Snakes, Druids and “Oh, We’re In It, Now!”

I ran Oh, We’re In It Now on the weekend. It’s a 2-hour DDAL-legal adventure written by Luke Gygax and Thomas Valley. It’s the second time I’ve run it, and so I was much more confident about how to approach it.

The adventure doesn’t use a map. The adventurers are in the middle of a lot of mazey corridors trying to find the way out. It’s complicated by the fact that the corridors are also playing host to a battle between Kraken Society cultists and Yuan-Ti, both of which are more than happy to kill the adventurers. Instead of having a structure where the players choose which direction they go until they find the way out, the DM instead just chooses encounters for them until time runs out. At that point, an ending encounter triggers, and the adventurers escape.

Although I’m typically not fond of this adventure structure, where the players’ actions do not influence how they complete the adventure, it works fine in this instance.

The maze was built by a mysterious wizard, so there are a lot of old-school traps, strange features to examine, and a lot of combat; though the exact proportion of each depends on which encounters the DM chooses to use. Ten chamber encounters and ten hallway encounters provide a fair selection of encounters. There’s perhaps less range to the encounters than you might expect, as many are simply new ways of encountering Yuan-Ti or Kraken Society members, but there’s more than enough variety for a 2-hour slot.

It would be possible to run this in a very boring fashion, I feel. However, get the right group of players and Dungeon Master, and there’s a lot of fun to be had. The Dungeon Master is likely going to need to flesh out the descriptions of the rooms and situations further, but it provides most of the basic building blocks.

During our play of the adventure, we had the fun of having a druid turning into a giant constrictor snake. This huge creature is not the natural inhabitant of these walls. In fact, it should downright struggle. Despite the snake being a long, relatively-thin creature, the rules in D&D assume they occupy a square space. This is something that dates from the 3.5E revision to D&D. In 3E, a horse took up a 5-foot by 10-foot space. In 3.5E, this changed to be a 10-foot by 10-foot space. Why? Because D&D doesn’t assume combatants are facing one direction.

The trouble with facing is that you then need rules to cover how you change which way you’re looking (or which way is front). This is far fiddlier than you want in D&D. So, D&D uses square facing so each combatant could potentially be facing in any direction. It’s not too far from what should happen in combat: no combatant stands still and facing the same way all the time. Instead, Combatants always change their stance and move around. The square facing allows this movement without having the unfortunate situation where a creature can’t turn around.

So, what happens when a Huge Snake (15-foot square space) is in a 10-foot-wide corridor? Well, it can fit, but it’s considered to be squeezing. See the Player’s Handbook, Combat, Movement and Position to find the actual rules. Suffice to say the snake suffers disadvantage on attacks and Dexterity saves, is slower to move, and opponents have advantage to hit it.

It does require you to remember the rule though. I half-remembered it, and I didn’t want to stop the session to look it up. Instead, I played the snake as being able to move and fight normally and then made a note to look up the rule afterwards. People were having fun, so better to let the fun continue. Next time, I know what the rule should be, and I’ll advise the player of how it should be handled.

Even getting this rule wrong, having a giant snake wander through the hallways caused a few problems for the other characters. Fifteen feet of a corridor filled by a snake gives substantial cover to the creatures on the other side. Squeezing past the snake? It’s possible, but it’s effectively difficult ground. So, it takes 35 feet of movement to move past the snake for its allies. The effect of this? Characters had to use the Dash action to get past, and so had a round of doing nothing but letting the foes get another attack on them.

The best moment of the adventure came from the druid. In the previous round, he’d taken enough damage to revert to human form. On his turn, he declared “I bite the Yuan-Ti!” and immediately made the attack roll. He hit.

Typically, in such a situation, I would have pointed out that he was no longer a snake and asked him if he wanted to change his action. However, the Yuan-Ti in question had only one hit point remaining. So, I just allowed the action as described. The druid in his human form leaned forward and bit the Yuan-Ti. It died, and much laughter ensued.

Further amusement came from a hallway that had several sandbags and a layer of sand everywhere. The corridor was mined, with tripwires leading to magical bombs under the sandbags. The adventurers discovered the first of the tripwires and followed it to the first bomb. Their check for finding the bomb was less than good, so I described how one adventurer lifted the bag, to find the bomb below, but moving the bag any further or replacing it would set off the bomb! Oh dear!

