Monday, April 25, 2016

Behind My Screen - The Good, The Bad, & The VERY Ugly

Sometimes you can plan and plan and plan and it ends up being so much better than you could have ever dreamed.  Other times all the planning in the multiverse can't save you from having things turn to a steaming pile of liquid poo before your very eyes.  The variable(s) is always other human beings.  You can't account for schedules, priorities, interest, and investment.  And that is maddening!  It sounds a lot like how life works, but in this case I'm talking about Fake Life, aka D&D. 

In four days I ran two sessions.  The first was 3rd Group, my Evil Group, last Thursday night.  Generally, I try to keep things relatively story medium to light for 90% of the players in the group as they are far more interested in debauchery and slaying than they are in character development or a coherent story.  It makes it easy for me to do more location centric stories.  I just give them a reason to go to a location and get into trouble.  They then rush there in a made attempt to murder and loot. 

It is a bit harder for me as my innate desire to want 'more' from that group can get me into trouble, like giving them a sentient Mimic house that they then feed vagrants to.  It also ensures that the meta-plot of a region on the verge of all out war between factions occupying their own regions is virtually ignored.  There have been four VERY important NPC's since the beginning of this group.  I think one, maybe two, of my PC's remember who they are.  I don't know why I have even bothered to give them motivations, subplots, or personalities.  They are mission drops for all intents and purpose.  Hell, one of my players treats them like that by verbally reminding me and the rest of the players of this fact.

That is why when I keep things pretty location centric, give them very direct A or B decisions they tend to be much more involved, phones end up being off more often than not, and the folks in the group who have the ability, and the sometime tendency, to go gleefully and creatively off the rails can drag the rest of the group kicking and screaming into FUN!  Thursday night Casual Doug, the intrepid Cleric and child murderer Chester Molester (it's pronounced Mole-ster), followed that horrific muse and things took an interesting and nasty turn.

Be aware, THIS is a hard R rated EVIL group.  They are amoral, greedy, nasty, and could easily be villains of the highest order in another campaign.  So if you don't like nasty stuff skip the next two to three paragraphs.  You've been warned.

The whole thing currently going on is the PC's are headed into an area of the world controlled by the Church of Asmodeus.  Basically, it is a Lawful Evil Theocracy that is slowly absorbing independent farming communities and loosely converting them.  The PC's are owed some magic items from the new head of the church after saving her ass and insuring her rival didn't make it out of an underground Duergar prison full of now awakened aberrations.  They are coming to collect.  The trip there has been sort of eventful as one of the Player's former characters accidently, or on purpose, awakened Cthulhu who is slowly rising from R'yleh.  I don't think the PC's really care about this apocalyptic scenario whatsoever. 

In their travel to the Church Of Asmodeus' lands I have repeatedly dropped OVERT hints that war is at the PC's doorstep, and attempted at times to prod them into picking a side to fight for, but you know that would require some forethought on their part so fuck it.  Instead they are led by their 'Wants', which in this case is to get paid.  They ran across an aberrant cult of Goblins and Trolls who were in the midst of summoning something nasty.  Some great tactical thinking ended that fight way faster than I had planned, but it was well done.  Next up they had a member fall asleep on a watch, get kidnapped by some human cultists, and almost sacrificed to a Moon Beast.  That fight was a bit rougher for them, but in the end they again prevailed.

Which led me to the last stop on the way to 'The Lootz!'  The farthest village from the Asmodian Church's stronghold is in bad shape.  The Church officials sent to pacify the peasants and control the town have been killed one by one, and now a young Priest is all that is left.  He pleads to the PC's who of course shake him down for 'MOAR LOOTZ(!)'.  There is of course something Lovecraftian afoot for the PC's to uncover.  The way they stumbled into this was Casual Doug going SO far off into his own character's motivation that things were forced to occur.  I had planned for a family to come to the PC's and attempt to get them to exercise their daughter, who originally was just going to be pregnant with one of the dead Asmodian Priest's babies.  Once Casual Doug got going on his desire to child murder, including telling the family he could 'take care of this pregnancy', things took off.  I scrapped my plans and had her be impregnated with aberration, which almost ate Doug's hand when he put his hand in her.  Yup.  This infected him.  The PC's where approached by the young Priest to simply put everyone in the town to the sword and burn the place to the ground.  This is as simplistic a write up of what happened as possible.  The PC's had an interesting debate about doing this, Doug got to continue his horrific child murdering streak, and in the end the Neutral PC's had an alignment shift.  After the wanton slaughter, subsequent village burning, salting of the Earth, and religious consecration of the land the PC's and the lone Priest headed towards the Asmodian stronghold.  The whole time ready to kill one another.

This is Evil Murder Hobo-ism at its best and worst.  The worst is the wanton slaughter, almost childlike glee at just causing destruction.  The best is when the PC's DO have to make moral decisions, work together, and when some of them get so wrapped up into their character's issues, wants, and personal plans that it drives the story into a place I never would have imagined.  A lot of people talk about how Evil Groups are not sustainable.  I disagree.  If you have a group that understand each other's awfulness and are ok being massive enablers, cooperating in order to get the best loot/results possible, and not regressing into maniacal egocentric planning revolving around killing each other then it can TOTALLY work.  For me it does once a month on Thursday nights.

Sunday I got back behind the screen for 2nd Group.  This is mostly my Pirate-lite group.  I had taken a hiatus while one player had a baby, and another decided to DM, and did so brilliantly.  I was asked to take back over and decided to mush his story threads with my own and let the PC's either use the characters they were playing with me or with the other DM.  So we had a nice mix of PC's.  I think what you have to understand about 2nd Group is that it is one of the most egalitarian groups I have.  There is no central voice of leadership.  They have a Captain, but they don't seem to really follow his orders.

