Monday, August 3, 2015

The Middle Muddle

Learned some lessons today. Too many plot threads leads to none of them getting resolved. Second, quest hooks need to have a specific way to be solved. Leaving it wholly up to the players to resolve things can lead to an unsatisfying experience, and players leaving the game frustrated is something I aim to avoid. There has to be a way to determine in advance how quest hooks/plot threads can be resolved without railroading the players.

Before I get to that, however, I need to perform an autopsy. My last adventure fell flat, with many of the players unhappy with how the game went. Then again, most of my adventures the players tell me they had a good time so I guess it’s ok to roll a nat 1 once in a while. First off, I didn’t manage player expectations. They all thought they were heading to an evil wizard’s tower for a good dungeon crawl ending with a battle against said evil wizard in the hopes of curing a nearby city of disease. None of that happened.

Instead, they found a giant maze called the Sorcerer’s Knot. It was something I found online and genuinely thought it was such a clever idea for a dungeon. My thinking was after this quest, the players could revisit this dungeon for future keyed encounters. What I didn’t do was establish this beforehand with clues, making this a random surprise. When the party got the full gist of how large this dungeon truly was, they were overwhelmed. I also realized I hadn’t prepped it properly. I thought it came with encounters for each room, but on a close read right before play I realized this was really just a crazy dungeon map of a rubix cube. It was empty of encounters. Now I was screwed, dropping monsters at random from each room. Not only were the players overwhelmed, but I was as I tried to salvage this misadventure into some semblance of sense.

The players were getting frustrated, so I dropped in an npc to nudge them in the right direction. The heroes came up with a plan and found the wizard. He was an apprentice executing another villain’s plan, whom they pumped for info and swiftly killed. You might be thinking, why not give them a better encounter? My thought process at the time was that I wanted the reveal to be a false climax. I wanted the heroes to know they’d been duped. They’d given the quest giver (an evil count they suspected was a vampire and had screwed over a couple of times in the past) ample reason to do so, but I didn’t establish it. I didn’t drop any specific clues aside from the fact that the wizard’s tower was not quite a tower but a crazy maze, and that it was essentially run by a wizard of oz. I thought that was enough. It wasn’t. The players were completely blindsided.

So what did they do next? They split the party. One member of the group was so mad (not in character mad but actually mad) that he went right back to the quest giver and started a fight. Two of the party went with him and the other two went off somewhere else to follow up another quest hook. This was what I thought would be the climax. It was three 7th level characters against the Mage NPC stat block in the core books. They might have been able to pull out a win at half strength, but after doing some damage and freezing the npc in place they retreated.

I’m thinking, cool! The players not so much. They were annoyed. We had a discussion about it after the adventure. Everybody gave some input, and I think we reached a consensus.

Here’s what I learned. Too many plot threads on top of each makes the party frustrated. I need to keep quest lines in the next area they head to clearly differentiated. Next, I will no longer create keyed encounters or quest hooks that are truly open ended. While having a predefined way of completing a quest line or encounter won’t preclude the player’s from inventing their own solutions, it needs to exist in the first place. When I threw the knot at them, I figured after the players find the wizard they’d decide how to wrap things up. Which leads to my last take away.

Lastly, I’m going to properly manage player expectations. Completely blindsiding the party is a no no without ample clues. Although, whether they properly understand the clues or not is not my problem as long as I’m following the Three Clue Rule. For the next few sessions, at quest’s end I’m going to try a policy of asking the players what they think is going to happen in the next. These ought to help avoid unsatisfying resolutions in the future. Until next time.


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