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The Art of Fail – What to do when games go bad

May 28, 2013

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Occasionally, a game takes a turn for the worst.

A few months ago, I ran a session of “Expedition to the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk” for a group, and in the module the Deck of Many Things makes an appearance. The Deck has a reputation for danger, dealing fortune and misfortune indiscriminately, but it’s one of those items that my group has come to eagerly anticipate in a long campaign. Five draws later, we had two characters in the Donjon (trapped in an otherworldly prison) and one character in the Void (reduced to a mindless automaton). Needless to say, it threw a monkey-wrench into our game, and was discouraging to a few players.

Donjon

That’s one type of problem, and we fixed it. I’ll go into how in a minute.

It comes to mind this week because we recently had an incident in our Pathfinder Skull & Shackles game that put us in a similar bind. Our unoptimized party staggered into an encounter grossly underestimating the power and skill of our adversaries, and coupled with some cold dice and optimized villains (common in a Paizo product at higher levels), we were nearly killed to a man. Fortunately we stopped the action due to the late hour, and talked about what needed to happen next. Unfortunately, however, some of the votes as to what needed to happen next were to throw in the towel on the entire campaign.

That’s a different type of problem, and an infinitely more complex one. Perhaps most frustratingly, our issue in Skull & Shackles seems to be that our characters, despite our best efforts, are either not optimized enough to face the anticipated challenges of the modules, or our method of playing them does not rise to the anticipated levels of skill anticipated by the module designer. An architectural problem like that takes some work, but that’s not the only problem.

Long campaigns have a number of difficulties associated with them. I’ve never finished a Pathfinder Adventure Path in less than a year, with one of them lasting over 3 years, and that’s a long time to do anything. There is potential for burnout on your character, on the campaign itself, and sometimes your group. High Level play has a slew of issues that are problematic. So what to do? GM’s and Players both play a role in sorting these things out, but each issue lends itself to different solutions. Let’s take a look issue by issue.

Multiple Character Death

This is sure to put a damper on your campaign fun: Two or Three of your beloved heroes die (maybe permanently) meaning your champions are severely humbled, or maybe your entire cast and party dynamic are rewritten. Both player and GM have a role to play here. Players need to evaluate first whether raise dead / resurrection is the route to go, or if there is a persuasive reason to bring in another character. Death during play is definitely a part of the life of an adventurer, and is part of the process of paying your dues. However, if you can bring in a character that adds to the story or brings balance to the party, and the change isn’t disruptive to play, gauge whether this is your moment. If you don’t have a choice in the matter, is there a way to make a new character that complements the old? Is there an NPC already encountered that would make a fun PC? While there’s little you can do if resurrection or raise dead aren’t on the table, conspire with your GM a little to see what other solutions might be possible that would make for an interesting return or cunning plot development.

In the end, more power lies in the GM’s hands where deaths are concerned. If you’ve killed half the party, either someone got incredibly (un)lucky, or you’ve misgauged the power of your encounters relative to your group. While bad decisions on the player’s part certainly merits the occasional ass-whooping, there is the enjoyability and continued longevity of the campaign to consider. As things turn towards TPK in a long term campaign, the GM’s Toolkit includes pulling back on the optimized use of some abilities: tossing a magic missile when a fireball may dish out 10d6 of campaign ending fury, commanding a charmed PC to attack an ally knowing full well he’ll get that badly needed second save, opting for subdual damage. etc. If it’s too late for that, a dropped PC can be raised or healed by the villains to extract information, letting the play continue and granting an opportunity for the PC’s to salvage the situation.

If there’s no room for resurrection, there’s the occasional wish or divine intervention, opportunities for which might be accrued during play over time to be used at just the right moment. In the case of our Deck of Many Things debacle, we actually played a session where a team of specialists went to free the souls of the trapped card-drawers, making for a fun offbeat extraplanar session that gave players a chance to mix it up with a different PC for 8 hours, and fun was had by all. The nice thing about a fantasy setting is that nothing is impossible with the right factors. A quest to get the item that will allow a resurrection is one good idea away, and may make for an interesting adventure in itself.

Character Burnout

You’ve been playing this damn cleric for 79 sessions and if you cast one more Cure Light Wounds spell you’re going to eat your rulebook. While largely a player problem, this is something your GM can help with, too.

Good character design should help to eliminate the onset of ‘Character Fatigue’ – Motivation, Backstory, Goal Setting all give you a roundness that should transcend function. However, especially with support characters, your most effective routines may be the least interesting. Check with your party and see if there can be some give in how roles are played out. Sometimes a few wands or scrolls can free up spell slots to let you take on the role you’re looking for. Depending on your level, there may be time to multi-class, changing you into the character you want to be.

A GM can help this situation a couple different ways. Work with the player to see what they want out of the game, and shape it to meet their needs. Indulge some of their campaign goals, or thrust them into situations where they are in the spotlight, creating unique opportunities.

Character retirement is always an option, and the GM should be able to create an opportunity to phase out one character while creating a compelling reason to feel attached or trusting towards the new PC (or maybe not so trusting, if your game is a little more sinister).