This led to the players frantically searching for a solution. It’s fun when that happens – lots of crazy ideas are described, and you get to advise them on whether you’d think they’d work. The smartest idea was to get another sandbag and wedge the first sandbag with it. Great idea. I said it would definitely work. So, one of the adventurers went to another group of sandbags to get one. He picked it up – and triggered the bomb beneath it. The adventurers holding the original bomb stable had to make Strength saving throws to keep it stable, which they did, but once again everyone found this amusing.

It helps to know your players!

There are a few problems with “Oh, We’re In It, Now” for DDAL play, particularly in the way it awards magic items. Rather than giving out multiple staffs of the python and goggles of night, I ignored the permanent awards altogether. Take care with them; I’m not sure what the official DDAL ruling on it is.

However, we enjoyed it. The adventurers survived, and the players had fun.

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Adventure Design: A Word on Encounter Triggers

In Out of the Feywild (see review in the last post), there’s an encounter with an invisible pixie. The encounter says it trails the PCs invisibly unless they seem friendly.

What then makes the pixie interact with the PCs?

It’s a problem I’ve seen many times in adventures. The designer needs to set up a situation where the PCs have something to react to. The players aren’t role-playing every minute of travel. (Eight hours of walking where nothing happens. Yay!)

In this encounter, nothing happens to trigger play. How do the players know there’s an invisible pixie? They don’t. And it’s not likely they’re doing anything when the random encounter is rolled.

Consider if the encounter also included the players finding a wounded stag. That gives the players a choice: Do they spend time tending the stag? Do they kill it and take the meat? Do they ignore it and walk by? The pixie witnesses their choice, and then interaction with the pixie can begin.

The point with an encounter is to present a situation that then requires the players to make choices. An encounter that never happens because the players don’t realise it’s there? Try to avoid designing those!

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5E Adventure Review: Out of the Feywild

Out of the Feywild is a short, six-page adventure by Andrew James Woodyard for characters level 3-5. It describes itself as a magical forest mystery. It can easily be played in a single sitting, although its length can be adjusted to last between two and four hours without much trouble.

The basic plot is that the adventurers are travelling towards a town when they get trapped in a magical forest that begins to sprout around them. They must deal with random fey creatures until they meet the Big Bad who is ultimately responsible for the forest’s growth. The underlying idea is very good; the execution is lacklustre.

The random encounters are underdeveloped. Some of the ideas are not without merit, but as they make up a significant part of the adventure, I would have liked to see more care given to them. There’s a lot of repetition with them. Look, it’s another fey creature who might help the adventurers if it likes them!

The final encounter is full of exceptions. It’s less than simple to run.

The writing, editing and proofreading are poor without being horrible; however, if you want examples of how not to write, it’s full of them. The adventure also doesn’t use columns, which is a choice I dislike.

I do like that the adventure presents a situation that the players don’t immediately have an explanation for. There’s a good sense of mystery to the proceedings, and if the DM spends time fleshing out the encounters, it has the potential to be quite unsettling. It does have the drawback of being an event that a smart party – one that found shelter in the village – would avoid almost entirely.

Overall, the adventure has several interesting ideas, but its encounters need development by the DM to reach their potential.

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Storm King’s Thunder – Outrunning the Barbarian

We ran our Session 0 of Storm King’s Thunder last night. Six players all rolling characters at the same time, creating a party of adventurers that would work together and would be fun to play.

The result: A Warlock, a Paladin, a Barbarian, a Monk, a Druid and a Wizard.

Covers all the bases!

“Hang on!” I hear you cry. “What about the Rogue?” The answer to that is we gave the Barbarian the Criminal background so that he can pick locks. Not that he has lockpicks yet. I explained the character archetype using the example of Fafhrd, from the books by Fritz Leiber. The explanation would have worked better if anyone but me was familiar with those tales.

Look, they were tremendously important to the development of Dungeons & Dragons! Go and read Swords and Deviltry and the other books and tell me I’m mistaken! They even get mentioned in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. What do you mean that was 40 years ago?

We played a little part of A Great Upheaval, the opening section of SKT, after finishing with character creation. All the characters had worked out relationships with the other characters, and we were beginning to get a sense of how everyone would work together.

