Issues in Game

So, it was back to Serpent Skull this week.  The players were about ready to make their way into the “end game” portion of the module and while I enjoyed the game a lot I noticed I had to deal with some pretty varied personality quirks this week. Each of my players have a different way of behaving and it is really becoming obvious that the party is going to be in way over their head due to these issues unless they can start acting as a team.  On Tuesday night they fought a standard patrol of serpentfolk which is a CR 14 encounter.  It nearly destroyed the party with the Cavalier being killed quickly and efficiently by the patrol.  The next day I worked out that the party with all their hangers on (a bard, a cleric and a chronicler are the accompanying NPC’s) are a CR 18 group and the encounter should have been a walk-in-the-park.  I heard that one of the players blamed lack of decent magical items and the others blamed tactics.  Me, well it is a little down to tactics that has been bought on by personality.  So, todays post will be about the behaviour issues in the group. Examples of what happened and how I dealt with it.  Hopefully this might help other GM’s with their problems in game.

To do this I will detail the PC’s and their players a little more than I have in previous posts so you can see how they all fit together as a whole.  Once that is done I will describe the encounter that nearly destroyed them as well as highlighting things in that course of play that caused me to act to diffuse a situation.

  1. I will start with the youngest player, my daughter Courtney.  She is 14 and been role-playing for about a year now, maybe a little more.  She tries all the time to match up to the other players who combined (excluding me) have at least 60 to 70 years playing experience.  Courtney plays an elven Cavalier (level 14) woman called Seleca (Order of the Dragon build means her focus is on her companions) who is not your typical elf.  Seleca has taken Leadership as a feat and has a cleric offsider (named Stark) who serves her and the party as a healer.  Far more strong than lithe she focusses on up front combat with any bladed weapon, very rarely drawing a bow and flies on the back of a newly acquired Griffon.    The character largely enjoys charging into a pile of enemies (the larger the concentration the better) and attempting to take them all down as quickly as possible with a combination of power attacks and great cleaves.  Courtney as a player is a sabre rattler and a narrator.  A sabre rattler has to compete all the time and she sees each of the other players and NPC’s as a competitor.  She clearly had the best fighter in the group up until about a level ago and she is struggling to reconcile her place in the party due to the focus of fighting now being shared with the alchemist who I will detail soon.  As a narrator she talks all the time about what she is doing in and out of character.  If she picks up a dice there will be a story about how she is going to roll the dice and what number she hopes to get before she actually rolls it.
  2. Next is Mark (the other Mark) who is the younger brother of Scott who will be detailed next.  Mark has never been a hard core role player in that he does not know rules etc. off the top of his head but he enjoys the role playing and loves the idea of the games.  Mark plays an Alchemist (level 8), Master Chymist (level 6) named Seroquel, alter ego Hank who he spends most time as.  This character started life as  a gnome but due to a timely reincarnation came back as a Tiefling.  Hank has seen the most development over time and is the character that really fits with the theme of this campaign the most.  He has grown from a stranded gnomish alchemist into a wild creature fighter focussed on rending his enemies to pieces with his teeth and claws.  Anything tribal he has managed to find along the way (he collects teeth and bits of his kills) has been integrated into the character as a whole.  Hank is wild and unpredictable, mutating into a feral bat winged beast and throwing himself into the heart of battle in some encounters or taking to the air and throwing bombs of all descriptions in others.  It is extremely hard to plan for his tactics as they are never consistent.  Mark as a player is a dreamer and a roll player.  He is a dreamer because he is always talking about what he wants his character to do after the modules.  He is intent on going to the island they all started ship wrecked on and turning it into a safari type resort, or a survival horror theme park.  His dreams sometimes become reality, as at lower levels he dreamed of owning a folding boat (although they were heading inland) and talked about it so much that eventually everyone got together, pooled resources and bought him one just to stop hearing about it!  He is a roll player because he much prefers seeing the dice hitting the table and putting his character into action through the statistics rather than being overt with the role playing side of it.  He is definitely only a minor roll player as some nights he will surprise with his roleplaying.  i think it depends a little on how tired he is.
  3. Scott is Mark’s older brother by a couple of years and is a much more hard-core gamer.  He and I have been gaming together since high school.  He plays a Monk (level 11 I think), Cleric (level 3 of Irori) named Kaleb.  He started as a half-orc but as with his brother a timely reincarnate turned him into an aasimar.  Kaleb loves to think he is in a Bruce Lee movie, preferring cinematography over effectiveness.  If there is an efficient kill on offer or a way to be showy and “cool”, showy wins every time.  He is also one of the most magic item laden players of the group and coincidentally the one who said the battle went sour because they did not have the magic items needed.  Scott is a rules-lawyer and a railroader in the game.  As a rules-lawyer Scott spends a lot of time between games reading rules.  Much of this time is actually spent researching either abilities of other players characters or on rules that I have used through the game that may have a perceived ambiguity to them.  He does this because he wants the best for his character and wants to enforce that all other characters only play in their bounds also, but more and above, in a way that benefits his character.  He is a railroader because he tends to think of an idea and then be closed to other ideas as they do not match his.  He simply ignores others ideas and continues to talk on his own until it is either obvious that everyone is against his idea or he wins.
  4. Finally we have Cam.  Cam came to the game about a month later than everyone else but started at first level with his character.  He has played for a long time, since high school, and started playing with me in his early twenties.  He plays a Rogue(level 4 sniper build), Sorcerer(level 4 shadow bloodline) and Arcane Trickster(level 6).  The character started as a half-elf but ended up (you guessed it, after reincarnation) as a fetchling.  The change to fetchling was the only one that was done as an engineered change as at character creation Cam had little access to the material so as a placebo or distraction to his characters demise (which upset him) I allowed him to reincarnate as the race he would have taken had he the books when he started.  The character’s name is Janthir (although when he was a half-elf he was known as Cisco) and he is the sneaky spell caster that spends a LOT of time invisible and acting as a roving problem fixer.  Cameron in-game is largely a mentor but can show minor instances of being a dreamer and a railroader.  As a mentor Cam has spent a lot of time helping Mark and Courtney get to know their characters and what they are capable of as well as what is possible with the mechanics of the game.  He does not mentor Scott as Scott tends to follow his own path.  Although mentoring sounds OK, it can sometimes lead him into frustration because they are not doing what he advised, or they are not doing things as he feels they should be done.
So, there are the profiles.  I will probably turn up next Tuesday and there will be no players because I have insulted them with my profiling but this is my perception of them.  I am a controller and I like to put things into boxes and have all the answers which is why I love to GM and only like to play and they know this.  Plus I do not think that any of them will find the descriptions too unfair. 
How things began
The group wanted to get a good vantage point on the main fortress and to do this they found some buildings that were towers in the serpentfolk district.  As a GM I had decided that most of these towers would actually be the vantage point many patrols used to watch over the district.  The players began to approach the nearest tower.  All of them were invisible, Seleca and Griff (the griffon) were invisible and flying.  The only visible character was Janthir who was relying on his own natural stealth skill.  As they began to journey I got them all to roll a stealth check and made a perception check for the serpentfolk guard.  Even with the +20 for invisibility three of them were noticed and the players, with a secret perception check, failed to spot the serpentfolk atop the tower so a surprise round began. Two of the NPC’s (the bard and the chronicler) were struck with arrows and Hank also got struck with two arrows.  The battle-map looked something a little akin to the adjacent photo.  The black circle being a three story tower, the purple shaded areas ruined buildings about one story, the brown shaded area ground and the white area a road.

