Saturday, December 29, 2018

A Bitter DMing Failure

Well, today I actually got my girlfriend and two of my friends to try old school D&D. This is a group whose first encounters with roleplaying games were D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder.  I chose the red Basic Book (with the fighter squaring off against a dragon on the cover) and I decided to run Tomb of the Serpent Kings as my introductory scenario.

It was a miserable, miserable failure and they quit after ten rooms.

I can't help but feel it was my fault, though in moratorium there were a number of factors. They said that "everything was too arbitrary," specifically citing a distaste for the saving throw system. They didn't like one of the traps in the module (which I will not outline so as to avoid spoilers) because they thought there was "nothing they could do" to prevent it. They were frustrated by lack of skills that could be used to resolve situations. They didn't like that firing a missile weapon into a melee is a bad, bad idea. The magic-user's player didn't like only having two spells per day. (I give +1 spell for magic-users with intelligence of 13 or higher.) The list goes on.

Really the only thing they liked was combat. They said combat was faster and less complicated. (Though they didn't like group initiative or surprise rolls.)

They didn't like that 1 HD monsters are worth about 10 xp. They didn't like that treasure gives you XP, or that there's no CR rating or encounter balance. They didn't like the slower pace of the game.

Part of me wishes I'd run A Stranger Storm or Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess. Yeah, those aren't exactly 'classic' examples, but I think they would have enjoyed the experience much more. As it stands, none of the rest of them ever want to play old D&D again. It's a good thing that I've got them hooked on Monster of the Week and Monsterhearts 2, because I would rather have my teeth pulled than play Pathfinder again, and I'd rather have my teeth pulled and forcibly inserted into my ass than GM a Pathfinder game again. (I blogged about it once quite a few years back. Running Pathfinder was among the worst gaming experiences of my life.)

I take it a little personally, because I feel like I could've somehow done better or prepared a better intro to old school gaming. I've hooked people with my old Temple of Zirugar thing I wrote up for con games, or with Lamentations scenarios. I actually netted old D&D -3 players today. Even so, I feel like even that might have not been enough. They seemed unsatisfied with the play style itself, and with many core conceits of the game. My girlfriend in particular bemoaned the lack of a feat system. (Although one of the players actually enjoyed the lack of feats quite a lot.) I could've used The B/X Warrior or The B/X Rogue (both excellent books, by the way) to provide some "featiness," but I was in a hurry to get playing.

I'm a good DM. Hell, I'm a great DM. I'm not used to failing. I'm not used to having bad sessions. I'm damn sure not used to turning people off from an entire fucking system.

They wanted me to run a different game afterward, but I politely declined.

I got them to enjoy All of Their Strengths, plus my two PbtA games mentioned above, and those are about as opposite of Pathfinder as you can possibly get. The group is also interested in Masks , so that's something to look at for 2019.

In the meantime, I'm going to give my bruised DM ego another week and resume Monster of the Week.

Oh, and because it seems obligatory: I'm not affiliated with the books I linked in this blog post or their authors or blah blah blah. I gain nothing if you buy them, I don't give a fuck if you buy them. Cheers.


  1. Wow. I know the feeling of having a disappointing game session (really, I do), especially when you appear to have had a lot of emotional investment in the result (you wanted your girlfriend and friends to see the enjoyment in older edition play).

    Since you are a good (or great) DM...and I assume you've had successful game sessions in the past...what do you think was the issue? The adventure you chose to use? I know nothing about it, though I see that one of its two reviews on DTRPG is a 1*.

    If it wasn't an issue of the adventure...what was it? Some of the issues you cite as being raised by your players seem more non-issues to me, certainly not reasons to quit mid-session. XP wouldn't be handed out till the end of a session, so why would it come up? What skills did they want that couldn't be otherwise replicated in game? Was there extenuating circumstances that would have allowed them to shoot into a melee (were they fighting a giant or ogre?), or did they just have an expectation of being Legolas the elven legend?

    Could you cite some specific things they felt to be too arbitrary about the game system? Or was it just (again) the adventure module?

  2. In retrospect, the adventure might be an issue. For it's attempt to put on a fresh coat of paint, it's a boring-ass dungeon that sticks to boring-ass conventions.

    Alright, let's talk arbitrary:
    *They said saving throws are arbitrary. The categories made no sense to them, and they didn't like being unable to add ability score modifiers to them. They're just numbers you are supposed to roll, and they hated it.

