Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 06, 2016
Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 04

In the previous session had planned an expedition to the haunted top of Cauldron Hill at the request of the dying skyseer Nevard Sechim. Mayor Reed Macbannin, the guardian of Cauldron Hill, had equipped them with amulets against dark magic, and kegs full of goat's blood to draw a circle around their camp. The idea was to have the spirits of Cauldron Hill follow that blood trail endlessly and hopefully ignore the group.

In this session the group reached the top of Cauldron Hill and set up camp. They heated stones to have a flameless source of heat, and built some cover against the wind. That was all very helpful when the temperature dropped sharply at nightfall. But with nightfall also came the spirits that haunted Cauldron Hill, a motley crew including a legless man, a hag, a serpent-maned lion, and an insubstantial phantom.

The group had previously undergone a ritual that shared their life force with Nevard, and as a consequence they were linked to him in a way that allowed them to share his visions of that night. At first they had a vision of Nilasa, the girl whose death had kicked off this adventure, appearing to warn them that the man who had killed her was coming. She described the man as being scarred so much that he was now wearing many faces as disguise. In a second vision they foresaw the factory of Heward Sechim, Nevard's nephew, burning down in the early hours of the next day.

Before they could decide on a further course of action, a dark figure matching the description of the person who had shot Nilasa appeared outside the camp and threw a grenade at the group. While the grenade did little damage, it did contain brightly burning magnesium. The combination of the noise of the explosion and the bright light completely shattered the plan to remain undetected by the spirits, and so the spirits now all attacked the group.

This was designed to be a hard fight, and so it turned out to be. There was a bunch of minor spirits, minions, that just had an aura doing small amounts of damage. The legless man had a powerful attack that grabbed Aria the sorceress, but she was able to push him away. The hag had an attack that could dominate a player character, but fortunately people were lucky with saving throws and the dominations all just lasted one turn. The paladin tanked the serpent-maned lion, who had poisonous attacks.

That left the insubstantial phantom, mostly ignored by the group, which turned out to be the problem. The phantom always touched the character closest to him, leaving a mark and a small amount of automatic damage. Having one mark enabled a character to see the phantom even when it phased out for the others. A second mark enabled a character to do half damage to the phantom. At three or more marks the phantom was fully solid for that character, visibly wielding a big scythe, and taking full damage from that character's attacks.

It is one of the strengths of 4th edition to have the tools to create more complicated monsters with multiple powers that result in events more complex than a simple exchange of blows. Players can use knowledge skills to find out about those powers in order not to be surprised by them, but in the heat of the battle people often forget about that. And so it came that Eldion the invoker misjudged the danger of the phantom. Being not too worried about the small automatic damage round after round, the invoker basically "tanked" the phantom and chose not to move away. What he didn't realize was that the phantom had another attack which required three marks on the victim. And that attack, due to being so complicated to set up, dealt really substantial damage (5d12). So after dealing 5 damage per turn for three turns, the phantom hit Eldion for 27 points of damage with a scythe attack. That not only completely surprised him, but knocked him unconscious and even would have killed him if he hadn't had a 5 point resistance to necrotic damage. And that made the player extremely angry, claiming that this strong attack was "unfair" and threatening that he would quit the game if I killed his character.

Meanwhile the group had dealt with most of the other spirits, and by tanking the phantom with somebody who had high armor and hit points was able to defeat that one too. But with the player so angry, and me not being happy about his "meta-game blackmail the DM to survive" attempt, we ended the session on an unhappy note.


Player death is rarely happy, especially when it is apparently something for which you could not prepare.

Reading your account through the filter of recap, language and medium change obscures the actual happenings, but was your telegraphing too subtle. It should have been apparent that a big attack was coming since the first three hits were touch attacks and now the phantom has a big scythe, but did you draw enough attention to the change? Did you emphasise that earlier attacks were unarmed pokes? In English, it reads as though the phantom always had the scythe but it was only visible after the third mark. Perhaps the phantom needed to take a non-combat action of aggressively grasping the scythe to demonstrate that something had changed and there was a potential danger?

