Teaching my players a lesson, and learning a lesson of my own

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Preface: I realise this is long but brevity is not one of my strengths. Feel free to not read it. Smile

To start with I want to make sure my intent is understood. 'Teaching my players a lesson' does not mean punishment, in an 'I'll fix your little red wagon' kind of way. I'm looking to have my players come out of this with a new understanding of the game. I'll also freely confess that my inexperience has no doubt contributed to the difficulties I'm having. This post is nominally to ask for assistance and advice, but be warned it's also part rant. Yell

I feel I need to describe my players to give context to the situation. I'll give them nicknames to make it easier for myself.



  • Leader: Our former DM for Keep on the Shadowfell, which was the first D&D experience for myself and three of the players. He is very much a thinking player and tends to metagame a bit, but also roleplays quite well. Has a good memory and often reminds the other players of relevant details. Has become the de facto leader of the group.

  • PC Gamer: An MMORPG player from way back. Repeatedly tells me his rogue is 'going into stealth'. I've talked to him a few times about the difference between software and human imagination; he has a hard time getting his head around the fact that the sky is not the limit.

  • Non-gamer: A nice guy who likes to roleplay jerks. Seems to have been inspired by Leader's brilliant idea in a previous game I ran while KotS was on hiatus (a village under threat by an unseasonal winter was extorted for use of the Endure Elements ritual). His attitude now is 'we are the heroes, so every NPC we meet should pay us to continue the quest we're already being paid for'.

  • Mechanic: Another former WoW player who has studied the crunch of the game. Found the CharOp forum by himself when creating his first character. Joined the KotS campaign late and has minimal experience but has embraced the roleplaying side of things as fully as he has the crunch.

  • Roleplayer: Very experienced D&D/RPG player who hasn't played 4E before. Has created an elaborate backstory and doesn't mind if his charcter dies in a blaze of glory if it suits the story. Deliberately avoids metagaming.

  • Newbie: Older player who played some 1st (or 2nd?) edition and subsequently purchased many books even though he had no one to play with. Excited and enthusiastic about roleplaying but is taking time to grasp the mechanics.


So after our Keep on the Shadowfell campaign reached the end of 'season one', I suggested I could run a paragon tier campaign. This was warmly received, and so far we have run five sessions fairly successfully. Combat tends to take a long time to resolve, but that's understandable given our relative inexperience and the fact that we're starting with 11th level PCs. I decided to run the adventure at the back of DMG2 to introduce the characters to Sigil, which I'd thought would be a pivotal location in the campaign and could serve as a base of operations for the party.


The adventure is called A Conspiracy of Doors. I'll hide the rest of the post in case anyone wants to avoid spoilers.


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Adventure synopsis
The party is hired by a representative of the Planar Trade Consortium to investigate a series of attacks on supplies for the Festival of Doors, which is scheduled to start in three days. In particular the supply of cavefire wine, which is critical to the success of the festival, is under threat. The heroes are to investigate the attacks, trace the supply lines back to their sources, discover who is behind the attacks and put a stop to it before the commencement of the festival.

Things started well, with the party following the trail of rather obvious clues to Sigil, armed with a name (of the adventure's BBEG) and a location: the House of Song in the Gatehouse Night Market. With some further information provided by a contact they'd been given earlier, the party proceeded to the market and was promptly attacked by some demons, a shape-changing eladrin that had escaped them during the previous encounter, and a mysterious human who disappeared after the fight commenced. Unfortunately we didn't get through the encounter before the end of the session (unfortunately we have a relatively strict finish time).


On resumption at our most recent session, Leader was called away due to real life complications and left his character sheet with Non-gamer. The adventure conveniently placed the previous encounter in front of the House of Song, and assumes the following sequence of events:



  • The party discovers notes detailing a demon-summoning ritual and the fact that the ritual was used to send demons to the Shadowfell.

  • The party talks to the wine merchant who reveals that the mushrooms used to make the cavefire wine for the festival comes from the Shadowfell.

  • The party convinces the wine merchant to aid them in travelling to the Shadowfell, where they find the merchant's brother trapped by a demon.

  • The party defeats the demon and discovers the next clue that leads them to a warehouse in Sigil.


Instead, the events were as follows:



  • The party loots the notes but actively decides against reading them.

  • Upon noticing the House of Song (including my reminder that it was the place described on the flyer they found along with a scrawled name), the party stands around doing nothing.

  • I have a number of merchants come out of hiding after watching the battle, one of whom identifies himself as a supplier to the Planar Trade Consortium who suffered similar attacks to the wine merchant. After describing that the human who fled the battle was in the House of Song earlier in the day, the party still does not enter the building.

  • The NPC adds that the wine merchant is currently inside the House of Song, and the party decides to talk to her.

  • Since the party seemed to need some assistance, I described the wine merchant as concerned about her brother who had failed to return from his last trip to the Shadowfell. The players, led by Non-gamer in Leader's absence, were quite secretive with her, and when they finally read the notes they'd found (after numerous hints from me), did not reveal any details regarding the demon-summoning ritual to her, despite her expressed concern for the safety of her brother.

  • The party proceeded to demand payment for their services in travelling to the Shadowfell to look for the merchant's brother, despite the fact that their existing quest required them to do just that. She obliged, pleading with them to act with all due haste.

  • Non-gamer and PC Gamer decided that the party needed an extended rest (time of day approx. 5pm). I assume their reasoning was that Leader's character had only one healing surge remaining and a handful of daily powers had been used. Roleplayer and Newbie were keen to press on, fearing that the brother may be dead by the time the party arrived. Mechanic was ambivalent to the whole thing.

  • The merchant was horrified that the party's first act after accepted payment for their quest was to look for a place to sleep, so she hurried off (to find someone more inclined to helping, but I didn't explain that to the players).

  • When the party arrived in the Shadowfell, they found the brother dead and promptly dispatched the demon that had evidently killed him.