Then came the first combat. Two worgs noticed the party and began moving towards them. Most of the party prepared for their approach. Not the Paladin, who used the Dash action to move sixty feet directly up to them. The Barbarian moved next, and we all expected him to do the same.

Not a chance! The Barbarian was also a Mountain Dwarf, well known for their stumpy legs, and could only Dash 50 feet. He didn’t even do that. Instead, he moved up 25 feet and fired a crossbow at a worg. It took him until the third round to finally arrive and engage in melee against the one remaining worg. It bit him. Ten points of damage! Ouch! The paladin, happily protected by heavy armour and a shield, was unhurt.

Did I detect a rivalry forming between the two?

The Paladin and the Barbarian did indeed continue to amuse. The Paladin is very law-abiding. Upon the group looting a kitchen and eating some of the food, she left behind some coins to pay for it all. She then turned to the Barbarian to chide him for his behaviour.

He denied everything. With an eight Charisma, but he was proficient in Deception thanks to his background. Surely the Paladin would see through him?

No, she had an eight Wisdom and didn’t have training in Insight. (The rolls also didn’t go in her favour). So, she’s a gullible paladin, and he’s a lawless barbarian.

This campaign should be great fun!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Session Report, Storm King's Thunder | 3 Comments

The Joy of Doorways

In my experience, a lot of D&D combat takes place around doorways, certainly if the players have played a lot of the game.

Why would you want to go into a room? The DM has probably filled it with lots of traps to get you the moment you go in, and monsters are waiting to surround you at a moment’s notice.

Far better to stay in the doorway, adopt a defensive posture, and let your spellcasters and archers rain down destruction on the monsters while the fighters in front protect the rest of the party. If the monsters close to melee, great!

The barbarian that runs unheeding into every melee is doing the party a disservice. What they’re doing is leaving the middle ranks of the party vulnerable to attack. A smart (or evil) DM will bypass the barbarian and move to attack the wizard and rogue the barbarian was meant to be protecting. Or the barbarian, alone in the centre of the room, will be surrounded by monsters and overwhelmed.

The smart move is to stay back. Use the doorway to prevent the party from being attacked from several angles and pick off the enemy.

Does this always work? No! D&D would be a very boring game if one strategy worked every time. It works in most circumstances because many common monsters in D&D only have melee attacks or relatively weak ranged attacks. The times when it doesn’t work are when the enemy has strong ranged attacks or area effect spells. At that point, you need to try other tactics.

And one of those tactics is closing the door!

Not every encounter needs to be defeated the moment you meet it. Some will still be there when you come back, better prepared, for the next time. Of course, the DM may do preparations as well, but some divination spells can help foil that.

Perhaps you can let the monsters chase you and set your ambush. Perhaps you can sprinkle caltrops or flaming oil to deter pursuit. Or drop some gold coins – goblins and kobolds might just pick them up.

And then there are the times when you need to move quickly into the room to engage the archers and spellcasters, spreading out, so a fireball spell doesn’t kill you all.

Use the view from the doorway to get an understanding of the situation. Then act!

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Playing a First Level Barbarian

Barbarians are tough. Barbarians are strong. Barbarians are incredibly fun to play.

Here are a few notes on how to play them effectively at first level.

What is the Barbarian best at?

The barbarian does the most damage of any first-level character with two-handed weapons. They need to be raging while doing so, but even the fighter doesn’t deal as much damage.

Barbarians are the toughest – have the most hit points – of any character. They get hit more than the heavy-armoured fighter, but while raging they take half damage from weapon attacks. They can just keep going and going.

The most effective barbarians tend to wield greataxes in combat. Greatsword or maul works as well, but you lose a lot of what makes you special if you use a one-handed weapon. Experienced players can wield smaller weapons effectively, but you’re generally best with the biggest weapon around.

A barbarian fighting with sword and shield can be effective, but it’s not what the barbarian is best at.

What should the Barbarian do in combat?

The Barbarian is best in melee combat; that is, hitting people with a sword or axe. However, you don’t want to leave the squishy wizard unprotected.

In most combats, you shouldn’t move away from the other characters. Stay with the other party members and hurl javelins or hand axes at the enemy. Once the enemy engage you in melee, draw your sword or axe and hit them.

