This game diary is going to focus almost exclusively on how I got things wrong in this game session. I will discuss: 1. Providing too many details. 2. Revealing too much. 3. Overuse of hirelings. 4. Railroading.
Jabari Rajul-min Alshrq, Human Monk 2/Cleric 1 (class and a half) of Horus
Magnus, Gnome Druid 3 of Belenus
Malcolm, Human Wizard 3/Bard 1 of Arcanus
Homonoea, Dragonslayer 2 of Athena
Ser Sanwyche, Human Paladin 3 of St. Agathos
Gwar, Half-Orc Barbarian 3 of Crom
Rok, Half-Orc Fighter 3 of Crom
Anne, Elf Rogue 3/Cleric 2 of Laeroth Mestarine
Thorthic Norain, Dwarven Barbarian/Cleric of Thor
Three “Axe for Hire” Dwarves of Dumathoin
Three “Wayfinder” Dwarves of Dumathoin
Game Session Diary:
In the adventure the players descended more than 200 feet down a nearly vertical shaft with the help of dwarven hirelings that made use of stalls as platforms to assist the PCs get to the bottom. They then had to pass through a large chamber where the lower portion was filled with deadly methane gas. They then entered an audience chamber where grimlocks were listening to their leader speak. Under the protection of a silence spell, characters moved in silently and destroyed the 3 leaders and their 30 followers with relative ease. Since grimlocks are blind and use sound and smell to navigate, the silence spell rendered them deaf and “blind” and an otherwise challenging battle was resolved quickly. So, what went wrong? I will reflect upon that below.
GM Reflection on Errors Made
As today’s session came to an end and I was going to ask my players (as I always do) what they thought of it. I expected some minor issues to be brought up. I was aware that I had done too much talking, that I had spent too much time describing things in order to try and provide rich detail to immerse the players in the environment, and that some parts were a bit to railroad-y. What I didn’t realize was that all those were indeed issues, but several players thought they were a lot more worse than I thought. Let us go through what I got wrong and try and discover why (I hope that I can learn from this, and if this has happened to you as a GM, perhaps it can be a reminder to try and avoid these things).
1. Providing too many details and over using hirelings
I have been watching a lot of mining exploration videos on YouTube (a link to a great channel called Abandoned and Forgotten Places is provided in the caption above). I have been using screenshots from some of these videos to provide visual examples of what the players see while they explore. At the very beginning of the session I was discussing stalls and how they were used in caves at a point when the players had to descend a 200 foot near vertical drop. Here were a couple of thoughts expressed regarding that (I am paraphrasing):
a. “It is nice that you love mine exploration, and some of the details were interesting to learn about, but you went into far too much detail that I just didn’t care about. We should know what is necessary to engage in the adventure.” It seems that my current obsession with mine exploration has gone a little too far, and my explanations were too detailed and long-winded. I need to curb my enthusiasm on some subjects and keep it confined to the essentials.
b. Over use of hirelings. In my Barrowmaze group all my players use two characters, in this group only about half the players do, and a few of them expressed the opinion that we could make use of hirelings to expand the resources and capabilities for the group. I love the use of hirelings and since I have not really used them much since my AD&D 1E days, I happily supplied six dwarven miners to help the group out. It now seems clear that six was too many. The challenge I presented of having the players descend a vertical shaft with ropes became relatively easy when I had dwarven miners at each stall assisting the PCs in their descent. Although players did fail some of their climb checks, because there were so many safety measures in place most characters just got scratches of 1-4 hit points in damage per fall to the next stall. I made things too easy. Since the group doesn’t have any dwarves or characters with mining backgrounds in the group, without the hirelings the challenge level to climb down would’ve jumped substantially, and instead of only needing to cast one cure light wounds spell on one player after the descent, there would probably have been a lot more injured characters. But it was stated that “without the dwarven miner hirelings, I think we would’ve found a solution to climb down on our own even if we were a bit more roughed up.”
2. Revealing too much.
Earlier this week in my Barrowmaze campaign, I described one point in the adventure where the players spent 20 minutes trying to solve a puzzle. I almost intervened to assist them several times, but just as I was about to do so a player would nearly come up with the solution, so I would back off, only for them to veer in a different direction. After the game the players expressed real annoyance at that room and the setup (they blamed the game designer for making such a “dumb” way to design a room, but I suspect some of that was meant for me but they were too polite to say so).
Since that game session was still so fresh in my mind, I chose in this session to try and make up for that by being a more helpful GM. The problem is that I now moved too far in the opposite direction and used the dwarven hirelings to pretty much tell the players everything they needed to know. The players didn’t really need to solve much at all. I was just handing them information in chunks. One comment to me was that I should only give reasons or explanation when it is asked for and not just freely give it out. That is a fair point. I have gone from one extreme of patiently waiting for my players to solve a problem to giving them a steady flow of easy answers so as to make the challenges nearly trivial. I need to work to find that middle-ground point again.
Finally, we have railroading. In several places I gave the players a false sense of choice. This held true most strongly in the large chamber with the low-lying methane gas. They were all prepped to extinguish their fire sources, hold their breath, and have the dwarven miners and half orc party members lead them through the dark, when abruptly there was the “option” to climb up a 15-20 foot area above the methane. So, a lot of prep for avoiding the methane became an unnecessary waste of time and effectively a non-problem.
So, as you can see, there were a lot of issues tonight. A conversation with one player lasted a good half an hour after the end of the game session as they laid out their issues and problems (with support from another player).
It wasn’t all doom and disappointment with my GMing, though, for I had a conversation with another player on Discord (this campaign is an online Discord game) for the next three hours discussing the challenges and triumphs of developing our individual campaign worlds (there is some overlap with what we are trying to do with our worlds, so we face similar challenges). I love discussing world-building!
Still, since I just spent almost this entire blog post examining mistakes I made, I haven’t forgotten the issues that need to be addressed. I’ve been DMing for decades (since AD&D 1E) and yet no matter how long you run games, you are going to have bad spells and stumble sometimes. I only hope I can find that middle-ground between extremes for my next Barrowmaze game in a few days!