Of all of the things that happened at the game last night, at least the story thread didn’t fall apart. I’ve been running this game with the intent of getting the players to a specific place, and seeing what they do with it. There’s the intent to bring drama to the adventure along the way, and have to have the characters make some decisions that they might not want to make, which as a DM I feel is part of essential character development. So that they’re mostly keeping to the story that I’m producing is a good thing. I guess.

To provide a quick introduction to the story: While on a search for her missing sister, a House Canith artificer finds the remaining parts of an artifact that her sister hastily let behind, and begins to unravel an ancient mystery. The church of the silver flame has issued a command to the cleric and paladin that are her temporary companions, to stick with her and make sure that she makes the right decisions that do not upset the balance of the world, or else “do what needs to be done”. The search for her sister and the missing component of the artifact she’s collecting have led the party - including a wizard and an archivist - across Thrane in the continent of Korvaire, Eberron.

Our first session was decent. Aboard a flying ship, besieged by ground forces with specialized reaving equipment, the players defended themselves. It was an interesting scenario, and it had them escaping from the Mournland, which is plenty of a relief to begin with. One nice thing to note about this scenario is that it was very free-form on the part of the players. They relied on their abilities, sure, but the most fun and creativity was gained from trying to do extraordinary things that aren’t really covered by what skills the players have. “Push people overboard” may technically be covered by the bull rush rules, for example, but it’s a lot more dramatic to watch the heaving deck toss NPCs about and allow the players to use that momentum to carry them overboard. The bottom line is that the fun from the action was derived not entirely from extensive journals of what the character is capable of, but from paying attention to what’s going on around them.

As a DM, you must take into account how your players have fun if you are to produce a game that they enjoy. If you try to produce a game that is very story-driven and the players are primarily war-gamers who are interested in miniatures and tactics, you’re going to disappoint everyone. So during the last game session, I tried to give the players a bit of what I know they’ve been clambering for: A shopping trip.

They’ve come back from a mine with many riches, and want to spend them. Only natural. I made the mistake of trying to turn the shopping trip into an adventure. I put a large marketplace in the town they arrived in immediately after exiting the Mournland, and set up some story hooks for a couple things that would bother them during the trip. There was an auction. Here’s a weird failing. Of all of the things that could have happened during the auction, the players were so uninterested in the process that their distaste rubbed off on me, and I didn’t bother doing any of the neat things that could have happened during the auction. This was the overarching sentiment I picked up on during the session. “Why can’t we just pick what we want out of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and continue with the game?”

But that’s just the beginning of the session, and when I had finally had enough of trying to have a “shopping adventure” with them, I sent them to a graveyard meeting via a note that they found on a child thief. In the graveyard, a seller of poisons set his wares on a table for those willing to make a purchase. I expected there to be combat, because the party is good and selling poison is evil. But this “shopkeeper” wasn’t all that complex. If things turned bad, he would simply kick his wares at the players and make a run for it, which makes things interesting because of the types of poison that he’s selling.

We got to that point. The bad guy kicked the poisons at the players, who I should mention are nearly immune to most of the poison or could cure their ill effects mostly by sneezing. Somehow along the way, I skipped one of the players, the paladin who initiated the combat session by drawing his sword and calling foul in the first place. I told him he could insert his turn. So what does he do? He kicks the table of poisons back at the shopkeeper. While I’m willing to concede that this could be an idea that he had on his own, the explicit drawing of the sword and threatening seems counter to that. But whatever. I’m left thinking that if you derive your enjoyment of play from essentially cheating, then maybe you should just enjoy the game.

This lends to a thought that I’m having about the sessions more often, which is that I’ve put a decent amount of effort to make the encounters interesting in their own right. In prior games and sessions, it has been all about what high level monster would face the party. These sessions, while technically challenging, aren’t very interesting. I’m not recalling that interesting session where we took down yet another high-HD monster whose name is irrelevant and whose presence really had nothing to do with the overarching story. Could we reasonably find that monster in the place we found it? Sure. But just because it could be there doesn’t mean it is. I dislike that kind of adventure. I want the story to have purpose, and I don’t believe that purpose is mutually exclusive with challenge. It just takes a bit more effort.

