Friday, December 30, 2011

When A Session is Boring

I ran an episode of my CotMA game last night.  Six of my seven (or eight) players were present.

They decided to "go deep" -- they have goals on the seventh level -- and they decided to bring the whole crew.  We had 14 PCs and NPCs combined.

You see, back in the beginning, when the characters were exceptionally fragile and instant death was a real possibility, I let everyone play two characters.  Some of them died, but some of the players still have two characters.

In short, when the whole party is together, it is a huge, noisy, Continual Light toting, juggernaut of monster death.

Now, I'm not complaining.  I don't care if they kill my monsters...  I can always make more.  :)  I don't care if they kill my NPCs...  I have more of them too.  (Of course if you kill the bartender in town, that's a legal problem that your big muscles and magic spells might not get you out of...)  They didn't do that, so I digress...

Well, here's the rub.  When they have a big party, combat with monsters on the upper levels is too easy.  It's literally a roll of the dice and the monsters are dead.  I think one or two of the PCs can generate 10+ damage practically by default.

Once again, I'm not complaining about the instant death of my precious monsters -- let them die.

What I am worrying about is how boring or tiresome the upper levels have become.  I have no desire to scale the upper levels to meet the challenge of this überparty.  The upper levels just don't have very many powerful creatures.

It's not appropriate, in my mind, to throw powerful creatures at them on level 2 just because they can handle them.  THOSE KINDS OF MONSTERS AREN'T ON LEVEL 2.

I did try to make the encounters with the easier monsters a little less straight up die rolling contests --

  • I had carnivorous apes jumping and leaping into combat so that the back ranks were vulnerable
  • I had wereboars using a flanking maneuver and missile weapons to show tactics and knowledge of the area
  • I threw a cockatrice at them for good measure
At any rate, the PCs took care of the combat challenges with relative ease.  

I did throw in some strangeness, a teleporter, some Mad Archmage magic and a talkative NPC ogre (poor Karn, we hardly knew ye!) to spice things up, but that only goes so far when combat is such a cakewalk.

I guess the bottom line to me is, the dungeon needs to have some kind of rules and if you come in alone or if you come in with an army of 14, those rules apply.

I don't want to scale encounters other than by the level you are on.  You're on level 3?  OK, here's what it can throw at you.  Level 5?  Here's a tougher set of challenges.  Level 10?  You'd better be ready.

Am I wrong?  I feel like the adventure dragged a bit for the players last night, but then again, they were on the third level most of the night.  Most of the PCs are 6th or better.  Hell, one of the NPCs is 5th and the donkey/mule is even 4th level...  

Shouldn't an adventure for higher level PCs be a bit boring on the upper levels or is there a DM trick that I've missed?


Grendelwulf said...

Instant death should always be a possibility. Never let players forget that. They'll grow complacent.

Of course, if all of the upper level monsters are getting thrashed, this won't take too long to get noticed. Dark things from the depths may rise, fearing a threat to their megadungeonhome.

Some elements may even conspire to have them teleported to even lower levels. Trap them in somehow; without a way to leave,heal, or replenish their supplies - they'll have to more forward (and downward).

Or, are the players just having some relaxing fun before getting serious again about delving deeper?

Christopher O'Dell said...

Sounds about right to me; eventually your players will probably figure out that, while it's a cakewalk on upper levels, the payoff also isn't that great when they have to split it into 14 shares and they will spend less time in the upper levels.

I've actually been working on a question of my own that is kind of related to this: how should I handle it when the PCs are just trying to get to where they left off exploring the megadungeon last session, but there's a lot of ground to cover between the entrance and where they left off? Theoretically as they get stronger they will be able to breeze through wandering and re-stocked monsters more quickly, but should I just handwave their traveling over familiar territory instead?

Lasgunpacker said...

Ideas to keep them occupied with the "easier" levels.
NPC parties with wizards show up to explore the depleated upper levels. Humanoid war parties. Situational dangers, like floods, or larger traps. Rooms start moving around, so their maps become more and more useless.

