D&D General Matt Colville on adventure length

Remathilis

Legend
I honestly cannot imagine liking a single campaign enough to play it for ten years. I just can't. Two years is pretty much my ceiling. Anything longer than that and I'm noping out. I'm simply not interested.

Then again, I have largely zero interest in ten year serial TV shows, or ten year anything.

The idea that I would presume that a campaign I start today would still be ongoing in ten years is completely foreign to me. Doesn't matter if I'm DMing or playing. If you can't finish up the campaign in two years, I'm not interested.
I played in a campaign that went 10 years, but not 10 years continuously. We took breaks, switched characters and even put the game up, played something else, and came back to it. The group even broke up for over a year when schedules conflicted. That said, it was an aberration based on a lot of bad DM habits (like not giving out XP for years) and the game switched editions (from 2e to 3.5) but the first game was in 1995 and the final game was 2008.

My PC in that game is my Enworld handle.
 

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Then I don't think we can meaningfully discuss on this topic. That sounds like it would be literally the second worst experience I've ever had, and the worst was one I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.
Sure, no one is telling you you should like it. Only that some people like it (and probably don't like the sort of thing you do like). As such, people who play that way are not doing anything wrong.

It may be that your worst enemy would really enjoy @Lanefan's campaign.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I was really only joking about Doctor Who, but that brings us back to the original topic. I'm pretty sure that any 10 year D&D campaign is not going to be based around a single storyline from start to finish. But you might drop in shorter adventures, as episodes.
My DW game has had a core thread (one the players have learned much about) for six years, admittedly counting a number of breaks.

Someone else mentioned session zero earlier so I'll ask the never asked questions. How could any of these problems have possibly happened if you beat the bolded drum loud and proud during session zero while sending off fireworks to accompany the red flags you were waving for all to see like how you expect immunity to PC death no matter your actions and choices as a powerless puppet of chance?
And, yet again, you put words in my mouth and talk down to me rather than being respectful and earnest. I genuinely don't know why I bother sometimes.

But I did raise my concerns, in both of the games mentioned. I did so tactfully and only once in public (because I did not wish to be That Guy), and then reiterated them to the DM multiple times thereafter, trying each time to be clear, specific, respectful, and demonstrative. Both DMs blithely ignored everything I said. One on the basis that his other group he was running things for was doing just fine and had never even had a particularly difficult combat no matter what he chose to throw at them, so obviously our party would be just fine too, I was just a worrywart, everything would be fine. The other because the game had been so short thus far, the DM believed I was jumping at shadows and drawing unwarranted conclusions.

We had session 0 in both games. Both were pretty brief and perfunctory, almost totally spent on answering character creation questions, but I asked whatever questions I could think of to be helpful for the brand-new players who wouldn't know what to ask. Neither DM ever once mentioned things like "be careful where you take short rests, you might be jumped by bandits." No NPC ever mentioned anything like this, and indeed before the bandits showed up in the first such game, I wasn't even aware that there was a bandit problem. We were in ruins only a couple hours' walk outside of town for God's sake, and arrived in broad daylight.

Did you not do anything like that because the gm didn't think to explicitly ask those specific questions?
I did a great deal in both cases. These DMs failed to even partially meet me halfway. For one of them, it wasn't their first campaign, but I don't think it was even their fourth, so I was trying very hard to respect their boundaries and not overstep my position, as I was by far the most experienced player at the table. I gave advice and comments. I kept most of them private between the two of us, because I did not wish to be seen as badmouthing or disrespectful, and instead wanted to set a good example to others for how I feel a player should act toward their DM. (Namely, speak up for yourself, but do not be disruptive; if you dispute a call, make your case and push for your views for at most a few minutes. Don't turn the session into an argument, friendly or otherwise. The time for serious discussion like that is between sessions.)

For the other, I would generally have called them an experienced but not necessarily "long-time" DM, if that makes sense, and thus I presumed, I guess erroneously, that they knew what they were doing. Since I didn't actually know anyone in that group beforehand, I could not rely on friendships or common ground to make appeals, so I strove extra hard to be circumspect about my comments and concerns. That game did have a session zero, but the DM must have badly flubbed their explanations, because nothing at all they said about it gave the impression of "this will be brutally hard, very slow, OSR style play." IIRC, they even claimed it would be "lighthearted" adventuring. That game failed by the end of the third session (with, as noted, a full TPK).

