I did say a week ago that I would wait until the combat was over before making any personal comments about what I felt had gone wrong with the party. We only managed to get three rounds accomplished since then . . . but with Gudbrand dead, as Rowan slides into unconsciousness and both Aleksandra and Lothar likely to be attacked by two or three beetles each, things have gone far enough that I don't think any of my comments right now can seriously change the party's situation.
Let me just say that as I write this, it is round 11 and I'm waiting for Aleksandra to make a move and end the party's action for the round. I hope to publish this after that move is made, so that the players are locked into whatever the 12th round might bring. But I'm going to publish as soon as I'm done.
As the DM here, I have the benefit of knowing what the party was about to meet, so in many ways what I might say about their "errors" could be construed as unfair. After all, I did not need to throw 12 beetles at them. I could have thrown 6 or 3. Moreover, I could have set up the "dungeon" so that the party had plenty of time to get down the makeshift rope together, even plan a strategy before they got attacked.
I didn't, however. I didn't think about how the party might react. I thought what might conceivably make a home for itself in a barrow in Norway; I began with the premise that it ought to be something that could dig up from below, since the top of the barrow would be all stone. Once I decided upon beetles, primarily because it was an opportunity for the party to harvest the nodes on the beetles' for coin, I decided that given that it was Spring, the weather would be moderately warmer and that they would have begun to lay their eggs. I envisioned four pits, and decided an average of three beetles per pit would be fair.
I decided that one pit would attack up front, once provoked, rolling 2-4 beetles appearing. Then, each round following, I would roll a d6 to see if the beetles from the other pits joined in. The first round, each pit would join on a 1; the round thereafter the pit would join on a roll of 1-2, then 1-3, then 1-4, as long as it took.
As it happened, one other pit joined in with the 3rd round after Aleksandra woke the first beetles, in round 4; then the other two pits woke together the round after, round 5.
I want to emphasize that what follows is only my opinion about how the players should have handled the situation. But let's also be clear; I have done nearly a hundred combats with players since developing these movement rules about 8 years ago, some of those combats ridiculously huge. I have noticed some patterns in that time.
Here are some issues I think are worth addressing:
I'd don't know what else to call this. Now that I've started some twenty people in my online campaigns, I have to wonder what sort of worlds that people run in. Knowing that you have limited resources, and knowing that you WILL get other proficiencies in the future, why oh why would you not take a club as a proficiency? Why would you presume that because it isn't on the market list that a club is something that can't be made?
First and foremost, why would the ranger choose to put his highest stat under charisma, particularly since his age would have assure an 18 strength, with +1+2 bonuses, if he hadn't decided to throw the 17 away on a fairly useless stat for a ranger to have. Surely, a 13 would have been sufficient!
Similarly, why would a low-level assassin choose bolas as a proficiency? Not a dagger? Not an easy to find weapon, or one that would suit the environment? There is a reason that bolas developed on the Pampas, a big, open plain, with very few trees, rocks or objects between hurler and target. I've noticed that there's something strange about people's choices ~ put something strange on the list and players will be drawn to it like a moth to a bug-zapper . . . only to get killed by it, just like a moth. Given that the bolas couldn't even be purchased in the present circumstances of the assassin, assigning this as a proficiency, when the assassin would have gotten another one after three levels, makes no sense.
But it is the sort of decision I've gotten used to seeing online people make. At least the sort of mistake Gudbrand made, failing to buy weapons, is a mistake I've seen live people make. But in all my playing of D&D, right back into the the 80s, I've never seen players make the kind of choices I see them make online. This goes double when we get to the battle sequence, below.
Failure to Take Advantage of Resources
Let's start with the players who decided that they absolutely would not hire their men-at-arms. It stated clearly in the background generator that these people were friends! Dani's started with the thoroughly great morale of only 6, meaning that on a 2d6 she had a 27 out of 36 chance of being willing to die for Dani in a bad situation.
But the 6 g.p. was too high a price, given that Dani had only 10 to her name. Nevermind that Gudbrand could have easily afforded it (he had 70 g.p.) or Rowan (who had 190 g.p.). Lothar had a harder decision ~ the morale of his friends would not have be as well as Dani's, and the men-at-arms were more expensive. Still, one of them would have been useful for a dungeon, given that they were sappers, and therefore could have managed getting in on their own. As well, they would have spent the 24 g.p. on some equipment of their own, something I would have thought to bring even if the party did not.
And let us not forget that Engelhart's older sister would have worked for FREE.
