I’ll admit it: I’d been dreading running last week’s D&D game. It had been over a month since we played, and my trepidation was as much laziness as it was not wanting to dungeon crawl. I’d imagine it was much more my fault than the dungeon module we were running, but I’d somehow managed to suck all the fun out of the game for me. That’s the last thing you want running through the DM’s mind in any group — sooner or later things start to suck for everybody else. A few months later, the group breaks up and one of your roleplayers goes to prison for stabbing a minmaxer. I knew I had to do something. But what?
For me, running a pre-made dungeon module drove home for me the things that I like and the things that I can’t stand when it comes to D&D. The more I think about every adventure I’ve run so far, I realize that three things get me fired up about D&D: story, character development, and things that further story and character development. I didn’t used to be like this. I used to care about girls in chainmail bikinis, treasure, and monsters (in that exact order). Now, unless those three things serve a story in some way, I find them boring. I kind of wish I could go back to this, and I’d imagine my players do too sometimes.
Me Me Me Me Me Me
As I mentioned last week, I once played in a campaign where the DM’s idea of fun diverged wildly from that of the players. I felt like I was kind of in a weird inverse variant of that, where my group is having fun but I’m not. It should be said loudly here so there’s no confusion: my group kicks ass and are lots of fun to play with. Something about the game itself was bugging me. So I decided to put my tech support hat on and tinker with things a bit.
I’ve never ever liked playing in pre-made modules as long as I’ve played D&D, and I’m sure my lack of enthusiasm was affecting the game. Step one was to get the hell out of that and start doing it from scratch again. I’d dropped the PC’s into the module I was running as part of a larger overarching plot. and since the module was broken neatly into a couple of sub-adventures (the first of which we’d finished), I decided simply to take things back on a course I’d created. I know some of my more roleplay-friendly players were glad to be rid of the box text and classic dungeon-crawl, but I want to make sure the minmaxers are happy too.
One thing in particular I’ve noticed since I’ve started DMing is that I don’t get very excited about combat anymore, especially since The Great Lie was uncovered. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. As I’ve mentioned in these pages several times, emotional investment is what does it for me in D&D. As a player, it’s a lot easier — primarily because your character is frequently in mortal danger. As a DM, I started feeling like I was just setting up bowling pins for the PCs to knock down. Part of this is because I haven’t quite mastered how to balance an encounter to be challenging for the party, and they keep mowing everything down with ease. This is not a good recipe for emotional investment in a battle. In a situation where the DM has already predestined that the PCs won’t die and will intervene to save them, I can’t even see a reason to run the combat. I realize the players might not know the DM’s intentions, and a DM really good at this could pluck the players’ heartstrings to keep it exciting, but I can’t handle that.
While planning the night’s adventure, I decided I was going to kick the difficulty up a notch. Hell, I would kick the difficulty up two notches and try really hard not to intervene if people started dropping like flies. Everybody was level 8, I had 5 players (instead of my usual 7 or 8), so I decided to throw 3 solo level 10 creatures at them (some Berbalangs I reskinned as giant half-fish abominations).
I also decided to try to mix my combat peanut butter with my roleplay chocolate a little, and tried to organize a combination combat/RP encounter. The PCs would get ambushed by some orcs, and then everybody would get attacked by a superior force (the aforementioned Berbalangs). I was hoping this would add some flavor.
A monkey wrench got thrown into my combat plans at the start of the night when I realized I had no idea where my wet-erase battlemat was. I was about to use some Gaming Paper when I decided just to try and see what happened if I ran this combat without a mat, like we used to do back in the 3.5 days. I got some weird looks, but everybody rolled with it. Another monkey wrench got thrown in when the party’s mage nuked all the orcs on the board with a fireball. I reminded people twice that the orcs weren’t attacking them anymore, but at one point I realized it’s their story and I should just let them stomp all over my carefully planned encounters even if it ends with their dismemberment. Why is that so hard?
4e without a mat is a bit weird. So many powers involve squares and shifting and sliding that I felt like I was nerfing some of my PCs. Here’s the weird part, though: we’ve always had an awful problem with analysis paralysis in our game. My players will huddle up and spend minutes at a time figuring out the optimum place to go to trigger a power or blow up the most bad guys with a fireball. One of our group quit playing D&D because he was always stressed about what to choose in combat. Matless, there was none of this. Choices got made within 10-15 seconds. People asked me how many baddies a fireball would hit, and I made a rough estimate in my head and told them. Just like the old days. Combat got less boring and stressful for everyone, including me. That’s when it hit me.
I really, really hate using a battlemat.
Before the masses come to exterminate the heretic, I understand the good a battlemat can do. I just think it works for a style of play that I don’t care for. Combat on a battlemat is too explicit for me. I feel like everything is spelled out in the game mechanics, and it doesn’t fire up my imagination. I’m not quite sure what to do about this.
In the end, the party was victorious (though I finally did manage to at least bloody one of the PCs). Somebody covered the floor in immobilizing thorns, and the Berbalangs all took the death train to AoE-town. There’s the part of me that wants everything to be “realistic” and knows the combat would have gone much differently had we used a mat, but I’m not sure how much I care about that yet.
No One Expects The Spanish Imposition
The thing I’m not quite sure how to deal with here is that I’m all about trying to make choices that ensures everybody in the group has the maximum fun — yet here I am trying to adjust things to the way I like them. On one hand, I definitely think I should take myself into account when thinking about these things, but I’m uncomfortably aware of the slippery slope that can lead down.
Another extremely slippery slope that keeps beckoning to me is that I’m the DM, and maybe my way of running the game should carry more weight as far as the game I run goes. Not because I’m awesome, but because I need to play to my strengths. A guy whose passions are tactical combat may not be the best choice to run a story-heavy game, so it makes sense that story and roleplay would feature more prominently in the game I run.
Of course, I have no intentions of just arbitrarily throwing everything I don’t like in the trash (at least, not without consulting my group). I suspect I’ll like combat more with practice, and I’m always about trying to work on my weaknesses as a DM. At this point, though, I’m just glad to discover (and maybe even just admit) what was taking the fun out of my game. At least now I can stare it in the face, even if punching it isn’t in my group’s best interests.
Of course, working all this out with my group will be the hard part, especially considering I’m not sure what the next steps will be. Communication is much more fun when you don’t have to say anything important.