Sunday, June 24, 2018

Messing Up

Sometimes, as DMs we get things confused.  And as we confuse them ourselves, we transfer that confusion in messages to the party, which only confuses things further.  It has happened to everyone, and more often than we like.  It's simply a part of playing a complex game.

In writing out a part of the early Senex campaign [The Meyer Homestead], I have stumbled across just such a moment.  I'm going to try to describe why I lost the thread of what was happening, and how that was made worse by my failure as a DM to contain a player who was behaving erratically.

The scene takes place near a farmhouse, and begins with an oh-so-common problem.  The party is deciding who is going forward to see the farmhouse, and who is staying behind.  That is where the confusion begins ... with the post ahead of the one linked above [The Journey West].

It's the usual thing.  Players stating their intentions, and then changing their minds, without acknowledging the change and in general, using language which is not absolutely definite.  In this case, we have five characters: Anshelm, Delfig, Josef, Kazimir and Tiberius.  And so begins a dance that many a DM has had to face in many a game ~ and sometimes to the point where we are screaming at players to make up their minds.

We'll start with Tiberius.  During the exchange on The Journey West, Tiberius is non-existent.  Not a single comment.  Though this is a bigger problem in an online campaign, it certainly comes up at a game table often, as players don't show up for a particular session or show up an hour late, or a similar scenario.  It is expected for the other players to carry on, and for the late or absent player to fit into the game when he or she gets back.

That's what happened here.  The other four players set out to decide for themselves.

Next, Kazimir.  Here is a different problem.  Throughout the campaign, Kazimir's involvement was never peak.  His commitment to checking the campaign and posting his own participation was exceptionally lax.  He rarely commented at all, and when he did, the contribution could be easily dismissed.  His entire involvement in this decision amounted to only this:  "Kazimir is present.  His sling is ready with a stone in it. Ready to proceed."

As a DM, I should have demanded he make this more clear, since it absolutely does not say whether or not he decides to stay behind and protect the gear, or go ahead and approach the farmhouse (they're supposed to be goons, pushing the resident off the land).  But ... I had already given up on Kazimir.  In a month of posts, I'd seen about five comments, all like the above.  I frankly didn't care if he came or not.  I let it slide, and got myself into trouble.

At varying times in the flurry of comments that followed, I made up my mind at one point that he had gone ahead with the others; and at another point, I'd decided he stayed behind.  I never got it straight in my head ... and because I hadn't been running a blog campaign very long, I didn't try to get it straight.  DM Error #1.

Then there was Josef.  Gawd, Josef.  In Josef I had a player who was ready to say anything, then disagree with it in the very next comment.  Or ask questions about matters that had been resolved (along with his taking part in resolving it), only to open the matter up again as it made people think it wasn't resolved.  Mixed in with this was a tendency for Josef to just blather on about things that made no sense.  All this has an effect on me as a DM.  I stop listening.  I wind up, for good or ill, trying to get everyone sorted, expecting that once that's done I can get a final answer from someone like Josef.

During The Journey West post, Josef made a host of suggestions, to move into the trees and observe the farmhouse, to knock on the front door, to burn the farmhouse down ... which was fine, except that nothing that he said was answering anyone else's statements.  Josef was merely tossing out random words, not taking part in solving the problem, only adding other suggestions that, in turn, no one answered.

Finally, it was established that he would stay behind.  But then, with a sudden intention to run the game, Josef declared,
"... delfig and anshelm stelth-up forward to scout while me, kazimir & tiberius stay behind ..."

Players who set out to run other players are a problem.  I should have stomped on him for doing it, right then, but I didn't.  Again, I hadn't been running online much and since my next line was to say that "Kazimir and Anshelm were going forward, possibly with Delfig," I felt I'd sorted the situation.  And though neither Delfig nor Anshelm had made a plan to approach stealthily, except as a suggestion, they HAD said they were going to scout, so it was an honest mistake.  No problem. 

At this point, as I started writing The Meyer Homestead post, I had it in my mind that Tiberius and Josef were hanging back, with the dogsbody Ells that showed the party how to get to this place, and the other three were going forward.

Why do I say 'stomp'?