    *They felt like traps are arbitrary. This ties into their desire for skills. They wanted Spot and Search and Disable Device to deal with traps. They didn't like having to narratively search for traps and notice clues in my descriptions. They didn't like that they had to figure out how to *do* something to disable a trap beyond making a die roll. They insisted that there was "no way" to avoid the trap.

    Overall, they felt that old school play style "isn't engaging." They didn't want to poke around in rooms, they wanted to fight stuff. When they did fight stuff, they found the lack of mechanical, tactical options to be boring.

    I think some of the problems came from expectations of play style. They basically wanted to be playing Pathfinder and framed the experience in shit that Basic D&D is "missing" because it's in Pathfinder.

    Oh, and they disliked the fact that their characters had to buy food and have light sources.

    While I could try to run A Stranger Storm to show them another side of old school rules, I've decided to just abandon it altogether and play old school D&D with different people. This group loves and does well with Monster of the Week and Monsterhearts 2, so I think I'll just stick to that with this crew.

  3. "Oh, and they disliked the fact that their characters had to buy food and have light sources."

    Part of this might be due to the fact that almost everyone can see in the dark in modern D&D; but a big part of it is lazy refereeing. Players learn from their refs, after all, and a bad ref sets a bad example.

  4. I had a similar experience with a group recently; they learned to play with 5E, though a few of them had also played 3E.

    The style of play is just so very different that if they go into the game expecting the same kind of play they are naturally going to be disappointed no matter how good the module or game-mastering.

    The difference between old-school and new-school essentially breaks down to old-school being about the player experiencing the adventure through immersive action versus the new school of the player building the character and then challenging the adventure with the character build. It is less pervasive in 5E than in 3E, but it is still the core nature of the experience, and derives from the method of play most common in computer/console games.

    Neither style is right or wrong, they are just simply different styles of play, if generally mutually unintelligible, so to speak.

    I've determined that in order to build a Labyrinth Lord group, I am simply going to have to start from scratch, with folks who have never played or maybe played "back in the day," rather than try to convert the 5E/3E crowd...

    1. Yeah, there really seemed to be an antipathy toward the play style. I thought I'd communicated what the default "classic" style play was like, but I'm not so sure I managed to convey the point. I think they were expecting the same game style with simpler rules. That might explain why they were so sour about the lack of feats, special attacks, etc.

  5. Okay, so I just finished a blog post on this subject a few hours ago. For the most part, I agree with James's assessment of pre-3E versus post-3E play. But it IS possible to convert players's preferred type, if you give them a chance to enjoy the game FIRST, so that they appreciate what old edition play has to offer.

    And to do that, it's best not to introduce the experienced, late edition player with a 1st level character who has next to zero effectiveness, a high probability of death, and a need to scrabble for every last copper piece.

    I agree with your players DMW that just "poking around in rooms" isn't engaging. Without reviewing the adventure you used (and it doesn't sound like it's worth the money!), it's hard to tell just how lame (or not) it was. But some of their complaints about "arbitrariness" just needs to be re-framed: ability scores aren't as important in old editions as they are in new. Numbers aren't any more arbitrary than they are in new editions. Other systems exist for spotting and searching, and saves (in large part) represent a character's awareness of danger and reaction to it. Combat is simplified because it represents a smaller part of the adventuring "whole," but spot rules for tactics can be made by the DM as needed, on the fly.

    In the end, your group might not be the right group for D&D. But experienced players CAN be made receptive to the concepts of older edition gameplay. It just takes a special type of approach.

    1. JB-

      I have, in the past, introduced experienced roleplayers to older D&D with success. I've done it mostly at conventions, but I have had success with local players in the past. Basically, I've never fucked it up until now, which is possibly why I've taken it so poorly.

  6. My wife was the same way, but my kids prefer old school play. It’s funny that way.

  7. Said here by other commenters but someone once summed it up as “The first two levels in BX is for advanced play.”

    I never realized it until I DM’d new school players who expected a balanced roller coaster of little dips and hills from combat encounter to combat encounter and a kind of incessant need to feel awesome on their turn.

    I might be a little bitter.

  8. Been trying to stay out of this for days. Let me start by saying that without being at the table and actively watching what happened, it is impossible to judge what went wrong.

    I think that trying to do so it an enormous trap for role-players who are anxious to redesign the game, or define what differences exist between games. It is a will-o-wisp and you waste your time doing it.