Two extra men in the battle could have made a real difference . . . at least one of them could have hauled on the rope, dragging people up, so that they didn't have to climb once they were all inside.
It was argued that the party was very short of funds, but there was Engelhart's boat just sitting there in the harbor, worth hundreds of gold, while Lothar had access to 450 g.p. in stolen furs. All I said about those was that it wouldn't be a good idea to sell them in Stavanger. Did the party not consider selling them someplace else? Someplace that it would have been relatively safe to get to, without being attacked viciously by a dozen monsters?
And what about Engelhart's family, where is says on his background that "friends of the character will be treated well"? Did the party not think this would mean they could get fed? I made sure that Engelhart's grandfather gave the party some presents. Why did no one think to approach the grandfather and ask for an axe or something? I would have probably given an old battle axe, good damage and break on a 1 in 4 if dropped. But no one even asked. Lothar could have holed up there for a week, surely ~ "treated well" would certainly have included nursing his ills!
Failure to Read or Comprehend Description
I have to believe this has everything to do with how other people run their games. I had made it fairly clear before the party decided to go out to any of the barrows that I could make them more "interesting." Has no one heard the [erroneously attested] Chinese curse? How clear do I have to make it? Should I have said, "Oh, I'm sure I can put things in the barrows fully capable of killing you"? Do I have to make it that clear?
But the assassin dove in first without any hesitation, despite a serious lack of proficient weapons. Then there was an interesting disconnect, one which Aleksandra may not have understood.
Initially, she said that "Once everyone is down who wishes to be down, I toss a rock towards the red glow." [The Barrow's Entrance]
This is a difficult phrase, one which I always encourage players NOT to use. See, as a DM, I never, ever, assign any importance to what a player says they "will" do. Planning to do something is not the same as doing, and in order to keep order at the table I don't presume that anyone does anything until they state clearly that they ARE doing something. Which Aleksandra does, in the next post:
"Alright. I toss one of my rocks towards 1008." [Under the Barrow]
With all the confusion that has gone on with the previous post, with players starting and stopping themselves from going down the twine, I started the next post on the campaign so that it would be understood that only two actual people were DOWN: Aleksandra and Lothar. I stated that Aleksandra could hear nothing, adding that the sound of her heart in her ears was "the loudest sound you can hear."
I don't know why she presumed that there was nothing to be frightened of at that point. It got confusing, with Engelhart somehow thinking he could see Aleksandra (when it was clear from the image that he wasn't in the room), as well as Engelhart, Gudbrand and Rowan all indicating in three successive posts that they assumed were all down the rope, even though I had not told any of them that they were, even going so far as explaining that they had weapons out and were ready.
This was absolutely profound to me. I had explained the rope/twine situation, had explained that it would take rounds of time to get down, had shown in an image that only Lothar and Aleksandra were in the room. But presuming all three had read Aleksandra's post about throwing the rock, they ALL seemed to suppose that the world would stop spinning on its axis long enough for them to all climb down the twine (2 rounds for each) before anything would actually happen in the room.
This sort of thing is so frustrating. I said there was a glowing in the room, then ignored the party hauling out torches because there was no need for them. Once the party was out of the sunlight, the glow from the four pits was more than enough to see inside ~ but I didn't make this clear enough and that fault is on me.
And worst of all, in the midst of trying to explain all the confusion to the players, I completely missed that Lothar had pulled his bow and made it ready to use. So, as a matter of fact, I owed Lothar a bow shot in the first round of the beetles appearing. Unfortunately, Lothar took my mistake as a DM's ruling [which he shouldn't have], so that he stated again in round 1 that he was loading his bow, when he should have been screaming at me that his bow was already loaded, stated clearly in the previous post.
After all, when I was bitch-slapping the three people who were still up-top, Lothar was in the room and did have plenty of time to load the bow. Therefore, I wasn't speaking to him at all ~ something that would have been obvious, had we all been sitting around a table. But we weren't, we were trying to do this in text, and in the interest of saving everyone's time, the whole comment thread became a nightmare.
Would Lothar's bow shot have made a difference? Possibly. We'll never know. I make mistakes, I totally discounted that shot, Lothar assumed I was on top of it so he didn't bitch-slap me and the shot was lost.
It is difficult to run this game in voice; it is insane to do it in text. The only thing I can do is to try to browbeat people into understanding HOW to communicate, one step at a time, not saying what they'll do in advance of someone else doing something, but to concentrate on exactly what they do right NOW and at no other time. The failure to grasp this definitely led to a lot of misunderstandings, and those misunderstandings led to big trouble when the battle got started.