There are two exceptions to this: when fighting enemies with bows or other long-range attacks, and when fighting spellcasters or dragons.

In the first case, you want to run up to the enemy as quickly as possible and hit them. There’s no point in staying back and being hit while you can’t attack back.

In the second case, you’re fighting an enemy who can hit the entire party with an area effect such as thunderwave or a breath attack. Don’t bunch up in this case: scatter, find cover and look to engage the foe.

When you get the money, buy a bow. A longbow is best. You won’t be as good with it as with your melee weapon, but at least you will be able to attack flying creatures.

When should a Barbarian go into rage?

The first-level barbarian gets two uses of rage each day. You can expect between four and six combats each day (it’s typically fewer in D&D Adventurers League play). You won’t be able to rage in every fight.

So, pick the best two to use it in.

The fight against the final boss of the adventure? That’s one.

Otherwise, look for fights against one or more very tough foes, or fights against a lot of enemies. It’s not worth raging when fighting four kobolds. Raging while fighting twelve kobolds? More worthwhile. Fighting an Ogre? Rage!

Remember: Rage ends if you don’t take damage or make an attack. (I’ve seen a barbarian win initiative, go into a rage, then Dodge. The rage immediately ended. Don’t do that!)

Should a Barbarian wear armour?

A first-level Barbarian with a 14 Constitution and a 14 Dexterity has a 14 Armour Class when not wearing armour using the Unarmoured Defence ability.

A first-level Barbarian with a 14 Dexterity and wearing Scale Mail has a 16 Armour Class.

Once you can afford it, it’s worth getting medium armour. I don’t recommend using a shield in most combats – wield a two-handed weapon instead!

What race should I be?

Human, Half-Orc, Mountain Dwarf and Dragonborn tend to make the best Barbarians.

What abilities are most important?

You want your Strength to be high. Your Constitution is also important as it affects how many hit points you have, as well as your Armour Class if you don’t wear armour.

Dexterity helps you with initiative, armour class and ranged weapons. Wisdom aids you with many of your skills.

Charisma and Intelligence tend to be the lowest ability scores of a barbarian but look at which skills you want.

What skills should the Barbarian take?

Every barbarian should be proficient with Athletics. This allows you to climb and jump further than normal.

Your other skills? You should discuss with the rest of your group what skills they are taking. Try to cover as many skills over the group as you can.

  • Animal Handling (Wisdom) – very campaign dependent. Comes up occasionally; discuss how useful it might be with your DM.
  • Athletics (Strength) – this gets used a lot by barbarians
  • Intimidation (Charisma) – scaring people into telling you what you wish to know or into running from you is frequently useful, though you should try to pair it with a decent (12+) Charisma score.
  • Nature (Intelligence) – knowing about the dangers found in the wilderness can be useful but check with your DM how much he or she will use it. Requires a decent Intelligence score to be worth taking.
  • Perception (Wisdom) – very useful skill, as it helps you notice ambushes.
  • Survival (Wisdom) – dependent on the campaign but used a lot if you’re travelling in the wilderness.

You gain additional skills from your background. Work with that to gain an array of skills that will be useful to your party and try to match your better ability scores to your skills.

Reckless Attack?

At second level, you gain Reckless Attack. You get to make your melee attacks with advantage, while lowering your defences. This is a great ability, and you’ll want to use it most of the time. If you’re fighting an enemy with a very low armour class, it isn’t worth it (oozes, zombies, etc.), but against any creature with a decent armour class? It’s worth it. It’s best used while you’re raging, as having resistance from their attacks is useful.

Primal Path?

You have a lot of options once you reach third level as to how you want to specialise your barbarian. The one I see chosen most often is Path of the Totem Warrior, with the first totem as Bear. That gives the barbarian resistance while raging against all damage (except psychic), not just weapon damage. Yes, this is tremendously useful.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Play Advice | 4 Comments

5E Adventure Review: Bounty in the Bog

Bounty in the Bog is one of the Elemental Evil adventures from the D&D Adventurers League. Written by Ken Hart for a party of level 1-4 characters, it sends the adventurers into the Flooded Forest to deal with a group of bandits.

It’s a fascinating adventure. It’s very rich in detail and backstory. However, it’s a little tricky to relay some of that backstory to the characters.