Basically think about what else comes to the dungeon, and what might change there, either as a result of the players' action, or for other reasons.

Alternately, have them find another enterance that goes right to level 5.

Jim said...

@Grendelwulf -- Great ideas! Thanks! I've laid a little bit of groundwork in that area... time to cash it in!
@Christopher -- I agree. Thanks. The players aren't complaining (yet). I do think that they will grow tired of poking around with hobgoblins and giant rats. :) One of the players/PCs is looking to hire a band of mercenaries to "hold" territory within the dungeon, so the PCs can just breeze on through. I'm also toying with a chart that handwaves the battles through the upper levels -- slight chance to lose HPs per level passed. If I develop that, I'll share that here.
@Lasgunpacker -- Excellent ideas. Thanks! I've done a bit with collapsing passages and other changes to the dungeon. I guess I'll just keep that up!

Desert Scribe said...

With that many people stumbling around, it seems to me they would scare the less powerful critters off. That way, a powerful party can waltz unmolested through those upper levels that no longer pose a challenge and quickly get to the exciting parts.

Jim said...

@Desert Scribe -- Yeah, that's kinda what I did on level 1 and 2. The monsters could hear them from a great distance and could even see them with their Continual Lights

Beedo said...

First off - just want to clarify - it was boring for you, not them? If it's boring for them, you just have to point out they're high level guys kicking over ant-hills, and that interesting threats await them in the depths.

Regardless, it's an interesting problem for the megadungeon, and I've been there too (when running Stonehell). You definitely need to have easy access to the lower levels - I'm not familiar enough with the COTMA maps to know if that's a problem. You could have low level monsters start running away from them - the group's repuation (and numbers) precedes them.

The 1E DMG has a heavy-handed approach, where a group doesn't even get full XP value for stuff gained where the challenge level is significantly below the characters.

Jim said...

@Beedo -- Nah, it wasn't really boring for me. I was just sensing that the players were a little bored, but, they chose their path. I just want to be true to the levels... They do know how to get to the seventh, but are so far unwilling to climb down the chasm...

Joseph said...

The key with CotMA is that higher-level parties are going to find it boring on the upper levels. Not only are the challenges beneath them, but so are the treasures.

Was there a reason they don't want to go deeper? When they stop finding treasure on level 2, that should be a signal to go to level 3 or lower.

Joseph said...

Worse comes to worse, the Mad Archmage is watching them. *BAMF* welcome to level 6.

Jim said...

@Joseph -- They've pretty much exhausted 2 and 3, but there are still a few secrets to be found. 4th is largely a mystery because I inserted a teleporter to 5. They know about the piano stairs to 6 and have used them (and did use them last night) but the chasm on 5 that leads down to 6 and 7 is intimidating them. They don't have a quick escape route and are afraid they'll get backed into a corner and will have to climb ropes up to 6 or 5... I'm tempted to make the Mad Mage appear... It may happen very, very soon...

-C said...

Yeah, I have this problem a lot. Here's the reasoning.

The players are afraid of death, so they all make multiple PC's.

They are going somewhere dangerous so they take all the PC's.

They face the adventure with little difficulty.

Experience is split thirty ways.

Players complain they aren't getting enough experience.

Point out that the players could get more if they didn't travel with an army.

Players don't care.

-C said...

So I dunno what the solution is.

Peter said...

Others have had good suggestions, but I'll throw this one in - why are the weak monsters on levels 1, 2, etc. attacking them? Why aren't they running the hell away from a big clanking pack of death-dealing delvers?

It makes sense for guard monsters, undead, golems, etc. to go for them and die. It makes less sense for animals and intelligent humanoids. Why not just run away?