The Party's Inexplicable Choices
First, I want to explain that the party had LOTS of hit points. Look at the hit point damage from the end of the beetles' attack in Round 11: the party has taken 77 damage and three of them are technically still on their feet. Even with the inexhaustible supply of bad luck experienced by the party, it is clear from the potential damage they could take that they had a deep, deep well from which they could expend hit points, waiting for things to get better.
Why didn't things get better, then?
Well, start with Gudbrand from Round 2. He had disappeared most of the day, I was anxious to keep the campaign going, so I rolled a d20 for him and caused him to hit and kill the beetle in front of him.
This led to a bunch of unnecessary self-recrimination, that simply could have been overlooked. Instead, it caused the player behind Gudbrand to indicate that he was running out of the combat, apparently hiding behind Aleksandra, rather than just attacking one of the two beetles remaining. Who knows! That attack might have hit ~ and even if it didn't, Gudbrand just being there in front of the beetle, giving the beetle something to hit other than Aleksandra. But by taking himself out of the battle for Round 3, he basically crippled the party's combat strength by 50%.
Then he does it AGAIN in Round 4, deciding that the right thing to do is abandon the party completely, because he's busy with his real life and had chosen not to "burden" the party by staying behind and helping them live. And this in the face of seeing right there on the screen that the party has just acquired 4 new enemies. I didn't know what he was doing for sure, but I suspected: it was only when, in Round 5 he actually declared he was leaving the barrow, that I had evidence ~ whereupon I threatened to dump his cowardly ass out of the campaign, causing him to suddenly decide that maybe he better carry his own weight. By then, of course, four rounds of damage dealing or taking had been lost, since even in Round 6 he hasn't made an attack.
Which brings us to Engelhart, who got onto the floor of the barrow in Round 4, at the same time those beetles appeared. And what does he do? Does he rush right over and help Lothar kill the beetle that is right there, within reach? No, he rushes for "higher ground," where he'll have to wait a whole round (in which time he is totally useless) before he can get a mere +1 bonus. Meanwhile, Lothar misses, and is now the only target that can be hit by the beetle in front of him. Engelhart could have been right there to perhaps soak up some of that damage, but he isn't, he's well away from any danger.
In Round 4 the players seem to be working together ~ for what it is worth, ganging up on one beetle. But while Rowan could have thrown his club at the oncoming beetles, he instead decides to spend all his movement accomplishing nothing that round. He had a spear! Why didn't he throw the club and fight with the spear? At the same time, Lothar and Engelhart turn their backs on the oncoming beetles, when a hammer could have been thrown ~ except that the cleric took a maul as a 1st level weapon, in a forested/cave land, making about as much sense as a bolas.
At least they hit the beetle. And no great problem, since the beetles don't have enough move to attack them anyway, so they can easily turn around and just fight.
Except . . . they don't! Lothar continues to keep his back to the four beetles attacking, in order to kill that one that's been hit before, presumably because it will be easier to kill. Do they teach this sort of maneuver in military school?
Meanwhile, Aleksandra attacks and then retreats, ensuring that Lothar has no support at all, since Engelhart has done the same. Thus, when the beetles move in, they split the party in half, since of course they rush into the empty pocket the party created.
Now, this sort of thing has nothing whatsoever to do with bad rolls. This is just horrendously bad tactics ~ but it gets better.
Engelhart widens the gap still further by continuing to back up, so that as Lothar does the same he still doesn't have anyone at his back and there's still a gap. Meanwhile, Gudbrand is front and center, the first and best target in front of the beetles, where his +1 defense looks pretty pathetic. And since Engelhart is at the back of this mess, the one fellow with the most hit points at this point has put himself where he is threatened by only one beetle.
In Round 7, both Gudbrand and Lothar are predictably stunned ~ they're the most vulnerable characters. Engelhart doesn't get attacked at all, so that the weight of the next round is certain to fall on Rowan, who has nowhere to move the stunned Gudbrand except in front of the beetles. Engelhart is totally blocking the party's retreat by sitting in the totally useless fullback position. The party is in huge trouble right now, with only two real defenders, both three hexes apart.
Then Rowan, beyond inexplicable, ignores the four beetles in front of him to again turn around and attack a beetle that Engelhart can absolutely handle. Why? I have no idea. This blows my mind . . . particularly as it means he and Gudbrand will be swarmed by five beetles the following round.