The adventure is in two halves. The first half is the role-playing section, where the players meet Captain Holke of Southroad Keep, get their mission and interact with a pair of dwarven merchants who are being used as bait – and who haven’t been warned about the bandits. The intention is to play this as a moral quandary, but as this isn’t standard practice for DDAL games, it’s very likely the players will miss it.

The second half deals with the bandit ambush and the exploration of the bandit’s hideout. There’s one very strange encounter with some violet fungi that most groups walk past without ever noticing it, but the rest are entertaining. There’s some roleplaying in addition to the combat, so variety is maintained throughout.

The adventure’s flaws come from in having too many details that muddy the storytelling and aren’t followed up later in the season. There are too many dangling threads. Captain Holke asks the players to do something ethically challenging? Well, Captain Holke never reoccurs, and there’s no ongoing effect of the players’ decision. The true villain? He’s kept so far off-stage that only the DM knows what is going on. (The villain finally reappears in a 2017 CCC adventure, and at least the adventurers get to learn his name that time!)

The frustrating thing is that the adventure doesn’t need all these extra details and complications. It’s a perfectly fine adventure once you strip them out. I think it runs a little short, but I’m not a big fan of role-playing for the sake of role-playing. If the players are going to have an extended session of role-playing with a character, I want them to be learning information that is important to the plot or forming a bond with a character that will reoccur through the current and future adventures. I’m a big fan of ethical dilemmas, but they need to be telegraphed better and have more ramifications.

Bounty in the Bog is an enjoyable adventure, but also has several design decisions that don’t add anything to the overall experience. Recommended, with a few reservations.

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Running Tomb of Annihilation: Entering Omu

For the last few weeks, we’ve been exploring Omu, the Forbidden City of Tomb of Annihilation. We haven’t finished yet, and it’s likely to take a few more sessions before we do.

At this point in the story, the players know that the Soulmonger is in Omu, but not exactly where.

During the initial exploration of the city, I was aiming for a real sense of wonder. Basically, in any D&D adventure where the players spend an extended time in one place, everything eventually becomes familiar, with only odd encounters bringing back the sense of the fantastic. So, I needed to give the players a real sense of the place early on.

It helps that to begin with, Omu is a brilliant place. The city sits in a basin, a waterfall flooding half of it, with gargoyles overlooking everything and the ruins only just poking through the jungle growth. In one corner, a great rift in the earth reveals lava, with water creating great clouds of steam as it falls into the void. How can’t that be evocative and excite your players?

I used this amazing scenery to contrast with the reality of what the city once was: a living, breathing place inhabited by humans. The first few buildings the players explored I described in more detail. This was a bakery, with stone ovens and counters, with a few old coins scattered amongst the dirt. This was a home; a small toy reminding the players that children once lived here.

With this exploration, also comes the first glances of the inhabitants of the city. Vegepygmies hiding in the ruins, fleeing when approached. Yuan-Ti, guarding the approach, but then being strangely absent for long stretches as the exploration continues. The glimpses of kobolds in the distance. The humans might be gone, but the city isn’t entirely deserted!

From there, it was up to the players in which direction they explored. I’ve got the adventure on D&D Beyond, so I pulled up the player map on that, expanded it so they could only see their immediate surrounds, and let them choose where to go. Not surprisingly, they headed north (rather than try and cross the lava) and soon came to the first shrine.

I’ll speak more about the shrines in the next article, but they’re a large part of what’s important in the city. The other part is dealing with the reaction of the various factions to the adventurers as the factions become alerted to the adventurers’ presence. This is one of the areas where the good sense of the Dungeon Master should override the random encounter dice to give a better sense of structure to the adventure.

I use dice here to surprise me and give me ideas for encounters, but I’m very happy just to choose encounters. Perhaps to provide combat if the adventurers have been mostly exploring, or to provide a strange thing to explore or experience if there’s been a lot of combat recently.

“Random” encounters can also lead characters to keyed areas; just have an enemy flee into the middle of a shrine or encampment.

Those are my thoughts on the initial exploration of Omu; soon I’ll post up notes on how I handled the shrines.

