I've been writing and rewriting this post for about two weeks now, and I'm hoping that I can still say what I'm thinking and it doesn't come out as tripe and trash.
Anyway... back on the 16th, my players encountered quite a bit of difficulty in their game. First, one of my players decided to try to confront the troll mage that has caused the party a few problems in the past. This was a complete surprise as this player's character had become one of those PCs that you "count on" to help grease the game to be good. You know what I mean... there are just some PCs that really keep things moving. Well, this PC was one of them and he waved a bag of candy in front of the Troll Mage. Well, one charm person spell later and the PC was now a slave to the troll. The rest of the party did a "Oh crap, sucks to be you... let's move on..." -- so now the player took over a hireling for the evening.
They hit a Wizard's Tower that appears to have quite a few wards & guards in it, from webbed staircases to gusts of wind, to random confusion to doors that have to be nearly battered down. After figuring out a way to struggle past these wards, they encountered a room where a Magic Mouth boomed "Be sure to read the words in the correct order!" After dealing with a Damned, the party found a mirror that may have entrapped the wizard (according to a sarcastic imp perched outside on the balcony) and a door with writing in common on it. A player read the inscription and the Explosive Runes blew. Scratch one player, another player's spellbook and some clothing.
Faces grew grim around the table, but the party pressed on. They found a ladder that seemed to have strange properties and the thief made it to the bottom, only to find a very strange dungeon underneath. Facing the timelimit of our session, the players were forced to retreat back to town, along the way encountering a mounted guard of orcs that they hid from.
After the game, I thought everyone was OK with what had happened, despite it being a rough game, but the private and public emails that I got over the next few days proved otherwise. One player who I thought I was more "in tune" with, meaning that I thought he grokked my game pretty well hit me with some good criticism, but it hit me in a sore spot. Another player (not the mage) groused at how I had not tracked the individual flamelets to ascertain the precise location of where the mage's spell book should have been so it would not be burned. The player who had the charmed PC was OK with what happened, but he was eager to know where things were going. The player of the mage who lost the book was "WTH do I do now?" and I received some other criticisms from other corners.
I snapped. One player kept emailing about the upcoming game on Sunday. My head was not in the right place and I decided that I needed a bit of time to process everything. I wrote on the group's email list that the Sunday game was cancelled. This same player immediately wrote back "OK, so let's start putting together the roster and schedule for the next Tuesday game." At that, I snapped even further and sent a terse "All future games are canceled."
Yea, snap big time. I spent a good chunk of the day in a "fuck 'em all" mood. I felt like nobody trusted me as a DM, everyone wanted a smooth flowing game, but heaven forbid that I actually destroy something, because now it was "game over" and yadda yadda... I was righteously pissed, hurt, and just down in the dumps. I was probably about >< this close to taking down the wiki, the blog, the whole nine yards.
(I should also mention all the pressure and financial stress and worry over my wife's illness and other life stuff... but although it contributed to my state of mind, it's not germane to this...)
But I didn't. My DM mentor told me to "take a chill week" and I wrote a terse email to that effect, apologizing for my snap but letting them know that I needed some time to think.
Think I did. What exactly was my problem? I was hurt... hurt that after a year of playing together, after a tough game my players would think I would permanently fuck someone over with a no-win scenario. I was mad, mad at my players for wanting to not have any risk. I was also down on myself, I apparently had made the Worst Campaign Ever that everyone *should* hate.
But after a few days of thinking, and painting minis, and just backing off, I rethought everything and came to some equilibrium. The majority of complaints were probably the initial "Oh shit" reactions. It was a tough game. There was no payoff because the players had either missed a HUGE hint and they hadn't gotten far enough. Death is never fun, but it is a reality in my campaign and one that I've grown somewhat impassive about. Not a dick, but more of "man, that sucks... but it happens..."
