How To Lose Friends And Alienate Players

The Beginning of the End

So the last you all heard from me, my game was falling apart because of this post. I was aware of possible repercussions when I wrote it but, honestly thought none of my players would actually read it. It was therapeutic at the time and while I have no regrets in writing it, it was rather one sided and rash. I really should have made it a two part post, detailing my gripes and then following up by detailing my own missteps in being a DM (and a friend).

So, quite a few days late and and many dollars short I’m here to do exactly that, hoping that my experience can help someone else keep from pushing the self-destruct button on their own campaign. It won’t turn back the clock or give me my group back, but I can at least have peace of mind knowing I openly admitted I was a dick, and hopefully at least one of you out there can benefit from my follies in some way.

Parting Ways

I ruined D&D. Our game night was the only night my friends and I had to all get together and unwind, shoot the shit and talk about our ever-changing adult lives, work, kids, you name it. I took that away from us, I took it away because I didn’t want to unwind, I wanted to run SuperSeriousLoft Dungeons & Dragons. Subjecting my friends to my very narrow view of entertainment, permanently wedged somewhere between Nightmare Before Christmas and Dawn of the Dead.

I didn’t want laughs, gnome jokes, dragons or even many dungeons. I just wanted to evoke an atmosphere of bleak hopelessness, stark reminders that everything within the game kinda sucked and that there was no escape, that it was only a matter of time before death claimed them. Its a shame that description bears so closely to our own reality. This alone is one of the many problems that contributed to me ruining my own game, along with not having any sort of group cohesion, big picture collaboration, open communication channels or ensuring that real life was always separated from game time.

Our group started small, it grew from there and took in many members for at least a handful of sessions, but at its core were the 4 of us – myself, my wife, my best friend and his wife. Our group swelled to 6 players at times and we had no real method of integrating new people and phasing old ones out, which is also something I should have handled a bit more gracefully. Granted there are numerous things that probably contributed to the innerworkings of all the why and how here, but I’m not going to talk about them because this is a gaming blog after all, not Livejournal. Anyway, let’s get onto the actual advice, shall we?

Fix Your Game (And That Bad Attitude)

What this all boiled down to, for me was one simple statement: I should have been playing “our” game, not mine. I found it easy to get wrapped up in what I was into, my wants and desires took precedence over all of the players.

For example, they wanted a hideout to call their own, it probably took me 6 sessions to get it written into the story because their idea of taking over the tavern in Barovia as their home base wasn’t to my liking. But this was only the tip of the giant misty icebergs folks, behold my bulleted pearls of hindsight driven wisdom:

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  • Before you start a new campaign have a session or two dedicated to just deciding what kind of game everyone wants to play. This alone can help tremendously, setting your campaign in a solid foundation can only help bolster it against these sorts of dramatic things as time goes on. My biggest regret of my Ravenloft campaign was saying “we’re going to play in Ravenloft. It will be awesome” instead of “How does Ravenloft sound to you guys?”
  • Make sure your players are happy with the class they are playing, a player ‘settling’ to play a certain class is bad news. Chances are that somewhere midway through your game they will grow unhappy and lose interest in the game. There are more than enough choices to pick from, try and include this in your pre-planning sessions to ensure everyone is happy.
  • Taking a page from Micah Wedemeyer‘s book, set up your sessions an hour or half an hour early to get all the BS’ing out of the way ahead of time. All that talk about work, youtube videos and kids can mostly be unclogged from everyone’s brains before hand, allowing for more focus on the game when the time actually comes.
  • Every session, bring your best game to the table. To take directly from Mike Shea’s book: “The most important adventure you will ever run is your very next one“. Don’t plan sessions far ahead, your players will have strayed too much from your idealized path by then. Surely don’t do as I did and prep sessions 6 hours before the game started, you wind up with random, uninspired, senseless drivel. Block out a time to prep your game and stick to it.
  • A direct result of poor planning meant most of my combat encounters felt flat, make sure every combat has purpose within your story. Why are the enemies there and what do they want? Have them behave as they would, taking opportunity attacks and running away when things don’t go their way. Include skill challenges during combat so there is more to think about than just which power they are going to use on their next turn. Don’t be afraid to make some enemies pushovers, especially in a world like Ravenloft, PC’s need a good ego boost now and then.
  • Make loot spectacular and less frequent, take a page from Mordankainen’s Magnificent Emporium and make items a focal point. “Holy shit, a magic ring?!” should be exclaimed at your table instead of the having your PC’s haphazardly dump it into their color-coded sacks full of +1 items “No Krusk, flaming swords go in the GREEN satchel“. I’m currently trying out inherent bonuses it’s working out splendidly.
  • Break the rules, often. Let your players do whatever they want – especially in combat. If they want something the rules don’t cover, make it up for them. 4th edition tends to not lend itself well to roleplay due to the mechanical nature of the tone it’s written in. Make sure your players know there is more to the game than squares, types of actions, conditions, and damage dice.
  • Live and die by “Rule Zero”, this should go without being said, but hinging off of breaking the rules and creating your own mentioned above, I think it needs to be restated. Every iteration of D&D gives advice on these matters, for good reason. As long as everyone is having a good time, you’re doing it right.
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Every End Is A New Beginning

