Are all your players having fun?
Roleplaying games can be challenging, frustrating (particularly when the dice go against you), thrilling, exasperating. But they are a social pastime, and everyone should leave most sessions thinking “well, I’m glad I took part.”
I recently made a big mistake. I forgot to think about that extra word “all” in the second sentence. I was focussed on the storyline for the overall group and making sure that the group as a whole made progress and was able to succeed. And in the process I forgot to consider each player individually.
I have lost a player as a result.
You will remember the group were investigating a cavern, and I had introduced an ever-smoking bottle which filled the cavern with smoke, effectively making everyone blinded. At the time of my previous blog post I was already realising the challenges of that, and had a scheme to dispel the smoke when they stepped on a magic sigil. This also opened up a portal and conjured up a Blazing Bones skeleton, a CR2 monster which proved very challenging for the second-level party which had already worked through various encounters and were pretty depleted on resources.
The halfling rogue decided to open the bottle again in the hopes that the smoke would close the portal again…so we were back to blinded (groan!). It didn’t have the desired effect, but the party realised they were out of their depth in their depleted condition, and so decided to make a run for it, leaving the bottle behind, still open.
They convened in the Cross and Monkey, their local pub, for breakfast and planning, still in their burnt clothing and battered state, and decided they needed more information about portals and ways of closing them, so they headed off to the library in the temple of Khoronos to do some research.
Well, they didn’t change on the way, and I decided the librarians wouldn’t let just anyone in This ragtag mob in their tattered, burned clothing would definitely fall into the “undesirable” category. But I didn’t want to completely rebuff them, so I let in the sorcerer and the cleric (whose player had to miss the session), both of whom had an association with the temple already established in their back story.
This left the others to wander around town investigating other things. They went to the paladin’s temple for advice and healing potions. They went to a blacksmith for a glaive and a rapier to replace one which had been left behind in the cavern. They tried to use a letter of introduction one of them had been given to contact a noblewoman and try to enlist her help. They were kept out by the butler, but told to come back next day to see if there was any response. Meanwhile, the sorcerer discovered the results of his research in the library; he rolled a 5 on his Arcana check… (After the session I realised that was mean, so I gave him some more information by DM).
Next session they re-convened at the Cross and Monkey, compared notes, and headed back into the caves beneath the city to try to finish the job. In the meantime I had realised what a challenge the blazing bones skeleton was proving, and so I decided it needed vulnerability to something. It had already been established in the first session that it wasn’t vulnerable to water or cold (which would have been obvious ones), and the stat block said that fire actually healed it. So I decided bludgeoning was the way to go, following the pattern of the basic skeleton.
The bottle was still open, so the cave was completely obscured again, so they were again fighting blind. And I decided there had to be some consequences for abandoning the portal without closing it, so there were now two blazing bones skeletons wandering around. But I had also established that there was a rock step which prevented them leaving that particular cavern.
The glaive allowed the paladin to attach without coming in reach of the blazing bones skeleton’s fiery aura, but it wasn’t hugely effective (resistant to slashing damage), so he dropped it and switched to his war hammer – bludgeoning damage, very effective. He also cast Wrathful Smite, so the skeleton became frightened of him and tried to circle around to get to the other characters without approaching him.
The sorcerer used the only spell he had which he use while blinded – the trusty Firebolt. Of course this did fire damage, so actually healed the skeleton. The combat progressed. The skeleton ended up face-to-face with the sorcerer and nearly killed him (saving throws, saved by one of the other characters reaching him and stabilising him). The paladin eventually got a solid hit on both skeletons – scoring a critical hit on one – which completely destroyed them sending flaming bones everywhere. The halfling rogue managed to find and stopper the bottle and they were eventually able to see again.
The next day the sorcerer’s player got in touch saying he was leaving. He felt I had sidelined and ignored his character and there was no point him being there.
Thinking back, I can see he was right, though it was completely unintentional.
- He only had one attack which didn’t depend on sight, Firebolt, and that was worse than useless in this case.
- He says he gave a buff to the paladin, which I ignored by not attacking the paladin at that point, and then I ruled had worn off by the time of the next battle.
- I left him stranded in the library for the best part of a whole session while the rest of the group ran about town, and then let a bad roll determine that he learned nothing useful for his time.