Also, I’m interested in keeping the challenge rating low by the numbers, because in the past, merely to compensate for the (I guess you could call it) ingenuity of the players, the monsters needed to be 2 levels higher than the players just to offer a challenge. The end result is players that level too fast, and a game that accelerates beyond control. I don’t care if we do only play once per month, leveling up once per session is too fast. It’s hardly time to become familiar with the skills you have, and certainly not enough game time to actually learn a new skill. It shouldn’t be possible to level up from one or two random monster encounters!

The bottom line is I’m trying to make the encounters more interesting by introducing elements that would complicate things that are not necessarily your standard happening, and by doing so, stretch out the number of encounters between levels. This is the basis for the poison encounter I’ve described. Undoubtably, I’ll be characterized as the DM that doesn’t ever allow players to level up. Well, when they’ve had the requisite number of encounters between levels (the book says 13, and that’s what I’ve been trying to build), then you can level up. That they’ve only had 3 total encounters during my entire run as DM should be an implication that there is no level advancement yet. All of this is yet just the setup for the troll session of last night.

I envisioned an encounter made difficult for the players by employing certain specific factors. First, I wanted to negate some of the problem caused by the go-to spell Blade Barrier. This party does not use the spell defensively, as even the name implies. It’s meant to create a magical, spinning-blade barrier between the protectees and the creatures that threaten them. Instead, it’s become an area-of-effect blender. I’ve got a new repertoire of countermeasures for the barrier, and one of them is the troll plus ochre jelly combination.

I didn’t want to end it there, though, because if the spell doesn’t come out (it didn’t), then that would be slightly anticlimactic. So I came up with the idea to hide some trolls in a treeline close to a rushing river. When the players come by, the trolls surprise them by leaping from the trees at the most stout of the group and bull rushing them into the river beyond. Depending on the strength of the character attacked, this could be difficult. To do so, it requires that the strength check is 5 higher than the target for each 5 feet they’re intended to be pushed. With some hefty bonuses from size and charge, I was just able to pull this off with the paladin, and managed to hit the artificer (no contest in the bull rush) with the other troll. So at least that part went well.

I guess the problem with what happened next was mine in assuming that the players would recognize this as something planned. An encounter that is designed to make it harder by putting them in the water to do it. Because the paladin activated boots of speed, took a full attack plus the haste attack, then spent an action point to attack again, and used his Smite Evil ability twice. Because he was completely submerged in water, he took…. no penalties.

I really get tired of it. Shouldn’t there be a penalty? Yes. There is a table. Can you move at full speed underwater without free action? No. What are the damage adjustments? Who knows. I couldn’t be bothered to argue any more. I think it’s pretty clear that if your players don’t actually want to role play, and want to simply ignore any rules that might prevent them from slaughtering everything in the first round, that you’re dealing with a different kind of player, one that requires a different kind of game than the one I’m running.

This begs the question: What would my kind of player do? He would assume that there is a penalty for being underwater in a raging river wearing full plate and self-impose penalties or at least assume that taking a full attack action doesn’t deal full damage… or something. I realize that the game has rules to be followed. But just because a rule doesn’t exist or is unclear for a certain situation doesn’t mean that there is no effect. The game may have no rule for having boulders fall on you from the sky, but that doesn’t mean you ignore the potential effects when that happens!

Fine, whatever, there’s no point to continue arguing about it. This one action is dragging on forever and there are other players who might want to actually play the game. Sure, obliterate this poor CR8 troll, whose sole purpose was to drown you, before he even gets to take a non-surprise action. All the while, be sure to complain that you didn’t even get a spot check to see him coming, and that sometimes the DM wants things to happen so they just do. Call out “Plot point” several times during the game. That’s not annoying at all. And then it happens again.

Dear artificer, you’re not using spells with a verbal component underwater are you? No. But there is a material component. Oil! Where are you keeping this oil? In a jar. I guess there’s some weird impression that when you cast a spell with a material component, the jar just magically drains as the component is used. No. It doesn’t work that way. Let’s have a look at that spell…

I don’t recall the name of the spell today. It basically grants any +1 armor bonus to an armor. That part seems fine, but I think the power applied to the armor (“Armor of the deep”, which grants freedom of movement, waterbreathing and tongues to the wearer) is more than the standard +1 that should be applied. Regardless, you’re putting oil on armor underwater in water that’s moving 50 feet per round. Also you’re wearing armor that is made of wood and floats, so how is this even happening at a touch range? Whatever. I give up.

