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Friday, November 7, 2014

How to Recover From a Bad Game of Dungeons & Dragons

I was thinking about the cover art for D&D 5th edition. I'm not a big fan. The best cover, in my opinion, is the one for The Rise of Tiamat. The more I look at it, the more I like it. I decided to fill this column with images by the artist who did The Rise of Tiamat cover, Michael Komarck. My slight beef with his stuff is that it looks either too "real", like a photo, or it somehow has a CGI look, like he made it with a computer program like poser.

I will say that I love his Rise of Tiamat cover and I've always really liked his depiction of the 4th edition githyanki.

The Campaign Killer

I think most campaigns are killed by a bad session, or a string of bad sessions. As a DM, you put a pile of work into this, you got everybody together, and what you thought was going to be Empire Strikes Back turned out to be The Phantom Menace. It is painful, it is awkward. You're not sure if your players even want to come back. You might just want to give up.

Don't! Every DM has bad sessions. Sometimes it just happens. When you have a bad one, go do something else and don't think about it for a few days. Watch cool movies, enjoy some other hobby. I recharge my battery by reading some Knights of the Dinner Table, a comic that really captures what is great about RPGs and really makes you want to play.

Let's go over the causes of a bad session and then we will see what can be done about it.

The Causes:
  • The group abandons your adventure
  • Your encounters are too difficult
  • Your encounters are too easy
  • Your game is boring
  • Interpersonal conflicts
The Group Abandons Your Adventure:

You come into the session with a plan, right? You have an adventure for them all cooked up, and it's awesome. But sometimes the group gets a wild hair up their butt and they want to ditch your adventure. Heck, they might even want to leave the city, continent or plane!

Always have a back-up scenario in your pocket. This is an emergency plan that you can draw on if your PCs take off completely. It doesn't have to be too detailed, just an outline of another scenario that you can drop in. Adapt it to what your PCs are doing and go. When the PCs do this, it is a wild ride. You just grab whatever ideas you have at your disposal and make it work.

When you roll with your players when they have an exciting, crazy idea, they love you for it. It becomes a legendary session that they talk about forever.

Yeah, it's a bummer when you prepared a whole bunch of material that won't get used. But you can cannibalize it later. You can repurpose a dungeon, re-skin an NPC and use it the next session.

You can also do what Chris Perkins does - have that scenario that the PCs abandoned play out without the PCs involvement. The PCs may have to deal with the repercussions of this down the road, and it will make the world feel real.

Your Encounters Are Too Difficult

This is a trap I fall into sometimes. I lose perspective. Sometimes you should play in someone else's game just to remember what it is like to be a player. This will help you empathize with your players.

Sometimes a fight should be hard. "Boss" fights. Battles with iconic monsters like dragons or beholders. But not every fight should be hard. In fact, some should be easy. It's fun for the PCs to have a stress-free encounter where they can do backflips and trade quips. Let them have it! The point of the game is to have fun, after all.

One thing I see over and over again is DMs who put their players through the ringer, but then won't let them die. It feels so cheap when your character gets mauled, but then the DM softens up and lets you live through some ham-handed distraction or whatever. That is a very unpleasant way to spend three hours, and not too many people will stick around for it.

Your Encounters Are Too Easy

I am more guilty of this one. If everything is easy, it's pretty dull. Why the need to get XP and gain levels if you can maul everything already?

Handing out magic items like candy is a bad idea, too. They lose their value. And once PCs have certain abilities, namely flight and teleportation, your adventures are about to become very limited.

Worse, when you try to correct this situation, the players will be most unhappy. But if you stay the course, they feel like they've already "won" D&D and get bored.


Speaking of getting bored, good gawd. Watch someone else's D&D game. It's boring! People flipping through books, stacking dice, quietly listening to the DM talk to another player.

You have to keep the game moving! Do not stop to look up every little rule. Here are some ways to speed things up:

The Gary Gygax Rule: If someone asks a question you don't have an answer to, roll a d6. 1-3 = No, 4-6 = Yes. Boom. Roasted. Move on!

