I’ve run a lot of D&D the past few years (as well as some other games) and so I know, on an intellectual level that bad games just sometimes happen. I’ve had plenty happen to me. But the thing that is bothering me is I don’t know what I did wrong. Knowing what you did wrong is one of the best ways to recognize and fix things so you can run better games in the future, but this time, I’m stumped as to exactly where I messed. up.
You can’t, of course, talk to players about this kind of thing. If you messed up bad enough that a player catches on that it’s not a good session, then you’ve really messed up and you need to go back to fundamentals, instead of worrying about how to tweak your game.
There is a secret type of players: the DM masquerading as a player. This is actually what I am, whenever I get the chance to play. I’m constantly judging the game I’m in, thinking “Oh, I would have done that differently” or “Did they miss that part of the monster statblock?” It’s probably related to why I’m so critical of movies; I get that same feeling that I need to judge and compare my DMing to the feature presentation. These are the type of players that you can’t hide the quality of the game from. If you’re lucky and they’re not jerks, they’ll keep their reading of the story to a minimum and keep their comments in their head
Matt side note: “Reading the story doesn’t mean the person has read the specific adventure- it might just mean that they’ve read a lot of stuff and know what tropes are to be found in the genre that you’re playing. If there’s a goblin tribe, I expect their to be a Goblin Chief and goblin Shaman, even if there isn’t any sign of them yet. It’s just happened to me so many times.
“Once, my friend Jordan was running a short campaign and had thrown us in an Ali Babba type city. I said something along the lines of ‘I accuse the Grand Vizier’ before the story had even started. That through him for a loop, because the bad guy WAS the Grand Vizier. Because it’s ALWAYS the grand Vizier.
“But yeah, I’ve proven to myself that if I’m playing in a game I’ve run before, I can’t help but use that knowledge. Serious personal character flaw, but I so very rarely play, it hasn’t really come up“
Most players, however, are not DMs. They’ve barely been players, at the tables I tend to run! So little time for them to build a portfolio of what is a good game. I have run good games before.
The snark says “Very, very, rarely.”
There are at least 2 games that I can point to and say “Those games were amazing for all parties involved.” I can, in fact, run amazing games.
This week was not one of them, and I don’t know why.
Return of WIDWAD?
I used to have a series of D&D articles I would write after each game, detailing “What I Did Wrong At D&D.” It’s probably been the #1 thing that helped me get to where I am today, DM wise. I probably have a link to some of it, somewhere. It was before I split the RPG stuff from the rest of my blog and comic stuff.
Anyway, WIDWAD was super cool and important. It really helped me good at running shop games.
The snark says, “Well, better. Not quite good yet, am i rite?“
But the thing that set those apart is I would realize what I did wrong for that session on my way home, and could write about it the next day. This week, thought, I don’t really have anything big and definite I can point to. I have a few general things that I think might all be mixing together, but none of them stand out as direct causes. Also, none of them stand out as things I should fix. I can patch a couple of things, but nothing is really fixable.
Overview of the Session
The session started off with a rehash of the tail end of last session, where I took the oh so important card reading and rewrote it so it was all dramatic.
The snark says “A reading that is so important, he felt he could ignore ALL of the advice written about it. Well done, Matt.“
After that, we did some walking in Barovia, trying to get a feel for the land. That transitioned to a place that we could see out and notice some land marks, including the windmill. 4.5/8ths of the party decided to go to the windmill and check it out. The rest of the party kept walking. There was a lot of stuff that happened with compartmentalized information at the windmill. Then that group caught up to the main group, and I felt I could throw some wolves at them, so we did wolves and we ended. That is the summary, without many of the details.
The (Re)reading of the cards
My session started with a rehash, as I said. I had been too hasty, to confident, and had made a mess of things. So I took the time in preparation and threw together a good 600 words. I could have included some pictures, I realized, but that didn’t occur to me until I was at the table, far too late.
I hesitated before reading the thing. (Which, incidentally, I have here if you need it online.) Not because I was worried about the quality (which, honestly, as far as handouts go? This is probably a 6/10. Nothing really creative in it.) I was worried about the delivery. I tried to figure out a way to make it work better and I just couldn’t. So I couldn’t do the delivery that I wanted to do (which it just occurred to me that I could do and throw on Youtube. Need to get on that). I settled for a mediocre delivery (which may have set the stage for the rest of the session.
