their eradication (or prevailing) could affect the upcoming collapse of the multiverse. (The Plane Below offers many great roleplaying leads for the Slaads’ unfathomable view of worlds and events).
Lastly, if the last bomb exploded, the ship would collapse and crash on the jagged mountains a few thousand feet down.
I chose a series of elite slaads and a few chaos larva swarms. The idea was that one or 2 bombs would likely explode on the ship while the others would be saved making the fight not too hard or long…
I mean, what were the chances of all 3 elite monsters being on the board at the same time right? Right?
(Cue ominous music)
The joys of being an Instigator
The game started with the PCs searching for bombs and getting the gnome crew to help out. Franky informed his adventuring partners that the gnome privateers were also slavers as he found one of the “secret” cargo holds full of naked humanoids natives to Sikarra. When that secret got out, the gnome captain tried to activate his “Screw that we’re leaving!” teleportation device that would return all feyborne (ship included) back to the Feywild, leaving behind (and in the air) everything else.
That is… until Franky broke the mechanism that activated it and kicked the captain’s butt out of the encounter.
As the party were looking around, one bomb went off (by random die roll) near Mike’s Monk. Summoning a White Slaad and 2 swarms of Chaos Larva. Fighting started. During that time, Franky and Yan checked the runes glowing on the young viscount at the origin of all this trouble and found that it was an enchantment that would open a gigantic portal to the Elemental Chaos upon his death.
Franky tried to deactivate them (mini-skill challenge based on Arcana) and eventually failed one roll. I gave him a choice of loosing his turn or succeeding in deactivating the gate-portal yet letting one summoned entity through, critically wounding the young antagonist (Alien style). Franky chose to let another beasty in.
Now here’s where one of my natural DMing style (instigator/psychodrama) played against me. You see, I could have picked any elemental/demonic creature that would have made the fight more interesting… but I often feel the urge to put into play as many adventure elements I prepared as I can. So instead I chose the next monster that would appear had another bomb exploded and popped another, elite Slaad on the battlegrid.
Then at a later point, since gnomes were supposedly searching the ship, I had a Gnome crew member shout to Franky (who had more or less taken control of the damaged ship) “We found another bomb sir”
Franky: Throw it overboard
Gnome: Are you sure?
Franky (Busy figuring his next move): Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Now in one of those classic cases where the DM gets stuck with an internal story he hasn’t shared with the players yet, I didn’t quite know what to do with a non-adventuring NPC handling an unstable chaos-laced explosive device… so I rolled a Saving throw for the poor schmuck and failed. So he exploded on deck (Grey’s Anatomy season finale style), bringing the 3rd elite monster on deck in a situation where the frustration of some had started rising sharply.
Franky: WTF man, I thought they could help us!
It tumbles down all around us
Needless to say that the next 2 hours were long and frustrated to many. The session was fraught with bad rolls, emotional outbursts and analysis paralysis. As the evening progressed, I could see frustration spread around the table.
Sadly I too was irritated and like many males I was stonewalling the whole group for juvenile reasons. I had forgotten the cardinal rule of “bring back the fun” whatever the cost and I even lashed out against the use of the iTouch as a 4e enabler at the game table, a sure sign that things were going down the drain fast.
At that point, I knew I had hit bottom and some of it was my fault. I tried to do what I could to salvage the game and I had one of the 3 Slaads go after the last bomb. All slaads had hinted that they could perceive the various ways this conflict could go, the ship blowing up at their hands being the most likely one.
This created a chase between the slaad and 2 of the 6 PCs (The Monk and the Warden) and ended up with one PC sitting on the ticking bomb, daring the monster to make a move. It included a nice mini-roleplaying scene where the Slaad had the bomb in its claws and was convinced by the warden to put it down and walk away because “the universe might be a more interesting place if they were allowed to live and kill the Slaad’s patron instead”.
At that time, it was well passed 11h00 PM and all the Slaad were still alive. So they conceded defeat (The bomb had been deactivated) and jumped off the ship ending the game in a rather brutal way.
It has been a long time since I left a game with such a feeling of unsatisfaction. I know that there were many factors that lead to such a ‘meh’ sessions. First and foremost being that bad sessions happens and we need to accept them. The hasty preparation, putting all my prepared pieces in game at the same time (where they weren’t supposed to) was one too. The the lack of communication among players to coordinate their strategy better was another. Outburst and interpersonal conflict also corrupts the underlying social dynamic of a group.
All things that have been addressed or will be by open communications with the others.
Finally, I’m now convinced that our preferred style of play: short roleplay/story scenes followed by elaborate tactical combats may no longer be supported by the duration of our play sessions (2h30-3h30, every 2 weeks) and upper paragon play, at least not without hacking encounter math like monster Hit Points and Damage.
I checked my old posts, 2 years ago I was complaining that we could only manage 2 roleplaying scenes and 2 combat encounters per evening… now we barely manage one of each…also, I’m now getting direct feedback from players that they are no longer as satisfied with the game experience. Some long for the time we played 3.5, others are annoyed at the length of combat (finally!) while others are unsatisfied with the performance of their PCs.
That’s crucial feedback that require discussion and action in the near time.
And I’m sick and tired of trying to “fix this”, I’m currently unhappy with our 4e games but was at a loss about turning things around until mid-week.
…and when it’s all said and done, an unhappy Dungeon Master is the surefire sign of a dying campaign/gaming group.
So for tonight’s game I’ve created one last adventure plan (using a combat-light model) to see the mini campaign to a good stopping point somewhere in the next 2 sessions or so. I’m also going to discuss this with the players, maybe even let tempers flare a bit to let the accumulated steam out. My goal is to go home with a revised list of player motivations and expectations so I can come back for a new proposal (new campaign model, new game, who knows?) for the next season.
Stay tuned, tonight’s game is called: “Here’s 250 000 gp, now go take back your city”.