I may have been a bit hard on myself here, as my players have repeatedly assured me they had fun each and every session. Then again, everyone is their own worst critic right? Though from the ashes of my Ravenloft campaign, I have emerged a wiser, more adept and perhaps better DM overall.

I’m currently testing the waters of a new group comprised of friends both old and new, including the one I thought I completely pissed off just a few months ago. We’re having a lot of fun and I’ve got some great 4e houserules cooked up I’ll be sharing with you all very soon. I’ve got so much interest stirred that I’m aiming for two separate groups, one of which I hopefully won’t be DM’ing because my lovely wife has expressed so much interest in taking the reigns! And who knows, maybe someday we’ll revisit the dread plane.

On a more personal note, in the past 2 months or so I’ve lost a close friend of mine, had my website hacked… twice (see note in footer) and completely rebuilt twice, sent my son to kindergarten, watched the last of my friends get married and finished a huge project at my dayjob. I’m still adapting to some of the changes but I think the initial shell shock is over with, so it’s time to get back to moving forward.

On The Horizon

I’ve got lots of articles in the works as the spark for blogging has re-lit a giant fire elemental right under my ass. Upcoming articles include but are not limited to: “You got your M:TG in my D&D“, an exclusive interview with Steve Townshend about the upcoming Heroes of the Feywild, a review of the latest D&D boardgame “The Legend of Drizz’t“, my “Gazebo Rules” ‘official’ houserules for 4e.

I’ll also be publishing my full scale adventure and Halloween one shot from this year – “FLAPS: Episode 1”. The Dread Compendium is also still on my workbench for release in 2012, hopefully a year of big things for me. Including being published for the first time, yeah that’s right, keep your fingers crossed for me, I should have some of my work showing up in the next issue of Kobold Quarterly!

20 Comments

  1. Gee didnt your attitude as a DM suck on that final night but seriously I can sympathise. In all honesty my groups sessions are mainly casual affairs with plenty of off topic discussions mainly because my wife has the radio on during the games I do like your tips and advice on running a gaming session particularly what with the gaming preperation tip although for me the open ended flowchart that is never completed is my way of planning encounters etc next.

    • Yeah I’ve learned to dial it down a notch and just have fun, which is how I started. Not sure how I wound up in super-serious mode but I’m glad its over. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. Mr. Gazebo,
    As one of your former AND current players (and longtime friend), I appreciate your introspection as a DM and a friend. Life (and DND) is a rollercoaster of change; revolving around mistakes, epiphanies and the occasion course derailment. Unfortunately, it takes a few levels of allocating points into wisdom to develop the necessary insight to realize this. We’re both getting there, man. Just stick with it and it’ll all make sense in the end.

    • haha!

      Mr. Duzzley,
      Thanks for stopping by and taking time out to read this and comment man, I appreciate it. See you sooner rather than later I hope.

  3. Very good advice, and a lot of maturity. Thanks for sharing.

    I do want to caution that it can seem like everyone else _must_ be having awesome campaigns. But if you think it through you will find most of the other bloggers are either looking for gamers, have some measure of disappointment in their group, or have brief moments of really good campaigns.

    I’m fortunate to have some top-notch players in Portland, but I haven’t been able to get together for a campaign or even LFR in several months. Work schedules, Ashes of Athas, kids, families, going into the woods to find oneself (true story!), you name it… my players or myself have had these come up. I know people I would kill to play with that don’t have a regular group. This is the reality of such a social game. On the other hand, I’ve had sweet spots in my life that feel like Chris Perkins’ home games – tons of interested players working together with a great DM to create fantastic experiences. Though they never last as long as we wish they would, those moments are sweet enough to keep us pursuing the next excellent campaign.