I was very specific about my concerns over how fragile characters are at first level and, when we went more than two sessions still at that level, how risky it was. I was ignored, and the results panned out exactly as I feared, despite my best efforts. Ever since, I have endeavored to comment more vociferously (in private, of course) upon how fragile first level characters are in 5e. At best, this was again blithely ignored. Most of the time, two to three years ago when I was to some degree actively looking for a game, it was met with an immediate "are you questioning me?" response, which has always made me run for the hills. That was one part of why I had such a difficult time finding any groups willing to play anything remotely like my interests.* Because literally saying, "Do we need to start at first level? I find it extremely fragile and have seen this harm or even ruin multiple campaigns in the past" is apparently enough to raise 5e DM hackles and bring out the subtle-threat language.

*Thankfully, Hussar has very kindly offered me a place at his table, and it is a treat. Even if I'm a dingus who forgets what day it's on.
 


EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Since we're all armchair quarterbacking this, let's toss a few more what ifs on the pile;

1. The group was taking a short rest at level 1. Finite resources are small. There are few HD and fewer spells and potions. And SRs are generally only taken when the group is already weakened. As a DM who can see greater pictures, this is potentially the weakest point you can have your group at and still all be moving of their own power. Any attack here is a killing blow. The DM had full intent to murder at this point, even if that wasn't a conscious decision.

2. We don't know if the bandits were a reasonable challenge for the PCs or not, based on the DMG or revised encounter balancing system. Four bandits is a medium difficulty encounter for four PCs. A bandit captain automatically makes it deadly. If there were more than four, it would quickly become a deadly encounter as well.

3. Did the PCs get a chance to negotiate, parley, or sneak around or detect them? How many DMs move from "you see a group of bandits approach" to "roll for initiative"? Further, even if the bandits did talk and threaten before attacking, how much of that would have hinged on a single Charisma skill check? Where the penalty for failure is combat regardless? Nothing like watching your party slaughtered because the bard rolled a 2 on his d20...

4. What were the campaign expectations? Were the PCs supposed to be Big Damn Heroes or are they expected to have nasty brutish and short lives? Did the DM communicate beforehand how deadly the game was beforehand? Can you blame players if they expect Skyrim and get Dark Souls?

Because a lot of the blame here falls on the DM regardless of if you feel it was justified or not. At the very least, he's guilty of mismatching expectations. More than likely, he was attempting to make the game seem exciting and dangerous without actually taking into account what his PCs can handle. Whether that was a legitimate error or an act of maleficence is not important. It is as much on the DMs part to make sure there is a possibility of success (even if that success is running away) as it is on the players to know when run. Too many DMs opt for the "perfect trap" scenario and then wonder why the PCs all died and nobody shows up in the next session...
I can answer these!

1. I genuinely don't think their intent was to murder. I just think they were so poor at encounter design, they did not believe that this could result in a TPK (or, rather, a near-TPK.) Their intent wasn't bad, or at least I never had any indication that it was bad. They were just horrible at executing on it.
2. I'm afraid I don't know the actual stats, but I believe we were evenly matched, 5 on 5 IIRC. The spider fight before that might've been Deadly though, again I never got actual numbers for those. (The Mummy certainly would've been deadly.) No bandit captains or other powerful enemies, no meaningful environment effects except (as noted) that the bandits were between us and the doors. The Rogue happened to be near one of the doors and squeezed past them when everyone else was dying.
3. No. The bandits attacked us, never offered to accept a surrender, and specifically spoke of killing us so they could sell off whatever value we might have. There was never any effort at anything except murder, so we responded in kind. (I strongly suspect the possibility of accepting a surrender or having us wake up imprisoned by the bandits, rather than just bleeding out on the floor, never even occurred to the DM.)
4. The DM did not communicate that it would be the "nasty, brutish, and short" experience, never even made the more ambiguous types of statements like being "tough but fair" or the like. I had asked questions about tone during the (relatively perfunctory) session 0, but the DM gave kind of boilerplate answers, nothing that seemed to communicate much of anything. Given their relatively new DM status, at the time I had assumed that just meant they were keeping their options open and trying to avoid pigeonholing the campaign before it got started. Now, I suspect they simply never considered the concept at all; I don't think they wanted to be a meat grinder DM, I just think they had not given it meaningful thought. Again, merely mediocre skill or incompetence, not bad faith.
 
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Remathilis

Legend
I can answer these!

