Tuesday, March 10, 2009

more on yesterday's fiasco

Guess what I found in the inbox today next to the 20 new responses to yesterday's post?

Amazon.com recommends "Dungeons and Dragons Core Rulebook Gift Set, 4th Edition"

Thanks for the hot tip, Amazon!

My Prussian homie offers this little tidbit from one of the androids at Wizards*:
It might have been more accurate to call this editorial, "When your group tries to jump the shark but doesn't make it."

I might catch some flak for this one, but recent events compel me to talk about something that every DM has to contend with: party suckitude.

First, no offense to my players or anyone who's had a rough day in the dungeon. The best groups have off sessions. Sometimes they forget to use their encounter or daily powers. Sometimes they spread their attacks too thin. Sometimes they race around an encounter area like poodles on a 24-hour caffeine bender.

Sometimes, they do all of the above, and then some.

You know where this is going. What do you do when your group just shanks it? Sucks rocks? Can't pull it together? They can't blame it on the dice this time. They're not coordinating, communicating, or thinking tactically.

This happened to me recently. I'm running my group through "
The Shadow Rift of Umbraforge" from Dungeon #158, and the group is at the third encounter under The Happy Beggar -- the one with all the wraiths. It's a tough encounter, I'll be the first to admit. It comes right after a fight against the shadar-kai witch, dark creepers, and shadow hounds, which is no walk in the park, either. But wraiths are insubstantial, which means they take only half damage, and they regenerate 5 hp a round.

As soon as the fight started, the mistakes started piling up. One defender charged a wraith near the portal. The second defender charged … a different wraith. The rogue charged a third. If you do the math on expected damage for a 4th-level PC, you'll find that half damage is around 5 or 6 points -- about what a wraith regenerates. Against regenerating monsters, spreading out your attacks is a losing game.

The mistakes didn't stop there. The party striker got distracted by a dark creeper skulking in the corner, so one of the best characters for hurting regenerating foes wasn't attacking the wraiths at all. And that dark creeper wasn't even attacking anyone. It was after something the PCs had and was trying to figure out who was carrying it.

What's a DM to do? Some might "punish" their players by letting the dice fall where they may. That's not my style, especially when the group is having a bad night. I think the DM's first job is to make the game fun for everyone, even if that means compensating for the players. That's right, I cheated … in their favor. I dropped the wraiths' regeneration to 2. I put a secret button on the portal which created a radiant energy zone that shut down their regeneration altogether. I made some gentle tactical suggestions. Finally, I left a clear line of escape open.

It's important to keep some contingency plans for these occasions in your DMing pocket for when things go south -- really south. A TPK, as much as we toss the event around in gloating terms, isn't good for anyone. You lose campaign story continuity. Everyone is bummed. You might even lose players.

We'll see what happens. The session ended mid-fight, with lots of anxious and frustrated faces. I hope they pull it out, or at least run away to try the encounter again later. Most of all, I hope that next month, I'm not writing about how to jump start a campaign after a TPK. What about your campaigns? Got any stories of encounters gone horribly awry?
Just to sum up: the 4e boosters keep saying that making characters is easier in 4e, everything is more balanced thanks to chucking out all those dang sacred cows, and fights go much faster than in the previous WotC edition. Yet the dude is scared a TPK is going to drive away players, he has to fudge mid-fight with this preciously balanced system, and he couldn't get the combat done in one session so they had to hit pause. Did I get all that right? This is the slick new edition Amazon is ready to sell me for 66 bucks, being run by one of the game company staff, and he's facing a basic problem that has plagued DMs for years.

I like happy players just as much as the next referee and it seriously breaks my heart when someone wants to quit a game. But if a TPK is going to make someone leave my table then all I can do is wish them luck in their next endeavour. As a longtime D&D and Call of Cthulhu guy let me state this unequivocally: if you are doing your job right you can kill every damn PC in the campaign and the players will pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start rolling up new PCs. I'm not saying look out for opportunities to make this happen nor should you gloat when the whole party is dead. My point is that an entertaining game run by a referee with his wits about him for fully engaged players can survive a total party kill.

Now I am not dogmatic nor am I perfect. There have been situations where I'm sitting behind the screen and I think things like "Uh oh. I screwed the pooch designing this encounter. I better tone down that shaman's spell list." But I'm running one of those crappy old editions that aren't as precisely balanced as the flavor of the month, I expect to hit some rough spots like that. Part of being a good DM is rolling with issues like that.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I like the general concept of invisibly adjusting the game to account for player incompentency. Android Chris calls this attitude "punishing" players. I prefer to think of it as "not teaching them they can slop their way through encounters and still win". Some of the best sessions I've ever played started out with the PCs doing a half-assed job of exploring the dungeon, getting the crap kicked out of them, and then returning another day with their "A" game. It's extremely rewarding for the players to be able to say "Yeah, the Vampire Lord chased us out of the dungeon last session, but we got the bastard this time!"

BTW, that's the plot of like half of the Spider-Man comics I've ever read: some bozo like the Scorpion hands Peter Parker his ass in the first act, later Spidey gets his shit together and when they tangle the second time our hero is victorious. I know a couple ways a GM can make that happen in a game. One is to be a railroady prick who cheats the first encounter by making the villains unkillable. Another is to not mollycoddle the players and just let it come naturally.

*Note that I don't actually use the word 'homie' in conversation nor do I think Wizards employs androids.