- When they went back into the cavern, it was still obscured, so again the only attack he had was Firebolt, and you know what happened there…
- The skeleton avoided the paladin and ran into his character instead, taking him out of the fight.
So all in all he felt like he had been able to contribute nothing for the past few sessions. Understandable that he was disenchanted by the whole experience, and we are now a player down.
So how did this happen? I certainly didn’t set out to sideline his character, but that’s how it happened.
I made all my decisions for story reasons:
- The ever-smoking bottle seemed like an interesting wrinkle at the time, but I had already realised how limiting it was, so I had taken action to counter it; unfortunately the party re-opened it… I felt I needed to respect that player action
- I wanted to establish the library as a select sanctum for respectable researchers, and the party had gone there in their disreputable state pretty much straight from combat
- I didn’t want to completely rebuff the players, so I allowed the sorcerer and cleric in; ironically this was probably the worst thing I could have done because it sidelined the sorcerer (the cleric was already sidelined by their player missing the session)
- When the characters were running around town, I was making everything up on the spot (so my attention was very much on my improvisation)
- I usually reckon that a very low roll on some sort of Search or Study action (as they are called in the OneD&D playtest) results in bad information
- I thought about the blazing bones skeleton fight, and introduced a vulnerability so the party would have more chance of success; from what had gone before I felt the only vulnerability available was bludgeoning, which helped the paladin but not the sorcerer
- I have no memory of the buff the player mentioned, but I can believe I would have reckoned that it took more than 10 minutes to explore round the corner to a new part of the cave complex
What I didn’t do:
- Look at the abilities of the different characters and ensure they all had effective ways to contribute
- Realise how long the player had been out of action and find a way to bring him back in
- Be flexible about the results of the research; instead I called for a single dice roll and let the bad roll effectively make the character actively fail that session
I need to learn from this. I am horrified that I let this happen and gave the player such an unsatisfying experience over several sessions. It is too late for that player, but I need to make sure I never let such a situation develop again. So what could I have done differently?
- I could have excluded all the characters from the library. It would have been a bit of a slap in the face, but at least I wouldn’t have forced a split on the party
- I established that the sorcerer and cleric were already familiar with the library; I could have let them advise the others that they wouldn’t be let in unless they changed and tidied up
- No matter how much I was having to concentrate on inventing the story, I still needed to make sure I regularly switched focus so every player had regular activity while the party was split
- I could have looked at the individual character abilities and tried to ensure there was something effective that each character could do
- I could have invented some reason why the smoke had dissipated again, or come up with some quick effect that restored visibility
- The player only hit the skeleton for 1 point of fire damage, but I applied the stat block literally as 1d8 healing; maybe I should have scaled that down to reflect how low the damage was
Those are all tactical things specific to that situation. Here’s what I intend to do in future:
- Pay attention to how much each player is getting involved, and actively bring in players who have been uninvolved
- When the party is split, make sure each section gets focus on a very regular basis. If it has gone five minutes without switching, it’s time to start thinking about ways to switch. I will aim never to let it go ten minutes without switching.
- Update my character summaries to include more of the character’s special features, and look at these more when preparing to ensure there are options for every player to contribute, and that they can make use of their skills so they feel rewarded for investing in them
- Try to keep each individual scenario smaller so that if one scenario does happen to be limiting to a particular character we will be moving on more quickly (I let the cavern complex size be determined by a gorgeous map I had; in retrospect this was too large and they were stuck down there for too many sessions)
- Be more flexible about checks, and don’t allow a bad roll to completely dominate the results of a session
- Look for ways to ensure I target characters equally, rather than just having everything happen to a subset of characters (this should include bad as well as good of course – monsters should intelligently spread their attacks)
- Review the situation before each session to come up with some sort of strategy bearing all these in mind, particularly where we start in the middle of a scenario
This has been a painful learning experience which has made me question my whole approach to GMing and whether I should even continue trying to run my own world. I talked it over with the rest of the group, and they are happy to continue, but I need to make sure this never happens again.
Fundamentally I need to remember to pay attention to every player and make sure they all have the opportunity to be engaged in every session.
I hope you can learn from my mistake and avoid the same problem.
In the meantime, does anyone want to play a level 3 arcane spellcaster?