    Yes, all your points are true. You want a campaign that works for everyone. You want invested players and reasonable rules. But it is also helpful to have realistic expectations. This is rare fruit that we all pursue, and it is worth pursuing.

    • Thanks for the kind words Teos. I think we’re all thankful for our groups no matter how good or bad they are and I kind of lost sight of that. Though living in Portland I think, gives at least a +2 circumstance bonus to finding awesome folks to game with! Thanks for stopping by and commenting man 🙂

  4. Dude seriously I have been running games for 20+ years. I will NEVER feel my game is up to snuff and I always feel it sucks yet my players keep coming back game after game and have a lot of fun. So I look at it this way, the more I think I have jumped the shark the game is going good. I do have to still question it but I know if they disliked it I would have an empty table.

    I used to think it was my friends just saying that, but this is now a whole new group at the store I work at part time. Most come from D&D Encounters and jumped to my personal campaign so they have no vested interest in years of friendships though I count them all as my friends now.

    You points are all valid and I have experienced them all during my many years of playing. I run the games I want to play but I also let my players influence my settings because sometimes their ideas might be better than mine.

    Some of my initial thoughts reading your bullet points was that you were beating yourself up a bit to much and that these things are natural or old hack for a DM. Then I realized I still ask for help and question things a lot even with years of experience under my belt.

    Before this year D&D campaigns never lasted for me when I ran them. 2-4 sessions and they died. This campaign at the store is the first serious long running D&D game I have ever ran. I have other games that have lasted longer from other systems but this one I think I have gotten it right. Lots of missteps but it is a learning curve.

    I still think I have a lot to do to improve myself and my games but I am taking them one weekend at a time.

  5. I think we sometimes forget that D&D is a game with the ultimate aim of providing fun for the players: it is not DM vs player, because the DM is there to facilitate the fun for the players, hence why they are called players. I think especially the Old School Reunion (or whatever) forget that most people nowadays do not have hours of spare time to consult random tables or to keep re-rolling characters that were killed due to “realism”, Vancian magic, and all the other hallmarks of older games. We aren’t teenagers any more. We play this game to feel heroic, to feel, just for a few hours, we can make a difference and do something cool. Maybe it’s escapism. But if giving us a fun game means fighters with daily powers, healing surges, and whatnot, then who are older folks to deny us younger guys and girls the fun? The attitude among the OSR is “if you aren’t punishing your players with save vs death effects every five seconds, you’re playing it wrong, now get off my lawn” must mean these guys either don’t have wives/kids/jobs, or they neglect them

  6. I had questioned the way the campaign blew up initially, but with the reflection you have done here it seems you have learned some very valuable things. The list of things you have come up with is excellent advice! I really like the gather everyone up for the session and hour or so earlier than your expected start. We do something similar for our group and being friends first we have a lot of day to day chat to get out of the way first. So we start showing up at our host’s house around 5:45pm and usually get started gaming by 6:30-ishpm. Works well for us and does cut down on non-game chatter during the game. Again – excellent summary of tips!

  7. This is a good place to be. Not every DM gets here.

    The observations/conclusions you make are probably the right ones. All your check marks are, imo, _vital_.

    Except the one about bringing your best game to the table. Obviously you want that to happen, but (I find) trying too hard to do that usually backfires. (I’ve found) there’s a zen to creating the perfect game session. It’s somewhere between structure and improvisation. The more I know about the world the better, but the more I know about the specifics of the adventure, the worse. Heh.

    I hit this point that you’re talking about during a 3.5 game. Metaphor: _I_ wanted the bleak trek through Nazi Germany and into the heart of Mordor. The players thought that was cool for a year. Somewhere in the second year of that, boy did it get old. We ended up with a situation analogous to the one you described. I ended the campaign early.

    The next campaign, I asked them what kind of game they were interested in playing. That campaign was awesome. The good news is, we’ve returned to the 3.5 characters after several years away. In fact, on Saturday I finished a 5-session arc with them, designed to accomplish something major. Coming back after so much time, the players were happy to take up their old characters again. Triumphing at the end gave them a huge sense of accomplishment. Keeping it at 5 sessions left them wanting more.

    Ah, at any rate I’m just agreeing with everything you wrote. It’s several important lessons you’ve taught yourself, and I remember learning each of these a different way.

    Hey, Steve Townshend interview coming up? I can’t wait to see what that noise is all about.

    • Thanks Steve! Knowing that I’m not so alone in these things really helps me through it, everyone’s input helps and its nice to know that my mistakes parallel others experiences – it helps me feel like at least if I’m screwing up I’m not doing it in such a way that no one can relate. And yeah, crazy about this guy doing this interview. I hear it’s going to be awesome.

