There’s a few reasons I like talking about my D&D game in my weekly column. One, it makes coming up with a topic much easier. Two,writing about my DMing troubles helps me identify what those troubles actually are. Last, if I talk about something I’m having trouble with, the community is awesome, and I have a veritable cornucopia of good ideas to choose from for next time. Seriously, you guys rock. I took a lot of notes from the last two weeks, and I think last week’s D&D session went considerably better.
The Unfortunate Bits
This not to say, of course, that there weren’t some bumps in the road. We had a player leave the group due to scheduling conflicts, so his spot went to the next guy on our waiting list. Naturally, the other guy on our waiting list wanted to play too. I initially told him no and was devastated by the ensuing puppy dog eyes. I took 5 ongoing guilt damage, and kept rolling 5’s for my save for the rest of the night. Also, I wanted him to play. So, against the advice of the village elders, I approached the group about adding a seventh member. There were some concerns aired about too much chaos at the table and combat taking too long, but everybody was OK with giving a group of 7 the ol’ provisional college try.
I won’t lie. We need to work on speeding up combat. We have a problem in our group with analysis paralysis. My gut tells me at least part of this stems from unfamiliarity with their powers. We’re only a few sessions in, we have a week between games, and only about half of us have the appropriate sourcebooks – relying only on Character Builder sheets for crunchy stuff. I’ve been prescribed a few fixes for this. Señor The Game recommended that make the new guy run initiative, which I totally forgot to do. ( I’ll get you next time, Gadget. NEXT TIME.) Another was to say who’s turn it is, and to also announce who’s on deck. I’ve also seen a few DMs over the years who impose a time limit on a player’s turn and either skip over them or have them automatically hold their initiative, but that just seems like a good way to irritate already-frustrated players. I never liked it when it happened to me. Coming up with weird crap to do takes time, dammit.
The Climactic Battle That Wasn’t
I tried hard this week to set up situations and hooks instead of railroading my players. I think they’re sufficiently used to me shoving them around that they recognized where the plot was and went without question. Hopefully that’ll change soon. I set up two combat encounters this week: one big bad and what I thought was a throwaway “kill some cultists” encounter as a lead-in. As it turned out, the “throwaway” took up most of the night, and wound up being probably our most exciting combat to date. It was the first time I’d used terrain effects, and the party took some adjusting. That, and I also used a reskinned Brain In A Jar type monster to dominate the PCs. On a few recommendations I’d read over the last week, I decided to throw a healthy amount of minions in with relatively few heavy hitters. I was honestly expecting the usual to happen: the mage comes in and nukes all the minions off the map, then the party gangs up on the bigger guys and we’re done by round 5. Somehow, the tank got separated and surrounded, the other melee fighters were separated (and also surrounded), and the party’s best ranged attacker was dominated and continuously pelting the paladin in the back of the head with arrows due to a statistically unlikely number of failed saves (I think we were approaching 10 by the time it was over.) I had decided from the start that I wasn’t going to fudge dice and try to let this one play out, and I’m pretty sure everyone at the table was wondering which way this battle was going to end. It was exciting. 100% all natural no-preservatives exciting. And no trans fats.
One thing I do regret is continuously attacking the paladin. I found myself trying to juggle between what I thought was a good tactical strategy (focus fire on one until dead, move on to the next) and trying to keep things fun (random/suboptimal target selection). I decided to go the tactical route, and I think I wound up with a frustrated player. I want things to be tense and exciting and to feel real, but not at the expense of people hating the game. The player knows I wasn’t just singling him out for personal reasons or anything like that, but I still felt bad. I never expected to have to think about this stuff before.
The Thing I Love Most
All that thinking about my campaign being somewhat devoid of humor last week made me realize something I had been missing since DMing: coming up with unusual character concepts and roleplaying my face off. Playing one of these characters was always a roll of the dice as a player. About 30% of the time, I’d find a deep vein of awesome and wind up having the time of my life for the whole campaign. The rest of the time, I find out about three sessions in that this schtick only goes so deep, it’s getting in the way of me being effective in combat, and/or it’s annoying the crap out of everyone else at the table. As a DM, however, my NPCs aren’t always right there breathing down everyone’s neck. Their on-stage insanity can be administered in measured doses, and I am no longer limited to ideas that would work for an adventurer. I realized at one point that a lot of these not-fun-to-play PCs all had one fatal flaw: they were NPCs born into the wrong side of the DM screen.
I decided to test this hypothesis using Lionel Pureheart, the first PC I ever had this issue with. He was gifted in the black art of necromancy, but had the kindest heart in the land. So he would offer his services (dubbed “Gentle Necromancy”) to the local townsfolk, such as having skeletons do the landscaping or bringing Grandma back from the dead to visit the family for a day. I had dreams of zany misadventures like these all through the campaign, but my DM at the time wasn’t having any of it. Every time he’d ply his trade, he’d be run out of town by a lynch mob. This was 3.5e, and I had him specialize in the Necromancy school of magic. Turns out that sort of mages aren’t particularly combat-effective. We eventually found some massively overpowered necromancy spell in some third party sourcebook, and Lionel was no longer a liability in combat. But he wasn’t much fun to play.
Since I’d just trapped our current group in what the Shadowfell, I thought it’d be interesting if poor Lionel managed to piss off the Raven Queen due to his, er, creative implementation of the black arts and she imprisoned him in the same realm as the PCs. However, since he’s the only one around who can help other poor souls trapped here, he can finally feel fulfilled. In fact, he’s never been happier. So I had him set up a nice little refugee camp, surrounded by picket fences made from various bones (with little hearts engraved on them) and set up signs around the area with a simple large pink heart and an arrow pointing to his camp. I got a lot of weird looks from my players, and then even more weird looks when I told them he smelled like fresh cinnamon rolls. It was totally worth it.
This, of course, comes with a few warning labels stuck on it. I’m thrilled that I get to have my particular brand of fun at D&D again. I need to be extra careful to make sure this story still belongs to the PCs. I need to make sure I don’t go too far off the deep end and go from entertaining to annoying. I’m not sure where the line is, but I do know that putting in the work planning everything seems a lot less like work when you get to do the thing you love most.
Strange as it sounds, it’s almost as if I feel like I’d just given myself license to play the game a little bit instead of just running it. I don’t know if that’s the “right” way to do run a game, but if you don’t like it then ROCKS FALL, EVERYONE DIES.
I could get used to this.