If you don't contain the bad habits of your players right out of the gate, those bad habits will fester and infect your whole game.  There are a host of bad habits that every DM faces ... and in my experience, that most poor DMs allow to fester.  Players who won't make up their minds, who declare what other player characters do, who set themselves up as the final authority, who speak but who do not converse, and finally who do not understand that sometimes it isn't appropriate to speak at all.

The only proper way to manage this is to make it clear, out loud, that we know what the player is doing, describing it in detail if necessary ... and then stating that we want the player to stop it.  And then, every time the player does it, call it out.  Make the player admit it.  And then, if there's no sign of improvement, boot the player.

A lot of people in role-playing games think that is excessive.  But imagine that we are playing soccer (or football, if you prefer); and the player repeatedly touches the ball, however slightly, with his or her hands.  Repeatedly.  In spite of it being pointed out and in spite of it being made clear that it doesn't matter how little you touch the ball with your hands ... It. Is. Wrong.  And if the player won't transcend that habit?  Then fuck yes, you boot the player from the game.  That's how every other game playing group treats the rules, whether it's soccer or pool or backgammon.  Don't fuck with proper etiquette.  Play the game appropriately.

I should have stomped on Josef but I didn't.  DM Error #2.

We can move onto The Meyer Homestead post now.  I've linked it again for convenience.

I've made it quite clear in my descriptions that the players are in a forest.  And I say that the cart track rises over a small spur, a mere 30 foot climb. The players, as is seen in many comments afterwards, seemed to think that the top of the spur was just 30 feet from where Josef was waiting.  The 30 foot climb was meant to be its vertical distance ... and since carts and most walkers don't like super-steep roads, it should have been understood that the real walking distance was much further, far enough that when the party reached the top of the spur, or ridge, where they could see the farmhouse below, it would be way far away from Josef ... too far for any kind of discourse between Josef and the others.

Picking up the new post, let's start again with Tiberius.  The player behind Tiberius had a tendency to forget to change nicks before commenting on the game ... and was unfortunately named "Joseph."  Early on, this similarity got some confused, particularly Josef that I've been discussing ... and at the beginning of the Meyer post this is how Tiberius comes back into the game, saying, "Can Tiberius cast Armor [the spell] before going?"

Notice: NO reference to the previous post; NO query regarding if it is too late.  Just the immediate assumption he can do whatever, despite not being here around.  I'm guessing some readers have encountered this before, too.  And it, too, is a bad habit and it too needs to be stomped.  Good manners, right?  But here we are, it's on a blog post, manners take time to write out and I'm just trying to get everyone on board ... so I just overlook it and let him cast Armor.  But it's not good DMing.  DM Error #3.

Whereupon Delfig and Anshelm get about the business of playing, when Josef, way back in the woods, mutters in a comment, "(back at the ranch ... 'you know Hund - beets are and aphrodesiac.  I suppose you know enough about that..." [edited for punctuation]
Now, I definitely should have stomped on that shit.  It's attention-seeking, it's drivel, it's a vague reference to the dogsbody Ells (who has trouble speaking, so it's insulting as well), and worst of all, Josef has no other players around him.

My immediate answer should have been, "Josef, you're not here.  Please keep the channel clear while we resolve what's happening."  Instead, I said nothing.  I supposed it was going to be a one-off comment and that it could be ignored.  Nope.  That was not the case.

As Anshelm decides to go around to look at the back of the homestead, Josef continues: "(back at the ranch) must rut like a dog ... mizer ever buy a woman for you Ells?  Eh?"

Again, more drivel. It's a reference to Johann Mizer, the NPC the party is working for, but it is flagrantly abusive and in poor taste.  It is distracting from what's actually going on ... and I would have probably stomped on it, except, almost right after, one of the other players, Delfig, writes, "OOC - Josef, yer crackin' me up!"

To which Josef replies, putting two comments together, "creepy ... ha ha.  Kazimir?  You up doing recon?"

And this starts two ricochets in my head.  First, that I don't want to stomp on Josef if he's making the other players laugh, which is just a goddamn stupid thought for me to have in my head as a DM. At a real table, there's no way I would go there ... but as I'm dealing with total strangers, on the internet, whose faces I can't read and whose commitment I can't count on, not this early in the game ... I find myself swayed by this.  I let it go and the situation proceeds to worsen.  DM Error #4.