No one wants horribly obvious telegraphing everywhere, but I think players sometimes need a little extra warning when it is them, as opposed to the in-game characters, that fails a spot check.
was your telegraphing too subtle

The word "too" tells you that this is a judgement, not a fact. "Too subtle" compared to what standard? I would say that the player received the message that he received touch attacks before, and now the phantom is wielding a big-ass scythe, but I'm not engraving "this is 5d12 scythe" on the thing either.

It is the nature of a pen & paper RPG that the DM always has more information than the players. The DM then gives clues to the players for them to figure stuff out, and they have the opportunity to ask questions or use skills to get more information. There must be room for some degree of responsibility of the players to try to get more information, and there must be room for errors of judgement on the players' side leading to bad consequences.

Given that due to his damage resistance the character ultimately didn't die (and that even death isn't necessarily final in D&D), I felt that the player overreacted. I can't run a campaign in which character death isn't even thinkable as one possible outcome.
How did the 5d12 damage compare to the strongest attacks of the other creatures they were (and have been) facing. As a PC, the large scythe would definitely make me worry about the damage it could do, but I still wouldn't know the exact scale of the damage. If a critical hit by the one-legged man doing his strongest attack would be comparable to 5d12 damage, then the attack was fair. I forget what level your characters are at, but if all the other creatures are doing, at most, 3d8 and then this attack is more than twice as powerful then, yeah, I would be a bit ticked off about it even with the long ramp up. Those other turns by the phantom were doing damage too, so they can't be completely discounted.

Even so, the player's reaction does seem a bit much. It makes me wonder if this has been an issue that has been building. I play in a campaign where every single fight the DM gives us rates out to "deadly" if not 2 or 3 times over. When you feel overwhelmed in every fight and are regularly on the edge of death, D&D ceases to be fun, at least for me. You might want to have a chat with the player after a week has gone by to see what was going on in that moment and how he feels about the campaign as a whole.
The word "too" tells you that this is a judgement, not a fact. "Too subtle" compared to what standard?
That is the problem. It is a obtuse situation. A GM with perfect knowledge of the problem has the very difficult task of deciding what players could reasonably infer based on partial information provided which may or may not have been comprehended or even noticed.

A successful trap is one that is spotted through player actions and precautions. A triggered trap that no one expected is a failure for the GM. A triggered in spite of a player thinking it might exist is a failure for the players.

Failure or death due to player action is a pain but ultimately part of the game. A sudden failure that a player thinks is unavoidable is game-breaking. Some people are better at spotting traps than others. Players that are less to fight tactically or consider knowledge skills might need more blatant hints if they are to have a reasonable chance to escape and be educated about how to spot potential problems in the future.
How did the 5d12 damage compare to the strongest attacks of the other creatures they were (and have been) facing.

The legless man deals 2d10+5 damage per round, so over 4 round he deals 8d10+20. The phantom over 4 rounds deals 5d12+15, which is less. It just comes in more uneven packages.

When you feel overwhelmed in every fight and are regularly on the edge of death, D&D ceases to be fun, at least for me.

This was the first really hard fight for months. The group opted out of fighting the final enemy of the first adventure, and so we didn't have a really dangerous fight since they saved the steamship from sabotage back in September. Maybe that was part of the problem, that they got too used to fights where nobody ever came close to dying and thought that death wasn't an option in this campaign.
In my campaign the players eventually became blasé about the entire dying thing, because PCs aren't really in danger even if they go down. (This bit them in one campaign-ending battle when the Mind Flayer ate the brain of the fighter instead of downing him...) They have to fail 3 death saves or fall to negative half hit points. With even one Leader that's trivial unless several players go down at the same time.

You may have been playing it too subtly, but my take is that the player severely overreacted. Going down is still far from dead, and 4e monsters do unexpected things. Better to get used to it.

This is a big difference between 4e and 3.5/Pathfinder - monsters are much more open and unpredictable. Some players love that, others find it distasteful that monsters don't follow the same logic as PCs (I had one player like that, you might have one as well.)
but I'm not engraving "this is 5d12 scythe" on the thing either.

Why not?