  8. I think this is a really great reflection and it certainly took a bit of strength of character to post. Kudos to Jerry for it.

    However, that said, I’m not sure every piece of advice is universally applicable.

    For instance, you’re not always doing a player a favor when you try to steer them away from “settling on a character to fill a role.” Some groups of PCs are devoted enough to the idea of building a strong team that they really do want to build their groups this way. And some players struggle with the choice of what to play and are happier when someone else makes the choice for them. They want to feel like they are contributing to the team in a unique way. I’m not talking out of my ass here. I’ve got one of them in my current group (two, sometimes). The best thing to do is to make this a part of the discussion about the type of game you want to play and also to talk to each player individually. Strike a balance: don’t let the group pressure someone into playing something but don’t stop someone from doing just that. And yes, I know, changing characters is hard, but sometimes, you just have to accept that people want to experiment and branch out, but they may find something isn’t to their liking. Work with them.

    The idea that every combat must have a purpose is also, in my experience, a style consideration. Sometimes, the story is heavy and laden with intrigue and a good fight is just what is needed to change the pace and energy at the table. In story terms, a random fight on the way from point A to point B serves no real purpose, but in terms of pacing and energy level, it can do a lot of good. Then, too, some groups just like to make sure they get in a good throw-down/drag-out fight every so often just to get their gaming rocks off. Its a matter of reading your players and getting to know them. Yes, in 4E a combat is a heavy time investment, but it doesn’t have to be. Even if its just a low-level thing that takes thirty minutes to cut through a bunch of weak-ass mooks, its okay to do it. In other games, its even more okay because combat doesn’t take so much investment.

    The same can be said for magical item/loot distribution. Some groups really do just like to get tons of awesome shit and have golf-bags full of nifty magical widgets. And some games handle the whole thing better than others anyway.

    At the end of the day, the truly universal advice is about talking to your players, figuring out what they want, figuring out what you want, and then compromising. Its easy to take this advice too far to the other extreme and, as a DM, become a slave to your players. If the game isn’t also serving your purposes. you (the DM) aren’t going to be invested in running it. Prep will become a drag, running the game will become a chore, and the game itself will suffer for everyone.

    I’m not saying this isn’t all good advice, I’m just saying that not all of it is “one size fits all.” The key is to communicate constantly, force your players to talk to you, and make sure the game suits everyone – DM included – by compromising. And compromise means that not everyone is going to engaged in every scene. Which means everyone is not going to be happy every minute. That’s the nature of group gaming and something everyone has to accept.

    • Definitely, I wasn’t trying to write a one size fits all ‘my solutions will work, or your money back’ piece here. Purely anecdotal. I do agree that the most important part though is communication and ensuring that everyone has a good time, no matter if a good time means having golf bags full of magical widgets or just one shitty evil ring that someone has to pitch into a volcano they totally could have flown over top of, on an eagle, that they can summon at will, so they can save the world. You know, whatever floats your boat!

  9. Solid advice, and it all flows from a social contract so everyone around the table knows what to expect. I think you’ve done a great thing here in seeing the problem and moving to fix it, and I’m thrilled that we all get to watch this transformation happen even if it’s indirectly through the lens of a blog article.

    I think every GM has been in this situation at some point, so having your story available for others to read and learn from will help ease the acceptance and transition to whatever’s next.

    Also, thanks for the link to “Dude, Where’s My Rule Zero?” I read the article as soon as you posted, but I didn’t really notice the link until I started getting all this traffic referred from here.

  10. Hi there – first time reading your blog and wow I’m so glad I did. I celebrate 30 years of playing D&D next year and trust me i’ve screwed up and badly dm’d many campaigns in my time. I hope that i’ve also DM’d some great ones. The important thing is to learn from mistakes and try to put them right next time.

    My worst scenario was encouraging players to develop backgrounds and then totally ignoring them and taking them on a globe trotting campaign. I’d set the campaign up as a city based campaign and the characters were developed on that basis. Needless to say it was a disaster. It completely knocked my confidence and it took me the best part of 18 months before i really truly recovered my confidence. Well done you for getting back on that horse again so quickly !

    Anyway looking forward to reading many more of your blogs – keep up the good work !

    • Thanks for stopping by and reading, hope you’ll keep coming back. Definitely a lot of wisdom to be gained through mistakes, its a shame they have to happen but at least we keep learning how to become better GM’s.

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