This post is an analysis of a rather underwhelming D&D experience I had as a player, and what made it unpleasant. For When Make-Believe Magical Elf Fun-times Go Bad, read below!
How about I ditch the context and just dive right into the meat, eh?
Long, Drawn-Out Fights
The entire session was largely taken up with a gladiatorial combat set up something like a wrestling match: there’s a center ring, and whoever gets pushed out of the ring loses, and whoever is in the center of the ring at the end is crowed the winner. As gladiators, we didn’t have arms or armor – just our bare hands and 5e’s grapple and shove.
This is not a bad set-up for a fun fight! We’re playing the game in Primeval Thule, so it’s thematic to the pulpy “savage barbarians” feel.
But, without weapons, and with every attack taking two rolls to resolve (the Athletics check to grapple/shove and the opposed check to negate), the fight dragged interminably. Lots of rules quibbles over minor details that don’t come up in regular play meant for the first few rounds every. single. action. was a discussion with the DM about what was possible and what was permissable and how to add things and what was a “weapon” attack and if an “unarmed strike” counted.
The DM was thoroughly unprepared to deal with this, and even if he had been prepared, the mechanics themselves would’ve still chewed up the majority of our three-hour session.
When the most significant decisions you can make in a D&D session is “grapple, shove, or unarmed attack?”, and any one of those decisions is a five-minute negotiation with the DM about permission or rules arcana, it’s not a fun time.
Solution: In addition to simply “if you’re going to have an unorthodox fight, know the rules for that kind of fight,” I might tentatively recommend even using different rules. The D&D rules for grappling and shoving are predicated on the idea that this isn’t exactly a common thing that the players do. The occasional tentacle-monster or wall of fire or cliff face, sure, but not every roll in a fight. An easy change would be to transform the shove/grapple attacks of the NPC’s into straight DC’s that the PC’s could roll saving throws against. One roll, moving on.
In broader design terms, make your core system robust. If you’re going to hang a game on a mechanic, make sure you know that mechanic inside and out, and make sure you’ve done what you can to file off it’s rough edges and make it more presentable.
Having a long, drawn-out fight is one thing, but the framing for that fight gave our party little reason to care about the fight or its outcome. As slaves, we were pushed to fight in the arena. The fight we were in was nonlethal by design, so our loss would simply be a loss in a game that we were forced to play, nothing more. Our win would not secure us freedom – merely, at the close of the session, a note that we were “feted and feasted.”
The DM failed to understand what the characters cared about in that scene, what motivated us. Well, at least half of us. See, as slaves, what we wanted above all was our freedom. Victory in this meaningless fight wasn’t intrinsically rewarding to us. T Even thematically appropriate punishments – “You fight or you starve tonight!” / “One of the losers will be executed at dawn for the amusement of the people!” were not on the table.
So we couldn’t get what we wanted, and we wouldn’t be punished for losing – neither the stick nor the carrot. There was no reason for us to care.
So half the party went off-script. My character was a noble official of a proud, martial culture, and his skill balancing a military logistics chain is probably better than his skill at grabbing and throwing burly bros around. So he pursued his agenda – he tried to find out how to escape the situation. He talked to other gladiators about who they were, where they were from, how they wound up here, who the owner of the arena was, about some nobles in the stands. He picked up thrown shards of pottery and fruit. He egged on the mob-like crowd.
This seemed to catch the DM entirely off-guard. Another character mostly watched the scene from the top of a pillar. A third participated, but when the NPC’s were thrown out, sat down and refused to fight further, stating that he “wasn’t fighting for their amusement.”
All moves were met with DM befuddlement and mild “stick”-ing in the form of an angry crowd (which turned into a riot).
I don’t think any of us went in with the idea to screw over the DM’s planned scene, we just had to figure out a way to pursue our character’s motivations in the scene provided – and the DM had no idea that “winning a wrestling contest” would not prove to be sufficiently motivating.
Solution: If you can’t give the party what they want out of a fight, at least give them a punishment for failing. Better to give them both, really.
In broader design terms: know what your players want to do, and give them both a reward for doing it, and a punishment for failing.
Sword & Sorcery & T & A
So at the climax of the arena fight, a bit of story gets injected: a drunk nobleman comes down with two guards and enters the brawl, angry about having lost some money.
So far, so good! Weapons! Armor! And we’re unarmed!
This nobleman has a wife (or somesuch) introduced first to me as “attractive.” This part is obvious. So, being the wheedling character that I am, I shout down from the arena to ask her name – I want to find out who the rich and powerful are so that they can get me out of this hole.
Of course, her name was nowhere to be found in the notes. This happened a few times, with the DM being totally caught off-guard each time, unclear about what the name of this pretty important NPC was!
You see, she was pretty important…because she asked us to kill her husband in the arena.
With all the violence and corruption about, this seems like a clear death-sentence to my character. Oh, sure, kill the rich guy, I’m sure that’ll to really well for literal nonpersons.
But then it did? Like, the guards fell down and let us do it? (The deed was actually done by the party’s resident psychopath, who was using the arena as an excuse to kill and fight, which…you know, fair enough!) No ramifications happened as a result?
And the cherry on top, this nameless “attractive noblewoman” invites my character back to her boudoir for some slave-time hanky-panky. Ignoring, of course, my requests for freedom, or at least to be bought out of the arena.
This actually was probably the straw that broke my back. The DM was literally indulging in the woman-as-reward trope, despite the fact that I as a player and as a character was thoroughly uninterested in that reward. I didn’t want her ass, I wanted my freedom, dammit. What’s more, the sex wasn’t delightful, it was coercive, a powerful noble woman taking advantage of a slave who had no right to say no.
…and all this while I was still working out my character’s sexual orientation…
This made me as a player feel uncomfortable, and that kind of clinched the experience as really not a great one. It’s like the point about knowing what the characters want, on steroids.
Solution: Gettin’ yer dick wet probably shouldn’t be a REWARD, folks! I mean, I get that it’s in-genre and all, but can we leave the rampant misogyny, racism, and homophobia in the fever-dreams of the ’30’s where it can be forgotten?
Given the overall tone of the setting, I dunno if this is going to be a comfortable campaign. I’m willing to give it a bit longer, but jimminiy christmas this has all the makings of those awful high school games, but with, like 50 year old men involved. Eeeuegh.