Then, while Engelhart moves towards Lothar and Aleksandra ~ presumably to close the hole ~ he creates another one, totally abandoning Rowan and Gudbrand at this very critical moment. And again, the cleric manages to get himself into a position where he will experience only one attack in round 8.
This is so consistent it is almost hard to believe it isn't deliberate; I don't think it is, though. Engelhart floats all over the battlefield, however, and either by luck or intention keeps avoiding being in the thick of it. And while he may not have wanted to keep avoiding being attacked, he certainly never rushes forward to risk all to hold the party together! He's in the center for three rounds and yet he's never in the thick of it.
So, in Round 8, the inevitable happens. Gudbrand gets his ass kicked all over, leaving Rowan with his ass hanging out. But instead of saving Rowan by attacking the beetles in front of the druid, the ranger rushes over and stands over Gudbrand's practically dead body (-8 is pretty much out of the question), while Engelhart plainly runs away from the center position to attack the lone beetle that Rowan hit two rounds ago. And, making my jaw drop, Lothar also ignores the threat to Rowan and attacks that beetle as well. But at least the ranger is using his body as a shield.
Now, I don't know how Engelhart feels about this. Perhaps there is some logic here ~ but the fact is, he's completely avoiding being attacked by the beetles between Rowan and Aleksandra, while both Engelhart and Lothar abandon Aleksandra completely.
I think perhaps the continuous missing had a psychological effect. Certainly, by this time the Lurker's Corner post had gone up last week and everyone was talking on the campaign as if hitting was "impossible," so why even try? That was a very bad head space to get into.
With the tactics employed, there was no chance of this going good places. Aleksandra is surrounded by beetles in Round 8, Lothar and Rowan are getting swamped by the other five beetles and Engelhart is, once again, conveniently out of the struggle. All those hit points that Engelhart has, that could help others not be stunned, are just sitting there.
Rowan runs out of luck in Round 9, Lothar also. Now it is totally up to Engelhart to hold the line; Aleksandra, getting really lucky this round, realizes that she has to get back to where others can help her.
And now, seeing what Engelhart does, there's no question in my mind. He walks away from Lothar, leaving the ranger to be attacked by 3 beetles, while retreating to a place where he has only one beetle to face. How many ways are there to interpret that?
Round 10. Gudbrand dies, but its a good thing, because three beetles begin to feast on his corpse. This gets them out of the fight altogether. Yay. Aleksandra, who did not get supported by Engelhart moving Lothar into 0910 and taking the brunt of the attack at last, is now attacked by four different beetles. Of course she is hit twice, miraculously making a check and remaining conscious.
Desperate now, Lothar overbears the beetle between him and the rope out of this hell-place, succeeding and using the beetles eating Gudbrand as a shield to try and get out. All he needs is for Engelhart to step up, try to kill the beetle he's just moved or at least keep the beetle engaged long enough to let Lothar escape . . .
But Engelhart doesn't. Instead, Engelhart uses this golden opportunity to flee completely out of the battle, ostensibly to cast a healing spell for 5-8 points. Of course, the party is easily losing double that per round from the beetles attacking, and they'll all be dead by the time the cleric gets his spell off, but that's how it goes. When all the beetles are feasting on everyone else, Engelhart will be in the perfect position to climb the rope and escape.
I'm sorry, but that is how I see this. The party made huge tactical errors, repeatedly splitting themselves up when they could have been fighting together. Gudbrand the assassin frittered, letting the real world intervene in his character choices, whereas Engelhart ~ by chance, by poor tactical decision or by sheer unwillingness to put himself in danger, perhaps because he lost the will to believe his die could roll above a 13 ~ wound up abandoning the party when his hit points would have increased the chances of everyone's survival.
Now, I don't want people to accept the above as fact. I am one fellow, I'm not perfect. I made several errors in running this game and was called out, justifiably, by all the characters, including the fellow behind Engelhart. I'm just as capable as anyone of misinterpreting something. Don't let my position as DM or blog-owner discourage you from telling me I'm wrong [politely, without name-calling, if you would be so kind].
Reading this in 2022, it turns out that Engelhart had to be thrown out of the campaign specifically for the actions he performed here, in another fight. Eventually, Engelhart's maneuverings got to be so consistently against the party, no matter what the party did, that he had to go. If I ever encounter a player like this again, who plainly shows his cowardice in a fight, I won't wait before saying it plain: "Work with the party or get out."