Game Day Session 2: DM FAILURE

Game day, Session 2 was horrible on my part. I had one goal, and that was to playtest a mass combat system that I had floating around in my brain for several months. We had some loose ends to tie up; the party was chasing the surviving orcs which I had set up as an old-fashion gulch shoot out. We really needed miniatures, but I refused, and instead ended up having to describe the same battlefield 4 times per round, it turned into a giant mess, and nothing but a hack-n-slash session where I was rolling for 30 orcs who couldn’t hit anything unless I rolled a 20. I got bored, of it. My intention was to slowly introduce more powerful orcs, but we started play with 12th level characters, a level that is way outside of my comfort level. The result was chaos and no challenge whatsoever.

I had expected eight players and only five showed. I really messed up with one character who I thought for sure was going to be there, so I pregenerated an awesome character, and gave him information that the party needed to continue the story. . . I know better, I do! I just really thought that he would show up, so when he didn’t, I had this DM character on my hands that I really don’t want to play. I reduced his active hit points to bare minimum, and then got ready for the next encounter, which in my head was awesome! It was going to be a chase through the Stonelands, I had 20 horses, each with two orcs. One orc shooting a bow, the other armed with a lance. I still didn’t want to use miniatures because I didn’t have them ready, so I set up the dry erase board to use magnets and such, and once I was finished, I started the encounter and between the Ranger and the Cleric, they used only two spells to wipe my entire army out before they could even engage them. . . WHAT!?!  The spells, these 12 lvl spells are kicking my butt and I can’t plan for them! I am totally in over my head, if I had started the campaign at 1st level, then I could grow as a DM with the characters, but then I would had lost my story, but I should had started the party off at first level, because now I have no idea how to prep for them, but we have reached a decision, the players are going to write down complete spell lists so that I can have a chance at properly prepping for them. They want to play at the best of their abilities, and so do I. We haven’t played at this level for years, and I have never DMed a campaign this high before. Yes, I know how to do it, but I am just overwhelmed and have become a slave to the story.

There comes a time when you are just too irritated to contenue DMing, you know that what you had prepped isn’t going to work, and you are on the spot. I was sick of throwing dice, and the spells defeating large armies anyway, so what the hell am I supposed to do?

I wanted to quit, but we only get to play once per month, so the show must go on, as crappy and as pointless as the show might be, the horrible thing MUST go on! But I did say, screw it. No role-playing, lets just jump right into the action! I want to play test the battle system I came up with.

Now according to my story, I had given the players the option going south to a major city, or east to a border town, and they chose to go east. My orcs were set to begin their take-over. The major army was taking the major city to the south, to use as a base of operations for further conquest, and a smaller weaker army had to prove themselves worthy of joining by taking out this border town and enslaving the population to work in a mine that they had taken from mindflayers. The Black Network is still cooperating with the orcs and had done an excellent job providing intel on exactly how many troops were protecting the bordertown (850), so they were supplied with a sufficient number to take it, (1,200), I had originally set up a third aid to the orcs consisting of a mountain giant acting as a catapult, and protected  by ogres as he bashed the wall down with bolders, but I nixed it because I wanted to test the battle system which couldn’t support that.

My original plan was to have the players use armies represented by poker chips, and use the hit vs. ac method pulled from the 2e Battle System, which has mechanics that are beyond our level of play. We’ve never played mass combat or war games beyond the board game RISK. While we were playing the scene with the mountain giant, we also determine what is happening at the gate by doing theatre of the mind battles with pokerchips, but by this point I didn’t want to do that at all, so I nixed the mountain giant and started setting up an orcish army using the poker chips. It didn’t work, it was just throwing even more dice and we ended up stopping the game and having a huge brainstorming session where we are home-brewing our own mass combat game.