Serpentfolk in the parties experience are powerful creatures.  In nearly every encounter they have had with them they have found it difficult.  the degenerate serpentfolk are strong and great in melee while the true bloods are cunning and have powerful innate magical abilities.  The patrol they faced were six degenerate serpentfolk. The party knows this about the serpentfolk, yet this is what happened
The initial round for players
The first round saw the monk immediately charge the tower under the cover of invisibility.  This lead Seleca to move forward under invisibility while her cleric Stark dimension hopped to the south of the tower looking for an entrance.  Janthir flew with a double move into a position where he had hoped he could use area attack spells from.  The chronicler ran for cover as did the bard, although he also started singing to inspire confidence. Hank began to fly toward the tower also casting displacement on himself (so he was displaced and invisible).  The serpentfolk then fired only at Hank hitting once from memory. 

Second round began some confusion.  The monk called out to Hank (although it was pointed out that Hank was invisible and Kaleb had no idea that Hank was about 40′ above him) to pick him up so he could fly him up to the tower.  Janthir ready to act cast stoneskin on himself as he knew he was soon to appear. Hank lowered himself to the ground and drank a bull’s strength potion before picking Kaleb up.  Kaleb also drank a potion in readiness for combat. Seleca and Griff moved to engage, targeting the centre of three of the serpentfolk she misses with her strike.  Stark continued to look for a door and the bard caught up to the chronicler.  The serpentfolk drop their bows, draw their heavy flails (which they have bunches of feats to use) and two of them get a full round attack on Seleca while the other only one attack.  nearly all the attacks hit and Seleca takes around 60 HP damage.
The rounds that lead to Seleca dying
Third and fourth round whiz by.  Janthir realising his ability to use ranged area attacks is now compromised by Seleca being in the heart of the battle has to rely on bow attacks, concentrating on serpentfolk in battle with Seleca as it was clear she was going to be easily killed by the three serpentfolk.  Hank carries Kaleb to the top of the tower and they both are still preparing to enter the combat.  Seleca flies her Griffon over the serpentfolk attracting attacks of opportunity in an effort to get a clear shot on them without concealment.  She tries to use Great Cleave but misses the second target with a poor roll.  Stark stone shapes an entry into the tower  and the bard and chronicler move to the next closest building under cover.  The three serpentfolk meanwhile continue to hammer Seleca so that at the end of round 4 she finds herself on -123 HP and dead.  The three with bows shoot also at her rarely hitting.

