Deep Master, Deep Issues: Reflections on Four Years of Dungeon Mastery

Last weekend, I finally managed to bring my D&D campaign to a close.  I started conceptualizing the story that became this campaign close to ten years ago, in a different city, with different ambitions.  It was part of my first serious attempt to be a Dungeon Master, after two previous games that devolved into high-powered absurdity.  It evolved hand-in-hand with the expansion of my campaign setting, a homemade version of the detailed worlds published for reference and inspiration.  The end of this long-running game gives me a lot to think about, including what to do with all this extra free time.  Somehow, I think I’ll find something.

My newness showed in those early days.  The complexity of 3.5E dovetailed neatly with my tendency toward obsessive planning, and I often had adventures written, complete with contingencies for characters making different decisions than anticipated, several levels in advance.  I had essentially no ability to improvise rule-heavy game events in those days, because I laboriously rewrote the statistics of every creature my adventuring party was to face into a format that helped me not forget their assorted fiddly capabilities or need to reference other books, and could not easily duplicate that without an hour or two of preparation.  I learned better acting skills for roleplaying encounters, because this party liked to talk to the creatures it encountered and I liked to write speeches and conversation snippets for them.  They wanted space to spin elaborate subplots about sibling relationships and (with different characters) complicated, forbidden romances between themselves, and I reveled in their enthusiasm.  Taking their cues, I arranged for plot arcs to hinge on succubae infiltrating organizations that were helping them, going as far as to seduce multiple player characters in the process.  Smaller plot points stepped away from the main plot to briefly highlight, for example, the love affair between a non-player gnome scientist and a non-player mind flayer engineer who had both been helping the PCs.  She wanted to understand his alien world as fully as she possibly could, and he obliged her by learning how to use the transformative power of his own larvae—which could take over and transform humanoid bodies to make new mind flayers—to grant her a mind flayer body while preserving her mind.  This new form of mind flayer reproduction (in which she was, in beautiful aberrant creepiness, both daughter and wife) enabled the pair to breed living symbionts for the characters to use later, which themselves became enduring parts of the PCs’ arsenals and strategies.

That campaign eventually fell apart in explosive acrimony, which had more to do with the state of my personal relationship to one of the players than anything else.  Before that, I learned a tricky lesson about railroading characters through events in a specific order, as the combination of school pressures and higher levels prevented me from planning far into the future anymore and I eventually pushed my players into taking a specific course because I wasn’t prepared for the digression they wanted.  That lesson stuck, and I made a point to, the next time around, be far more supportive of character decisions that radically altered the course of adventures, up to and including decisions that would neutralize multiple future combats in advance.  I also learned, hard, not to play high-level 3.5E ever again, as the combinations of options at my players’ disposal enabled several of them to take on entire encounters individually, without any help from their allies, in one turn; or render the entire party immune to all enemy attacks, over and over.  My response to their talents was also unhelpful.  I laboriously hand-built plot-important set-piece battles, and rather than developing clever responses to the players’ talents, I made all of the numbers bigger.  Impossibly, frustratingly bigger.  Some players began to feel their characters were useless in a pinch and everyone eventually felt grim and drained, as cleverness became more and more irrelevant against the need for ever-higher attack and damage rolls.  Players would devise clever solutions to unimportant encounters that ended them in moments, and I’d get around them with rule-legal but story-wounding defiance that forced them into longer, far less interesting battles.   Sometimes, I just flat-out ignored whatever the character who was one-shotting whole encounters did in their first turn, because I knew they couldn’t do it again until the next encounter.  On one occasion, these tendencies combined to instantly kill all but one character, a scenario so pointlessly harsh that we ended up inventing a different outcome for that encounter and moving forward with a full party.

At the very end, I switched the game more-or-less unilaterally to 4th-edition rules, while the ruleset was still new.  That didn’t save it.  This removed most of the issues posed by the high level of the game, because the system was still too new to have developed them for itself, but it introduced a new set of problems related to the new characters being poor reflections of their 3.5E predecessors.  Eventually, the game fizzled within a few encounters of its erstwhile climax, and I didn’t play again until after I left the country.

I very carefully didn’t join a new D&D group right away when I came to Ottawa.  I knew that this game would rapidly occupy far too much of the social energy I needed to meet new people, so I instead kept myself in pastimes, such as salsa, that exposed me to new faces regularly.  Ania convinced me to resume my DMly responsibilities, and a new group came together around me.  This group, like the one before it, had scene-hogging hams and ruthless combatants and people who weren’t sure quite what they wanted out of the experience.  Managing all of their interests was not a simple matter, and I still feel bad sometimes for the folks whose time at the table was so routinely filled with plot-irrelevant but entertaining roleplay in which the characters engaging with the plot refused to participate.  I think they felt neglected, and I did not respond effectively to their signals that they wanted to feel more important.  The character who became obsessed with a specific subplot and had his character take up private study elsewhere whenever the game’s focus moved away from that subplot probably getting on people’s nerves, as well.  (The game actually featured two plots unfolding in alternating adventures, as two different mastermind enemies manipulated the PCs to their sometimes-conflicting ends, and the conflict between them became more and more obvious as the manipulations progressed.)

