The dragon went as expected - but what, really, could the party do? They had decided to climb above the treeline, so they were exposed on the mountain side when they destroyed the mist giant. Destroying the mist giant alerted the dragon, so it was natural that the dragon was going to hit them when they were exposed. They did their best - they hit it with bows and magic, depleted half the dragon's hit points in three rounds, during which the dragon breathed twice, soaking three party members in acid. Black dragon breath is notoriously narrow in dimension.
The worst thing - in my world at least - about dragons is not the damage, though that was meaningful: 120 hp total in an AD&D universe, as two players blew save and one made it. The worst thing is that everything the players are carrying has to save as well - and since dragon breath is magical, that means everything magical has to save as well.
The players lost: a +2 dagger, +3 vs giant creatures; two +1 rings of protection; one set of gauntlets of dexterity; and a wand of fire with 50 charges.
This post is not meant to be a war-story. It is about the circumstance. I predicted - as DM - that the players would fight the dragon, lick their wounds, then decide whether or not to go after it. They spent an hour deliberating their decision. For one thing, that much damage, plus whatever players were suffering from the giant, meant deciding how much healing to use. And how to gear up for the next revolution. And whether to go right away. And time spent recovering from loss.
Sometimes it isn't good to rush a party. They've got to have that time, they've got to consider how much more they can take, and if today is the day. They've got to be given a chance to argue over details and bemoan loss. They have to have room to be human.
I don't set an agenda for how much game I'm going to cover in a night. I think that's a mistake when it's done - unless, of course, the reader is playing a one off adventure that MUST be played because these people will never see each other again. Personally, I hate one-offs . . . partly for that reason. I enjoy that the party will get to play their next challenge, because - barring death - I will be here to run it for them.
Occasionally, I'll push the game forward; it doesn't do to languish if nothing is being said and the party is going around in circles. Gotta pick your moment. Gotta use your judgement in deciding when the party's banter is 'fruitful.'
Are they making plans? Good, leave them alone. Are they dealing with character details, debating positions, clarifying new skills or something they haven't used in a long time? Yes, fine, let them be, this is effective time spent. Are they bantering about something they'd like to do after the adventure, something that may not even happen for five or six months of real time? This is the best time to leave the players alone. What they tell each other now will help set a tone for long-range play and will help establish continuity in the overall campaign.
But are the players bickering over abilities? Fucking squash that shit. DO NOT ALLOW PISSING CONTESTS. This is going to be hard for many of you, because pissing contests are funny and sometimes it feels like players are just blowing off steam. What they're really doing, however, is building up a confrontational matrix for later disputes - its the sort of thing that leads to PvP or players arguing over whose magic items made who more powerful in the party.
Those gauntlets of dexterity and the +1 ring of protection had made the paladin's armor class -5. They had been gained individually three years of gaming apart, and certainly made the paladin nigh-indestructible when facing some creatures. But now they're gone. Some players, seeing that, would feel inwardly that the paladin had been reduced back to the level of an ordinary player - but what was heard around the table were apologies and regrets. That loss HURT. It doesn't need to be highlighted by someone who once lost a pissing contest with the paladin, whose been carrying a grudge.
Don't let the players crow; don't let them rattle off their statistics, pumping themselves up . . . and they will if you let them:
Why? Because it's pride, friend. Self-promotion inevitably leads to a string of other party-destroying actions. Player too involved with their own prowess . . . well, let's admit that there are some players that can't handle a 19 strength or an 18 charisma. Some players have principles far too weak for being an 11th level mage. With players like this, DMs must practice their sarcasm.
Yes, I wouldn't flat out tell a player, "Stop talking about yourself." But I will make it clear that I am not impressed. There are probably quite a few DMs who get a kick out of watching players strut around, enjoying the experience (there are a few too many DMs who strut around themselves). I don't like to see it, myself. Success isn't never a solo achievement. Those who think it is, or who indulge it, will see that pride break up a party.
Hm. I began talking about giving a party space to talk and wound up with shaming players when they annoy me. Well, I don't really want anyone shamed. I would rather see a bit of humility, particularly for those moments when some players get away without a point of damage because the dragon breathed on someone else. Wow, if I ever saw a player take a moment like that to dance on someone's shit - there's gonna be another dragon in the air, let me tell you.
For the players to win together, they've got to lose together.
Oh, yes, they did decide to go after the dragon.
The author, Alexis Smolensk, has been lately operating under stressful conditions and should be considered, at this time, under evaluation for several serious possible disorders.
Dr. E. Gee, Attending Physician