We aren’t grognards, we need a game that grows with us so we are going as basic as one can go. I’ve got 5 different colors of chips to represent 5 different kinds of troops that can be on the board at once, and while my original idea was to eliminate movement rules, that has proven to be impossible. Over all it was a very productive night, but not in the way that I had intended. I fell on my face, which happens, but I did get the players to tell me exactly what we want to do.

SO! I am modifying the story. The orcs have taken over their half of Cormyr and want to take over the other half, which should happen in a wave. The players are beyond this phase of the game, and instead are going to investigate the Mine of Sorrow and try to figure out what is going on and close the mine. At the mine, the orcs are going to be of much higher level, I’m scrapping the level limits put upon them by the core rules. This game will be much easier to prep as it provides a better structure. Last game was just get to town and defend it, and there was no real way for me to even put it into danger. I had prepped two different armies and, well, I’ll quit whining.

Next game we’ll play an old fashioned hex crawl, that hopefully leads to a classic dungeon. I’m going to throw all I can at the party and see what sticks. Episode 2 was a bust :/


Unknown said...

I guess this is a classic example of never knowing what your players will do, and how your carefully planned story and encounters never hold up to your own plan and vision. While it does seems that you do a good job in keeping the story flexible and sticking to what you planned instead of "cheating" (buffing the orcs/horses mid-play because they died too fast), it's hard not to try and salvage and railroad to your own vision.

One of the hardest thing for me to plan, seems to be the difficulty of the encounters - I don't want my players to feel their deaths are cheap because I throw too powerful monsters at them (Especially if they are trapped in placed, where they have no other options) or that they breeze through without breaking a sweat(/dice? ;)). Good luck adjusting to lvl 12!

RipperX said...

Yeah, there is no magic formula. We also play a game that takes place here on earth in the year 1890, when we first rolled up the characters, those guys looked like they they were only fit for role-playing, but I did want to test them, so I pit them up against a nasty grave elemental, it was the perfect battle! The Grave Elemental missed more often then it hit, but when it hit it did nasty things, and it hit just enough to keep things really exciting. The players hits were the same way, they were able to hit it, but not all of the time. It required the use of magic and bravery on the part of players who weren't typically the ones in the front.

I like less monsters; that 30+ monsters per party was for the birds! I am going to have to cheat, and bust the typical level limits which keep the orc in check. I am thinking that the lowest I can go for the common enemy is 8th.

I think that the game prior to this one worked so well because I didn't target the players directly, the orcs goals were to destroy and target weaker characters, I can NEVER allow the normal orcs to actively engage the players, but I can still hurt them by attacking those around them.

I've got to get control back from the players in regards to where to go and what to do as I really need to plan the encounters a lot better.

Bun said...

This just happens from time to time. Not everything you plan out in your head comes to fruition and that's the beauty of the game. Stories get exceptionally frustrating and boring if players are constantly constrained into the choices that the DM had envisioned. Those are typically the campaigns that also devolve into players just trying to break their DMs, from my experience.

As for the spells, I ask for flavor. I like to know the general ideas and thoughts behind their spells, but I would never ask for a specific spell list. Doing so really breaks one of the most fun elements that a PC has at their disposal. As a DM, you get an almost giddy sense of excitement knowing about the giant baddy perched on the ceiling of a dark room. That's a great feeling to have, and part of what makes the game wonderful. PCs have a similar ability, but it's in the slow reveal of their spells and abilities, things they can do to try and reciprocate that same feeling DMs get, except the reveal is for the rest of their party as well as the DM. Even further, players typically have minimal idea with what they are about to face, and that's fine. But even DMs shouldn't be able to know every capability of the party, because we're human. I've seen people, and I've personally picked apart my monsters by how my party could just dissect them, and ended up formulating something that just felt.. metagamey and bad.

RipperX said...

I got a good stern talking to by my players; they wanted my insane logic puzzles. I've got a very cerebral group who'd rather think their way through a game. The only way to do that is to know what is going on.