It would simply lower the difficulty of play to do so. It's not like a 'You just don't do that!!!!' thing.

I honestly wonder how you'd take it if you'd played a video game like this - I suspect not well and you'd give poor review, as it's a difficulty spike. How many other creatures have done the same thing? None - so this is a sudden spike.

It's not the character death/ko but the personal respect for skill - you didn't seem to like in Cabals how you'd be facing very powerful opponents straight off. Ie, you don't like the difficulty spike right at the start.

I would simply admit it was a difficulty spike and by doing so show to all that the player isn't bad at playing, it's just that he hit something a lot more difficult very suddenly. So everyone can respect that.

I hope this isn't going to get into a 'He should figure out the puzzle of the damage because player skill at figuring the puzzle is important...but heck, him wanting kudos or respect for his skill in play, does he think it's a boardgame?' conflict of interest. Can't expect people to find your combat puzzles to be important but also expect them to not want respect for their personal skill.
Why not?

For the same reason that I don't tell the player "and now you cast a fireball". The player has the option to make a medium difficulty knowledge check which would have told him all the details of the power, including the fact that it deals 5d12 of damage. If I want to give the players the freedom to play their characters as they want to, I must also give them the freedom to play sub-optimally.

As I see it the player believed that nothing could happen to him. So he chose not to get talents that increase his hit points (he has far lower hp than anyone else in the group) or defenses, and he chose not to use skills that could have given him all the information he would have needed to avoid the damage spike. And then he tries to meta-game blackmail me saying that he'll quit playing if I kill his character. If I accept that, I can give up trying to make any interesting fights in the future.

I honestly wonder how you'd take it if you'd played a video game like this

I honestly wonder how you'd take it if you'd played a video game like this. Would you really want a video game where you win even if you do the exact opposite of good tactics and there is absolutely zero chance of ever dying? What is the point of trying to play well if playing badly gives you the same result?
It sounds as though he doesn't notice the risks or your warnings. You might need bigger red flags to encourage him to consider that there might be hidden dangers.

The idea isn't to make a situation where it is impossible to fail, but to help make people aware that are potential dangers. He was punished for doing it wrong, but he wasn't aware of his mistake until too late. To him, the first three attacks showed that tactics were not required. Then the rules changed and bam, he was down with no chance to react.

In WoW, Onyxia emotes that she breaths deeply prior to covering the unobservant in flames. Some people need help from boss mods making the warning more obvious. Failure is still possible if people do the wrong dance or failed to act in a timely fashion but in a well designed fight they cannot make the excuse that they suffered an unavoidable insta-gib.
I have to say, if a scary spectre touches my character and I only lose a few hp I'd be *more* worried, not less. Something bad is bound to be coming.
Sometimes people overreact. I suspect that the player knew deep down that he had made a few mistakes - by making a squishy character and being blasé about the risk of death.

Hopefully, with the benefit of some cooling-off time, the player has realised how defensive he had become in the moment.

I suggest that you approach him out-of-game to discuss what you are working toward in your game and what he expects to get out of it.
I honestly wonder how you'd take it if you'd played a video game like this. Would you really want a video game where you win even if you do the exact opposite of good tactics and there is absolutely zero chance of ever dying? What is the point of trying to play well if playing badly gives you the same result?

Oh please you've gone into full on rationalization mode - it's not like you put a fire in the middle of the battlefield and then the player walked in it, almost died and complained. It wasn't that small a difficulty increase and then the player failed to navigate the difficulty increase.

In fact you've avoided the difficulty spike topic entirely.

Sure, I really want a video game where you do the exact opposite of good tactics and can't die and playing badly gives the same result. I completely want that because the combat puzzle you put in wasn't obscure as f', it was a perfectly reasonable increase in difficulty from the previous level of difficulty and so I must want those things totes!

Go on putting these things in - it's not difficulty spikes, after all, it's just the players being wrong for not enjoying it. You'll have stories of player after player not liking it over and over, but of course it's always the players (all the different ones) who will be wrong.