Before entering Sigil, the party had procured the Speak with Dead ritual. Having failed to make use of it on the eladrin that was the main focus of the two previous encounters, the party decided to try it on the dead brother. With two questions available, the players looked to Non-gamer to ask them (as his character had cast the ritual in the first place). Roleplayer, playing a paladin of the Raven Queen, decided his character wanted nothing to do with it, but hinted at the type of question that might garner a useful answer. The questions actually asked were:


Q: What did the demon do after it killed you?


A: It went to the corner of the cave and hung around there until you showed up.


Q: Where did the demon come from?


A: It appeared out of nowhere.


I thought about both questions before answering, but I couldn't think of a reasonable way to cram any meaningful information into the answers. In any case the party didn't try to search the corpse (or even the cave in general) so I was stuck for a way to get the next clue to the players.


Not that it mattered, because they decided to go exploring the cave system. The map I'd drawn was straight from the book, and included a couple of undefined edges. When the players asked 'what's down there?' I was loath to say 'absolutely nothing' as I have an aversion to the perception of railroading (in my first attempt at DMing one player said 'we should do that because that's what the DM has prepared for us' and I resolved never to have that happen again). So I described a tunnel from which no light emanated. Of course PC Gamer's eyes lit up as he announced, 'I have darkvision! I'll go into stealth and check it out!'


Try as I might to make the tunnel unappealing (dead straight, featureless, no light at all, the oppressive feeling of the Shadowfell grows stronger the further you proceed, there is a godsawful stench that repulses you to the core), all PC Gamer heard was 'you're making great progress!' When he decided to go back to the cave to collect everyone else I had a flash of inspiration. I was going to teach the players that the world (and other planes) isn't built around their capabilities, and that discretion really is the better part of valour.


As the rogue continued ahead of the party with his darkvision and the rest made their way some distance back with their normal or low light vision and lantern, I described a gibbering, snarling, growling, cursing sort of sound growing in volume the closer they got. When the rogue reached an opening to a cave I had the players roll initiative and ended the session. We have a couple of weeks off for the holidays and will resume in the new year.


My idea is that they've found some dark monstrosity that common sense should tell them has nothing to do with their current quest and therefore is best left alone. The creature could be fixed (e.g. tentacles that come out of a hole in the ceiling when you get close enough but retract when you leave) to encourage the party to flee, but there's a strong possibility that option won't occur to anyone or that the suggestion of retreat will be rejected by PC Gamer and Non-gamer (and possibly Mechanic).


So I need to construct a monster that's tough, but not impossible to beat. I was thinking solo would probably suit. The party is level 11 but highly optimised, so with six PCs including two leaders I think this thing needs to be pretty high level to sufficiently challenge the party.


I see the possible outcomes as:



  • The party runs away from the creature with or without engaging it. A Skill Challenge to navigate the tunnels of the Shadowfell (that have shifted since they travelled to the cave) determines how quickly they return to the first cave. The brother's corpse is missing but instead they find a note pointing them to the warehouse in Sigil. If they make it there in time they possibly prevent the destruction of all the festival's supplies and achieve some success in their quest.

  • The party fights and TPKs. In this case the party will wake up inside the creature's stomach and be forced to fight the undead monsters there to get out. In this case the festival does not go ahead because the supplies were not supplied. Chaos ensues and the party, while strictly speaking not having made enemies, is now disliked by some powerful people in Sigil.

  • The party fights and one or more PCs die and/or fall unconscious. The remaining PCs have to recruit aid in retrieving their comrades from the stomach of the creature.

  • The party fights and defeats the creature. In its death throes the creatures spews a treasure trove of magic items left after the consumption of previous adventurers. If the party decides to continue delving into the Shadowfell I throw something even tougher at them.


So finally I have a few questions:



  1. What level solo monster is sufficient to beat the crap out of the party without being impossible to defeat? I definitely want to stack the odds against them, but with a few lucky rolls from them and unlucky rolls from me it should be possible for the party to prevail.

  2. Is there a suitable monster published that I can use as-is or with minor tweaks? I thought I could reflavour a kraken or something to that effect. Preferably a post-MM3 monster though.

  3. If the answer to the previous question is no, what advice would you give for constructing a monster from scratch considering I've never done it before? Is there an updated monster creation guide for newer style monsters and if so what book is it in?

  4. How do I go about explaining to players that their choices are meaningful? It seems a little patronising to say 'now that guy was alive when his sister paid you to look for him, and he would have survived if you'd gone looking for him immediately.' I certainly don't want to dictate to players how their characters should act, but I'm not sure how to teach them this without coming across that way.


Thanks to anyone who reads all of this, and many thanks to anyone who responds. I feel better already having got it off my chest. Laughing

How do I go about explaining to players that their choices are meaningful?


By not doing what you are about to do.

You say that you don't want to railroad, but that's what you're doing here, only much more elaborately with a higher chance of it blowing up in your face. You were far better off telling them "nothing is down there." It's a perfectly valid response and it saves valuable play time so that your players don't faff about in the Pit of Pointlessness for half a session.

It's also OK to say "If you made it here sooner, the brother would have been alive." The thing is, you don't stop there. Perhaps his sister is now so distraught that she makes a deal with those very same demons in order to bring him back. Perhaps his sister was also a member of a very powerful family, a family whose assets are now at the disposal of the forces of the Abyss. Now the players have a new adversary and a new quest, all of their own making. That's a meaningful choice.

Saying "If you veer off the marked path you will meet a monster of almost-somewhat certain doom" isn't meaningful. It's random. The players have no idea what is important to the campaign and what isn't. They're looking to you for guidance there, and if you humor their unplanned sidetreks with increasingly varried descriptions, they're going to think this is all part of the adventure.

You have to be pretty blunt with players. When the players find a note, you don't say "you found a note" as part of their loot. Physically hand them the note. When they stumble across the tavern you want them to find, don't start them off outside the door. Start them inside. If your players are prone to random exploration that you are unprepared/can't improvise for, or if they leave their characters standing around for no reason, you need to cut to the action as quickly as possible.

Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter. As for your scenario, have them fight the beast, and if they win, instead of treasure, have the tunnel lead deep into an ungaurded section of the dungeon you had planned for them. No one bothered to secure that entrance. After all, there was some hideous monster living there already.

  1. What level solo monster is sufficient to beat the crap out of the party without being impossible to defeat? I definitely want to stack the odds against them, but with a few lucky rolls from them and unlucky rolls from me it should be possible for the party to prevail.

  2. Is there a suitable monster published that I can use as-is or with minor tweaks? I thought I could reflavour a kraken or something to that effect. Preferably a post-MM3 monster though.

  3. If the answer to the previous question is no, what advice would you give for constructing a monster from scratch considering I've never done it before? Is there an updated monster creation guide for newer style monsters and if so what book is it in?

  4. How do I go about explaining to players that their choices are meaningful? It seems a little patronising to say 'now that guy was alive when his sister paid you to look for him, and he would have survived if you'd gone looking for him immediately.' I certainly don't want to dictate to players how their characters should act, but I'm not sure how to teach them this without coming across that way.



1) Level does not dictate challenge in this game as much as one would think. Instead it's how one builds the encounter that really tests the PCs. Waves are the trick of choice for most DMs, as it stretches the encounter resources over a few rounds, and makes the PCs jump when suddenly there are more opponents than last round to deal with. Three waves to a fight tends to be optimal, and boss monsters should be introduced either in wave 2 or 3. Terrain and traps are also a good way to test the PCs. When faced with a trap that could harm them or help them, the PCs tend to think more tactically. Avoid traps that the PCs cannot overcome (for example, any trap that stuns a PC when they move into the area of effect tends to be a big downer on the fight). For terrain, try to have at least one terrain piece that can help some PCs, and at least one that will harm them. Don't over-saturate the battle grid with hazardous terrain unless it is also hazardous to the enemies as well.

2) You seem to be an DDI subscriber. I'd check the compendium for a monster that would work for what you're after. There are plenty of Solos of every level and role that could be worked for your needs.

3) While I'm sure you could find something, there's nothing wrong with creating your own monsters. It's one of the best ways to make an encounter exciting, since original threats unfamiliar to the PCs tend to incite fear more than familiar sorts of threats. As a DDI subscriber, you have access to both the online and offline monster builders, which help you to construct a monster statistic block using the post MM3 math and presentation system. The online builder has a 50 custom monster limit, but is updated regularly. You can make as many custom monsters as you want, but it is no longer being updated with new monsters, so if you want to use it more, you'll have to manually add in the new stuff yourself. The Races and Monsters board helps users come up with ideas and provides critique and balance suggestions for custom monsters regularly, so that's a good place to seek aid with building your own beasties.

4) Don't let the misconception that players being penalized in game for their failures is you bullying them. If you want their failure to carry as much weight on the world around them as their successes, you need to have those consequences carry real weight. For example, if the PCs were hired to save someone, as in the example you gave, but failed to rescue him because of negligence, still award them XP, but the NPC may not pay them for their services, and may lower their chances for diplomacy and streetwise attempts with people associated with their client.

Of course, this also comes with one flaw though, doing this too much can seem as though you are railroading the PCs on a certain path. Be flexible with their actions. Perhaps attacking a group far from the location of the prisoner makes the enemies tighten security in that area, lessening the threat around the prisoner they have to rescue. Depending on how you flow with the story, each action the PCs take could be meaningful towards the story and the characters within it, whether the result is good or bad.

Hope this helps. Happy Gaming
> 'we are the heroes, so every NPC we meet should pay us
> to continue the quest we're already being paid for'

This reminds me of the "Adam Smith's Revenge" rule on one of the old fantasy game cliche lists. To paraphrase, "You may be the saviors of the world and the only hope of everyone living to see the next day, but merchants won't give you so much as a discount, nevermind free supplies for your final battle with evil."
Also, if you want to give the players a challenge that they cannot defeat at this time, don't give them a challenge that is just barely within their capability to defeat. Give them one they cannot defeat. But give them plenty of notice of this. And allow for them to back out, or to attempt it and fail, without destroying the campaign. (But with SOME visible consequence.)

Having a TPK not destroy the campaign can take a bit of creativity.

In this case (as a suggestion), the terminus of the tunnel where they *entered* it has moved. If they run away from the unbeatable encounter, they end up at the different location - which is neither better nor worse from the standpoint of the campaign, but is different and presents them with some inconvenience. Those who are killed in the unbeatable encounter awaken at the different location, cannot enter or even detect the tunnel, and suffer an additional consequence such as a phobia.
"The world does not work the way you have been taught it does. We are not real as such; we exist within The Story. Unfortunately for you, you have inherited a condition from your mother known as Primary Protagonist Syndrome, which means The Story is interested in you. It will find you, and if you are not ready for the narrative strands it will throw at you..." - from Footloose
How do I go about explaining to players that their choices are meaningful?


 
You shouldn't have to verbally meta-game explain - if they really are meaningful it should be obvious, and to teach them you can make it painfully so.  Instead of telling them you show them by the consequence of their actions (or inactions).  They will still enjoy obvious dilemas and you can add layers of complexity or subtlety later once they understand your style. 
Try as I might to make the tunnel unappealing (dead straight, featureless, no light at all, the oppressive feeling of the Shadowfell grows stronger the further you proceed, there is a godsawful stench that repulses you to the core), all PC Gamer heard was 'you're making great progress!' When he decided to go back to the cave to collect everyone else I had a flash of inspiration. I was going to teach the players that the world (and other planes) isn't built around their capabilities, and that discretion really is the better part of valour.


If you want to make something unappealing to adventurers, tedium is better then a sense of dread. Adventurers are supposed to be going into fearsome dreadful places. With a lot of inexperienced gamers, I would go further and simply collapse the tunnel in front of them rather then let them spend and hour wandering down a pointless side tunnel. Railroading is bad when you force the party into a course of action they wouldn't take or block them from a sensible course of action they would, but a little railroading to keep them from wandering entirely off the plot isn't always a bad idea.

