Content of the article: "Having an regular issue with your game? It might not be you. It might not be your players. It might be your campaign."
Thought I'd share my story and the resolution. Maybe it'll help some of you struggling DMs out there.
I was a new DM with 6 new players, 1 veteran player. One of the new players was the architect of the group and he was just finding people to play. We all knew each other from back when we were in college, so it was a good fit. I volunteered to be DM and a start date was picked. The veteran player suggested I look into LMoP as a good baseline, and he said he would help the new players make their characters.
From there, I began to learn the rules and research how to DM. What to know, how much to plan. I got a lot of good info from this subreddit and from other online resources, and I began to craft an understanding of what the game of 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons looks like when played. We had a Session 0, even though I had a very good sense of what the players were comfortable with, content-wise. I asked questions about playstyle too, and they (as new players) mostly did not know how to answer the stuff like "what balance of roleplay/combat do you prefer?" So I opted to go for the standard D&D 5e approach, following the lead of LMoP, though tweaking the encounters to fit more in line with what a 7 player party would expect. I had 1-on-1 sessions to learn their backstories and to learn the type of characters they wanted to play. I wound their backstories together, creating a main plot that each of them could get attached to and invested in. I planned moral dilemmas and intrigue. I was ready.
And, almost immediately, the game was rocky. At first, I thought it was just the normal first-time issues (or normal issues with the fact that 7 players is a huge party), like issues with figuring out how to interact with the world and what things are actions vs. bonus actions. But after the first half-dozen sessions, I began to take notice of a number of very core issues with the way my players were playing the game. The paladin and cleric never used any subclass abilities, nor did the paladin ever use divine smite. The low-health sorcerer was constantly being the first into the fray and getting knocked almost immediately in combat. The rogue took arcane trickster with a spellcasting modifier of -1. One character tried to abduct his young cousin and seriously injured his aunt. The party constantly split up, and players constantly forgot the basic plot. The sessions moved very slowly, due to a combination of players not knowing their options in combat and due to suboptimal gameplay causing fights to drag. The list continues.
My first instinct was to try to help the players. Clearly, this is a complicated game, and, just because I have a good grasp on the rules, that does not mean that I should expect my players to have that same understanding, right? I gave them talks about basic combat strategies and how to play to each character's strengths. I collated the relevant rules so that they would have a better understanding of how to play. I began maintaining a notes document of information they were given to help them remember the game. In other words, I started trying to give them easy access to the relevant information they needed to play the game.
It didn't help. Players were levelling up incorrectly, i.e. they weren't increasing their max hit points past level 1. The party went to an unrelated city (Neverwinter) for a few sessions and wandered around, doing nothing. The party walked into a dragon's lair and taunted it, despite constant warnings both in and out of game about how dangerous it was.
Now, none of these things are by themselves indicative of bad players or bad gameplay. But I hope they show the problem that I was having — my players were not diving into the game of 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. They had each gravitated to their own single strategy in combat and were constantly reusing it, regardless of how effective it was, so that I had to significantly unbalance encounters in their favor to avoid wiping them out. They didn't care about their own character's backstories or intentions or alignment — they were just doing whatever they thought an "edgy rogue" or an "awkward sorcerer" would do.
After the twelfth session, I texted one of my players: am I trying too hard? Should I just let the players do their own thing and if they die or forget the plot or don't care about their characters, then I should just let them do it? And, to my surprise, my player responded with frustration. That, even with all the help, they felt like the game was "homework" or a "job" and that they were playing "suboptimally" by not doing stuff like using their subclass abilities or having the correct hit points. They wanted to play the game just as much as I did, but they didn't know how. Even at our slow pace, the game was a lot for them to learn. I also learned that the "veteran player" who was supposed to help them create their characters actually just sent them unhelpful YouTube videos (like JoCrap's stuff which, while entertaining, is terrible for educational purposes). Like, he had told the Paladin that charisma was a dump stat, meaning she had had only one spell that she could use. They were set up to fail from the start, since they didn't have a good set of resources to learn from. And I as a new DM could only plug so many holes in the sinking ship.
I thought I needed to teach my players how to play 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. My players thought that they would not be able to meet the expectations and the rules of 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. We were both right, but the solution was wrong.
Imagine that you are playing chess, but the other player is playing by the rule that the queen can only move one space at a time. And, no matter how many times you would tell the other player that the queen could move extra spaces, they still would not follow that rule. You can either play the game for them — pointing out when they can move the queen extra spaces, telling them the actual way to play, reminding them of opportunities to use that skill. Or you can dumb down the game to their level, where you follow this new nerfed rule in order to make the game more fair. But, regardless of what happens, you are going to be frustrated that you can't play the game and they are going to be frustrated that they can't play the game. In the end, the issue is not you nor is it the player. The issue is the game that is getting in the way of fun.
I had structured the campaign as a 5th edition Dungeons and Dragon campaign "should" be structured, i.e. a combination of interwoven plot stories, moral ambiguity, etc., with fun side quests and encounters. But that wasn't what the group wanted. Because even though we had a Session 0 where I asked about content and structure, I never asked about expectations. I never asked about what the group wanted to experience and why they wanted to play the game. And even though the campaign itself was (probably) fine in isolation, it was wrong for the group.
My solution: I pitched them the idea to scrap the whole campaign and start fresh with a completely new game in a new setting. Low magic, modified rules for less notekeeping, no perma-death. Homebrew world in one fixed city. No interwoven backstories. Much more casual. And the group was super enthusiastic. Frustrations were alleviated and people seemed more eager to get back into the game. Since that change, DMing has gone much more smoothly and it clearly is much more fun for the people involved. It's not really 5th editions Dungeons and Dragons anymore, but it is what fits my group better.
Not every group can play every campaign. That doesn't mean the campaign is bad. It might not be your DM'ing that is causing your group to have frustration and issues. It might not be your player's game knowledge or their investment that is causing them to not engage with the game fully. It might just be that your campaign is mismatch in expectations between what your group wants and what your game requires.
- When can I finally say “That is rude behaviour” to one of my players?
- Let your PCs be awesome… and don’t let any PCs into your game whom you don’t want to be awesome.
- Know what kind of campaign you’re running, and know your players.
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