This is an open response to a player who shared her concerns with me in a blog post. Hi, let me know how you’d like me to address you and whether you’d like me to link your blog.
First of all, thank you for addressing me with your concerns with the game. Thank you for taking the time to write. And finally, thank you for asking “Mister A” (wink) for help! Whether it’s what you intended, by consulting a fellow player, you brought him into the conversation and he brought up some of his own concerns!
We have a conversation with at least three people now, and that means we can do a whole point-counterpoint think if you like. And I can answer questions! Address concerns! Take suggestions! And we can all refer back to this later!
Thank you for making the effort to speak out. I’m not actually going to admonish you to speak up more at the table because you did great! This first concern that you raised doesn’t necessarily need to be addressed at the table (like some of the others do) because you had a tremendous impact on events, which you probably haven’t even realized yet!
See, by taking a stand for what your character wants and believes in, and sticking your neck out… you encouraged other players to do the same. Last night’s game was unique for the kind of conversation that occurred.
So many. Players. Talking.
Not about Pokemon, or TV shows, or YouTube videos. But about what they wanted to do. And what they were going to do. And yes! It was a mess, and I’m sure you felt like your voice was drowned out. But it wasn’t! It was heard. And the other players argued with you. And some of them agreed with you too!
Believe me when I say, it was hard to follow the conversation last night.
We had no fewer than three distinct conversations carried on… three players (at least) with three related goals, and three different approaches. That’s three times as many as usual! And you were one of them!
This isn’t false praise. You did it. You actually did exactly what we talked about in text. I couldn’t be happier… I mean, I got a tremendous backlash from players last night. I got hit from all sides, almost literally.
I took my medicine. I… might have deserved it. Not sure.
And you did lead! It takes some real brass ones to march up to the dungeon and demand to see the prisoners. You caught me off-guard… and the monsters too. Now, you were probably put off by the results, but you learned something amazing in the process, which one of the other players pointed out (first at the table, then again later in a side conversation).
Sure, there’s no Geneva Convention… no Red Cross… no Clerics Without Borders. That actually wasn’t the big discovery of the evening. The true discovery was that the dungeon is being controlled by multiple factions.
Factions who… don’t necessarily work together.
I’m paraphrasing what one of the other players pointed out:
‘We learned that the library… is being controlled by mummies and some guys with horns on their heads. We learned that the entrance is being controlled by the snake-men. They aren’t in contact with each other, and they aren’t the same group. The snake-men have no sway with the mummies.’
This is tremendous for reasons that can only become more apparent with time. This is not a uniform body of baddies. They are independent groups within a larger… organization… of some kind.
You can infer more, based on what you’ve interacted with directly.
Darnek, whose corpse was retrieved… was embalmed (preserved, but not yet mummified). He was hand-delivered by none other than Silhouette, who didn’t directly reveal the presence of the mummies.
The prisoners? They’re being kept… ALIVE… by the mummy-people. But the snake-men don’t have access to the prisoners. They only guard the entrance.
Silhouette… not the snake-men… is using the hostages as insurance against your actions against the snake-men.
She’s protecting them. Why?
Why would a dark elf care about snake-men. Minions. Why?
These are questions the group can only ask because of the actions you took. You went to lend aid to the characters, and what you came back with was information about the baddies’ organization.
So you didn’t come away with what you wanted. But it wasn’t a failure.
Alternatively, sure. You failed to do what you intended to do, but that doesn’t mean your actions were a waste.
To the matter of the map.
I apologize if it seems like I was berating you. In truth, I shouldn’t have said anything because uh, the Dungeon Master isn’t necessarily supposed to correct mistakes in the map.
But that isn’t the only reason I shouldn’t have said something.
I’m sorry for how my comments made you feel. I don’t know what you expect in terms of an apology, and I don’t want to overdo it. I feel bad for making you feel bad, and I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I want to apologize for that.
There is one, glaring obvious great benefit to keeping that map: Without it, you wouldn’t have known what changed.
If you hadn’t tried to put the map on paper, you wouldn’t have known how things changed. Part of the reason I advised everyone — Mister A, primarily — to stop relying on the maps he drew, is because you don’t learn about the space if you don’t keep maps.
There are… a lot of rules I’m not allowed to enforce because the group doesn’t let me.
I mean, the game has all that complexity you’re talking about, and I couldn’t begin to count all the ways in which we lose that complexity… the texture, the flavor… because I am vetoed by the players.
Let’s look back to, for example, encumbrance.
You think the Dungeon Master has all the power in the game? When I brought up keeping track of player inventory, I got people scoffing in my face. “Keep track of inventory?”
Why should I expect the players to follow the rules of the game?
I don’t know. Why bother playing the game at all?
Don’t take this as a direct criticism. I want to illustrate a contrast. I need the consent and cooperation of the players in order to pull off even half of the fiendish things that I get up to as a Dungeon Master. And I can be overruled by just a few dissenting voices.
Sometimes I can get something by if I’m sneaky. Like the changing passageways. If I tried that back when the group was exploring Sungard, there probably would have been a riot.
You know what would have caused a riot last night?
If I had tried to enforce the vision-blocking effects of the fog in the hallways. How much of the damage taken by “Stone Soup” the golem came from characters who literally couldn’t see into the room?
