Monday, March 1, 2010

DM Failure (long, freakin' long post)

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.


christian said...

That was a very thoughtful post. It's hard to admit when you've made a mistake. Its also hard to stand up for yourself when you haven't, bt are attacked anyway. I really like the way you've presented compromises in some areas. Diplomacy is key to the resolution of any dispute and it's great that you've reached out to your players.

I wish your game and your family well. Times are just brutal these days and waterworks and temper tantrums seem to be an everyday thing in the world.


PS: I'm a shit and still need to send you your DM card!

Unknown said...

That was a great post. I've had some emotional DM fails in my past. It's good to hear that it happens to everyone.

greywulf said...

Ouch. As Christian said, a very thoughtful post, and credit to you for posting it, warts and all.

My own group hit snapping point fairly early on in our superhero campaign. That was over some stupid rule decision, the details of which were forgotten long before tempers died down.

Anyhow. When things calmed down, one of the players had walked (and returned several months later) and three of the players agreed to take turns GM'ing as well. We figured that if they took their turn behind the screen once in a while they'll appreciate the effort a GM has to put in to making a session, and be more mellow when a bum call is made.

Al said...

I'm surprised *more* DMs don't result similar freak-outs! Its bound to happen eventually, but its great you guys were able to talk things out and get things back on track. I once disbanded a group I was DMing due to what at the time seemed the most dire affront, but now seems kinda silly in retrospect. Such is life...

Jeff said...

Stuff happens and in this case it sounds like there were different expectations coming from both sides of the table, but hopefully that's been fixed with some straightforward communication.

The one thing that stuck out to me was the spell book issue. There's an unwritten rule for me that spellbooks are off limits. A spellcaster character is greatly defined by the spells he can cast and taking away those spells (even if they get replaced with others later) fundamentally alters the core of the character and definitely crosses into the "no fun zone" for me.

We all make mistakes and do stuff that others don't like. It's part of what keeps this hobby interesting. Even after 25 years playing I'm still learning.

Hopefully you'll spring back better than ever!

Timeshadows said...

At the risk of sticking my nose into your non-gaming business, aren't things in Real Life a bit more pressing to be concerned about than the game, at present? It sounds like it is possible you are perhaps transferring your stress regarding External Issues onto the importance of the game.

Perhaps it is time to back off, or run something lighter for a bit, or have someone else GM something else for a while?

If I have crossed a line by addressing these things, please realise I am not doing so out of pettiness or to bitch at you, but because I am concerned for you and your wife.

I will certainly lift your concerns up to the L-rd and hope that things get better overall.

Brutorz Bill said...

I've been there dude, over the years I've had a couple of flip outs very similar to yours. DMing is alot of work and some players seem to forget they have a responsibility in the "process" as well, when real life issues are adding stress to you it is often easier to "handle" the game, since you often can't do anything about the real life issues. Taking a break, pausing to reflect, being diplomatic... all things you are doing is the way to go.
Nice post!

netherwerks said...

Please consider revising your post into an article for one of the OSR zines. You have just hit the nail on the head and right well too! Players get complacent, no matter how much you tell them that things can get hairy, or that there are ocnsequences, they will always squeal bloody murder if something happens to them. If you're not willing to lose your spell-book, leave it in a safe place. If you insist on taking it along, take the sort of precautions that are reasonable, like how one ought to back-up their work on a computer...besides, if it's okay for the PCs to raid, loot, pillage, despoil and smack critters around with pointy sticks, the same goes for the Orcs, etc. in regards to the PCs. What goes around, comes around.

MDtheDM said...

I think taking a deep breath was the best thing you could have done.

You really shouldn't take criticism (whether you feel it's justified or not) as personal attacks on your ability to DM effectively. Rather than trying to change the way your group plays the game, I believe it would be more effective to build a clear communication process for handling complaints and disputes.

If a player is upset, his (her) feelings are justified. The trick is getting that player to open up and discuss them with you. You may very well discover it had nothing to do with the event in question, but rather an entirely different issue - perhaps even something "out of game." Real life has a nasty habit of tagging along even when we're trying to escape it for a few hours.

At the end of the day, do not lose sight of the fact that you're facilitating a game experience as well as adjudicating game rules.

Shane Mangus said...

This was a great and thought provoking post. I think the one word you mentioned that was the most important is TRUST. In the end, no matter how badly a game goes it is always up to the GM to pull it back together. That is, if you are a good GM that cares about the game as well as the people you are gaming with. If everyone remembers that then I do not see how you could possibly go wrong. Obviously, you are one of the "good ones" and it seems you have the situation in hand.