1. I genuinely don't think their intent was to murder. I just think they were so poor at encounter design, they did not believe that this could result in a TPK (or, rather, a near-TPK.) Their intent wasn't bad, or at least I never had any indication that it was bad. They were just horrible at executing on it.
2. I'm afraid I don't know the actual stats, but I believe we were evenly matched, 5 on 5 IIRC. The spider fight before that might've been Deadly though, again I never got actual numbers for those. (The Mummy certainly would've been deadly.) No bandit captains or other powerful enemies, no meaningful environment effects except (as noted) that the bandits were between us and the doors. The Rogue happened to be near one of the doors and squeezed past them when everyone else was dying.
3. No. The bandits attacked us, never offered to accept a surrender, and specifically spoke of killing us so they could sell off whatever value we might have. There was never any effort at anything except murder, so we responded in kind. (I strongly suspect the possibility of accepting a surrender or having us wake up imprisoned by the bandits, rather than just bleeding out on the floor, never even occurred to the DM.)
4. The DM did not communicate that it would be the "nasty, brutish, and short" experience, never even made t5hr more ambiguous types of statements like being "tough but fair" or the like. I had asked questions about tone during the (relatively perfunctory) session 0, but the DM gave kind of boilerplate answers, nothing that seemed to communicate much of anything. Given their relatively new DM status, at the time I had assumed that just meant they were keeping their options open and trying to avoid pigeonholing the campaign before it got started. Now, I suspect they simply never considered the concept at all; I don't think they wanted to be a meat grinder DM, I just think they had not given it meaningful thought. Again, merely mediocre skill or incompetence, not bad faith.
Thank you. I didn't believe that the DM set out to kill on that day, but I do know there are DMs who are competitive with their players and the idea that if they aren't striving to challenge their players at maximum effort, they are going soft and cake walking them. The best DM is like a teacher, knows when to challenge but also knows to pull back, regroup and allow errors to be made in a way that repercussions aren't automatically severe.

Sadly, the fine art of DM as facilitator just isn't as widely discussed as DM as adversary or DM as arbiter.
 

Gus L

Explorer
But because half of DMs are stuck on this idea that death is the one and only consequence that matters. A ludicrous notion, as though nothing in your life ever matters unless it could kill you.
I haven't really been following the discussion here of lethality in older systems, OSR mythologizing and your own awful 5E lethality experience. What I have seen feels like a discussion that's been going on since the 1970's. Your 5E experience with the TPK bandits gets my sympathy. Bad referees are bad - regardless of system. I think this sort of brutishness could have happened playing Runequest or Star Frontiers or Blades in the Dark ... the magic ingredient is a referee that wants to use any excuse to give the players a bad time. This to me is the answer - I have relatively rare deaths in my OD&D game, I think because my players generally come in expecting dangers, and because I don't hide deadly things (characters can likely tell that a river is too fast to cross in armor etc) and I don't try to kill PCs. I don't think antagonistic refereeing is system based.

I the comment that I quoted is one I appreciate though! Having multiple things to "attack" in a system is really useful. While obviously there are campaign aspects like faction reputations and NPC in play here - I think a lot of referees and designers forget that in all D&Ds this generally means HP (of course), but also stats, XP levels, and status effects... Most important though is attacking character equipment - but supplies (consumables be they torches or healing potions) that allow the part to have an easier time, but also their beloved stuff. I have seen players go to greater lengths and get far more upset because so item they valued (even mundane stuff like their basic armor) was threatened or destroyed. It's always worth remembering this and emphasizing it. Not is this a novel idea. Rust monsters, gray oozes, mean wizards with dispel magic, and disenchaters are all old ideas that I think are underutilized these days.

It turns out people like being heroic, and getting the opportunity to fight the good fight, and getting satisfying victories and losses, not just random ones.
I also think this is interesting. I don't know that all players want to be heroes, I I think being clear about the nature of the setting effects things. What I struggle with is the idea that the heroism represented by vernacular fantasy is a meaningful sort and if heroism is worth attaching game mechanics to. I like my heroics to cost a little - the good path is often the harder one, and saving the poor and oppressed rarely leads to wealth and power. I love it when my players do it anyway - when they aren't amoral jerks, but I think it's important to let them choose. A comprehensible, coherent world - including its morals and rewards for virtue is always more fun for me to play in then one where one is simply the good guy. This might be a growing up in the 90's thing - we did love our antiheroes.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Epic
My DW game has had a core thread (one the players have learned much about) for six years, admittedly counting a number of breaks.