    Occam's Razor dictates that some people just don't like the game.

    One step above the Razor dictates that people like different styles of game.

    And one step above that would be that it is very, very hard to take a group of fresh players and just know what style of game they want to play.

    I have some questions, however. 1) How long did it take to notice they weren't excited about it; 2) how did you respond to the players when you did notice; 3) what steps did you take or not take at that time that could have changed the result; and 4) why did you not assure them there was a different kind of game play you could run, then try to show them that?

    1. Alexis-

      Good to hear from you again. It's been a long while.

      I've thought it over and my conclusion is similar to your Occam's Razor above. One thing I might have emphasized is that one of the three players was curious, the other two essentially went in with the idea that 'this is dumb, but I guess we'll try it.'

      To address your specific questions:
      1. I noticed that they started to run out of steam shortly after the first combat. I'd put this at maybe 45 minutes into gameplay, but I didn't keep time so I am only estimating.

      2. In the combat, I started trying to give vivid (though not necessarily graphic) descriptions of attacks, both hit and miss, as well as the sensations of combat. I tried to keep it far away from "You miss, the skeleton misses you, the skeleton moves," etc. They didn't like the lack of feats and mechanically complex options. They also didn't seem keen on describing their own actions in combat beyond miss, hit damage, I move 20 feet, etc.
      3.) I think the best step to have taken would've been to throw the module out entirely and start having things happen. They seemed to prefer dealing with things that happen to them reactively rather than taking the initiative.
      4. This is my regular group, but the games we play are on the other end of the spectrum from old (or even new) D&D. One player has since expressed interest in something more like A Stranger Storm or Something Stinks in Stilton.

      Another reason I was willing to let it go is that two of the three players are holiday guests, one of whom is here from Sweden, and there are other things they wanted to do while in town.

  9. I know these feels, bro. I've had my fair share of sessions that just fall flat, where either the setting isn't engaging to a particular group of players, or the rules just aren't working for the style I want to run. (I still have PTSD flashbacks about the time I tried to run Fate Core.)

    That said, Tomb of the Serpent Kings has some problems that make it a very poor intro module (which sucks, since it bills itself as an intro module - it's much better for veterans looking to play something classic). You've identified half the problems yourself already: it's boring. It's cliché. There's nothing cool there to engage with unless you tweak the dungeon by adding cool stuff.

    At which point, you're better off just making your own dungeon full of cool stuff. That, I think, is the key to starting off green players in basic D&D. The system's strength is exploration, and you have to lean into that with an intriguing setting that begs to be explored. If the players aren't excited about rope and torches and rations, they're not excited about exploring the game world and figuring out its secrets.

    So the problem could be a boring world; or it could be incurious players. A DM can only really do something about the former. The latter are a lost cause until something comes along to jog their stunted imaginations.

    (But I will say this: I do love DMing basic D&D for total RPG newbs far more than for people who wish they were playing 3e or 5e. It's just so much easier not having to fight bad habits and worse expectations!)

    1. One thing more: if there's a good way to get 3e vets into the mindset of old-school D&D, it probably starts with a conversation that begins: "Hey, you remember playing Myst on the Macintosh? … "

    2. Considering how much I love Myst, I can't believe I never thought of using that as an analogy. That's freaking brilliant.

    3. John-

      Two of the players in this group are in their 20's. They do not, in fact, remember playing Myst on the Macintosh. In fact, they don't remember a world without internet. :P

      They really didn't seem to dig the exploration aspect that is the default B/X playstyle. They want to be fighting lots of monsters. They don't like "manually" looking for traps.

      ...and, as an aside, I definitely played up clicking sounds, slowly rising bars, and other sights and sounds that say "something mechanical is happening." They didn't stop the bars because they didn't realize their characters could just grab them, or jam them with the haft of an axe, or do literally anything they could think of. I tried to reiterate that they can try anything without worrying about skills and rules and such, but it just never seemed to sink in.

      I'm with you on Tomb. I've read through it again, and it really does seem more like a nostalgia hit for veterans rather than players who are trying a new rule set/play style.

      Hope all is well with the DL game these days. I think their new location is flippin' amazing.

    4. John, another comment I forgot:

      Fuck Fate Core, fuck it in its stupid face.

      That is all.