Campaign Burnout

In any adventure path or long running campaign, this danger is one of the most prevalent. Time passes in game and in real life, and the theme of a certain game can grow tired. Individual modules in a series can linger over frustrating details or hair-pulling monotony in many instances, or just a series of frustrations that make continued play feel unrewarding.

Players can attempt to turn the adventure in a way that is more pleasing to them, but this has very limited utility if the GM is not on board. GM’s, of course, have significant influence on this issue, and need to use their discretion to manipulate the campaign to meet the needs of the players. Ideally, this is done without overly telegraphing the modifications. However, if a particular dungeon crawl is literally crawling then removing or hand-waving a few encounters that don’t progress the plot will not usually be lamented by your frustrated players, obvious or not. Sometimes introduction of another element, such as a rival adventuring party, or some sort of internal dispute amongst your antagonists, can create an interesting way of clearing obstacles or adversaries in the path of your party and get them to the epic finale or wherever they may be heading while creating tension in the process.

I have very rarely had a party complain that something is too easy, but make things too difficult and they’ll tell you. There’s a fine line between challenge and frustration and the GM needs to make sure that the party feels like heroes most of the time and that the story keeps moving. Published scenarios should be used as suggestions, and as soon as the party gets bogged down in them, hustle to the next scene change, or take a pleasant detour into something you know they’ll like, to give them the fresh air they’ll need for another dive into peril.

Group Burnout

This is bad. If you’ve been playing with the gamers at this campaign for a while, either something outside of the game is interfering with the way friends play together, or worse, the way the game is getting played is making people rub each other the wrong way. Sometimes sitting down to an extended campaign can create a meeting of people that don’t know each other that well, and force them to meet repeatedly for 4 hours a week for years. While it is my belief that gaming can bring many types of people together (that being one of the things that is amazing about it), it sometimes does bring people together that just can’t click.

Players need to try to work out differences between each other, communicating their frustrations. Sometimes this is best done through a third party that can play peacekeeper and keep things from getting too confrontational during a session. The GM holds some responsibility to keep the peace and play referee, but sometimes your GM might be your problem.

With any relationship, communication is key, and identifying the grievance clearly and getting it behind you should be your first step. But, if you’ve aired your grievance and the other party can’t or won’t change their ways, make your excuses and cut bait. Don’t sit frustrated or mopey at a table and poison everyone else’s good time. If everyone shares the frustration regarding the single player, GM’s got to be the one to man up and diplomatically give the guy a last chance to shape up or ship out. The Jackass Rule states, “If one person calls you a jackass, ignore them. If ten people call you a jackass, get a saddle”.

If you’re the problem, don’t get defensive. Review your Gaming Ten Commandments. Take it on faith that you are representing yourself in a way that is making you come off negatively, and proceed with awareness that this is what your fellow player or players think, knowing you need to control yourself. You are not the first socially awkward gamer. I promise.

High-Level Play Sucks

Yes. Yes, it does. That doesn’t mean it has to, but you are going to find a lot of frustrations in high level play if you are not ready for it. First, you need to know your character and how it works. Secondly, you’re going to need to spend some time prepping for each game to make sure you know what you’re doing and how to do it. Third, you’re going to need to mark your pages or bookmark your pdf’s for common complex rules issues you know you’re going to run into: if you have an ability that grapples opponents, get your grapple rules ready, marked and reviewed; be familiar with the conditions you impose through your spells and know what spells your going to cast; if you have equipment purchases you want made, email the GM ahead of time to let them know what you want and update your character sheet as soon as you get the okay; get any sorts of buffs or powers outlined. In general, know how to play the game you’re playing and if you don’t know, read the rules.

GM’s suffer greatly under the yoke of high level play. You’re responsible for everything, and theoretically need to know what the players can do as well as all your monsters, traps, and so on. It’s a heavy burden, but one you can bear with the right prep and the right attitude. First, read your printed material if you’re using a module. Paizo has good message boards regarding it’s published material and they might address errata or other questions other GM’s might have had with your specific module. Look up strange powers in the bestiary and make sure you know how things work on your side of the screen.

Since you’re dealing with the same players over and over, it also would pay to read over the classes they’re bringing to the table if there is something they’re doing that confuses you. Sometimes you’ll find they’re mixed up about something and it may speed up game play if you both know how the power is supposed to function.

However, if you get down to the wire and are playing and you hit a complex rules snag, and you’re getting player burnout due to high-level play rules? Dump it. Make a call, and err on the side of player success: They will bitch to high heaven in you kill them through some sort of blown rules call, but few will make a peep at an error in their favor. Ties go to the runner. This works because it makes for a better story when the good guys win, and keeping play moving at high levels is key.

What Else?

There are plenty of other frustrations that can kill a campaign, but GM’s and Players alike need to maintain the polestar of Commandment 10 – Thou Shalt Have Fun. Make sure your fellow gamers are having fun with the campaign and that you’re not having fun at their expense. GM’s, make sure your players are enjoying themselves rather than maintaining the rubric of the module at the expense of their enjoyment. And finally, if worst comes to worst, find a good stopping point, set the module aside for a while, and pull out an old favorite or something new and give it a spin around the block for a while. If you come back to it, great. If you don’t, then at least you’re having a good time moving on to the next adventure.

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