Chaotica: Chasing symptoms that are destroying the game!

I’ve been noticing a problem in Chaotica. Well, problems. And I see it at my other tables. Let’s start again.

You may have noticed me a little frustrated last Saturday. Maybe. I can never tell how obvious about things I am.

There are people who can attest that I can get annoyed at a lot of things. Being annoyed and all curmudgeony is one of my specialist subjects. I’ve empathized with Mr. Wilson over Dennis the Menace for like, twenty years.

One of the more frustrating things I know about getting frustrated is that you tend to get annoyed at the symptoms of the problem, not the root cause. You can’t fix symptoms. Root Causes are hard to find. Makes the whole thing-

…Frustrating.

Let’s get to work.

You know what Grinds my Gears?

In order to trace my frustrations to their roots, we need to start with what they are. On Saturday, I had a few things that were frustrating. Now, I’m enough of an expert to differentiate between being annoyed and frustrated. Annoyed means something minor is suddenly happening. Rolling a nat 1 is annoying. Having Mister MxyzptZaac show up in whatever form he has this week can be annoying. Frustration is a long term annoyance, and it also has connotations of being powerless to do something about it.

(Part of the powerless feeling comes from the fact that the last time I turned to open discussion about how to fix a game I thought was broken (for similar reason, it turns out!) we somehow didn’t talk about fixing things and, suddenly, someone else was GMing. (If someone WANTS to take over, I’m willing to let them sit in the hot seat for a minute))

So the things that have been bothering me:

  1. Combat Power Creep makes me regret starting combats or allowing certain rules.
  2. Group Cohesion makes it hard to treat the party as a group
  3. No one knows that they want to do
  4. I don’t feel my players are trusting me as Gamemaster

Combat Power Creep

Let me describe how I’ve been trying to deal with making combats interesting. This last week, for the orc encounter, I counted  players in an odd way. Some people got double or triple counted. I then used THAT count at level 8, looked at my CR table, saw that it should be 4 of these orc lords/commando guys. Then I doubled them. And, while I caused the ranger to retreat, one member of the party didn’t do ANYTHING.

That’s Chaotica. I have a player who can’t miss, has a 20% chance of critting, and deals 2d12+2d8 + whatever on each of his potential 4 attacks a turn (ignoring any elemental doubling that may ALSO occur). I have a few players with super high AC, one of those with an insane amount of HP. So there are some Crazy combat people in the party, and to make combat interesting, I have to build things to challenge them.

And yet, at the same time, there’s people in the party like Adri, who is just this frail elven wizardess, who will get destroyed if anything that could scratch Neo or withstand Gunther got in melee of her.

How to deal with combats with disparate combatants like this is a thing I have literally been thinking about for 7 years (The Tanith Pirate Fight). If you don’t want to force characters to min-max or rebalance or whatever, then the answer is to distract the good combatants, and make them need to rescue the squishies before they are over run.

Except that tactic doesn’t work with this group.

Group Cohesion

The moment of playing D&D that has felt the best to me in the last three months was this last Wednesday, when Demetrius said “I know my sister has that one, so I’m going to attack the other one.” Even though they weren’t tag teaming the spider, that one line has demonstrated more group cohesion than I have seen in a long, long time.

I blame Adventurer’s League. It’s not their fault, it’s jut nice to blame them. What I ought to blame is “the style of D&D that AL propagates,” that I, Matt, have internalized to the detriment of my game.

Adventurer’s League is a subset of D&D, an organized play environment designed to allow players to drop into any game in the world, play a session, then drop out, take that character any other AL table, and join that one (assuming everything is all legal according to the AL rules)

This is a really neat idea, for the type of game that AL is designed around. That style of game is Module Play, where instead of trying to tell a long story, you tell a short story, and whatever your current play group are the heroes who are conveniently in place to deal with the issue of the weak. Design necessity means they can’t depend on people having played the previous adventure, they can’t rely on the party to have a member of X class or Y race, they can’t assume that players know each other. What they do assume is that the party is going to work together, not argue and fight about loot or purpose, and, in general, that the players are going to be heroic for 2-4 hours.

While AL has it’s problems, as long as you’re running modules it does a good enough job of keeping everything together. The problem is, I stole some of AL’s concepts as I was designing my personal method of running Open Tables, where people can just drop in and out as they are available. Quantum Party is convenient, as long as all the stuff AL doesn’t do, doesn’t matter. But in a longer game, you need those things to anchor people to your story.

According to my less-than-stellar records, I think we’ve had 16 Players who’ve sat at the Chaotica Table for at least 1 session in the 9 months that we’ve been accumulating rules. Of our current group of 8 character (the ones in the survey), only one stepped off the Ol’ Bessie Steam barge. Only two adventured in Loamsbreathe at all. All the characters they knew quantum’d away, replaced with these other people, who they’ve always known, but they’ve never met. Characters who they can fight besides in general because that’s part of the Invisible Social Contract of D&D, but they have no skin in the game to save them from things.