They had a crew mate who double crossed some people while moving a 'package', a polymorphed Eladrin Princess in the form of a Unicorn, into the city.  They needed to find out just who he had screwed over, where he went, and get that 'package'.  I knew I was in trouble early when the party split into three.  I don't mind the party split.  In fact I like it.  It allows me jump back and forth and run the game far more like a game powered by the Apocalypse.  It doesn't work as much though when certain players have NO patience for gathering any intel. 

2nd Group has some good role players in it, but it also has that just below the surface desire to engage in some SERIOUS hack n' slash.  So once the PC's has reassembled after some VERY good intel gathering and some very contentious intel gathering they made their way to an area of the city walled off and guarded due to an Undead plague some 300 years ago.  They bribed their way into the wall.  I figured we'd finally be at a point where everyone would be simultaneously engaged.

WRONG!  See the thing this group has a LOT of going on not at the table.  There are a LOT of distractions.  These things happen, Real Life > D&D Life.  I don't mind them.  However, when cascades into a situation where other PC's just find far more interest in their phones, in grumbling about physics in a fantasy world, and then just out and out game sabotage.  I get a bit frustrated.  And frustrated DM's are not fun.  At all.

The first combat encounter was the PC's in varying levels of rancid water being attacked by 2 Marsh Giants, one of which who was wearing a large Cloaker as a cape.  This fight was nasty.  I thought it challenged the PC's quite a bit, but wasn't insurmountable.  And while it took some time the end result was never really in doubt for me.  It isn't my job to kill PC's.  It is my job to give them challenges and let them do their things.  If it ends badly then that's on them, or the dice. 

After this skirmish, some NPC's who wanted the 'Package' they had paid for back finally caught up with the PC's.  I figured at this point the PC's would negotiate, or hide, or something else.  They were facing off with 3 NPC's of unknown powers or abilities being backed up by a ton of visible zombies.  I hinted that there were more behind, hidden by a 'fog of war'.  In addition, I made it clear that out of the 3 NPC's only one was even human or alive.  So what did my PC's do?

They attacked of course.  The combination of boredom, phone stealing focus, chaotic nature, and player hubris kicked in and off we went.  That's when I plopped down the Cadaver Collector and Devourer behind the NPC's.  Both of which are large Undead monsters who have well over 100 Hit Points apiece.  What PC's sometimes don't understand is they aren't the only bad asses in their world.  Sometimes you run into folks, monsters, NPC's who are higher level than you and they are under NO moral compunction to put up with your shit.  At that point reality started to set in for some of the PC's who realized this was indeed a fight not everyone would be walking away from.  And it would not have.

I was irritated enough that the TPK, 'Total Party Kill', option was on the table for me.  The kvetching had reached a fever pitch, the distractions were numerous and often, and the table vibe was so poor I was fine just offing all who didn't run.  This isn't a good place to be creatively, and more importantly it isn't fun.  The PC's attempted to deceive the leader of the Undead, and it only worked due to a critical success on a deception roll.  This bought them 24 hours.  The session ended and I was both fuming and incredibly tired.

There is the big difference from a mediocre session that becomes great, even legendary, and one that devolves into such a quagmire of utter failure that it makes me want to not run anymore.  The investment of the players, their creativity in the moment, the desire to be involved in the storytelling in a cooperative, and not antagonistic, way with the DM is what helps makes that difference.  It is what makes me chomp at the bit to get back to the table with those folks and see where it all is going to go.

I just wish the PC's understood is that DMing is work.  I want my games to be memorable, fleshed out, interesting, connected, and engaging.  I therefor refuse to settle for running games with no prep, no story, and no tangible direction.  I leave things very open ended so the PC's steer the narrative, but give it enough structure so the PC's have a reason to 'Do'.  When there is no engagement, no investment, and the game is now the 5th most important thing going with that player in that moment it ceases to really matter to them.  When it ceases to matter to them, it then ceases to matter to me.  That is not a good combination. 

Every time I attempt to engage most of my players into running themselves it is fascinating how quickly they wilt.  Running D&D is a labor of love.  First of all you have to want to entertain your players and put their fun in front of yours.  You are there to facilitate their good time.  Secondly, you have to prep.  I spend about three to five hours per group a month in prep and clean up.  Yup, that's right on the low end average I spend 12 hours a month JUST on getting D&D ready for my regular monthly groups.  That doesn't take into account the four to seven hours a month per group of actual play time.  On the low end that is another 16 hours.  So that is 28 hours a month on D&D.  D&D built to entertain others. 

I don't mind this time spent, as it is a wonderful opportunity to stretch my imagination and entertain my Friends.  What I do mind is when things go so far off the rails that all that work feels like a complete and total waste of my time.  This gets magnified when I realize I don't get to play games anymore.  I just run them.  It can begin to feel a lot like work and not fun.  I am afforded the luxury of playing with amazing people in every group.  That, however doesn't mean every session is going to be good, enjoyable, or even tolerable.  It doesn't need to be.  Just like it doesn't need to be so frustrating that it makes me not want to play again.  With anyone.  Ever.

Of course that is hyperbole.  The session wasn't good, at all, but it wasn't my worst.  It just feels like a waste.  For me it is back to the drawing board to try and find a way to get my players back, get them reinvested, and get them involved in making something out of the nothing that session was.  That however won't fall on me, and it won't fall on the PC's, it'll fall on all of us together.  We fail together, and we succeed together.

I for one want more successes like 3rd Group....With less child murdering....


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