On a personal note, I am sorry to hear about your wife. I wish you both the best, and hope she gets well soon.

Take care,


Blair said...

I use the rule that highest CHA character is automatically looked to for leadership by the other characters...even if stupid/incompetent. Hilarity ensues!

Keith Sloan said...

I agree with Netherwerks...after you get some time to reflect a bit more you should consider writing an article on this issue ingeneral (with specific examples as highlights). Every DM runs across this from time to time and it is very helpful having an idea how to deal with it. My own way of dealing with it is making my own megadungeon so deadly that PCs die or get chased around the dungeon quite often, so they're used to adversity and celebrate any decent treasure they find and can escape with!

Anonymous said...

Your DM'd if you do, and DM'd if you don't...with whatever you do.

Give players hack & slash, they cry, "not enough epic roleplay"
Give'm epic roleplay, then it's "not enough treasure"
Give'm treasure, it's "not enough hack & slash"

It's a balancing act. It's like you are their Cruise Director. And they just figure your enjoyment comes from torturing them.

Okay, maybe some of it does...

...but even players that have known you a long time can take you for granted and you may do likewise. The key word mentioned earlier is TRUST.

RPG's are a two-way street. You are there to challenge them, and they're there to challenge you.

And it cannot be said enough:
Life MUST come first! I hope all goes well with you & your family.


Badmike said...

Whew, heavy stuff. This is what stuck out to me: "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." From this, I get a lot of this is the DM (you)presents himself as being an impartial arbiter, and we pride ourselves on this...and we get really upset when accused of acting otherwise.
I've been DMing since 1979 or so, and my middle brother has been with me that entire time. And to this day, he STILL doesn't completely trust me as a DM not to screw him (or by extension the group) over!!!! Even when he KNOWS I've NEVER screwed him around "In play", EVER! I think a lot of it still comes down to the old "player vs DM" mentality that a lot of old-timers have fostered over the years, and the general nature of competitiveness the game brings out in us....

If two people (related to each other!) who have gamed together over 30 years still have trust issues, it's no wonder they have cropped up in your game. It's the nature of the beast, man. DM/Player trust is a tough thing. I've had some groups that are much better with it than others, but when the shit hits the fan sometimes even the most even-tempered gamer cracks. Look, we all game to have a good time. It's an escape from the job, the wife (or husband), the life in general. If the "enjoyable" session comes down to getting your ass kicked and losing everything instead of "winning", it can cause bad feelings. As a DM you have to differentiate between general dissatisfaction and true unhappiness with the way things are...sometimes not an easy thing to do. Communication is key.

Badmike said...

Some thoughts on issues you brought up:
"Make some defined missions available"

One of the problems I've ALWAYS had with the pure sandbox. We assume players LOVE open ended adventuring because they make all the choices. Wrong. I've known quite a few players in my time who LIKE riding the railroad when the occasion pops up. Nothing wrong with the "Town crier comes into the tavern saying merchant has offered 1000 gp reward for return of his son from orc's lair" dangled in front of player's faces for some sessions...and besides, the characters still have a choice to blow that off and go their own way. I think the key to this is to keep your world open ended, but cover your bets with a number of "set" scenarios you can plug in when the player wants.

"Provide opportunities for smaller missions"

Sometimes it's great to know an adventure is a one-shot, and doesn't lead to any world-shaking events or foreshadowing a big bad. It's fun to just take down the local brigand group, explore the haunted tavern, or bring McGuffin from point A to point B. I agree I'd have a few of these on tap in case everyone just wants to turn their brain off for one session.

"Keep tweaking the rewards"

IMO you can offer up the most kick-ass campaign that provides plot twists better than a episode of Lost, characters more compelling than Charles Dickens, and and a mythology richer than Tolkien's LoTR...and if the players aren't getting goodies, it "sucks"! I honestly don't think it comes down every time to "big payoffs"....little payoffs that offer unique rewards can go a long way. For example, in your magic poor campaign world, something like a magical item can be huge, even if it's just something as mundane as a magical mug that fills up with beer on command, or a amulet that when worn allows the possessor to speak any language he wants for one hour a day. I have tons of "little" magic items like this in my campaign, and have actually had players fight over them in lieu of something more important or useful! Maybe the reward doesn't even have an immediate payoff...a rescued merchant with connections, who decides to take an interest in the hard working adventurers that saved his ass, can be something cool to have in your back-pocket if you are a inventive player and can think of ways to exploit the relationship. For all I know this isn't quite the problem you are having, but I've found the above methods really keep players interested, especially if the treasure is more abstract than just a +1 longsword, but still has tangible benefits.