Do I call the players out for cheating?
One of the things that mapping does, is enable you, as players, to make conjectures about the map. Here’s a free tip: the next time the group goes into the dungeon, try using a spell like Locate Object on that floor and see what happens.
If you want, I’ll help you figure out which direction should be North. I’m sure there was a miscommunication along the way, and I probably misheard or misunderstood which door the party wanted to explore.
But there’s more.
One of the players suggested a way that the dungeon was changing. He was only able to do that because of your map. It wasn’t a waste of time.
While the dungeon could ignore physics, that isn’t necessarily the first conclusion you might come to. Usually magic can be used to explain a peculiar effect. Sometimes even a spell that could conceivably be cast by another character in the party… but I don’t want to mislead you. The laws of physics might not apply.
Finally, to the matter of frustrating difficulty.
While it’s difficult to measure on a consistent, ongoing level… the game is not… exactly... as frustratingly difficult as you may have been led to believe.
As I said in my probably-kind-of-condescending-sounding letter about the “Post-Doc Class” this morning, Encounter Balance is my “thing.”
I probably invest more than half of my total preparations to making sure that the game is difficulty, but beatable.
The “Silent Library” encounter is a great example.
I literally designed it as a deathtrap, and spent the entire week researching different ways to defeat its challenge, making decisions about which ones to allow and which ones to deliberately thwart.
Like knowing that Anat could use the Helm of Teleportation to help the party escape. I read up on it, and I knew it would work. I let the party believe Mister A when he said it wouldn’t work… because it meant you all looked for other solutions. When the game went over-time, I revealed the error.
Ultimately, despite the initial (apparent) difficulty of the encounter, the players quickly found ways out of it that enabled more than three-quarters of the party to escape. And the other two aren’t even dead!
Though you couldn’t have known this, and you can only know this because I’m telling you, I had intended to kill the entire party if it came down to it.
In other words, if the party had given up the encounter as an inevitable TPK, I would have ended the encounter by killing everyone (or taking them prisoner).
But. You didn’t. Give up.
Instead, the party stuck with it, and they fought to get away.
We saw some incredibly heroics in what… initially… seemed like a Kobayashi Maru. Now, as Mister A could point out, the Kobayashi Maru is unwinnable by design, “Rocks fall, everybody dies.” There is no getting out of it alive.
The Silent Library wasn’t unwinnable. It was “merely” difficult.
And look at what you’ve gleaned from that encounter! First, you know that the library is inhabited by mummies. Something else has moved in since you were there. Also! Whatever’s there is interested in taking prisoners. And, thanks to this series of (unfortunate) events, you’ve learned there are multiple factions operating within the dungeon.
There’s more information you can infer from this, but that… would be telling.
You, the party, everyone, needs to talk about this. At this point, I don’t know what form that conversation is going to take. Maybe it will take the form of a blog-to-blog conversation. Maybe it’ll turn into a weekly podcast? Who knows! But the conversation has definitely started.
And you helped make it happen!
There’s a great Spoony video — I know we’re all irritated with him due to his lack of output lately — where he talks about the kinds of games he runs. It’s a “cruel, but fair” approach to Dungeon Mastering. It’s similar to the philosophy that I follow.
“Difficult, but beatable.”
To a certain extent, I am pressured into giving the group fights that award lots of experience because you have high-level characters who get almost nothing from monsters below a certain Challenge Rating.
There is another factor though, which is a realm of something I consider Fair Play, which is “trash talking.” I deliberately talk up the difficulty of the game so that I don’t have to work as hard to… actually try to kill the characters.
If everyone’s worried that I might kill their character, then I don’t actually have to kill characters very often. You might have noticed that most of the high-level characters have never died: Anat, Akordia, Lorik, and Morgran. Darnek was dead for a couple weeks, and many of the lower-level characters have died.
In this way: through a deliberate amount of trash-talking, and through the killing off of the admittedly more “expendable” characters, … everyone gets a taste of mortality without any of “the mains” being taken out of the picture.
I mean, when else would Morgran have the opportunity to use Revivify/Raise Dead, if not on dead characters? Those spells would just go to waste.
The gloom and doom is deliberate too: I want everyone to feel like the end of the world’s coming. As I said in my second letter (which you may not have read yet) “Information Overload,” part of how I’m bringing the whole world to life is with these larger-than-life events that you might not have any control over.
You can read that second letter for a more in-depth response to this, but the gist of it is: A) you’ve actually accomplished more than you realize, and B) exploring dungeons and killing monsters is your primary way of interacting with the world.
I hope you were able to take away something positive from this! I had lots of glowing things to say about how you did in last night’s game. I tried to be more actual-glowing in my words of praise than the “when I say you didn’t screw up, I mean you’re a plus-one and everyone else is a minus-fifty.”
I had more glowing things to say about everyone actually, but I had to uh, wait for everyone to offload… all the bad feels. First.
Because I think in part, what happened was everyone was starting to figure out how to affect the game at the same time. And it was overwhelming for everyone to come to similar realizations at the same time.
Don’t stop! Don’t give up!
I hope I addressed most, if not all of your concerns. PLEASE let me know what you think! And keep writing!