Which is a thing that frustrates me. When the party splits because there’s no foundation for compromise, when the escape plan is “I hope everyone has their own parachute, because this one is mine and it’s too late for us to talk about this,” when characters leave someone to a fate unknown, probably death, without even looking for them. When things like these happen, I die a little inside. Part of the JOY behind D&D is that players can play a game that involves working together to achieve and win, instead of being at cross purposes.

The Closest thing we have to Group Cohesion is that the two oldest characters have the best known plans.

Questions and Quests

I made a survey thing this week. It was a simple sheet. For the 8 “Main” players I have, I asked if you could name what characters were run by what players, and what quests each character had. (This survey was 102% so I could drop numbers here instead of postulating what my players knew. I suspected all of this, which is why I wrote the survey this way)

According to the responses I received, players knew on average 2.6 Player/Character connections (so one, maybe two characters that were not the ones they played), 60% had a quest they were on themselves, and on average, they knew a bit under 1 person’s other quest. (Ari’s hunt was described as “Go North” once.)

That aside aside, quests are another thing that I glare daggers at AL for, but it’s really my fault. See, D&D is made up of quests with a vast range of scope. Sometimes, the quest becomes “Go kill a god.” Other times, it’s “go down to the town and get me twenty Rothmans.” The party shopping is, to some extent, a quest. It’s a player driven, self assumed quest, but as GM, I can introduce the exact same type of complications as if you were going on any other quest. My toolbox remains the same.

As far as I can tell, The party has three quests and an intention.

  • Adonis (at least once upon a time) sought temples of earth to increase his standing
    • He also has a map thing
  • Ari has a wand that I still need to talk to him about
  • Neo has “To gather all dragon-kin under one banner” which the survey is the first I heard of this.
    • Go to Place to qualify for Dragonsoul Sorc is his quest I know about.
  • Also, Tavros want’s to coat the wagon in steel.

(Don’t feel bad about not knowing Tavros’s name. As GM, I had to ask when setting up the survey)

I’m okay with people not having quests. Sometimes D&D is a way to chill at the end of the week. People play the game differently. But the party doesn’t have an overall goal. And actually, looking at my future plans and intentions, I have no goals for them as a group.

That makes it really hard to motivate y’all. And because of the aforementioned power creep, I can’t dangle a villain in front of you without you instantly destroying it, sometimes with a cheesing move. (aka, to fight something in a way that it can’t fight back)

It’s almost like you don’t trust me.

On the GM/Player Trust Bridge

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust in D&D, recently. Players have to trust their GM, and the GM has to trust their players. These relationships take time to build, making them shockingly like any other relationship.

GMs have to trust players to:

  • build their characters correctly
  • play the characters attentively
  • know what their character can do
  • keep an honest inventory
  • properly remember conditions
  • do your homework
  • ask questions to clarify details
  • engage in the world that’s been created
  • build connections to other characters
  • cancel with plenty of time when necessary
  • Be excellent to each other

And so on. There’s a large list and MOST OF THESE THINGS ARE INVISIBLE! Nobody tells players their obligations. Not true, one of the best things Planet Mercenary ever did was two page spread of a player’s guide. When I have a dedicated game room, this will be a poster either on the door or on the way to it, (or in the adjacent bathroom).

Nobody’s perfect, life happens. There’s a lot of obligations there, and sometimes, it’s more important to help out New Person, than to keep count of your arrows. Things ebb and sway in importance. And these are more guideline, not rules, but let me tell you, the more of those qualities you have, the more of a pleasure it will be to have you at the table. Do the opposite of these things, and having you at my table is going to suck. But that’s not surprising, is it? that’s just how social interaction work.

Pinning down what Players have to trust GMs about is harder, because the GMs style is going to shift a lot of these around, and it’s kind of my job, like a stage magician, to lie and distract and have multiple outs and, in general, say “No, not yet” if you want something. The more you can trust the GM, however, the less guarded you need to be when playing. You can have fun, instead of eke a success.

I would say, in general, GMs need to:

  • be consistent.
  • be present.
  • be prepared.
  • respect character choices
  • be willing to incorporate new ideas
  • be flexible when players are doing their thing
  • know when you should be mean or nice

(This was a hard list to write, because there is a difference between the minimum level of GM and the level that I want to be at. My personal philosophies shouldn’t be entering into this list, and trying to differentiate between what is my general philosophy and a specific philosophy gave me a headache. (I’d love to know what you think should be on the GM’s side of the list. I’m sure I didn’t get it all.))

The job of the GM varies based on who you ask. For me, my job is to entertain, and help build cool memories and stories. (I wrote an essay on that!). My job is NOT to kill characters because they make a small mistake. My job is NOT to read my interactive novel out loud while my players sit trapped as characters. My job is NOT to focus on entertaining one player to the neglect of others.