  10. Had it happen myself with Basic Fantasy. My youngest got mad and didn't want to play for years and now doesnt due to Pathfinder being a clunky bitch ass mess. I still say that the OSR won and 5E is the merge of the old school simplicity and the new school. That's what I would have and will be pulling in new players.

    1. 1. "Clunky bitch ass mess" is perhaps the most apt summary of PF I've seen.

      2. We've already talked about 5E, my dude. I said I didn't like it, you commented that I was "wrong." But hey, you do you.

  11. A lot to unpack here. Will write a stroger comment after I've thought about it more. But I can't think of greater system whiplash than Pathfinder to B/X to PbtA. Most of us pick one and stick with it; occasionally, groups will enjoy two out of the three.

    1. Well, I'm a system whore. I got more systems than Data from TNG. I trip over systems when I'm cleaning my basement.

  12. I like what JB said about creating excitement and intrigue first and dungeon crawling second. Without the call to action, all you're left with is rules-light nostalgia.

    Of course, if your audience is convinced the experience will suck, you've already got one foot in the grave.

    1. I tried to play up some menace of the creepy serpent-themed dungeon, but they weren't really buying it. Then again, two out of the three of them went into it with a "*sigh I guessss we can try this" attitude, so maybe I was doomed from the start.

  13. My comments on this topic got too long for this format, so I made a blog post:

    I'm not trying to criticize you specifically, yet I strongly feel that there is a tendency to focus on the rules when we should be looking at our performance as a DM.

  14. Sorry, this is going to be a long comment. I didn't put it on your blog because I didn't want to hijack it and be "that guy."

    My dude, the rules are different enough that you can't dismiss them out of hand. To say that the edition itself doesn't dictate play style is flat-out wrong. Let me illustrate:

    In older D&D, you get experience from finding treasure. This is how you get *most* of your experience.

    A medusa has two save-or-die attacks, attacks that kill you no matter how many hit points you have. She's worth 425 experience, divided among surviving party members. Got four party members: That's just a bit more than 100 xp per party member.

    As I'm sure you know, it takes a 1st level fighter 2,000 experience to reach 2nd level.

    The medusa is treasure type A. That's supposed to be worth an average of 10,500 exp. Even stealing just the jewelry from her treasure hoard is likely to net you a couple thousand. The risks of fighting the medusa far outweigh the potential reward.

    In old D&D, it behooves you to try and trick, circumvent, or sneak around the medusa to loot her treasure.

    In latter editions of D&D, treasure does not grant any experience.You do, however, get significantly more experience for killing the medusa. In addition, the medusa's poison snakes aren't instant killers (they do damage) and you have to fail the saving throw against her gaze by 5 or more points in order to be petrified. (Though she can get you with multiple gazes, but that's potentially several failed rolls.)

    In this case, the medusa is worth 2,300 experience points. That's over 500 per party member, still assuming the party of 4. It requires 300 experience points to reach 3rd level. In this case, the way to get that sweet, sweet xp is to defeat the medusa in combat.

    I know this is only a single example, but I think it illustrates the basic differences between the different edition's play styles.

    If I run D&D5e the way I run OD&D, the players are never going to level. They'll get more treasure, but they'll find frustration gaining levels. If I run 5e the way I'd run OD&D, those 1st level characters are going to get *murked.*

    Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

    1. why do you think your players "didn't want to poke around in rooms, they wanted to fight stuff" ?

    2. They're from a 3.5/Pathfinder background. To them, fighting the monsters is just something you do, it's built into the advancement mechanism of the rules.

      I think, in the end, there was just a disconnect. I think they thought they were going to play D&D the same way, just with a simpler set of rules- less choices, one of them said. (No feats, skills, only a few character classes, etc.)

    3. ok, so why is fighting monsters just something they do? they had to have been in previous situations where fighting was the optimal choice. the DM is the one who put them in those situations, and certain expectations and behaviors were built up reinforced by how the DM presented the game.

  15. First off, I don't "put" players in situations. They drive the game.

    In terms of previous DMs and situations where figjting was the "optimal" choice, I can't speak to those experiences. They came from 3.5/Pathfinder, and I was not their DM in those situations.

  16. so their previous DM ran the game in such a way that the players expect D&D to be about combat, that tells me more about the DM than the ruleset used. The fact that their previous experience was with 3.5 or Pathfinder is irrelevant, they may have developed the same playstyle preferences with AD&D depending on how the DM ran the game.