The next round starts and Janthir continues to shoot arrows into one of the serpentfolk finally bringing the first one down.  Hank charges the serpentfolk around where Seleca has fallen and bulls rushes one off the tower to the ground below.  Kaleb follows suit and bulls rushes one of the serpentfolk with bows off the roof.  Both are revealed.  The bard dimension doors up and grabs Seleca’s body while the chronicler moves in closer to see the serpentfolk that have fallen.  The remainder of the combat sees Kaleb nearly killed, the chronicler is killed in a duel with one of the serpentfolk that fell from the tower but is revived with a breath of life spell.  Hank kills about half the number of serpentfolk with the monk killing one and Janthir taking out the final one. 

After the battle there is a major discussion where fingers are levelled at Seleca and to a lesser extent Kaleb for rushing forward into battle.  The party has ranged alternatives such as Janthir’s ranged area attacks (which he dramatically shows off by casting fireball and cone of cold) and Hank’s bombs.  Stark defends his dead mistress and eventually the bard steps forward and suggests this conversation is better had once Seleca was raised and able to defend herself.  They spend a night and raise Seleca in the morning.

So this walk in the park encounter (which I knew would hamper them because they do not work as a team) nearly cost them a few lives and tapped out a lot of resources.  During the play Mark was actually roleplaying and describing things while his brother was telling him just to roll the dice.  As I want to encourage the roleplaying Mark as opposed to the roll playing Mark I checked Scott immediately.  I asked Scott not to tell Mark to the roll the dice as we were there to role play not roll play.   First problem dealt with.  Direct action is required from a GM in these cases.  If a player is talking out of character and talking over the top of any “roleplaying” then it needs to stop.  There was no animosity and it did not occur again once I asked him to stop it.  Also, make sure you take the time to encourage your players in areas they are not so strong in so I wanted to hear Mark’s description of what his character was doing.  When he sees it was valued it will encourage him to keep doing it.  

You can see that much of the combat points out either action without thought for companions or action without communication.  This is where this group falls down.  They are a group, not a team.  Every action is largely done to highlight their own character and only their own character.  They never consider alternate tactics apart from the tactics that will show off themselves the best.  Take for example Seleca.  She charges into the centre of three of the best hand to hand fighters she has come across.  Dead in three rounds because of it.  Hank spends time running in and preparing for hand to hand combat although he has great ranged, explosive bombs!  Kaleb spent much of the combat attempting to trip opponents and sharing his attacks equally across many targets rather than focussing his attacks and reducing the number of opponents.  

Once Seleca is raised they all try and say what she needs to do so the group works as a team.  But it is not wholly her fault and I have to use the bard as an NPC to subvert personal attack into constructive ideas for her to take on.  Courtney is a young player and does not know the ins and outs of characters like the others do.  It leads into a decision on what to do the bodies they all talk over the top of Seleca and again I have to come to her defence and make them listen to her ideas, which were good.

So, I acted in game several times to deal with the frustrations and behaviours of the players.  I used the NPC a couple of times to this effect, which makes the players believe that it is an in game check separating their own behaviour, and as mentioned above had to ask a player directly to curb his behaviour.  But this is not the end of how I am trying to alter their behaviour.  You see, I need them to begin to act in the interest of the team or otherwise they are all going to be very dead as soon as they enter the fortress.

That means it has been two days since the game and I have had a discussion with every player in the game bar one.  I have talked to them about how they felt about the game and how they felt it could have been handled better.  I ask them why they think they could not handle a simple patrol and steer the conversation toward plans they would like to see come true in the entering of the fortress.  All the while I am working toward a focus on how the team could work together.  Next game I am going to spell out what is happening and rather than leaping straight into initiative rolls I am going to give them a few minutes to work together and come up with a plan.  I am going to structure it so everyone is heard and then a consensus will need to occur.  It will  not be as formal as it sounds here but it will all be part of my vision of creating a united group.  The adventure path really needs the group to be functional if they want to pull off anything from here on in.  

I have probably left this a bit late to develop as the GM and I am a little disappointed with myself for that.  I always thought that they would learn from their mistakes but it seems history repeating itself is a much more accurate adage in this case.  My advice to handle issues with player behaviour in game is be direct when you have to, but be clear as to why you are asking something to be done.  Be indirect with your NPC’s to take control where control is lost and it has become a blame fest.  Have the NPC come up with some tactics that can work (or you know would) and move it along.  Recognise your players for who they are and give them opportunity to indulge in the style of play they like but make sure this is evenly balanced for all players.

And most of all, have fun!  It is why we play after all.  if you go back and read the first paragraph in this blog you see that I said immediately and without sarcasm that I enjoyed the game.  There were difficulties and the party nearly had a very bad night due to an encounter that should have barely registered but I hope this is a turning point and I am raring to go for next week.

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