This accomplishes a few things:

- the PCs know they are badass, because monsters flee from them.
- no wasted time on encounters that neither consume resources nor bring enjoyment to the group (eliminates tedium).
- adds some verisimilitude - it's believable that monsters would learn and flee from instant death.
- it preserves those monsters as a potential later threat. If the party goes down as 14 asskickers and comes back up as 12 wounded guys with 2 corpses and piles of money, well, maybe now is the chance to jump them.

The party might suspect the last one and deliberately hunt down the weaker monsters, but that's their choice, and if they choose boredom you can tell them out of game that's what they have done.

I do this already - some monsters in the Caves of Chaos flee from the PCs, and others really, really, really prefer to negotiate. Beats dying, and it's more fun than "Yawn, I kill two more goblins with ease."

Brendan said...

Why not have some of the weaker monsters try to use the PCs, especially if there are factions? Maybe they could see the PCs as a way to get rid of some of the nastier lower denizens. I'm not familiar with the monsters in CotMA, but I imagine many humanoids are of a "might makes right" disposition, and would consider PCs to be natural rulers if they are stronger. That gives the PCs a coterie of followers to be responsible for... might be an interesting organic way to start to accumulate followers for a stronghold.

Another point of view, from the 1d30 post Magic Changes Resource Management:

At seventh level, the party Magic-User might get Dimension Door. This allows bypassing dungeon levels you don’t want to deal with, so long as you’re familiar with the destination. So you can enter the dungeon, Dimension Door down a level or two, and get straight to business. If he has a second DD he can get everyone out instantly too.

Jim said...

@-C -- Yeah. I hear you.
@Peter -- the weaker monsters DO run away. They hide! Only the overconfident/crazy attack, but that's still part of the problem. Traipsing around unknown corridors on the 2nd and 3rd level isn't that exciting. You just end up finding a lot of hastily deserted rooms. :)
@Brendan -- interesting idea. I think there's a plot hook or two there... Thanks!

Anonymous said...

As an Adventurer in the Party (I only have one character now and I also control our Burro)I have never particularly felt that an upper level was "easy", even now... I think it depends on the night. Sometimes battles are a breeze, other times monsters kick out butts when I think they shouldn't. I never have felt "safe", even on the upper levels. As a player, and my character reflects this, I enjoys exploring every nook and cranny, fleshing out the entire map. Others just want to go deep for a challenge I guess, but since this whole place is a puzzle, I feel it is a disservice to breeze by chunks of the dungeon. In the case of last nights session, I feel it was only "boring" in a way because we had TOO many bodies... it bogged us down having to do marching orders and because we just ended up exploring a "maze" section it was not effective. I guess I will have to speak up more because the "champion" of going deep is one of the players that takes the fewest chances with their character. ~DB

Jim said...

Thanks DB. I just want the game to be fun for everyone so I worry when it drags. :)

Jim said...

Thanks DB. I just want the game to be fun for everyone so I worry when it drags. :)

Lord Thanatos said...

I'm also a member of the "party". I didn't think our last session was boring so much as it was tedious. I liked the opening, poor Karn, I wish I could have saved you. It was an interesting hook, but at the same time it added one MORE member to our already ginormous group. We spent some time trying to get deeper and eventually landed on the maze level. I'm sure the whole point of the maze was to frustrate and slow adventurers down, but we just trudged through. I was waiting for a revolving wall or something to split the party up, but it didn't happen. I do think there were too many people, at times the marching order looked like a NASCAR race, 3 or 4 wide. Maybe we could purchase a "gateway" or a spell that would transport us to a point in the dungeon so that in the future, trying to get deeper doesn't take so much hiking through familiar territory. I've missed a session or two, but I did like having to choose between character "A" or "B" for each session. Too many cooks in the kitchen. I think as players, we have a few different motives and its hard to keep our focus; one wants to go deep, another wants to explore, others just follow along.

1d30 said...

You're doing it how I do it. I don't know if that makes it right but you have company anyway.

I think the upper levels should be boring for a high level group. If they want to have excitement and danger, go deeper. You can facilitate this by including shortcuts to lower levels.