I think the thing that is escaping the players is that it’s a water encounter, it’s supposed to affect them. They’re supposed to figure out how to deal with it. It’s not just some other condition that they can shrug off, which is what seemed like happened.

It’s not really worthwhile to go on at length about the number of other acts of rampant disregard for the environment in which the story is supposed to be taking place. Suffice to say that there were plenty. I’m impressed with the newcomer’s use of his archivist to role-play, though.

The clincher for me, with this game, is this. The party finally gets to town and I’ve set up things in such a way that someone specific in the town is going to have to be sacrificed. Everyone’s upset because of the word “sacrifice”, basically. But rather than deal with the situation as I’ve laid it out, it’s almost as if every effort must be taken to circumvent the scenario. No guys, the scenario is that the girl is thrown in to the cave, the cave which only opens when the girl is sacrificed and happens to be where you want to go. Sending for higher-level magic help isn’t going to happen. Replacing the girl with someone else isn’t going to happen. It’s this girl. Just roll with it. Ugh.

But the archivist, in non-characteristic role-playing for our group (he hasn’t been tainted by playing with us for so long) convinces this girl that she needs to come back and be the sacrifice. There is something odd about her, and I know he knows it, but he’s playing it close to the vest. That’s all fine. But then when the rest of the party arrives, it’s simply assumed that she’s some waif needing saving. They didn’t hardly look at her or try to figure her and her odd attitude out. Yes, it seems strange, but we’re still going to turn her to stone (an act that’s somewhat difficult to come back from, I might add) and leave her here, never mind that she might actually need to be a live sacrifice to get the magic of this cave opening to work at all. And boy, would you be in trouble if that was the case, since I sincerely doubt you’ve memorized Flesh to Stone, since you’re gearing up for combat with who-knows-what inside the cave!

I think this characterizes my frustrations with the group well. This isn’t the only time this happens. I would think they’d notice that I reward - significantly - when players think outside the box. The numbers on the paper should be the last resort. They’re where you go when you need to figure out something random and fair. And at no point am I biased toward what scenario I’ve constructed when characters try to come up with something interesting. But when you fall back on the numbers, that sucks. That’s not the game I want to play. I want to tell a good story, and I want there to be entertainment, and I guess what I’m saying is that I’m tired of putting together detailed story and scenarios to have the fun bits unidentified, ignored, and sometimes outright ridiculed (“Plot point! DM wants it to happen so it just does! Nothing we can do! Plot point!!!”) for want of the type of adventure where the next uber-power monster comes along and they slay it. Go play a video game, if that’s what you want.

So what’s the bottom line here? I’m retiring from D&D. I’ll give the game until the end of this story, and then I’m through. I’ve been complaining about these players for ages; about how they don’t share my style of play. Making the game fun for them as a DM makes the game not fun for me, and it’s too often not fun for me as a player in the games that they do enjoy. Looking back at it, it perplexes me why I’ve even hung around this long. But I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of the play style that doesn’t suit me. I’ve had enough of some of them showing up at 7-8 for a game that’s supposed to start at 5, getting through a single encounter and having to call it quits for the evening, even though we play only once a month.

When your inclination is to start yelling at players who won’t play along, and you’re concerned that you’re simply going to be bludgeoned with rules every time you lay down a scenario with the purpose of doing something new and interesting, it’s just not worth it. I know one of these players has walked out of games when the rules aren’t run to the letter. I don’t run the rules to the letter. I allow for drama. He’s within his rights not enjoy that kind of game. I’ve simply reached the end of the line in what I’ll tolerate.

This probably means that I’ll be retiring from D&D altogether. The likelihood of finding a new group and cultivating it is very low. That’s kind of a shame. I told Berta when I got home last night that I should teach the kids to play, and then we can play at home. That seems like a worthwhile way to both get my fill of fantasy and spend time with the kids.