See, the thing about our FLGS is that D&D has become VERY popular. This week had 5 full tables (mine fuller than most) all running D&D in the same room. I guess the 6th table didn’t show? But normally we have 6. We are basically at capacity for D&D. Which means we are like Convention levels of loud going on across the tables. (Minus PA announcements) Some are better than others, but when there are 40 people in the room all trying to talk to be heard at their table, the noise level builds and builds. And as I stared at my dramatized reading, I realized that any attempt at dynamics was going to fail.
In case you are not familiar with the term, dynamics is using the speed, pitch and volume of your voice to convey extra meaning. Sometimes, you can get a lot more power out of whispering a name in fear instead of shouting a name to make it heard. Whispering was right out. I had to project my reading, trying for as clear of a voice as I could, which, incidentally, also cut out any attempt at an accent.
Curse of Strahd is supposed to be a Horror-based campaign. Its conceivable that you COULD convey the proper tone without being able to use dynamics, but the use of dynamics are a mainstay of the genre. There was even a movie recently where silence was the Mcguffin. Not that I watch that type of movie, but its existence supports my point here, me thinks.
But, In my FLGS, I can’t do quiet. I can’t do dynamics. Heck, I’m lucky if players at my table notice I’m reading something.
Seriously. It’s that bad.
Walkabout in the Haunted Lands of Barvoia
The part of the session was walking. Walking in D&D is…. odd. It’s actually the main thing that I’m trying to learn from Critical Role, because I see it as one of my weaknesses and I think Matt Mercer is good at the travel montage.
I noticed my players losing interest here. Not that I really had a lot of my players, due to the noise, but the ones that were paying attention seemed a tad impatient. Which I can totally understand
Matt Side Note: “Since I’m going to be linking this to the players at the table in the group, this is a good time to say ‘Hi! I know you’re there, reading this!’, that way they know I wrote this knowing they would read this.“
Travel montages are a weird bit of D&D, as they represent a lot of player choices that are no longer in the player’s hands. They’ve stated their intention, enabled the cruise control (or autopilot) and away they go. And its just the DM narrating the party moving along.
I don’t really how to do it better. I’m avoiding handing players an outright map, because… i dunno. Verisimilitude, I guess? I have a map, but its not one I feel comfortable handing to players. I’m…. not really sure why? It’s a thing I might fix in Vallaki, I guess. I have a week. It might be worth doing.
I think this might stem from my ToA experience, where they gave us this horrible map to hand to players. Which means its a habit I should break. But the DM’s Map is not something that I can just straight up hand to players. I’m not worried about the satellite imaging style that they wouldn’t have in the world, but there’s a lot of… secret places? I’m not actually sure what places are secret and what aren’t.. That’s a thing I should ponder for next week.
Should I hand out a map for Vallaki? I’m not really sure. Presenting a village or city for player interaction has always been a thing I’m not sure how to do. Its one of the reasons I’m not running Waterdeep: Dragon-heist ATM, because I wanted a bunch of time to prepare Waterdeep, (not that I’ve actually done more than glance at it yet.)
Oh, right. Walking. That’s what this section is about.
I think there’s not much more I could do for this, actually. Maybe do something that gives individual characters scenes of value and choice? That’s a thing I could probably do, except for, well, how people have been interacting.
The Hazards of a large table
I’m unique among DMs I know, because I don’t shy away from running a large table. I can’t say no to people who want to play D&D. There is ALWAYS room at my table. (Not that I won’t say “hey there’s a lot of room at that table, you should go over there.” Did that a few times this week. But there were tables with plenty of room, and I had 9 players at my table this week, my table averaging 9.6 for CoS so far.)
The problem is that D&D isn’t really designed for 10 players. Original D&D said it was for 2-20 players, but that’s believed to be for people playing in your game world, not necessarily all at the same time.The game was probably run similar to a Western Marches style game. But that’s not what we’re rocking now.
There’s a lot of things that are different about running a table of different sizes. A table of 1 player is different than 2 players is different from 5 players is different from 10 players. Those are, basically, the 4 sizes of table. Actual sizes may vary. But I’ve run for large tables more often than any other DM I know and there are some definite tricks to it.