I'm still struggling with one of my players. Nice person, but I think a little much, even for me, but I'm trying to struggle as to "why" I'm having struggles with this person. The player is obviously excited and enjoying my game, but I think I got used to the types of players that I already have, so this new player is a bit different. I'll adjust but it still is something that I chew on.
Last week, I wrote a pretty big missive to my players, each one, a personal note. I then wrote an email to the group and reopened the doors. Some things I heard loud and clear from the feedback, some things I tossed back to players and gave them advice on how to work in my world. I may lose players and I accept that. A game has to work and mesh for everyone and even after awhile, you may discover that things are not going to work out like you hoped.
Some things that are on me to help with:
1. Make some defined missions available. Not everyone wants to go out and explore and just figure out the world on their own. The thing about my sandbox is that while I made this wide open dynamic world that keeps moving on, the players don't feel connected. So I will give them direct opportunities to get connected.
2. Provide opportunities for smaller missions. I had an adventure earlier that was a quickie. It was the knife adventure, where the players cleared the place out, but the payoff at the end was borked by an out of game disagreement. Some players liked that, so I'll make them available.
3. Keep tweaking the rewards. The nature of West Marches means you either lock onto a mission and keep hitting it, or you spread yourself out. The majority of play has been spread out, a little here, a little there. I've got big payoffs, but they do require some getting to. So, I need to make that a little more spread out - smaller, more frequent rewards. OK, I get that. That makes sense for the type of game I'm running.
Things that I laid back on the players:
1. Yea, you're right, don't assume. You were just in a wizard's tower, where everything was decaying. Except this one room with completely bare tables. Nobody looked on the tabletops. A thief said "I'm looking under the table." I asked specifically how they were doing that. They didn't touch the top, so the illusion didn't break and the many magical workshop items weren't revealed. Now they're gone - since I had to explain how things can work in my game, they're not there anymore.. but yes, I don't assume what a player does, especially when it pertains to something that can be chance, or can reward careful, thoughtful behavior.
2. Trust me. If I burn up your spellbook, I'm not going to rape you by making you be a forever mage with only one spell left (Joel Rosenberg already explored that in his Guardians of the Flame series. Exec summary? It fucking sucks.) But... you're in a WIZARD'S TOWER! Spellbooks are probably going to be there. Don't tell me I'm being a dick DM.
3. If you want a fast flowing game, I'm going to abstract some things. Rather than.roll.every.goddamn.item.saving.throw, I simply said, let's roll for most vulnerable things - paper, clothes, glass. That doesn't mean your backpack, having not had a saving throw, is somehow invulnerable. It means I don't want to freakin' deal with it and I'm trying to give you the effect of having read an exploding rune and make it important to avoid traps. I tried to make the puzzle as flowing as possible, but there was some rolling for it. That's an aspect of my game that may be there... you can use brute force (rolls) or you can somehow figure it out.
4. The game is up to you. Yes, the world moves on, and yes, you'll see it happen, but if you want to get involved in the Goblyn/Ko-bald war, you have to go out there and get involved. If you want to clear out a dungeon, you have to stick to it and schedule games and make it to games so that you can get it done. Going two sessions at the monastery, then changing your mind and heading to the mines, then changing your mind and heading to the abandoned inn... that's going to result in visiting a lot of places, but it's also going to mean you're facing a lot of 1HD monsters and low treasure. BUT, if that's what you want to do, I won't force you down railroads. It's your game. Do what you want to do... but understand that you are getting the game you ask for.
So we'll see how things go forward. I'm willing to keep trying and tweak my approach, but up to a certain point.
So did I fail? Probably more in my snap than anything else. Everything else is more of a tweak or just a good honest discussion.
One final thing.. I've had some people indicate they want a party leader. I was at first against it, but now I'm going to leave it up to the players. If you want a party leader, designate one. If not, that's fine too.
I think what may happen is that some people decide they are going to take charge of the roster, of the games and start laying out their own agendas. I think it's time, after a year.