No matter the RPG you are playing, the overriding factor in all things is player expectations. This is usually about story elements. A steak to the heart should kill a vampire. When it doesn’t, players get pulled away from the world. But it also matters when it comes to combat and mechanics. When the rules of a fight break player expectations, you lose the group for a moment. And what better example than 5e?
Recently playing a campaign the players came up against an obvious trap. And so the players all said they were looking for obvious trap. Then they identified exactly where obvious trap should be. Then they slowly approached obvious trap. Unfortunately they didn’t roll high enough to overcome some arbitrary number and the rules turned obvious trap into a total surprise that somehow nobody expected.
What we saw was that when player expectations didn’t match the Rules As Written, the game lost its players.
There’s more detail to this example, but we are going to step back a moment. I am obviously not a 5e fan, so I am always curious what real fans hate about the game. I am predisposed to just get annoyed about things that most players are more than ok with. So if I have a low threshold, what does a high threshold look like?
What I find is that phrase is true across the board. If Rules as Written (RAW) breaks the clear expectations of players, they are out of the headspace to play the game immediately. I would go one further and say that the fact that “Rules as Written” comes up so often that it has an acronym IS the problem. Of all editions of D&D, 5e is the only time I’ve seen rules lawyering, nitpicking, and tying the GM’s hands be celebrated. These things would be travesties to OSR folks.
Back to the example. The single monster that was part of this ambush was given a huge range, speed, and damage. If it rolled max damage, it would one shot every player. Was it a dargon? A demon? A Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG)? No, it was a random NPC that barely had any hitpoints. It was a nothing to the plot. A random mook.
This is important because once the insignificant detail in the story was killed, all of its equipment was gone over. If it is capable of killing hardened characters in a single shot (before they even see it coming) then it must have some kind of artifact or magic weapon. I mean if a single attack rolls more dice than all of the players combined, and it gets two attacks per round for no discernible reason, clearly this weapon must be a legendary item foretold by countless generations.
What did the players find? NOTHING! All normal weapons with significantly less ability than was seen. The random mook simply had some ability written into its character that gives it an unreal amount of extra damage. No in game or out of game explanation. No ability to quest after this skill. No ancient rituals to follow. It was a horribly written, empty feeling that the players just had to swallow. 5e fans HATE this aspect of the game.
So how could this even happen?
There are a lot of factors. They are not the main point of this article, but the problem is that 5e is too much of a video game. Monsters are entities with properties, and when they die they become game objects. I’m not exaggerating, this is true in RAW. Their swords and magic fall to the floor as extra meshes on their models, which cannot be interacted with. Just details to try to flavor a predefined game play style that you are being led into by the nose. And with that video game aspect, comes canned monsters in canned adventures, with canned text that has no bearing on the players, characters, or plot. Basically, the story is empty on purpose.
If this were a rare occurrence, then maybe it’s just a bad roll or a bad session. Things should look up, right? But that’s not how things went. The next event involved triggering a trap and spawning monsters. Those monsters were overpowered with abilities that just destroy players (that are not considered magic because its convenient to the system to play semantics). Now you’d think the way this encounter shakes out is that the monsters attack the group. Nope, because of a bad initiative roll and a terrible transition from free-narrative to combat, the monsters ganged up and almost killed one player in a single round. All going before anyone could react.
Let’s back up a second here. Do we really think that monsters that are magically spawned into existence should start at a full sprint? They don’t need time to see the threat? They don’t take time to get to the players? There is not such thing as a reaction to that stimuli? Not even for the players to yell “oh no!”. They literally just teleport in, then move from spot A to spot B without time moving forward.
And when they are dead, are any of these events something that the players can interact with? Do the monsters drop time stopping amulets? Does the source of power in the trap glow and provide some kind of clue to who placed it there? Nope. It was a game scripting event more programmed into place than written. There is no story.
That’s where we break because we need to talk about how this could be made better. As a GM, know how to run an encounter. Never break story with an encounter. Sure, the rules don’t always have to be a perfect story telling tool, but they should never make players angry that the story is meaningless to the game creators.
Sometimes its really easy to do this. D&D’s initiative system is horrible. It is extremely bad design. The most famously bad player build in 5e is the Assassin who is designed to get advantages in initiative. If the system wasn’t so broken, you wouldn’t need a class build dedicated to trying to fix it. And even if that were ok, it would be fun to play. So disregarding the system for a group system (players turn, monster turn), or making it based on static values, or just giving some players bonuses based on the situation, is all it takes. It’s actually no work at all. Saying “you saw it coming, so you just go first” is not that hard.
The position of the battlefield is a fun part of the combat, but 5e is very good at making this painful. In fact all of D&D is good at this. No matter what is going on, you are where you are when they GM says “roll for iniative.” That’s it. If you were being a good player and letting another share the spotlight, and the combat erupted, then the chokehold you were about to put on the rowdy bar patron doesn’t count. You didn’t say it fast enough, and by the way you never entered the bar because you didn’t say that you did yet.
It’s like picking a random position on the page of a book, refusing to read the rest of the page, and then starting on the next page with only the events from where you chose being valid. You do have a chance of it being ok, but you should statistically always be missing half of the important details.
As a GM, you should keep your players engaged. Pause the spotlight from time to time to ask how others are reacting. If you know something is about to spring, use this as an opportunity to ask everyone what they are doing. Even if it gives away the danger, it’s ok to let the warrior draw his sword. It’s NOT THAT BIG OF A DEAL. But forcing all of the melee characters out of the door while the squishy wizard is completely surrounded by demons is being a bad GM. You don’t just lose player engagement, you can lose a player over this.
And the last piece of advice that is the golden rule that encompasses all that is needed to solve this problem is something that will fly in the face of what you were told. The GM is not god.
If you want to turn a bad experience around at a table in less than 5 seconds, allow the players to challenge you. We see this as losing the group, but it’s not. This only goes bad when the players have been stifled and beat down for months and finally flip out. If they have input into the story and rulings from the beginning, they are invested in the game.
This is not allowing them to make GM rulings. But it is entertaining the idea that throwing sand in someone’s eye helps them run away. You know for a fact that RAW doesn’t allow that. But the moment the story feels like something the players can control, they are part of the story. They are not just killing your monsters anymore. They are now helping you paint a picture… of your monsters being killed. Which is pretty epic as far as paintings go.
So remember, as a GM, RAW is not your friend. Player expectations first. Listen to feedback. And stop making overpowered monsters for no discernible reason. At least make up a reason, even if it’s aliens.