My idea is that they've found some dark monstrosity that common sense should tell them has nothing to do with their current quest and therefore is best left alone. The creature could be fixed (e.g. tentacles that come out of a hole in the ceiling when you get close enough but retract when you leave) to encourage the party to flee, but there's a strong possibility that option won't occur to anyone or that the suggestion of retreat will be rejected by PC Gamer and Non-gamer (and possibly Mechanic).

So I need to construct a monster that's tough, but not impossible to beat. I was thinking solo would probably suit. The party is level 11 but highly optimised, so with six PCs including two leaders I think this thing needs to be pretty high level to sufficiently challenge the party.


I would expect a fight in this sort of situation. Given your group, they are likely to assume the fact that they ran into a monster is a good sign they are going the right way. Teaching them that this isn't the case might be a good idea, but you have to go about it the right way.

If you want to throw a fight that the party should run from, it has to be an overwhelming monster. Something obviously unbeatable, something so powerful that the party will realize after a turn or two that they are not really hurting it at all. Just make sure the party can run, make the monster painfully slow or fixed in location and don't give it any attacks that grab/slow/immobilize. Adventurers are not generally inclined to run from a fight and used to facing apparently overwhelming odds, and players are often even less inclined to flee. The first time they run into a fight they can't win, you have to make it painful clear cut that they can't win.


How do I go about explaining to players that their choices are meaningful? It seems a little patronising to say 'now that guy was alive when his sister paid you to look for him, and he would have survived if you'd gone looking for him immediately.' I certainly don't want to dictate to players how their characters should act, but I'm not sure how to teach them this without coming across that way.

The problem I see here is that you can't really blame the party for taking too long when there wasn't a clear cut sign that they needed to hurry. With a party of inexperienced and indecisive players, you need to spell these things out. If you wanted to make clear that he died because they took too long, there should have been some clear cut sign on his body. Stick a note on his body to the effect that summoning took X hours, and the party would have arrived there long before that if they had not stopped to rest.

Jay


(in my first attempt at DMing one player said 'we should do that because that's what the DM has prepared for us' and I resolved never to have that happen again).



Crowscape basically said it all.

I will just add to it by responding to the quoted comment above. If you're playing a prepared game and not simply improvising everything, this is what your players should expect. It's not railroading if whatever they decided at the end of last week's session is what you prepared for this session. That's just common courtesy. Telling you they want to explore the Dungeon of Doom next week, having you spend a week working on it, and then switching gears the next session to go to the City of Ale (which you don't have prepared) is a jerk move. Of course, you have to be clear on their goals and let them "see" only that which you have prepared, plus whatever threads or hooks you have to set up the next decision point. (This is what this side tunnel would be.) Once you get into a rhythm, it will flow naturally. They tell you what they want to do next week, you prepare it, and come game time, that's what you do as a group. At the end of that session, they decide what to do next. It's a simple, workable social contract, not railroading.

Now, it doesn't sound like this is what they did, but I just wanted you to be aware that in following the method I mentioned, you're not telling your players, "You can't go there." You're just telling them, "I'm not prepared to help you tell that story just yet. How about next week?"

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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Thanks all for the advice. It's good to know that at least I'm trying to do the right thing, even if my execution is lacking.

It's also OK to say "If you made it here sooner, the brother would have been alive." The thing is, you don't stop there. Perhaps his sister is now so distraught that she makes a deal with those very same demons in order to bring him back. Perhaps his sister was also a member of a very powerful family, a family whose assets are now at the disposal of the forces of the Abyss. Now the players have a new adversary and a new quest, all of their own making. That's a meaningful choice.

This is just what I'm trying to do. Having basically thumbed their noses at her pleas for haste, the party now has a significant player in Sigil who dislikes them, and a reputation (at least among other merchants) to accept or rectify. Either way it should add flavour to future adventures. Similarly, if the players want to go exploring the Shadowfell and run the risk of not completing their quest, that's ok too. Having Sigil descend into chaos would fit nicely into the overall campaign.

So it's not meaningful choices that I'm lacking. The difficulty I'm having is making the choices clear to my players. I had hoped/assumed I wouldn't have to spoon feed them clues. But I suppose instead of just saying 'you notice a rolled up piece of paper protruding from the dead dwarf's pocket', I should be adding 'and in reading it, you discover that blah blah blah.' Is this kind of hand-holding common? Am I expecting too much?

You have to be pretty blunt with players. When the players find a note, you don't say "you found a note" as part of their loot. Physically hand them the note. When they stumble across the tavern you want them to find, don't start them off outside the door. Start them inside. If your players are prone to random exploration that you are unprepared/can't improvise for, or if they leave their characters standing around for no reason, you need to cut to the action as quickly as possible.

This is probably where I fell over. Having not explained their contents as soon as the party looted them, I was reduced to virtually begging them to read the notes. It's understandable they thought they could use that as leverage against the NPC.

4) Don't let the misconception that players being penalized in game for their failures is you bullying them. If you want their failure to carry as much weight on the world around them as their successes, you need to have those consequences carry real weight. For example, if the PCs were hired to save someone, as in the example you gave, but failed to rescue him because of negligence, still award them XP, but the NPC may not pay them for their services, and may lower their chances for diplomacy and streetwise attempts with people associated with their client.

It's not that I'm worried about being a bully, more that I'm not convinced that my players understand that what they do (or don't) affects the direction of the story. I guess inexperience on both sides of the screen is a pretty big factor, and the players will work it out soon enough if I can offer logical sequences of events. Or maybe the more perceptive players will simply start speaking up more often.

Also, if you want to give the players a challenge that they cannot defeat at this time, don't give them a challenge that is just barely within their capability to defeat. Give them one they cannot defeat. But give them plenty of notice of this. And allow for them to back out, or to attempt it and fail, without destroying the campaign. (But with SOME visible consequence.)

Having a TPK not destroy the campaign can take a bit of creativity.

In this case (as a suggestion), the terminus of the tunnel where they *entered* it has moved. If they run away from the unbeatable encounter, they end up at the different location - which is neither better nor worse from the standpoint of the campaign, but is different and presents them with some inconvenience. Those who are killed in the unbeatable encounter awaken at the different location, cannot enter or even detect the tunnel, and suffer an additional consequence such as a phobia.

My concern here is that if the party has no way to win, it's a waste of time rolling dice.

Regarding the consequence, I had already thought that if the party elects to flee, the reach a fork in the tunnel that didn't exist when they came down it the other way, triggering a skill challenge to navigate the Shadowfell and find the portal back to Sigil. Success means they return with several hours remaining before the timer runs out on their main quest, partial success leaves them mere minutes, and failure means the ritual they must stop in the final encounter is already partially complete.

If one or more (but not all) PCs die, the skill challenge would essentially play out the same, with the purpose of reuniting the party.

If you want to throw a fight that the party should run from, it has to be an overwhelming monster. Something obviously unbeatable, something so powerful that the party will realize after a turn or two that they are not really hurting it at all. Just make sure the party can run, make the monster painfully slow or fixed in location and don't give it any attacks that grab/slow/immobilize. Adventurers are not generally inclined to run from a fight and used to facing apparently overwhelming odds, and players are often even less inclined to flee. The first time they run into a fight they can't win, you have to make it painful clear cut that they can't win.

As I said above, I'm not keen to offer an encounter that is literally impossible to overcome. I'm happy with a hundred-to-one shot. Something that will leave me gobsmacked if the players pull it off.

The problem I see here is that you can't really blame the party for taking too long when there wasn't a clear cut sign that they needed to hurry. With a party of inexperienced and indecisive players, you need to spell these things out. If you wanted to make clear that he died because they took too long, there should have been some clear cut sign on his body. Stick a note on his body to the effect that summoning took X hours, and the party would have arrived there long before that if they had not stopped to rest.

I thought the NPC pleading with them to hurry because she believed her brother to be in mortal danger and the evidence that one or more demons had been summoned to his location was a pretty clear cut sign. I didn't, however, back it up with a sign on the other end that said, 'Here lies the NPC you were asked to save, who died while you were getting your beauty sleep.' I was hoping the Speak with Dead ritual would let me offer that information, but alas the questions were quite specific and mostly useless. In hindsight I should have given the information anyway, before any questions were asked.

If you're playing a prepared game and not simply improvising everything, this is what your players should expect.

I see what you're saying, but I don't want to end up in a situation where playing a prepared game means I'm improvising nothing. Maybe until I have a better handle on it I'll just have to say 'you can do that if you want, but it's not going to help you complete your quest'. What I really want, though, is a way to say that to the characters rather than the players.
A hundred-to-one odds is pretty much the same as no shot; it's equally a waste of time to roll dice.


I think for what you want to do, I'd run the entire encounter as a skill challenge.  Escape or get eaten.  (Of course, 'get eaten' isn't the same as 'everyone dies', as you pointed out, you can just have them mark off a few healing surges each and wake up in the belly of the beast before fighting their way out.)

I'd work it like the skill challenge in Dead by Dawn.  Pick your key skills (I'd probably go with Arcana, Thievery, Athletics, Insight; I like to spread key skills across attributes to make sure everyone can contribute, and these seem like skills that would help with 'get away from the Cthulhu'), make checks, and if no one makes a relevant check in a round, an automatic failure occurs.  In that way, if the PCs stand and fight, you can describe how their attacks don't seem to be hurting it at all and how it's lifting one of them to its mouth right now, as they accrue failures.
The difference between madness and genius is determined only by degrees of success.
I see what you're saying, but I don't want to end up in a situation where playing a prepared game means I'm improvising nothing. Maybe until I have a better handle on it I'll just have to say 'you can do that if you want, but it's not going to help you complete your quest'. What I really want, though, is a way to say that to the characters rather than the players.



That's rarely a concern. Even the most prepared DM must improvise. You could publish most of my notes as-is including formatting and someone else could run my adventures cold. I still end up making stuff up on the fly all the time. That's just the nature of the game. There's no escaping it.

The method I suggest has the added benefit of getting your players to understand that their choices are meaningful. At the end of last session they said they wanted to hit the dungeon. Next week, first thing, they're heading into the dungeon. At the end of that session, they decide to go back to town to sell their wares. Next session, you kick off a city adventure you prepared. Not only does this allow you the time to come up with some good stuff, it's what they chose to do. You players will quickly understand that they are as much a part of telling the story as you are. It then just becomes a matter of pacing.

As far as telling them that a particular choice won't help them complete their quest, just tell the players if that's what you want to do. It's a big waste of time to beat around the bush. And if you use the method I describe, it won't come up very much because they'll understand if they want to make a choice that's going to lead to new adventures, you need the time to get it ready. But they still get to make the choice. 

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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In my opinion, crowscape has the right idea.

that being said, i'll attempt to give you some ideas for how to accomplish your goal at this moment, whatever it may be (still left a little unclear after reading your post).

1. if you want a dangerous, unappealing encounter with chance of death that the party will not enjoy.

use a level+5 solo....solos seem dreadfully easy for parties to beat on their own, only really coming into their own with a few other monsters to liven up the fight.  a level+5 solo will have defenses high enough to make the encounter tedious, attack rolls high enough to be deadly, but if its mobility is LIMITED (not removed), it can still drive them off if they aren't lucky enough with the die rolls.

2. if you want a non-dangerous, unappealing encounter....an on-level solo brute is a wonderful time-waster.....its a big sack of hit points that gets fairly easily shut down by status effects and defenders.

3. if you want a dangerous, FUN encounter with potential for plot (counter-productive to "teaching a lesson" - but potentially good for the story)

make it an on-level controller solo with homemade abilities (include an escape mechanism or two, some forced movement and some negative status effects that favor the other monsters).  also consider making it a "leader" with possibly some standard actions that let multiples of its friends attack.....here's the kicker btw:  its friends are soldiers and lurkers....but what's more, they are plot devices.  Use whatever you need here: did the distraught merchant perhaps hire some OTHER people to get her brother? are these poor souls now corrupted corpses or mindslaves to a giant spider or mind-flayer?  Are they perhaps soldiers of the town, similarly corrupted after accidentally stumbling in here?  failed experiments of the demon....or his boss?

4. If you simply want to scare the bejeezus out of them....

they are rolling initiative after running into a wall.....which then "opened" up and revealed an eyeball....OH NOES! they've stumbled onto the tarrasque! the tarrasque is just waking up and they get a good sporting 5-10 round head start if they want to run....but they have no chance in hell of killing it, and it WILL burrow after them and 1-shot each of them.



personally i think options 1 and 2 are terrible.  Option 4 is so-so (doesn't really have any story meaning and just serves to be a time-wasting way to railroad them back).  Option 3, if coupled with a dead end (or teleportation circle or something to show that it IS a place that people come to, but the party can't use it right NOW) can potentially kick start your story back into gear.  Odds are that the merchant IS going to become something of a long-term enemy - the encounter in the tunnel might serve some comic story importance (they PCs are then tasked with finding the missing town guards....uhhh...) or more likely a way to cement clues that were missed before....don't make it something to be searched for, make it part of the description!  for example, the bodies are bloated and misshapen in a way that suggests ______.  Or there are tattered shreds of a journal lying about that seem to refer to a ______.  After all, you must remember that you have a much grander view of this story than they do.  Sure, its the players job to seek information and story, but they don't always know the best places or times to do that....they might take hours inquiring and researching and investigating a seemingly meaningless thing (or cave complex) simply because they MIGHT need to interact with it to move the story further.             

btw - just something i thought of that MIGHT come up, and you should probably have a contingency.

The party was tasked to rescue someone....they were paid to.  If they were paid 100% up front, the merchant might demand her money back (party might refuse, city guards called, PCs make a fight of it?? and now PCs are outlaws in a totally unplanned turn of events)....or if they were NOT paid 100% up front, i could see non-gamer specifically, due to your description of him, demanding the rest of the payment from the merchant, who not only thinks they didn't do their jobs, but also thinks that their apathy probably directly lead to her brother's death.  She will likely refuse....and again, from what i've HEARD of non-gamer, might he not attack her for the money?  won't that provoke a reaction from the guards and either kill the party or make them supreme outlaws?

again, this might not happen, but depending on the actions of the NPCs and/or the players, it couldn't hurt to plan for something like this.     
So it's not meaningful choices that I'm lacking. The difficulty I'm having is making the choices clear to my players. I had hoped/assumed I wouldn't have to spoon feed them clues. But I suppose instead of just saying 'you notice a rolled up piece of paper protruding from the dead dwarf's pocket', I should be adding 'and in reading it, you discover that blah blah blah.' Is this kind of hand-holding common? Am I expecting too much?

No, not really. If they found a note and didn't read it, you should probably ask them why? If to many cursed scrolls have been dropped in front of them, they might be afraid to read random notes. More likely, they didn't realize the significance at the time and forgot about it later. In that sort of situation, actually writting out the note and giving it to them can help.

As I said above, I'm not keen to offer an encounter that is literally impossible to overcome. I'm happy with a hundred-to-one shot. Something that will leave me gobsmacked if the players pull it off.

That is very dangerous thinking on the part of the a DM because it results in encounters that feel like they might be able to win to the party, when in truth they don't really have a significant chance. If your going to put the party into a fight they are not likely to win, it's better that the fight be fast and brutal then a long drawn out mess.

If you do let the party have a chance it can easily make the situation worse. The party is going to get into an epic battle with this creature, risking their lives (at least they think they are) only to reach the terribly anticlimatic conlusion of discovering that it didn't matter at all, or they will spend their time trying to figure out the significance of the battle and get even further distracted from the actually important stuff.

As for being a waste of time, it is only a waste if the point was the party defeating the monster. If the goal is the group having fun and learning something, you can achive that without the party 'winning' the fight. However, the waste of time factor is also a good reason to make the monster overwhelming, the more powerful the monster the less time it is going to take for the party to flee or die.

I thought the NPC pleading with them to hurry because she believed her brother to be in mortal danger and the evidence that one or more demons had been summoned to his location was a pretty clear cut sign.

Adventurers deal with people whining to them about this or that problem all the time and saying they must hurry  Usually it doesn't mean anything, and can be safely discounted. It isn't as true in a table top RPG then in a CRPG, but it still often the case. Without some actually observable time limit, I don't see where the they had any reason to rush. If the NPC said they threatened to kill my brother in one hour when they summon a demon, then it's an obvious time limit. Much less then that isn't, particularly with a party that you already noticed is indecisive and uncertain about what to do.

Jay


That is very dangerous thinking on the part of the a DM because it results in encounters that feel like they might be able to win to the party, when in truth they don't really have a significant chance. If your going to put the party into a fight they are not likely to win, it's better that the fight be fast and brutal then a long drawn out mess.

If you do let the party have a chance it can easily make the situation worse. The party is going to get into an epic battle with this creature, risking their lives (at least they think they are) only to reach the terribly anticlimatic conlusion of discovering that it didn't matter at all, or they will spend their time trying to figure out the significance of the battle and get even further distracted from the actually important stuff.



100% agree... if the conclusion is foregone, skip the foreplay. Given limited hours per week to play, I'd be disgruntled if the DM wasted my time. Just tell me we lost because of [interesting story reason here] and what exciting things we're going to do about it in the aftermath. I can definitely get behind that. A lot of otherwise good DMs out there get caught up in logical distinctions that X must happen because the PCs did Y. Therefore, an impossible encounter is required because, you know, it's logical. In my logical world where magic is real.
 
Wrong. For every logical reason something "must" occur, I can come up with twice as many more compelling, consistent results that don't arrive at the same conclusion. If I can do it, so can everyone else.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character     Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!