PS: Let go of the blackmailing bit - he's a male and he just doesn't trust you to appeal to your sympathy and express that he is genuinely upset. So he tries to say instead that he'll leave. Though if i you would have had no sympathy for him being upset, then he was right to not bother appealing to your sympathy.
In the original Everquest there was a Hill Giant wandering around the Commonlands. The Commonlands are a zone for players in their early teens, and the Hill Giant needs players over level 40 to beat. In World of Warcraft the first zone of the Burning Crusade, Hellfire, had a similar feature, a higher level elite monster walking around. There were warning signs, like the giant being obviously a lot bigger. Plus these games had mechanics to find out the danger of a monster, the /con command in EQ, the mob portrait when you click on him in WoW. But some people still overlooked all this warning, failed to get the information, and ended up getting killed. The phantom in this encounter is exactly the same thing. Yes, that is a "difficulty spike", but monsters that do minor attacks first and then hit you harder once they grabbed/snared/marked you are actually not all that rare. Tanking a mob as a low hit points cloth wearer is simply never a good idea.

In a tactical game with incomplete information players need to make judgment calls, and there needs to be a feedback mechanism to tell players when they made the wrong judgment call. In 4E that feedback mechanism is character "death". Compared to most video games the "death penalty" in 4E is really minor. At worst you miss the rest of that encounter, but usually you get healed and are back up before that. If you remove even that minor death penalty from the game, it becomes unplayable as a tactical game.
Can you stop the 'if you remove death' insistence - if you had removed this monster from the fight, would there have been no threat of death? No. So stop insisting this - you didn't need this particular monster to have a threat of death/to enable a tactical game. Or if you did, the problem isn't with the player.

but monsters that do minor attacks first and then hit you harder once they grabbed/snared/marked you are actually not all that rare.

And how often have you used them in the campaign? Or are you seeing them in the books and think the amount in there matters at all in regards to play?

The giants that walked along in burning crusade could be seen from a distance and heard - they weren't just spawned next to you 'surprise!'. It's not like they were small and quiet and only suddenly got big after they tap a PC on the shoulder three times. Either you're just trying to use anything as a justification or you just don't have much of a feel for what increases or decreases difficulty. It's not easy to determine difficulty, so it's understandable.

In the end each player is a person with their own particular tolerance for increases in difficulty. You have your desired level of difficulty increase. If you can't stay inside the players tolerance for increases, then you've just lost touch with (in this case) your audience. I suspect this player can tolerate difficulty increases quite well, just not ones as big as this.
You have your desired level of difficulty increase.

What does that have to do with *my* desire? I played the monster *exactly* as written in the adventure. I didn't design it, and I didn't modify it. And there is a story reason why the group finds itself at level 2 in a level 5 encounter, which is supposed to be deadly. The only decision I made is that I don't cheat to take the edge off that designed encounter. There is not much sense to heroic adventure if you take the edge off danger.
To be fair, if a game let's me create a character that will not be able to complete it, I would say it was badly designed. And I can usually lower/raise the difficulty as needed.

I also usually have Passive knowledge things rolled by the GM, with the reasoning that the character would know it even if the player doesn't think of it. Like spotting traps/doors, etc.

I also try to avoid instant death situations that are not telegraphed a mile away, like. I try to be rather a fan of the characters than an enemy.

But as dying is usually not too horrible in PF, the player seems to be slightly overreacting.
We are playing 4th edition D&D, which is even softer on death, and has higher hitpoints. At level 2, half of the player characters have more health than what 5d12 deals on average.

At level 2 this encounter is really hard, and is supposed to be so. There is a whole organization to protect the city from the horrors of Cauldron Hill which was presented to the players, so they could have imagined that this wouldn't be easy. To some extent it is also a bit of bad luck having chosen this line of inquiry first. If they had done some other, easier part of the adventure first, they would have been level 3, and the encounter would have been a lot easier.

