Dungeons & Dragons Online

[CoS] Dealing with Player Frustraton

Running CoS as my first full campaign as a DM and I have had a couple scenarios now where my players have mis-read a social situation and been upset by the fallout of it. I am trying to understand if they are upset with me as the DM, or with circumstances, and if the frustration is beneficial to the game or not.

Example: A wild magic barbarian/wild magic sorcerer PC came across some low-level Wachter cultists performing a "ritual", and through a combination of circumstances they become convinced he was a God/Fey/Demon that they had summoned into this realm and readily worshipped him. This player likes to be the center of attention and specifically said he went out looking for "anything weird" and I figured this would play into the Wachter storyline pretty well — Ernst was already watching the party and knew who they were – which means Wachter did, too. The cultists were eager to present their new lord and master to her, at which point she and her inner circle would have a private meeting to discuss how they knew that they were just adventurers, but they could use this to their advantage to take down Vallakovich. I thought the party would love it, thought it was a fun twist on things – he gets to keep pretending to be a powerful being to help recruit cultists, they get to advance Vallaki story; win/win.

As an added wrinkle, the bard got caught sneaking around the Blue Water Inn and in a panic, cast sleep on Danika only to be caught by Urwin. He managed to convince them he had a good reason and they set up a meeting with the keepers of the feather that would take place a couple hours after the cult's big meeting, ensuring they would be pressed for time. The party knew this going in. I thought this added some stakes and would present some neat organic moments for them to make impactful decisions.

So, the result was they spent a whole session playing dress-up with the Sorc/Barb. "God" getting him ready for the big gathering in Wachter's basement- tracking down make-up and clothes to make him appear intimidating. Once they got to the meeting and Ernst, who was disguised as the lead cultist, and the "inner circle" made it clear that they knew he wasn't a God and lady Wachter would be in shortly — the barbarian/sorcerer doubled-down and kept insisting that they worship him. They explained explicitly which gate the party came in from and where they were staying in town and that they didn't have to pretend – Wachter wanted to work with them.

Then Sorc/Barb raged and rolled teleportation on the wild magic table and tried to choke-slam. Ernst resisted and Majesto, invisible in the corner, started screeching to alert Wachter that things had gone awry. She summoned the skeletons outside of the cult's secret room in secret and then entered the room herself to try to de-escalate things– excusing everyone but her and the party as a show of good faith.

The Cleric cast see invisibility and saw Majesto and tried (and failed) to blast him off Wachter's shoulder (Several party members were very confused by the aggression). Convinced she still had the upper hand, Wachter backed out of the secret door and fled to the stair-case exit to outside while cultists and skeletons filled the room to put distance between her and the party. The bard, a bastion of reason, saw the army outside and stepped out to ask what she wanted and she explained her plan and suggested her allegiance with Strahd. Party suggested maybe we can work with and then betray her– and then promptly said "Nah." and fought their way out, during which, Wachter fled warning the party that Strahd would bring ruin upon the town if she were hurt (Only to be kidnapped by Von Richten right outside and taken to his cart for interrogation).

The party realized they were short on time to get to the meeting with the Keepers of the Feather and decided the only option was to forego looting Wachterhaus and run to that meeting.

I was really happy with how things worked out, thought it created some really interesting and unexpected threads – though I was worried the party would think they could just steamroll Vallaki after defeating like 16 enemies.

Some of the party, on the other hand, seemed really disappointed and upset. The feedback I got was:

  1. The felt lied to – they thought the cult was going to worship them in the basement and felt like the rug was pulled out from them when the Ernst and Wachter knew better.
  2. They felt like I railed-roaded them into abandoning Wachterhaus without exploring by setting up the keeper of the feathers meeting the same night
  3. They were wildly inconsistent as to whether they understood that Wachter was trying to work with them or not. Some said that wasn't clear at all, others said it was abundantly clear.

I am a fairly sensitive person and feel super guilty if I'm taking up everyone's time and then they leave upset. I took the feedback in stride and tried to be more transparent by being explicit about what they learned post-conversation. (Example: You learned the bones of Andral were stolen and Lucian suspects Milivoj) they have said they would rather be free to just make the mistakes and see where things go- but with the example I provided and another long instance I won't go into, they were frustrated when I left them to their own devices.

Twice, a player has been in an important conversation with an NPC, gotten frustrated that they weren't getting the desired information they wanted through guileless brute force (30 seconds after meeting Father Lucian: Where are the bones kept? How do we get them? If we join the church will you tell us? How about now?) and said, "Yeah, this sucks, I give up."

What's especially confusing is that they definitely seem to be enjoying the game otherwise, and make it clear even with the feedback that they are having fun and are stoked for the next session – but I can tell when they get frustrated in the moment. These aren't players who are just interested in murder-hobo'ing their way through stuff; they are interested in roleplay and do a fine job of it, but they just.. take away the wrong things from important moments.

Last night during the Feast of St. Andral during the vampire spawn attack, the bard saw an opportunity to thunderwave and damage a vampire, but also take out the burgomaster and his family (Izek was busy kidnapping Ireena, so no perceived threat). During an insanely traumatic event, Victor Vallakovich saw his mother's head smashed against the church wall and his father sent flying through the air into a column, landing a sobbing mess of broken bones. He screamed for several rounds of combat, and then flew into a rage and summoned all of his magical ability, casting cone of cold directly on the bard — also catching another party member and Szoldar and Yevgeny in the blast (and a vamp spawn). Everyone in the blast but the party members died -though they were frozen solid and thawed.

The bard was pissed that he did "one murder hobo thing" and felt like he got supremely punished for it. Referencing lady Wachter being a spellcaster with an army and at no point did she destroy the party like that. I pointed out she was either not as powerful as Victor, or perhaps a bit more tactful in displaying it – and that Victor just watched his parents be ripped apart by his character during a traumatic event and reacted like a spoiled child with access to powerful magic would.

I feel like I'm constantly having to defend decisions that make perfect sense to me and just piss off the people I'm trying to make this fun for. Even when "bad" stuff happens, I try to make it fun for them, tie it back into their story– give them items and threads and new opportunities from it. But I sometimes feel like we're speaking different languages.

Is this a common thing for anyone else? Am I being unreasonable here? Over-sensitive?

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