The perfect storm

A few nights ago I played in a session of D&D which turned into a perfect storm of mistakes which culminated in a three hour encounter for a party of 6 level 7 players. I’m going to go out on a limb on this one and say that this game was not what the designers at Wizards had in mind when creating 4e. I’ll admit there was a large part of the game that left me feeling very drained, but I also walked away from it with more experience and  huge lessons from both sides of the DM screen. Today I think I’ll share with the class what I have learned this week at the gaming table.

1. Communication! Before during and after the game communication can be a game breaker; actually lack there of is a game breaker. If you have read some of my older posts you will know I am all about the big “C”. In life I have learned a very strong and basic lesson: communication can be as important as competence. In our group we failed to communicate before the game, and this week it really hurt us. Part of the game this week was playing a side quest with temporary characters. The whole group had to roll new characters and play them through a few simple encounters. We all told the DM which classes we would be playing, but none of us told each other. I’ll explain the effect of this mistake in point #2. Communication in the game also hurt us due to the fact that in a long encounter a few of us “checked out”; I was included in that number. Tactical advantage and cohesion was missed multiple times due to poor communication, and the encounter was dragged out due to this.

How are we approaching this issue? We set up Google Wave accounts for everyone and have two clear lines of communication using it. We started a thread for in character discussion and one for out of character conversation. If we all take a small amount of time each week to discuss the previous and upcoming game some of our worst trouble from this past night can be avoided.

#2. Party makeup MATTERS! I know, no one wants their group to be pigeon-holed into the cookie cutter mold for every campaign; a little variation from the standard Defender/Leader/Striker/Controller setup can actually spice up a game. But swinging to an extreme can be a nauseating experience. Here is a true to life example from the other night: Our party of six consisted of: 1 Bard; a leader, 1 cleric; a leader, 1 warlord; a leader, 1 invoker; a controller, 1 ranger; a striker, 1 sorcerer; a striker. Everyone in the group is level 7 and I’m going to venture a guess that the encounter was a level 10 encounter.  In this situation the group was not really able to do allot of damage, and no one in the group could stand on the front line for very long. The leaders had a hard time hitting, and the strikers spent a ton of time running from oncoming assaults. This is where the lack of pregame communication really hurt us. Had I talked to my friends about the game earlier in the week I might have brought a defender, or another striker who had some defensive skills. In the design of the game I believe that an optimum party layout is not about success or failure but about the time it takes to get to the end result. A poor party could easily mean most fights last a very long time. Our lack of communication caused us to form a poor party which caused the next problem.

How do I suggest we fix this issue? I think everyone in the party has to do their part to address this issue. Everyone at some point must be willing to take one for the team and play a role they don’t usually enjoy. For the secondary characters I am going to make a defender to plug one of the holes our group left open. And as a DM I will be very hesitant in the future about allow such extreme group configurations. I might allow them if the players have actually given thought to what they are doing, but I will pull the plug at the first sign of trouble.

#3. Tension is Key: If a game lacks tension it lacks enjoyment. If players never believe they could fail, or that their characters might experience death they will not enjoy the encounter like they should. Overcoming adversity and challenge makes people happy and gives them a feeling of accomplishment. Ending a long tedious event with no challenge, or challenge that poses no threat, just brings relief from the pain of having to do the task. Our party never thought they were in any real danger, not because the enemies were not putting them in any peril but because they were sure to be healed no matter what happened. My cleric alone had powers enough to grant a total of 7 healing surges in battle, not including the ability to heal all bloodied targets in a burst 5, twice. Stack that on top of two other leaders geared to heal and you have quite a bit of an HP slush fund. I honestly think this (the B team we will call them) could take on the same challenges of our main characters; it would just take them two or three times longer to do so. A long fight with no threat of failure makes players disassociate from the game. In a long fight with player interest waning player encounter planning and adaptation is very important.

This issue is hard to address. As a DM I will have to spend a bit more time making encounters feel more dangerous. Using terrain, traps, and deadly surprises to keep the players off guard. I might even come up with a toy chest of such tools; if an encounter is beginning to feel like it is loosing its flavor I’ll reach into the chest and pull one out.

I have to put in a small aside here for a second. My DM from our Tuesday night game reads this blog so I have to tread lightly here. This is not an attack on his skills as a DM but just observations I made from the game last night. Please do not think I am writing this to bash you in any way.

#4. Monster Diversity Matters! As I have spent some time on the DM side of the screen I have often taken short cuts which I thought worked well, only to find out from my players that they didn’t go over so well. One of them was encounter creation. An encounter that is not well planned can cause a great deal of grief for both the players and DM. Fighting a pack of enemies who all share the same powers, attacks and defenses works from time to time; it also fails often. If an enemy has a strong defense such as AC and a player has mostly AC attacks the player would likely switch to another enemy to gain some advantage. But if the whole encounter is made up of that one type of enemy with the same defenses the player with AC attacks is pretty much locked out of the fight, and if it is a long fight he is likely to feel alienated. If the whole party had not communicated and they all end up with attack which their foes have strong defense against they whole party feel ineffective. Repetition in long combat begins to feel very vanilla, no matter fun it was in the first 15 min of combat, in hour 2 getting hit with the same attack for the 10th time feels like chewing a gum wrapper. Diversity in encounters gives the players more options, not only do the players have to choose which power to use, but on whom to use it as well. It also gives the DM options on how to fight the party. Getting hit sucks, no one wants to get hit, but after you get hit for the 10th time you really stop caring. But hit and knocked prone, pushed, dazed, or paralyzed adds something to it. Hit points can be regained with out much effort, but losing tactical advantage causes a group to have to rethink strategy.

This one is not something the players can really do anything about aside from speaking to the DM about the encounters. As a DM I just have to remember that though some shortcuts work out well, others don’t pay off in the long run. And if something is not working I won’t use it any more.

#5. Adaptation for the sake of enjoyment: This one is simple, the funny thing is I have failed to follow it a few times in the past.  As a DM if something is not working out change it; if the players spend an hour trying to kill something and they just can’t hit it, change something. It does not have to be the defenses or the attacks or any part of the enemies they are fighting. Add some kind of trap the players can use to hasten the end of the fight. Or just change the enemies, lower some HP here and there. I know some DMs are vehemently opposed to this tactic but hear me out. Everyone in the group including you the DM wants to have fun, and when things are not working properly people don’t have fun. I personally rather change things on the fly to insure enjoyment over refusal to break from the rules and condemn the party to long agonizing events.

#6. Cut your losses. Sometimes this lesson is for the Players and some times it is for the DM. Some situations are just not beneficial for either party in the game. No one wants to loose hours in a fight they don’t really care about. DMs if they players have the upper hand, and they look bored, or make it clear they don’t want to be there cut them loose. Make the enemies run, give up, or just cut a deal with the players;  end the combat early and make each player take damage equal to what they might have taken had the players fought to the end. Players, if you don’t see a reason to be doing what you are doing, run, surrender, or bribe the enemy to let you get away. If you are getting tired of a fight there is a good chance your DM is as well. But if the fight is important to the story he might not let it go. So make it clear you want to get away to approach the situation from a different angle.

Many of these lessons have various fixes. Most of the issues which caused our three hour encounter last night are not game enders; making them does not mean you are a bad DM or player. But when all of them compound one on another then you have the makings of a perfect storm. Now that I am armed with this experience I might be able to see similar storms in the future and try to avoid them. I hope that someone might gain a bit of insight from reading this and also avoid some choppy waters.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.


About Thadeousc

Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.
Subscribe to Comments RSS Feed in this post

One Response

  1. Pingback: Merric BlackmanNo Gravatar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *