Experimenting with the Players

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 30 April 2010

Sometimes D&D sessions aren't going to go the way you like. Even if you run a published module that's been extensively play tested, there are going to be off nights. Wednesday was one of those nights. Part of it was we were feeling a bit of the tension from the week before. In addition, some of us were feeling the stress of work. Another part was all of us, including me, were having a hard time getting into "character." So we got off to a rather slow start.

Eventually we all settled down into the tale of a haunted ship. The Captain Torend was quite beside himself due to the strange happenings on his ship. Being relatively new to the boat and the command, he had no idea what was causing the wind to leave the sails on a windy day or the strange noises in the galley in the early hours of morning. He offered the PCs free passage to Andernach, if they would help him with his problem.

With this information, the PCs decided to spend the night in the galley. They soon were awakened by four ghosts. Over time, the ghosts told their story. The former captain, Capt. Malloc, had made them walk the plank. Their captain claimed it was due to the liberal rations of ale the group availed themselves to, but the ghosts say it was because they knew his secret. Malloc was smuggling priceless artifacts out of Andernach. All they wanted was for someone to retrieve their bodies and give them a proper burial.

When the PCs agreed to do this, the ghosts made sure that the wind always blew in the needed direction and the PCs made sure the rudder was pointed in that direction as well. Once they arrived, the PCs went to work figuring out how to get the bodies out of the water. A few of them swam beneath and immediately saw that the bodies had been turned to stone. One of the adventurers went right up to the stone "statue" and tried to move it with her hands. She was instantly shocked by the Petrifying Coral and became a bit dazed as a result. Some of her friends saw this as well and worried about her health.

This is the point of the game where things started to really break down. The players had rushed into this a bit. Part of the problem was in running this like a combat encounter even though the only "combat" was disabling the hazard and freeing the statues. A number of the players admitted afterward that being in initiative order made them less likely to work together as a team. Because they didn't go down, assess the situation and then come back up to plan, a number of the party had a few rounds where there wasn't a whole lot they could do. Another issue was that I had made it a bit too easy to work around the coral. This was our first underwater encounter so I was a little afraid of making it too hard for them. In addition, I was really hoping to avoid normal combat. But, if I had to do it again, I would have added a natural creature whose only ability is being able push the PCs around, and potentially into the coral.

While I can't say it was the most fun we ever had at the table, I'm glad I decided to experiment with my group (not on them). They learned a few things about how to approach different sorts of challenges and working together as a team. For me, I am now able to more clearly explain why I don't like running role-playing and/or skill challenges in anything resembling initiative order and why skill challenges are a great framework for running certain non-combat encounters. Not sure if I'm going to do it right away, but soon I'll experiment with them on ways to create a great teamwork experience at the table while still dealing with environments where rounds matter.

Besides, it wasn't all bad. After they retrieved the bodies and started sailing north once again, I regained control and teased the next part of the adventure. Somehow I found enough courage to change the tone of my voice slightly to that of a story teller. From there I was able to set the ground work, spinning a tale about mist covered islands in the center of the lake which appear only to those who are in need and a tower, built by Lilith, the protector of the powerless. As the boat approached the center of the lake, the mists did part and the islands appeared. I left the group there and ended the session.

[Edit: The petrifying coral is a based on the elite hazard Gorgon Mud DDI]


Every gamer should, at some point in his or her life, experience a combatless role-playing session.

There are a great many things to be learned in such things.

The petrifying coral is pretty neat.

And agreed with Siskoid, non-combat session can be great fun. Finally had one of those in the L5R campaign I am running last session.

Sorry to hear about the down session.

What if the PCs had failed this encounter?

Did you design the challenge with the expectation that they would plan their approach to the problem?

Why did initiative order make it less likely for them to work together? Were they on a time limit or otherwise penalized for Aiding Another or readying an action?

Was this on a grid? How were they able to avoid the coral?

I heartily agree with adding a complication to skill challenges. If you're not going to use initiative and positioning, then just adding another skill challenge (which could take the form of the pushing creature you suggested) should help give everyone something to do and keep them from just ganging up on a lone skill challenge.

I didn't plan it for any particular outcome. If they failed to get the bodies, they would have had some problems with the ghosts, but we would have worked together to find a solution to it. I was hoping that they would formulate a plan for dealing with the scenario. They do this a lot during combat with great success and fun, but sometimes they rush through the role playing bits really quickly. Since I've gotten feedback that they want to get a bit deeper in the role playing, I thought this particular scenario might help with it.

We used initiative order in part as a response to last week's game and also because I had to keep track of rounds. One of the interesting things about being underwater is that the players need to make an endurance check to hold their breath and the check gets harder the longer they are underwater. While initiative order made keeping track of those things easier, it changed the mindset of the players. Instead of working together on interesting solutions, they wanted to maximize their turns. [That feedback came direct from a player and the other players seemed to agree. They also mentioned that having a creature that could push them would have made it more fun and interesting as well.] So in game terms, there were no penalties for aiding another or any of those sorts of things, the barriers were more in the players' heads.

As for avoiding the coral, they could make an arcana check to disable it, although failing it meant it got an opportunity to attack. There wasn't a ton of it around, in part because I'm a softy, so it was relatively easy to move about.

Now I'm a little sad I scooted early (I didn't realize it was barely 9) and missed the post-game. I can see how for the players whose roles were less direct the initiative-order thing would have been a roadblock and made them feel useless rather than able to assist in some way.

I still feel - and this is just my opinion, not criticism - that there's got to be a middle ground between running a sequence between like a combat encounter, and total free-form. Where everyone gets a "turn" but the turn structure is not rigid or mechanical, just orderly.

I disagree. The "orderly" structure is what discourages cooperative action and that was part of the complaint. I don't think there was a single PC there who couldn't have done something active and fun, even if it was organizing the rest of the crew to help bring the petrified bodies to the surface. They didn't feel useless because of the challenge before them, but rather due to the overarching game structure. That's a huge issue, especially when much of the table expresses the same frustration about it.

If I ran this encounter again, I would probably tell the players that they have about 30 seconds per round and ask them what they want to do in each of those time slots. We could then both make sure that everyone could do something they wanted to do, provide the needed structure for the endurance and swim checks, and build a collaborative story about solving the challenge. It takes a lot of faith in the DM and the rest of the players, but I think it could be a lot of fun.

Actually this is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking about... I'd like to see how what you are describing plays out. It sounds like fun.

I watch @ThursdayKnight's live play on Justin.tv every Thursday night, and they seem to do skill challenges in a fashion that is entertaining to the players, the DM and the audience. I could explain what they do, but I happen to think seeing is better for something like this.

http://bit.ly/cEsEx2 This link is to a chatroom selected skill challenge that the DMs whipped up in just a few minutes based on the idea of a ram stampede, or as we preferred to call it, RAMPEDE! It is about 15 minutes, and it is a great example of a free-form skill challenge that still has some basic structure.

And the spam filter still does not like me. Bad filter.

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