A house fire and the resultant loss of most of our kit, plus the growing personal discontent between most of the players, led to that game being shelved and, eventually, restarted with an entirely new cast (other than me and Ania).  I placed this iteration at approximately the same point in the plot at which the previous group left off, to keep the plot moving. The new players meant that many of the hooks I had laid during the previous set had no further chance to trigger flashes of recognition, so they were discarded. Instead, I periodically introduced the previous characters into the story as foils for these new characters, almost always as antagonists who had been captured and magically altered into forces for evil.

This group was more focused on mechanics than story.  They weren’t complete powergamers like some of the previous people I’d played with, but their relative interest in personal narrative versus combat was much lower than the group I played with in Miami.  This induced a slow dissociation within the group, as the minority more interested in exploring narrative elements than fighting battles found less and less space in which to do so.  Sadly, I wasn’t the best predictor of what that minority wanted, and sometimes failed to pick up on their desires well enough to make the game fulfill them.  Disgracefully, the others rarely paid attention to these exchanges at all, seeing them as distractions from the “real” action even when they repeatedly showed themselves later to be of utmost plot relevance.

This group slowly expanded, as my game’s reputation as an interesting and well-run place spread to friends of each player.  As the campaign’s final antagonists became confirmed, however, the structure of the game changed.  There wasn’t much investigation left, and the players’ steadily increasing power and resources meant that they could rapidly gather any remaining information they needed without questing after it for long periods.  The game became much more combat-heavy, which suited most of the players just fine and further alienated others.  This did not combine well with the game’s increasing complexity as higher-level powers came into play and new content swelled the number of possible combinations people could claim as their own.  As combat rapidly became the focus of the remaining plot, each instance also took longer, until individual combat encounters could take an entire session and part of the next one.  I never lost my ability to intersperse generalized weirdness and confusion between combat events, which demanded that PCs interact with it in various ways, but it became harder and harder to make space for such events in between the ever-increasing time combat required.

At the urging of a clever player, I made some behind-the-scenes changes to the game’s math to keep things moving without sacrificing difficulty.  (For the curious, the suggestion was to double all of the damage totals—the damage the player characters dealt and the damage the monsters dealt.  The former made combat faster, the latter kept it dangerous for the characters.  I also similarly doubled monsters’ resistance and regeneration values, so that these would still matter, but didn’t double the healing or resistance of the PCs, because the first encounter with these new rules amply demonstrated that such aid was not necessary.)  This succeeded in reducing the time combat required by several hours at a stretch, but didn’t make it less complicated.  I was still more-or-less at my limit trying to balance a group of very different personalities with different tastes, while running ever-more-involved monsters and resolving ever-more-advanced attacks on and by them.  I still tried to respond to any roleplay that I was given in amidst these melees, but I didn’t have any presence of mind left to try to incite it.

Indeed, by the last session, the lavish boss monster I wrote ended up being hamstrung by a series of rather foolish design decisions I made, which I should have foreseen as problems and remedied well before they became the problems they ended up being.  Mavad’Nidhuned the First Aboleth, known to the PCs for most of the campaign by the code name “the Deep Master” and intent on returning the cosmos to the antediluvian state it and its fellow aboleths once called home, took a while to bring down, but didn’t need even half of what this party could have brought against it.  That didn’t stop one player from griping about how their powers were less effective than they wanted or that the campaign’s long-anticipated capstone villain was hard to hit, while others took the challenge in stride.  Mavad’Nidhuned got to be a ham in the prelude to the battle, taunting the PCs with long, florid speeches about the similarities between them and its eagerness to meet them.

I’m not sure that relative ease was a bad thing.  We were all tired that day, and not just by the four years prior leading up to this moment.  A battle that demanded all of the players’ artifact powers and such would also, likely, have dragged on several more hours, and neither our host nor our various energy levels was up to that task.  Yet I’m somehow unsatisfied that this battle didn’t become a wholly engrossing, minute-by-minute showdown that pushed the characters to their limits, nor did it feature continuous repartee between the scenery-chewing abomination that had been toying with them for years and those who would defeat it.

It never turns out like the movies, does it?

I know a few things I have to watch a bit better for my next go-round.

I have to have shorter plots, because I’m well past the age where I can count on a group of friends with jobs and families to all be around often enough to make a large one work.

I have to avoid high levels, because no ruleset seems to have quite figured out how to make them different in only good ways from low levels, and I don’t seem to cope well with that difference.

I need to learn some tricks for balancing players with very different tastes who still like each other enough to want to be part of the same group.

I need to tame my tendency to make plots that overwhelm characters’ own interests and goals, to diversify my storytelling options if nothing else.

I need to find someone else to roleplay my NPCs for me, because holy mother of all that is unholy do my NPCs all start to sound alike even when they’re not meant to.

And I think next time, I’ll write a different story, now that I’ve finally told this one.

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