FREE CONTENT: Encounters With Alternate Goals | Full-Contact Futbol  |  Pre-Gen D&D 5e PCs | Re-Imagining Phandelver | Three Pillars of Immersion | Seahorse Run

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

I'd actually make your 'uber' encounter something realtively benign. Something scary to look at but actually easy to kill. Then when they realise 'hang on this was a bit too easy' maybe they will realise it had nothing to do with the main plot.



That's what I first thought as well. Following the advice of others, if the point is to only scare them with something nearly impossible, you might as well not have that encounter at all. I'd suggest something a tad different though:


Not everything in the world is a threat nor all that interesting. Even though it is a world of fantasy, there are some things that still are considered rather mundane, like wildlife. Your players don't know that yet, but maybe they've just rolled initiative against a small, harmless creature that uses Ghost Sound to scare away would-be predators. They've stumbled upon its dwelling, a featureless cave (a dead-end), and it's just trying to frighten the PCs.


The PCs should realize by themselves they've wasted their time with something pointless. If you keep placing great dangers and monsters in their path, they might think they're going in the right direction or neglect other duties to look for something else (that might not be there).


On top of that, "The Shadow-Bunny-Rabbit-of-Ghost-Sound" makes for a much more entertaining and memorable anecdote than "The Tentacle Monster We Couldn't Kill", IMO. Better yet, you'll avoid the "We'll come back here after we've gained a few levels" response, which I would expect from the video gamers.

A hundred-to-one odds is pretty much the same as no shot; it's equally a waste of time to roll dice.


I think for what you want to do, I'd run the entire encounter as a skill challenge.  Escape or get eaten.  (Of course, 'get eaten' isn't the same as 'everyone dies', as you pointed out, you can just have them mark off a few healing surges each and wake up in the belly of the beast before fighting their way out.)

I'd work it like the skill challenge in Dead by Dawn.  Pick your key skills (I'd probably go with Arcana, Thievery, Athletics, Insight; I like to spread key skills across attributes to make sure everyone can contribute, and these seem like skills that would help with 'get away from the Cthulhu'), make checks, and if no one makes a relevant check in a round, an automatic failure occurs.  In that way, if the PCs stand and fight, you can describe how their attacks don't seem to be hurting it at all and how it's lifting one of them to its mouth right now, as they accrue failures.

The point I was trying to make was the same as yours; using dice to determine the outcome when only one possibility exists is a waste of time. The skill challenge idea is good though. I took a look at Dead by Dawn and that could work nicely.

The method I suggest has the added benefit of getting your players to understand that their choices are meaningful. At the end of last session they said they wanted to hit the dungeon. Next week, first thing, they're heading into the dungeon. At the end of that session, they decide to go back to town to sell their wares. Next session, you kick off a city adventure you prepared. Not only does this allow you the time to come up with some good stuff, it's what they chose to do. You players will quickly understand that they are as much a part of telling the story as you are. It then just becomes a matter of pacing.

That's mostly how it has worked. Until everyone has a good grip on their characters I can only count on one combat encounter per session. Unfortunately the encounter in the cave wrapped up relatively quickly and we still had plenty of time. I didn't want to start the next encounter because nobody really likes ending a session in the middle of a fight.

So I suppose that's why I was happy to let the party meander around for a while, but I struggled when they didn't reach the conclusion that their spelunking wasn't doing them much good. If I did it again I'd just have described them finding the next clue without waiting for them to say explicitly that they're looking for one.

As far as telling them that a particular choice won't help them complete their quest, just tell the players if that's what you want to do. It's a big waste of time to beat around the bush. And if you use the method I describe, it won't come up very much because they'll understand if they want to make a choice that's going to lead to new adventures, you need the time to get it ready. But they still get to make the choice. 

I think I was reluctant to do that because it feels like metagaming and railroading all in one. But it's probably still better than having the players realise after the fact that they've been heading towards a dead-end. And again it relies on the pacing of the game in order to avoid me having to wing it in the middle of a session.

4. If you simply want to scare the bejeezus out of them....

they are rolling initiative after running into a wall.....which then "opened" up and revealed an eyeball....OH NOES! they've stumbled onto the tarrasque! the tarrasque is just waking up and they get a good sporting 5-10 round head start if they want to run....but they have no chance in hell of killing it, and it WILL burrow after them and 1-shot each of them.

I like this idea a lot, especially as a kick-off to the skill challenge ankiyavon suggested. Maybe the tarrasque, maybe not, but an eyeball the size of a house has to be attached to something pretty big. If it comes back to haunt them later in the campaign then the party's little side-trek ends up having some meaning after all.

After all, you must remember that you have a much grander view of this story than they do.  Sure, its the players job to seek information and story, but they don't always know the best places or times to do that....they might take hours inquiring and researching and investigating a seemingly meaningless thing (or cave complex) simply because they MIGHT need to interact with it to move the story further.

That seems to be the main theme. If I need the party to obtain some information, I need to ram it down their throats. Not just offer multiple avenues to finding the clue, but actually take the reins of the PCs and say 'you search the corpse and find item X, which on close inspection reveals something terribly interesting'.

The party was tasked to rescue someone....they were paid to.  If they were paid 100% up front, the merchant might demand her money back (party might refuse, city guards called, PCs make a fight of it?? and now PCs are outlaws in a totally unplanned turn of events)....or if they were NOT paid 100% up front, i could see non-gamer specifically, due to your description of him, demanding the rest of the payment from the merchant, who not only thinks they didn't do their jobs, but also thinks that their apathy probably directly lead to her brother's death.  She will likely refuse....and again, from what i've HEARD of non-gamer, might he not attack her for the money?  won't that provoke a reaction from the guards and either kill the party or make them supreme outlaws?

They were paid up front, but in my head the merchant has written it off as a loss. As far as the players know, she has given up on them and has disappeared to find someone more helpful. I have plenty of ideas on how that could come back to bite the party down the track.

If they found a note and didn't read it, you should probably ask them why? If to many cursed scrolls have been dropped in front of them, they might be afraid to read random notes. More likely, they didn't realize the significance at the time and forgot about it later. In that sort of situation, actually writting out the note and giving it to them can help.