Throwing out initiative is my first rule for large groups. And that works, mostly. This week, the Dramatic Sequence got really really muddy. I think at the point of the second fog cloud, I thought to myself : “I should have used a proper initiative.” Everything was so muddled and the…. women at the mill didn’t get as many turns as they should have had (which was Matt pulling punches.
Matt side note “Hi there, players! I thought long and hard about whether or not to include spoilers in this. I elected to not, for the most part. There is definite spoilers, a few of which might be revealed next week? I’m not sure. Spoilers are weird thing, because it might play out that something I keep a secret now might never get revealed, or it might be kept secret for months. None of my ToA players knew that their guide Asaka was a were-tiger. So it was nice they didn’t decide to attack her, because she would have destroyed them.
“So, for the moment, these will be spoiler free. Even if people have suspicions of thing, unless I’ve specifically pointed it out at the table.
I will tease, however, that Dexter and Owen have specific plot points they are involved with that I am specifically not spoiling. So there.“
The next thing about big groups is that subtle stories don’t work. You have to be obvious about things. You have to make sure the path forward is marked in neon lights. And CoS is built in subtle tones. There’s a lot of rich story and history that I think I might have to throw out to make the group work.
Should I talk about splitting the group here? Yeah… I probably should.
Splitting the party is not disastrous in D&D, as long as the DM is good at their job. People always say “Don’t split the party!” its the cardinal rule, but we all know rule #1 is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” Or possibly “The Doctor lies.” Splitting the party can make for some good stories. Every episode of Scooby-Doo can’t be wrong, right?
The big issue with splitting the party is player inactivity. We had 3 players that basically didn’t do anything for an hour. One of them was falling asleep. It’s been a while since I’ve had someone fall asleep at my game. I don’t blame people for things like that. I blame myself. Someone not being on the edge of their seat- (“Aka, basically anyone at Matt’s tables” -Snark) is my fault, not theirs.. The job of the DM is to entertain the party for the 2+ hours. (People do tend to be more involved when they can make decisions. So don’t leave that part out.)
See, this last week, I made a gamble. I gambled that the party would have a quick face to face with Morgantha and her sisters, then would catch up. But instead, the druid decided to go all Animorph Infiltrator and the 5 minutes turned into a half hour. And then the rest of Team Mill Squad broke into the mill and the players who weren’t actually playing at the time persisted in not playing (even though I offered them a hook to bring them back, but they didn’t. Which is fair.)
What I realize I OUGHT to have done was to give the players on the road an encounter. Maybe the wolf hunters? Maybe a bandit or a merchant or something? If I had been really clever, I could have had Morgantha still returning from deliveries and meet the players on the road. Anyway, I should have done things to get the players playing again.
Trouble at the Mill, That’s All
So… how can I talk about the mill without spoilers?
All and all, I think the mill went rather well. Pulling punches is basically my DMing style.
I pulled SERIOUS punches. Seriously.
Curse of Strahd is what’s known as a “Sandbox” Adventure. That means that, other than a few directions and quests, the players are free to go wherever the heck they want. they don’t have to follow the road to Vallaki, but they can. Ideally, there is stuff and places everywhere that you can run into.
The problem with a sandbox is in balancing encounters. We sadly no longer have 4e’s level-equivalent monsters. What challenge does a pack of wolves pose to a party of level 10 adventures? So high level encounters are put in for the heavy hitters. Except, because of that, a party of low level walks into an encounter with three CR 7 monsters that they did this week?
Yeah, the Mill went really well.
With Season 8 of Adventures League will make this a bit easier to deal with. The majority of the party is halfway through level 2 with only having 2 combat encounters. Well, maybe 3 counting the mill. But not a lot of DMs would have given XP for the mill, even though the kids were rescued. You’ll also get magic items easier, which, you know, would have made the mill fight more doable.
So, a harsher DM wouldn’t pull punches the way I do. I think I have only 1 actual death at my hands in the history of my table at the game store. Other characters have died, but it was their fault, not mine. (Looking at you, Red Zach.)
But I can’t pull all of them. If you wander to the wrong place and trigger the wrong encounter, I’ll do what I can, but you very well could die.
Barovia does have a … creepy… way to bring characters level 4 and under back to life, but the table is going to quickly out level that. But yeah, there’s not much I can do other than actually tell you this, so, there you go. Things can get scary. You might not be able to win all of the fights (which is a big long diatribe that I should probably write about sometime)
Wolves. Lots of Wolves.