As there is a story reason for the encounter being hard, I dislike the idea to cheat and make it easier. Yeah, it might have been more fun for the one player not to be close to death, but at what price? A weaker story, and an impression in the players' minds that it doesn't matter what choices they make, the DM will bail them out. Seeing how ultimately nobody died, I think the encounter is fine as it is, and I wouldn't change it if I had to play it again.
Having a hard game-play encounter due to decisions made earlier is really cool. I think a more pertinent question is whether you should equip your myopic drama-llama with a pair of spot-check glasses so he knows he is walking into a plus difficulty situation and should not treat it like easy-mode.
And there is a story reason why the group finds itself at level 2 in a level 5 encounter, which is supposed to be deadly. The only decision I made is that I don't cheat to take the edge off that designed encounter. There is not much sense to heroic adventure if you take the edge off danger.

Are you just playing the module as written and just ran into this all unexpected or are you defending the module?

If you're defending the module then it is your desire to have this difficulty level - you literally say you'd do it again - that's not the module twisting your arm behind your back and making you do that difficulty, that's your desire.

Or want to do it that way but keep trying to hide behind 'that's the module' as if the module made you do it? Really the lesson I've taken over the years is that 'story reasons' isn't an cure all excuse - it only stretches so far for play. After that, it's just play people at the table did not enjoy. Slapping 'It's story!' on something does not make it somehow auto enjoyable or something that must be accepted and tolerated.

Taking it this player has some capacity for accepting increases in difficulty, then the problem wasn't with him.

I don't think the player should threaten to quit the game. I think if he knew you're not going to adjust at all, then he aught to just politely quit.

Different example from the same adventure: The group learns of a smuggling operation, basically a meeting between different groups, two local and one foreign, to exchange contraband against money. The module lists the most likely options: The players could first take out the two local groups one by one, and then go to the meeting spot and arrest the foreign group. Or they could just turn up without a plan and fight all three groups at once.

It is obvious that their decision how to handle the situation has a strong effect on the difficulty of the encounter. Attacking three groups on one spot *must* be more difficult than picking them off one by one, otherwise the story makes no sense at all. So I will play that as written, including the risk that the group gets their asses handed to them due to lack of foresight. It is not that *I* have the desire for a difficulty, but that I need the actions of the players to have logical consequences, including *on* the difficulty of the encounters they chose. I don't want to spoiler my adventure by explaining the story reasons, but the difficulty *was* a consequence of earlier decisions on their part.

I do know DMs who constantly modify encounters to always remain soft. Players take bad decisions or have a streak of bad luck? DM fudges his rolls to give the monsters bad luck too, or lowers their stats on the spot. I don't play like that. Because ultimately the players see through that and it causes them to enjoy the game less, because there are no consequences to their actions. If their decisions have no consequences, the decisions itself become boring. And a good game is a series of interesting decisions (quote Sid Meier).
It is not that *I* have the desire for a difficulty, but that I need the actions of the players to have logical consequences

You've got akrasia going on with this challenge play/consequence play thing.

Your logical consequence play was poor - it's fun when everyone gets the consequence and understands it already. Sure, you got it, but if it's a non sequitur to someone else then it fails as play.

But now you'll swing over to challenge 'They have to use tactics, blah blah blah'

Then I'll say you increased the difficulty too much

To which you'll say 'But it was a logical consequence, blah blah blah'

You keep swinging back and forth between challenge play and consequence play. Unless other people swing with you at the exact same time on the exact same subjects, they will not enjoy play with you (they might enjoy themselves despite all this, granted). You'll be doing consequence when they are doing challenge, then you'll be doing challenge when they are trying to do consequence play.

I think the player should just politely quit. You just end up compromising on nothing - not on challenge, nor on consequences - which doesn't work out in a group activity as everyone has to do things exactly your way. Any hint of the idea of compromise and you pigeon hole it to 'that GM who fudged all the damage away'.

Thinking that if people don't do things exactly your way would mean the whole activity has gone to a shambles is just thinking too much of yourself.
Other than being insulting and telling people to quit, you haven't contributed anything constructive to this discussion. You never stated your opinion about what a DM in that situation should do! If as a DM you find yourself in that situation where you follow the consequences of the story and that leads to a fight that is too hard as written in the module, what *should* you do? It's easy sitting at the sidelines and throwing stones at my decisions without proposing a better solution.
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