And, yet again, you put words in my mouth and talk down to me rather than being respectful and earnest. I genuinely don't know why I bother sometimes.

But I did raise my concerns, in both of the games mentioned. I did so tactfully and only once in public (because I did not wish to be That Guy), and then reiterated them to the DM multiple times thereafter, trying each time to be clear, specific, respectful, and demonstrative. Both DMs blithely ignored everything I said. One on the basis that his other group he was running things for was doing just fine and had never even had a particularly difficult combat no matter what he chose to throw at them, so obviously our party would be just fine too, I was just a worrywart, everything would be fine. The other because the game had been so short thus far, the DM believed I was jumping at shadows and drawing unwarranted conclusions.

We had session 0 in both games. Both were pretty brief and perfunctory, almost totally spent on answering character creation questions, but I asked whatever questions I could think of to be helpful for the brand-new players who wouldn't know what to ask. Neither DM ever once mentioned things like "be careful where you take short rests, you might be jumped by bandits." No NPC ever mentioned anything like this, and indeed before the bandits showed up in the first such game, I wasn't even aware that there was a bandit problem. We were in ruins only a couple hours' walk outside of town for God's sake, and arrived in broad daylight.


I did a great deal in both cases. These DMs failed to even partially meet me halfway. For one of them, it wasn't their first campaign, but I don't think it was even their fourth, so I was trying very hard to respect their boundaries and not overstep my position, as I was by far the most experienced player at the table. I gave advice and comments. I kept most of them private between the two of us, because I did not wish to be seen as badmouthing or disrespectful, and instead wanted to set a good example to others for how I feel a player should act toward their DM. (Namely, speak up for yourself, but do not be disruptive; if you dispute a call, make your case and push for your views for at most a few minutes. Don't turn the session into an argument, friendly or otherwise. The time for serious discussion like that is between sessions.)

For the other, I would generally have called them an experienced but not necessarily "long-time" DM, if that makes sense, and thus I presumed, I guess erroneously, that they knew what they were doing. Since I didn't actually know anyone in that group beforehand, I could not rely on friendships or common ground to make appeals, so I strove extra hard to be circumspect about my comments and concerns. That game did have a session zero, but the DM must have badly flubbed their explanations, because nothing at all they said about it gave the impression of "this will be brutally hard, very slow, OSR style play." IIRC, they even claimed it would be "lighthearted" adventuring. That game failed by the end of the third session (with, as noted, a full TPK).

I was very specific about my concerns over how fragile characters are at first level and, when we went more than two sessions still at that level, how risky it was. I was ignored, and the results panned out exactly as I feared, despite my best efforts. Ever since, I have endeavored to comment more vociferously (in private, of course) upon how fragile first level characters are in 5e. At best, this was again blithely ignored. Most of the time, two to three years ago when I was to some degree actively looking for a game, it was met with an immediate "are you questioning me?" response, which has always made me run for the hills. That was one part of why I had such a difficult time finding any groups willing to play anything remotely like my interests.* Because literally saying, "Do we need to start at first level? I find it extremely fragile and have seen this harm or even ruin multiple campaigns in the past" is apparently enough to raise 5e DM hackles and bring out the subtle-threat language.

*Thankfully, Hussar has very kindly offered me a place at his table, and it is a treat. Even if I'm a dingus who forgets what day it's on.
From your response it sounds like you yourself share significant blame for not being clear enough. If session zero ends and you still have not resolved things that you feel need to be resolved, that's on you to bring up that it needs to continue till resolution or how our gracefully before the unresolved items can play out at the table. A player doing that without a solid point everyone agrees is reasonable is usually going to be told that they are asking for unreasonable things and might be better served finding a table fitting them better if the table feels that the unresolved things are not reasonable.

I called them red flags because you are taking an extreme hard-line absolute stance and you yourself agreed to the helpless puppet of chance being accurate in an earlier post.