The other ricochet is that I start thinking, at this point, that Kazimir is THERE, with Josef.  I haven't seen Kazimir make a comment and he almost never does, so I forget that I've put him up with the others above the homestead and suddenly, in my head, he's where Josef can talk directly to him.  Which he can't.  But I'm concentrating on the details surrounding the homestead, and what Anshelm is doing, and how annoyed I'm getting with Josef ... and that last detail slips in my thoughts.  It will come back to bite me later.  DM Error #5.

Then Anshelm makes an error.  When he gives up on the reconnaissance through the forest, he says, "Anshelm works back to where Josef and company are standing."  And then he adds a statement in quotes, which doesn't make sense unless he says it to Delfig, so ...

Now Anshelm is in two places.  He's gone all the way back to Josef, in which case Josef would have no idea what the hell Anshelm is talking about, or he's gone back to Delfig and the inclusion of Josef in that statement was an oversight.  An oversight probably brought on by Josef talking directly about stuff to the party, which wasn't possible but which I let go on.  And that only gets worse, as the floodgates open and Josef and the players just start chatting away at each other, with Josef making suggestions about what to do about the homestead and the other players answering and/or debating his ideas.

And where was I?  Messing up.  Seriously gawddamn messing up.

Josef, after that, goes completely off the reservation.  He starts talking about using "L" [by which he means the dogsbody, Ells] by killing the dogsbody and dropping the body in Meyer's yard as a threat, since there's no horsehead handy.  Next, while debating ideas with Delfig, Josef is suggesting they pretend to be travelling performers, with Josef juggling sling bullets.  Then he's back to berating the dogsbody again, talking about having a leash and collar, making Ells play fetch, then making a vague reference to a guild patch that Ells wears, as his master Joseph Mizer, the party's employer here, is a merchant.

Throughout some of this, Ells has been trying to warn the party that there are huge bombadier beetles in the forest, but as he has a speech impediment, he can only express these as "beet."  Josef designates Ells as a "beet-lover", and then becomes progressively more and more confusing in the comments section.

Reading this years later, it is just fucking weird.  As I parse through the various comments, which it was clear was all being read as humorous at the time (and which I remember was merely annoying, as I was trying to follow what the party was doing), I feel like the player behind Josef had some kind of ... mental deficiency.  This has become more and more clear as I have been editing the content of the campaign, and noticing how often Josef's comments are non-sequential and often irrational.

In the midst of this madness, even though I don't make a comment for quite a long time, Anshelm remarks on his coming back to where he is reunited (with no specific person named), while Delfig also assumes that Anshelm has worked his way back, presumably to join Delfig ... and I admit that I missed his return and ~ finally ~ I tell Josef to cut out the dreck.

Josef ignores me, at which point he decides to cast command on the dogsbody and kill him with a mace.  And I ... fuck, I don't believe it ... I just go along with it.

No doubt, I was thinking, "Well, it's his problem.  He can explain it to Mizer later.  I don't care."  But in fact, I should have cared, not because it was wrong to kill the dogsbody, which I don't care about, but because the whole sequence was clearly staged for the sake of getting attention.  Josef did not give a damn about any of the other players and was having a great time spoiling.  As I said, I should have stomped him; but I didn't, even when he "went crazy."  DM Error #6.

Which, viewed as a series of statements made and actions taken, it looks like.  Josef appears on the post to be a sociopath.  It's demented.

Hopelessly confused, I post, "Let me recap, then: Anshelm, Tiberius and Kazimir are watching Josef dragging the dead body of Ells into the woods, on the rise overlooking the meadow and homestead.
Delfig has been asked if he will wait while Frau Meyer fetches her husband."

Which is utterly, utterly wrong.  With all the chatter back and forth between the party and Josef, at one point Anshelm shouts, "What are you doing!?" as Josef kills Ells.  Josef answers, "He is a werewolf." [D&D munchkin cliche]  So I think they're actually talking, so I put Anshelm with Josef.  And Tiberius, because he hasn't said much since deciding at the top of the post to go along, and Kazimir, because he never says anything ... and the thread of the whole damn post is gone because I did not kick the ever-living shit out of Josef at the start.

DM Error #7, forgetting where everyone is.