I like to think I’m open and upfront about how kind of a GM I am. Ideally, that should be actions as well as words, and I feel should have a bit of credit with the party.

So it hurts, when I put a lot of work into preparation, when I know all the details, and the party looks into the void of the Underdark, and thge looks on your faces say “Matt lead us on a wild goose chase to a death trap.”

Does… that sound like me? I like to think it doesn’t, but I’m never sure.

You know what’s fascinating about the “Make something scarier bargain? It’s my favorite bargain, because out of EVERY SINGLE SCARY BARGIAN, only one has been used. (Well, sorta two. That second one hasn’t been fully explored yet. ) Only the displacer beast has shown up. Bargains aren’t rules. They’re permission slips. I don’t have to follow them, but if I want to, I can.

They’re even more beautiful than that, because inside of the game, your characters would have heard rumors about the Underdark, and not know which are true and which aren’t!! I found a way to make player scared about a place their characters would be scared of, without just saying “That place gives you the willies.” And in exchange for feeling this fear, you guys got something out of each bargain you made! Words cannot describe how frikkin PLEASED I am with the bargain chit system!

Of COURSE the Underdark isn’t Instant Death! What would be the point of that, yeah, I’m going to ratchet up the tension, but did you read part 1? I don’t know if I can cause a TPK using the rules as written. Sure, I could cheat my way around it, but as much as I threaten, as much as I’m willing to cheat, I don’t find “will they survive an interesting question in fiction! I’m writing a Superhero RPG based on that concept and I’m poking on a way to bring that system into D&D. (I think it might be a big part of my Year of Eberron, we’ll see…)

What, you think that shark is going to EAT you? He’s got monoluges to make and lore to drop.

The dwarves not heading to Yal Sa’ne is one of those things where I may have said something at one point, that got construed while I solidified plans. I don’t think I explicitly said things like destinations and such, but I dropped lore on Yal Sa’ne and the Duergar back in like, July or something. Seriously, it was ages ago, long before I started shaping what the Underdark was going to be I may be in the wrong here. But I’ve known about the Big Honkin’ Door for at least a month.

So sure, it was going to be more trip, but at the end, Yal San’e, and the answers to the party’s forgotten questions, would place the center tent pole of the Big Overarching Plot. Instead, the party breaks like a ocean wave against the door.

The Sum of the Parts

Everything is connected. All of these issues are symptoms of the same root cause. If the party was united in purpose, they would know why they need to go to the Underdark. (I mean, they don’t need to go to the Underdark, but I think I’m going to run out of space before I can talk about Tunnel Questing)  If everyone was bond together, I could motivate all by motivating a few. If the party was a family, instead of just a jumble of Adventurers to busy for introductions, the combat power creep rules would be less irksome, as the OP PCs would have to play tactically so as to not expose people they care about.

That’s the background all done. Now we have to move forward. And moving forward in this case means making changes. Some of which I have ideas about, others, less so.

First, there is an optional change that should be set in plain sight. Chaotica has grown to be a significantly sized table, with a fairly consistent 8 players and my 2 brothers popping in and out. D&D is designed around a group of 4, +/-1. Part of the reason I run large open tables is I have deep seated issues about attendance in small groups, but I think you guys are consistent enough. A smaller group can fit in the back room easy enough, so Fridays might be available at the store. Small group means more sessions.

I’m not advocating for splitting the group, but it is an option.

Another thing I’m not advocating is that this would be a good time to wipe the slate clean and have new characters, as number four on this list might be disheartening for what you have now.

Second, the change I’m unsure how to enact, your characters need to be joined somehow. Effectively, we need a Session 0, nine months in. If we have a session this weekend, it’ll probably be that (there’s a birthday party that will be kicking us out early). I don’t have a good way of doing this. Tying your characters to the world is also a thing that needs to happen.

Third, we need to pick a direction. The session 0, if it’s determined we are staying as a group with these characters, will have a small Time Hiccough™ and suddenly, the group headed north hadn’t left yet, and the group dealing with Dirkstügh will have dealt with what is in there, found treasure or whatever I put in there, and has all the pieces of that puzzle. Then the party can make a choice as a group, using words, to reach a consensus, and travel as a team. I don’t care where we go, as long as we go together.

Fourth, even with all of this, power creep is still a problem. It’s time for a cull. I’ve got a rough draft of the Season 2 rules. I need to go over it a time or two more, then shamelessly let my Patreons take a peek at it first, but yeah. Bargain chits will be the main way of adding rules. I might allow people to stockpile a few of them, instead of losing them. Or unspent chits might be converted into Treasure Points or Advancement Checkpoints (XP)

Skraz

So that’s where Chaotica is at. Everyone needs to read this, then we need to have chats about it, then talk about it in person. This is fixable, we just have to be willing to put in the work to fix it. Isn’t this a story worth saving?

See you online.

Matt

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