I regret throwing the wolves at the party at the tail end of the session. I already mentioned what I should have done, and throwing wolves at the party was a patch, not a solution. And so I sacrificed an encounter I really wanted to do well for a gap-filling encounter. Also, I think I spoiled what I wanted to do with the wolf hunters. Not at all pleased with the sacrifices I made for that gap of time.
Another big thing about having a massive party is you have a crazy amount of fire power that can be brought into the fray. And then you add in the 4 combat active NPCs. and I think you may have actually out numbered the wolves. 8 regular wolves and a dire? Oh, yeah, you out numbered them. You had 13 characters on your side of the combat. The wolves had no chance.
So, it might be worth it to talk about NPCs here. I’m not good at running NPCs. I use them as walking exposition, really. I’m not good at including them in the fight or giving them the initiative.
Matt Side Note: “In the game system I’m writing, its actually a design for a player to take up the mantle of an NPC red shirt that is not as great as the rest of the party and would likely die. It’s not entirely designed for this instance, but the fact that it would be a thing fills me with something rather similar to joy.“
Actually, I realized I need to make a distinction here. I do okay with incidental NPCs, people you meet for a moment, who you can find wherever the adventure says “This is where they are at this point in time.” The NPCs I have issue with are the companion NPCs, who join the party and fight along side. It tends to be very easy to leave them out of the spotlight.
And you know what? I think this might be another thing that stems from having a big group. There are so many players who need a bit of limelight, so why should this NPC get any?
Also, in older versions of AL, the XP and gold you got was divided evenly and any NPC accompanying the party counted. Even though they got nothing out of it, they still drained party resources, so I would ask my table “Would you rather have this person help fight and eat your XP or sit in the background and not?” And they would pick having them be a non-combatant every time.
So I need to try to build the NPCs into actual, living characters. And I’m not sure how to do that in the noise. But its what needs to happen.
Things I think might be hurting my game (Volume 1)
Let’s recap. What’s hurting my game? How do I fix it?
First. It is LOUD at our FLGS. There’s not much I can do to combat that. Rearranging tables so I am more central to the players will help them hear me. Also, geometrically, I think certain players might be closer to each other, which may help the noise be kept down a little, which will help everyone involved.
Second, players don’t have enough choices as we proceed through the game world. Take time to make customized mini-encounters for each player. These should be choices that MATTER.
Third, remember Matt that subtle doesn’t work for big groups. Make things more obvious. If this means re-writing some of the adventure, do it.
Fourth, plan for a secondary encounters. The party is going to split. Accept it, plan for it, make it interesting for everyone as best you can.
Fifth, be prepared to have non-standard encounters to make up for the party size. Season 8 makes it possible to ignore a lot of the classic encounter building design for D&D. Make encounters people will talk about for ages, not slogs that TAKE ages.
Sixths, take steps to make the NPCs real. That’s… all I really got for this step. Good luck with that.
I’ve come a long way, since I began. I have a long way to go.
The snark says “Finally, you say something I can agree with“
I went into this article not knowing what I did wrong, but I came out of it with a small list of things I need to work on anyway. I want to stress to my reading players that even though the number of players makes it hard sometimes, you are always welcome. Sure, I’m not going to be heartbroken if you hit up a different table. If I’ve been your only DM, then you have no idea how good I am or if you prefer a different style of play. In my mind, Adventurer’s League is about learning the game and finding people you want to play with. I can say with certainty that I want to play with you guys.
Thank you for being with me on this journey, both of my development as a DM, and of our adventures in Barovia. Here’s hoping that next week will be a better game for all.
The snark says: “(In before next week’s list of things done wrong is even bigger.)”
Oh! One thing I forgot to mention! After about 30 minutes of the session, I started thinking “Man, I wish this was 7th Sea.” That’s how much fun I have in that game. It makes its presence felt even as I’m busy playing in other systems. I… might throw some thought cycles in converting some adventure of D&Ds into 7th Sea and see how well that works. Maybe the starter set? That could be interesting. Character creation is going to be the odd part, as it’s not going to be quite the same as it is in regular 7th Sea… Monsters are another thing….
Yeah, that’s an article in and of itself. But it is a thing I am thinking of. So, you know, fear me, I guess.