If you expressed just how hard that hard-line was and did so clearly while responsibly making sure everyone completely understood & agreed then the death would simply be a matter of pointing back at the clear ultimatum you had established that everyone agreed to. If you let it drop, I can only see a few explanations & all of them seem to place more of the responsibility for the situation onto your shoulders.
  • If you let it drop so you could join a game where the gm was clearly not willing to meet your terms even half way or understand them despite feeling like it was unresolved, that seems rather unfair to blame the GM for your misrepresenting as agreeing to the game just so you could play
  • If you let it drop and agreed to play even though the GM or the other players said no..... Again that's on you and being upset when you don't get it later goes back to the red flag
  • If you let it drop or were unclear because your hard redline expectations are obviously not reasonable ones, the GM can hardly be blamed for not seeing through it.
You always have the option of saying that a game is not for you. Why would you allow the session zero to end without continuing or not simply admit that the game was not for you if there were still what you felt were clear & obvious unresolved problems?
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Epic
I haven't really been following the discussion here of lethality in older systems, OSR mythologizing and your own awful 5E lethality experience. What I have seen feels like a discussion that's been going on since the 1970's. Your 5E experience with the TPK bandits gets my sympathy. Bad referees are bad - regardless of system. I think this sort of brutishness could have happened playing Runequest or Star Frontiers or Blades in the Dark ... the magic ingredient is a referee that wants to use any excuse to give the players a bad time. This to me is the answer - I have relatively rare deaths in my OD&D game, I think because my players generally come in expecting dangers, and because I don't hide deadly things (characters can likely tell that a river is too fast to cross in armor etc) and I don't try to kill PCs. I don't think antagonistic refereeing is system based.

I the comment that I quoted is one I appreciate though! Having multiple things to "attack" in a system is really useful. While obviously there are campaign aspects like faction reputations and NPC in play here - I think a lot of referees and designers forget that in all D&Ds this generally means HP (of course), but also stats, XP levels, and status effects... Most important though is attacking character equipment - but supplies (consumables be they torches or healing potions) that allow the part to have an easier time, but also their beloved stuff. I have seen players go to greater lengths and get far more upset because so item they valued (even mundane stuff like their basic armor) was threatened or destroyed. It's always worth remembering this and emphasizing it. Not is this a novel idea. Rust monsters, gray oozes, mean wizards with dispel magic, and disenchaters are all old ideas that I think are underutilized these days.


I also think this is interesting. I don't know that all players want to be heroes, I I think being clear about the nature of the setting effects things. What I struggle with is the idea that the heroism represented by vernacular fantasy is a meaningful sort and if heroism is worth attaching game mechanics to. I like my heroics to cost a little - the good path is often the harder one, and saving the poor and oppressed rarely leads to wealth and power. I love it when my players do it anyway - when they aren't amoral jerks, but I think it's important to let them choose. A comprehensible, coherent world - including its morals and rewards for virtue is always more fun for me to play in then one where one is simply the good guy. This might be a growing up in the 90's thing - we did love our antiheroes.
There is of course the other side of that discussion where a player or party feels like they can take anything and charge into a pointless death at the hands of deciding the gm was bluffing when even the most basic level of risk acceptance & self preservation efforts would have avoided it.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
From your response it sounds like you yourself share significant blame for not being clear enough. If session zero ends and you still have not resolved things that you feel need to be resolved, that's on you to bring up that it needs to continue till resolution or how our gracefully before the unresolved items can play out at the table. A player doing that without a solid point everyone agrees is reasonable is usually going to be told that they are asking for unreasonable things and might be better served finding a table fitting them better if the table feels that the unresolved things are not reasonable.

I called them red flags because you are taking an extreme hard-line absolute stance and you yourself agreed to the helpless puppet of chance being accurate in an earlier post.

If you expressed just how hard that hard-line was and did so clearly while responsibly making sure everyone completely understood & agreed then the death would simply be a matter of pointing back at the clear ultimatum you had established that everyone agreed to. If you let it drop, I can only see a few explanations & all of them seem to place more of the responsibility for the situation onto your shoulders.
  • If you let it drop so you could join a game where the gm was clearly not willing to meet your terms even half way or understand them despite feeling like it was unresolved, that seems rather unfair to blame the GM for your misrepresenting as agreeing to the game just so you could play
  • If you let it drop and agreed to play even though the GM or the other players said no..... Again that's on you and being upset when you don't get it later goes back to the red flag
  • If you let it drop or were unclear because your hard redline expectations are obviously not reasonable ones, the GM can hardly be blamed for not seeing through it.
You always have the option of saying that a game is not for you. Why would you allow the session zero to end without continuing or not simply admit that the game was not for you if there were still what you felt were clear & obvious unresolved problems?
Gotta love victim-blaming.
 

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