Badmike said...

Sorry for the lengthy replies (there was a lot more but I cut them out before it became Badmike's Blog instead of The Old Guy's RPG Blog!!!)...I thought about sending it as a private email but figured maybe it would spark a discussion if posted here. Anyway, good luck with the campaign and I enjoy reading your takes on these issues.

Anonymous said...

I was curious about u old timer's D& this how it goes down in editions before 4th? I don't get it. My player's and I play 4th edition and this never happens. They stomp the baddies with total pwnage and then pick what magic items they feel are kewl for them cuz they are there right in the Player's Handbook! NOBODY's feelings ever gets hurt and we always have fun! We're only 15-16 but it seems our campaign is much better. Try REAL D&d and your player's will come around!!!

Anonymous said...

and if anything bad does happen to our characters, we have our mommies wipe our eyes and noses and kiss our bruises and everything is okay again. cause that's REAL. life isn't about challenge or growth, emotional or otherwise.

Jeff Rients said...

I'm glad it's coming back together for you, dude.

David The Archmage said...

Chgowiz, I've been there. A couple of times. There is nothing quite like the feeling that your long term gaming group just kicked you in the nads.

Overall though you handled it in an adult way, and that your group will be better off for it.

Bravo on taking the time to take a deep breath, and to critically evaluate the situation. It isn't easy to do with such an emotional issue.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I'm really overwhelmingly touched by all the nice comments and good things you all have to say. I need to look at each one and say something, which I will try to do today.

Tonight I will be playing the first game since my snap, so we'll see how it goes.

@JeffRients - you just rock and thank you very much for the inspiration.

@Anonymous-Troll-Flame-Bait - that was good. That was just about Usenet worthy. You, sirrah, win a "Eternal September" award. Now go look it up, here's a nickle, get offa my lawn!

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Christian - I wasn't very diplomatic at first, I was in "fuck y'all" mode. I think it was a learning experience for everyone.

The family stuff is what it is - life's not an easy game and oftentimes, the Great Random Number Generator is throwing you crap, but the human condition is to get up, dust off, move on. But thank you for the kind words.

I have a LMS D&D card, which sits in the front of my DM screen. :)

@Tony - thanks! No, Godwin's Law applies.

@greywulf - I have played in one of my player's Savage Worlds game and I am open to playing in other games, but we game only 4x/month in Dark Ages and I really want to keep that rolling. Still, that view on the other side of the screen can be important. For both sides.

@Al - live and learn huh?

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Jeff - the thing is, I'm not the type of "fuck you" DM to nerf a character beyond repair. I've got a mechanism in place where he can replace the book. Yea, it sucks, but you don't bring along your only copy into a dungeon or out in the woods. Still, even when you do, there are ways of paying/fixing it. It's no different than other obstacles that can be overcome.

@Timeshadows - see above. It's just the normal stresses and if I stopped playing because of stress, I'd never restart. Playing helps to relieve the stress. Just sometimes gets into a big tarball, yannow? Your prayers are much appreciated. Thank you.

@Brutorz - yea, that pause should have come about two emails earlier. Heh.

@Netherworks - I'll ask Calithena and/or Matt about it. Thank you for the kind words.

@MDtheDM - interesting perspective and one that I slowly learned in the subsequent emails that have brought about the tweaks I mentioned.

I will say this, as a DM, I am pouring my creativity into a world and experience, just like a craftsman or artist. I'm trying to open up a world to people, much like writing, except this is interactive, episodic, exploratory and growing. It's hard to put aside those feelings, much like it's hard for an artist to put away emotions when their works are critiqued.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@PS Magnus - thank you for the kind words. Trust is an element of the game and one that I think gets taken for granted perhaps? This will hopefully be a learning lesson for us all.

@Welleran - ha! My players accuse me of taxing them to death and not giving out wealth. Partially true, but here again, adversity to overcome. They've done so, but they STILL remember being taxed.

@Grendelwulf - thank you! :)

@Badmike - you have some very good thoughts! I hope you do make it into a blog post. :) Thank you for posting them. I agree about longer term rewards but I think players have a hard time seeing that. I think I have to do some meta-game explaining to get them to think about it. As a result of your comments, I've started considering debriefs in email to give them that longer view perspective.

@Dave - that's the part I failed at, at first I didn't handle it well. I should have sent out the "I'm taking a break" email first. Ah well, live and learn. Thank you for the kind words. :)

Greg Christopher said...

I feel your pain, bud.

I think you are approaching it wrong, though. Check my response here