Looking over the material, I see I didn't sort it out even with the next post, as there's a long discussion as people at a long distance from each other discuss how to explain the murder.  Strange.  In the back of my mind I always had a feeling that something had gone terribly wrong with the visit to the Meyer Homestead.  Now, looking at it in detail, trying to edit it, I see what that was.

All this post was written to explain, in my official rewrite of the events, what the hell went wrong.  It is my intention to clean up the campaign, and to link this post to it as a footnote.  I intend to get everyone in their right places, to eliminate illogical conversations and discussions, to return Anshelm to Delfig and keep Kazimir and Tiberius there as well, and to depict Josef as a raving, murderous lunatic.  I intend the edited version to make sense.

Some people, I know, will see that as "not the true face" of D&D.  I have another version.  In my version of "truth," Anshelm and Delfig were trying very hard to play well, at a game that mattered to them, in a manner that showed their commitment.  And three other players showed either a total lack of commitment or a maliciously selfish agenda that attempted to piss on everything that was happening.

I know which players' content I wish to preserve, and which I prefer to bury in a lime-soaked latrine out back.

There is little difference between this and a post on my Masterclass blog, except this one is for free.  I don't care that I've made errors as a DM, as long as I learn from them, and as long as they can be a sign for others to see, and thus avoid pitfalls.

And while some will think that it is "posterity" to save every tick and letter of the original campaign, I do not.  I will rework the campaign text for me, and for what I see as important.  I am not a bean-counter.  I am a star gazer.


Pandred said...

Hahaha, what even HAPPENED here? Madness.

I never read through Senex. I think I perused much later, at the Lighthouse Crab with Senex 2.0, and dropped it when I finally got my shot in Juvenis.

The MasterClass material has been great so far, and I'll be looking forward to all of it, even Senex madness.

Silberman said...

Oh man, I remember reading this episode when it first happened and thinking to myself, with actual relief, when Josef suddenly caved in the NPC's head, "Well, at least this should get that clown out of the campaign one way or another!"

When playing a character, I find this general scenario--the party approaching a seemingly innocuous place where they suspect trouble is brewing below the surface, and having to interact with the "regular folks" there just doing their jobs--to be one of the most stressful situations available in the game. I'm not surprised that it lends itself to extra rounds of indecision, vague actions, deferring to other players and then regretting it, and finally, someone just breaking the tension with senseless violence.

I'd love to see an article from you on techniques for running this kind of thing effectively. It seems like players feel limited to silly bluffs, hoping to spot something out of place, bold accusations, or kicking down the door and lopping off heads.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I'll write such a post as soon as I figure out how to run this kind of thing effectively.

On the whole, I think players are trained to think this way ~ it goes back to this thinking that every scene must be a traditional part of a traditional adventure. As will be seen from the fallout of the scene described in the post, I do use the farmhouse as a "twist" ... yet keeping the actual fact that these ARE "regular folks," caught in a plot just as much as the players.

For me, these are the best expositional turns. In any case, I had meant to write about this on the official master class post, which I'll have in place before the end of June (the above is a bonus).

Ozymandias said...

I'm working my way through Critical Role ~ an honest, good faith effort to understand it before I dump on it ~ and I can't help but notice how many of these bad behaviors show up. And how the players react, as though they know they're bad behaviors but they can't do anything because it's between two players and they're supposed to be part of a team. And the DM doesn't do anything! Which is easily the worst because he's effectively saying it's okay for players to do these things to each other!

Loving the deconstruction, it helps keep things in focus.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Mercer can't risk being seen as an authoritarian figure, since that would not look good for the company image. And ultimately, he doesn't have to deal with any of the fall-out that would normally accrue from the bad behaviour in an authentic D&D game, as his players are paid actors and will ultimately put any grudges aside for the sake of the camera and the pay cheque.

In a common campaign, of course, the stupid behaviour will soon produce an insolvable crisis for a DM, usually ending the campaign or driving out the non-toxic players as those like Josef are encouraged ...

Tardigrade said...

Like Silberman, I remember reading this stretch of the campaign thinking to myself thinking, “what the flip”?

I am glad to see you revisit it and examine where it when wrong. It would be nice if I had a record of my own campaign to see where I screwed the pooch, to hopefully avoid it in the future.

Enlightening post, Alexis.