Roll a d20 and see if it matters: If you're not sure of a modifier or bonus, just have the player roll a d20 and see what they get. If they roll high, obviously they succeed. If low, they fail. Use your judgment on the middle ground.

In general, if it's a crucial moment and the rules question will have major impact, go ahead and look it up. Otherwise, make a note to look it up after the game.

I always tell my players it is their job to know what their characters can do. If they forget or miss it, it's their problem. Be better prepared next time! We have stuff to do! Spellcasters in particular should write down their spells, to-hit bonuses, save DCs, durations, etc on a "cheat sheet". This will save so much time.

Heck, a player can just look anything they need to know up when someone else is taking a combat turn.Now, all that said...

Don't be a slave to skill checks: Let the players describe how they search a room. If what they do logically leads to them finding a secret door, they find it. It is a much cooler game when a PC finds a secret door by discovering that a torch sconce is a lever that activates a swiveling wall that reveals a secret passage rather than rolling a 14 on a d20. Just don't let all the searching take too long. Tell them what's in the room, and let them decide if they want to mess with the objects and poke around or not.

Personally, I think that missed treasure sucks. I don't want them to miss it just because they rolled an 8 rather than a 12.

Interpersonal Conflicts

This is a big one. This is a social game, so when you get people together, things happen. The most common conflicts usually involve clashing play styles or personalities. You have to know who you are playing with if you are going to run a long campaign. When you bring someone into your game, talk to them beforehand to let them know how you run your game, and ask them what they want to get out of the game. Make sure you are compatible before you even start.

There's a million different things that can go wrong:
  • A player has a problem with their temper
  • The DM plays favorites
  • Someone gets a crush on someone else and it leaks into the game
  • A player is being inappropriate/rude
  • Someone is cheating
  • The DM has a super-awesome NPC that does everything while the party stands there
  • A player won't stop making side-conversations
Here's the bottom line on all of this stuff. You talk about the problem, give it a few weeks and see if the behavior changes, and if not then somebody gets the boot. That's all there is to it.

A lot of people say "..but these are the only people that I know who will play". Do you really want to play a bad game every week? It's a colossal waste of your own time. You won't be able to sustain it, anyway. The crappy game will weigh you down and break you.

What you need is to get yourself a pool of players. The two ways I do this:

Recruit real-life friends: Seriously. Most people will try D&D if they have the opportunity.  Buddy up with people at work/school/whatever and feel them out. This may take time. But before you know it, you've brought them into the fold. The key here is that once you get them to try it, your game must be good! Otherwise they will go away.

Run a game at a game store: You will meet a billion players and you will be able to cherry pick your favorites for your home game.

Recruiting players is fun. It's kind of like forming your own justice league or an all star team. Do it! Do not waste time trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Just because someone doesn't fit in your game doesn't make them bad people... you can still be friends with them. Chemistry is a very important thing.

The Bottom Line

Some people want to kill stuff. Some want roleplaying and creative solutions. I have found that if you run your game like it is a movie or TV show, it generally makes everyone happy. They all want to feel like they're the main characters in a story, and that they can do whatever they like. If you can give them that feeling, you have a good game going.


JP said...

great post

interestingly your section The Bottom line, about running your game like a TV show or Film.

Myself and another GM/Player in our group have had a similar discussion after one of our other gaming group members said this was a bad thing!

We are still not sure what he means by that either

Javed said...

“Nice Post. It’s really a very good article. I noticed all your important points. Thanks"
ld hardas

Anonymous said...

One of the errors I think GM are prone to make is to let combat encounters become a drag, a long fight can still be entertaining if you put effort into it, have the enemies talk to the players, attempt to escape, plead for their life or bargain, or generally have them attempt other strategies or take actions beyond the ones stated in the manual, I hate it when GMs treat enemies (especially bosses) as damage sponges that just spam the most effective action they can muster over and over until you make them stop moving, it gets especially frustrating if the players are getting bad rolls on top of it, further contributing to make the combat feel like a chore