In regards to spell lists, a DM should know exactly what is on your spell lists, that helps us set the difficulty level. I don't have to know what it is that you are going to cast all the time, but I do have to know what spells that you have available to you.

With this particular game, I had set the difficulty for 1-5 level, which is my comfort zone, and the point of the game is to get our of our comfort zones.

Bun said...

For spells, you are entitled to your opinions on them, and running your games as such. I've spent my time about 60/40, majority of which was as a DM.

A DM does not have to know, a DM will make a choice if they want to know. I've only had a small handful of times where it has come out overly difficult because I didn't have such knowledge. If a DM finds it difficult to balance without this knowledge, then by all means use it to better the game. But I personally have not had much difficulty in those regards. My time playing as a player also understands how special that information is to my players as well, so I'm a bit more hesitant to remove a portion of their enjoyment just to make my life slightly easier, personally.

But everyone has differing DM styles, it's what makes the game go 'round.

RipperX said...

This topic has come up in the game, and you are making some excellent points. This debate is going on in my head too. I always thought that every DM knew. Do you still make them pick out spells that they want to use in advance? 2e has a huge list of spells to pull from! The reason why I think that the spell list is better is that it keeps the player more engaged in the game, and it is also the same handicap that I have, but I don't cheat, I typically role-play the NPC while choosing the spells. I'm no expert on those things, and I freely admit it. I know the lower leveled spells better, because that is what we have played more often than not, but the more we play at a higher level, the more I'll learn them too. These things are things that we really haven't used in years! Once I get the difficulty adjusted, they will be more fun to explore. I like the idea of rolling with the punches, and I never want the game to turn into an Us vs. the DM thing.

Brooser Bear said...

I don't use mass combat. My approach to handling the players in battle is that the players "touch the elephant" see only their own little part of the battlefield, unless that happen to be in the general's tent, in which case, they get to see the sand table, but not boots on the ground.

Another thing I do is, I run an old fashioned campaign, with a beginning, projected trajectory and an end game. The story only changes if the whole party gets killed, then new characters are rolled and a new storyline starts. Part of that ritual is that we only get together when everyone can make it. It takes a toll on me, since I work an early morning shift, but, when we played, we got together once between 3 to six weeks. If someone could not make it, we either cancelled the game or played board games.

RipperX said...

Normally I do the same thing, Brooser, but for the current scenario, I'm not sure what will happen, and AD&D is designed to handle some mass combat, it is just getting these rarely used rules to work for us. As long as it's fun, we are doing it right!

Unknown said...

Regarding the book-review of the DMG, I remember reading something about highlevel campaigns; It will be more difficult to hurt your PC's physically because they will be so versed and powerful in combat, so it is often better to balance the campaign about hurting their emotions and what they can't control - You mention it yourself, hurt the world and the people around them, and let them fight the situation as a whole, rather than let them take a straight up fight with some orcs.

...Or maybe it's time to conjure up orc-dragons? :D

RipperX said...

I know all of this stuff, but I still allowed myself to be unprepared. I can and will fix this, but I didn't want to be one of those Bloggers that make everything out to be perfect, some times even us old veterans of the game fall on our faces too. I'm not proud of it, but it happens, and the only thing that I can do is figure out what went wrong, and rethink what I'm doing.

BTW, you are thinking of DM's Option: High-Level Campaigns; & yeah, I could do with a refresher read.

Unknown said...

Yeah, that's what I'm thinking of.

And sometimes you gotta just throw yourself into the deep end and learn that way - it's an interesting read nonetheless, and I always look forward to your next chapter. Defnitely looking forward to how your next session will go, and how the lessons learned will change your campaign.

RipperX said...

Thank you for your kind words. It is always spooky posting personal gaming sessions. A couple of my players have wanted to record them and post them online, but I can't do that! First off, I can't see anybody besides those of us at the table to care, and second, that would make me extremely self conscience. I'm comfortable enough with my players that I'll do dorky stuff, things that I wouldn't feel comfortable doing in public.

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