I did ask. The answer was along the lines of 'we're not concerned about it right now'. I wondered if the players (or one in particular) were testing me out to see what I would do if they went in the wrong direction. This was at the same time as them refusing to enter the tavern that at least five clues in a row had pointed them to. Physical props would certainly have helped.

That is very dangerous thinking on the part of the a DM because it results in encounters that feel like they might be able to win to the party, when in truth they don't really have a significant chance. If your going to put the party into a fight they are not likely to win, it's better that the fight be fast and brutal then a long drawn out mess.

If you do let the party have a chance it can easily make the situation worse. The party is going to get into an epic battle with this creature, risking their lives (at least they think they are) only to reach the terribly anticlimatic conlusion of discovering that it didn't matter at all, or they will spend their time trying to figure out the significance of the battle and get even further distracted from the actually important stuff.

As for being a waste of time, it is only a waste if the point was the party defeating the monster. If the goal is the group having fun and learning something, you can achive that without the party 'winning' the fight. However, the waste of time factor is also a good reason to make the monster overwhelming, the more powerful the monster the less time it is going to take for the party to flee or die.

Yes, it's probably asking too much for an encounter that's overwhelming but not impossible. I guess rolling dice without a realistic chance of success is worth it if the point is to educate the players. As long as it doesn't take too long, of course.
I'd actually make your 'uber' encounter something realtively benign. Something scary to look at but actually easy to kill. Then when they realise 'hang on this was a bit too easy' maybe they will realise it had nothing to do with the main plot.



That's what I first thought as well. Following the advice of others, if the point is to only scare them with something nearly impossible, you might as well not have that encounter at all. I'd suggest something a tad different though:


Not everything in the world is a threat nor all that interesting. Even though it is a world of fantasy, there are some things that still are considered rather mundane, like wildlife. Your players don't know that yet, but maybe they've just rolled initiative against a small, harmless creature that uses Ghost Sound to scare away would-be predators. They've stumbled upon its dwelling, a featureless cave (a dead-end), and it's just trying to frighten the PCs.


The PCs should realize by themselves they've wasted their time with something pointless. If you keep placing great dangers and monsters in their path, they might think they're going in the right direction or neglect other duties to look for something else (that might not be there).


On top of that, "The Shadow-Bunny-Rabbit-of-Ghost-Sound" makes for a much more entertaining and memorable anecdote than "The Tentacle Monster We Couldn't Kill", IMO. Better yet, you'll avoid the "We'll come back here after we've gained a few levels" response, which I would expect from the video gamers.


Hmm. That actually appeals very much. Whatever is in the cave had a pretty dramatic build-up, and the players will have had three weeks to wonder what's behind the curtain for the next session. If it turns out that it's a filthy hermit with a monstrous illusion, that could be an amusing diversion, while clearly demonstrating that not all paths lead to the completion of a quest.

And if the party decides to help him, a skill challenge to navigate the shifting tunnels back to the original cave later and the party has an ally. Maybe he's an old sage who just needs some dried frog pills to regain his marbles and provide assistance in future.

Oh crikey now I'm getting off track!

I think you ought to be careful to give them an ally in this case. The vibe I got from this thread is that you wanted to "punish" (for lack of a better word) your players for straying from the main path and/or not focusing on their task. Giving them an allied NPC would be rewarding them for that behaviour instead. If you could tie that NPC to the main/over-arching plot, however, you can use it to get them back where you want them.


Oh crikey now I'm getting off track!


Heh, I like getting off-track; I find that's when I come up with the better scenarios.

How about they come across an inn for lost souls - in fact, there are several people there that they may have recently killed , including the brother that they were supposed to rescue.  

This way they can get some of the info that they were supposed get earlier and get back on track, rest as much as they want... 

Now if only they could find some way out of the house, since it doesn't seem like it wants them to leave.  Ever.  

CREEPY  HOUSE FTW

Sometimes, it's better to really shake your guys up with something freaky rather than something they can just bash with a sword. 

(actually, make it explicit that once they entered that they can't get back to the shadowfell now - but there might be exits to other places..)

Edit:  Continuing the theme: http://nevermetpress.com/oroborus-university-inn-without-end

I especially like the following:  Corpse – A character is navigating the Maze) and while doing so encounters their own corpse in an advance state of decay. If they loot their own pockets, they may be surprised by what they find (roll a random, level appropriate magic item).

Edit 2:
The house will not let them leave physically, so one of the ways to "earn" their way out is to actually convince some of the people that they've killed in the past are actually dead (they don't know that they're dead, they just think they're in an inn..)  -
This forces the players to confront the results of their previous actions. 

If they manage NPC's in the wrong way, or if they try to outright kill people, then the fight becomes a skill check challenge (for the sake of brevity) and given that they win, the inn just "resets"  and restores the scenario to the way it was when the players came in.  The ghosts don't remember that they talked to the players. 

Point being - "You're in the Inn of Lost Souls, a waystation for the damned on their way to the Queen of Death.  Killing people here doesn't mean anything because they are already dead. So what are you doing to do?"

Also, getting in a fight could wake up the "innkeeper" in the floor above, which could be an avatar of the Raven Queen or something.. If they're spoiling  a serious fight. 

I think you ought to be careful to give them an ally in this case. The vibe I got from this thread is that you wanted to "punish" (for lack of a better word) your players for straying from the main path and/or not focusing on their task. Giving them an allied NPC would be rewarding them for that behaviour instead. If you could tie that NPC to the main/over-arching plot, however, you can use it to get them back where you want them.



I didn't mean a companion or anything of that nature. Or even an immediately apparent reward. I was thinking that down the track when I need to hand the party a friendly NPC it could be that guy they rescued from the cave in the Shadowfell. They'll marvel at my brilliance in having them rescue him in the first place. Or something like that. 

CREEPY  HOUSE FTW

I don't want to take the players completely off track just yet. But I really like the idea and I think I'll use it when the party returns to the Shadowfell. Thanks!