Posted in D&D 5E, D&D Adventurers League, Play Advice, Session Report, Tomb of Annihilation | 3 Comments

5E Adventure Review: The Dark Lord

The Dark Lord is the final instalment of the D&D Adventurers League adventures set in Barovia. Written by Greg Marks, this 43-page adventure for level 5-10 characters is meant to be played in 4 hours, although I think most groups will struggle to do so. There’s a lot of material to cover.

The beginning of the adventure features the ritual to find the overall villain of the series, Esmae. The hag, Jeny Greenteeth, needs a coven to complete it, but her hag sisters are not with her. Thus, other female spellcasters are required. Sybil, the Gur seer, will be one of them, and either Aya Glenmiir or Ixusaxa Terrorsong can be the other. Having a PC spellcaster participate is not recommended, as it drains their strength, which they need for the mission to come. It’s a horrifying ritual, with some interesting consequences. It also allows objects obtained in previous adventures to give the adventurers benefits and drawbacks; I’ve seen these used in surprising and inventive ways. They are a terrific addition to the adventure.

There’s also a side-quest to find Aya if necessary; it doesn’t add much to the story, instead it takes up valuable time.

Once the adventurers have learnt where Esmae is, the remaining adventure is quite simple in form: fight through the enemies guarding Esmae, find the hidden entrance to her lair, then defeat her. There’s not much role-playing to do here, as the time for talking is over. It’s the time for action! Most of the interest from the adventure comes from the varied combat situations the characters need to face. Fighting a hidden assassin, fighting on stairs, fighting during a ritual where other stuff is happening: the players get a chance to demonstrate their ability to deal with different challenges in combat.

The exploration of the lair also can reveal a few more details about the plot, to help along the players’ comprehension of the story, and there are several traps and tricks to keep them on their toes.

All of this is well done, but it’s a challenge to run it to time. I’ve run it twice, and both times I’ve needed to compress sections of the adventure to allow a reasonable time for the conclusion. The final combat, especially when played at the proper level, is very challenging. Esmae has many immunities and resistances; the players also need to expel the source of her power while still fighting Esmae and her minions. Esmae doesn’t get a chance to get much of a personality; the players will mostly have to infer it from her previous actions, and the information gathered in the last few adventures.

There may be a few too many encounters to reach Esmae, I feel. At this point, you know what you must do, and the encounters just delay you.

While it’s a good adventure, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of greatness. That said, there’s much in it to like. Overall, the Misty Hearts and Absent Fortunes series has had more hits than misses, and its main flaws have come from problems with the overall narrative – which have left some adventures with little to do. The Dark Lord? It does a lot and finishes the series with style.

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On Handling Problem Players

I recently had to tell a player that they could no longer play with us; that we didn’t want them back. It’s a horrible thing to do and to experience, but if you want to have a good campaign, there are times you must recognise that the group isn’t working and its time to move on.

There are times its purely down to people having different playing styles. If you’ve got one player who wants to turn every encounter into a combat, and everyone else wants to role-play and interact with the monsters, then you can get into the situation where there are “irreconcilable differences” and you know the group is doomed to split. Often, you can work out a happy medium, with all types of players getting a chance to experience the game in their preferred form, but it’s not always possible.

However, then there are the problem players. The ones that just make the game less fun for everyone else.

Identifying these ones and making sure they don’t continue with your group before the other players get fed up and leave is quite important, I feel.

The player who talks all the time, including talking over both the other players and the DM? This player is a problem.

The player who keeps going on their own quests, and wants the DM to devote all attention to them? This player is a problem.

The player who always attacks when the others want to negotiate. The player who takes all the treasure for themselves and doesn’t share.

That player? I don’t want that player in my group!

I want to give players second chances. I want to see them learn they were doing something wrong and correct it. I speak to a player during a session when their behaviour becomes a problem. I try to speak to them after a game where they’ve been disruptive. I hope they’ll pay attention and be better next time.

However, when a player doesn’t listen to my warnings and the other players complain to me about their behaviour? That’s the point where I must step in. As a Dungeon Master or an Organised Play organiser, it’s far worse to let things go on as they are. The other players quit the game and don’t come back. Try to identify the problem and deal with it before that happens. It can be hard. It’s likely to be painful.

However, D&D and other role-playing games require players to work together. If a player refuses to acknowledge that, then the game is likely not for them.

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