Thursday, November 10, 2016

Pathfinder: Everyone Wants the DM's Attention

In our last session, while neutralizing the guards in an underground prison, the party tripped a trap (magic vial around the captain's neck) which drowns the level in water. The sewer grate at one end of the level seals up in stone, and an arcane lock seals the trapdoor in the ceiling at the other end. None of us had dispel or knock, and our rogue didn't think he could pick magic locks.

We're Level 14 Ratfolk this time, & mostly evil
Things got pretty chaotic.

Players were sometimes confused about the layout of the prison, and the DM sometimes lost track of where characters were. I had a pretty good handle on both so I tried when I could to clarify the DM's intent to the other players or their intent to the DM; in adding myself to the conversation, I risked fraying the communication even further, but I think I helped more than I interfered. Probably we should've just requested a map to start with. We often handle simple combats and locations without maps and I don't think any of us expected this encounter to need one.

Timing was also confusing. Whenever the DM was resolving other players' actions and said the water was up their waist (or to the ceiling) I'd interrupt because whoa hold on, I want to be continually creating magic pits* to siphon the water away; and meanwhile, another player is trying to tunnel, and him and the DM have different understandings of where that tunnel is. In all of that we lost track of another character who was trying to break through the stone over the sewer grate.

In retrospect, I think we should've started the encounter with the DM declaring how fast the water was rising, and each player declaring (in reverse initiative order, if needed?) their intentions for the next minute or so of activity; then as the DM resolves multiple turns of activity per character, either him or each player would keep track of which round the character ended on, so that it's easier to tell who hasn't acted. (I usually try track the party this way on my own in my head, but this time I evidently forgot, was distracted, or otherwise failed.) 

I suppose that same basic formula - declare intentions before beginning, check in with non-acting players at convenient intervals - could also be used in situations where you don't have a ticking clock (such as negotiations with an NPC) to prevent one player from pushing their agenda above everybody else's. (I guess use a Charisma or appropriate skill roll if you need to determine conversation initiative for some reason.)

That formula might also help when the players are discussing things among themselves, but there it's more or less a common sense thing, so I don't know how much pointing it out helps... in my experience, any group of four or more players will have a side conversation going, so when everyone tackles the same issue there's a lot of redundant talking and opinions. I like to solve that (both as a player and as a DM) by splitting the party - either pursuing different leads to different locations, or just divvying up the decisions and planning. Make the subgroups small enough, and everybody's participating; make the decisions hard enough, and they'll be weighing options with each other instead of all questioning the DM at once.

*The magic, water-filled pits were great because their existence was temporary and their volume was greater than that of the prison. So when the spells finally ended we were going to be crushed to death by the water and then the prison would explode.


  1. I'm a big fan of temporary fixes which raise the stakes. Magic water pits sound like exactly that thing.

    1. Yep, and me too.

      When next my turn at GMing comes up, I'm going to try to bake in opportunities for it, but it seems like it emerges more from player misuse of resources than from intentional GM planning.