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26 July 2021

Learn From Epic Failure and Slog

My most recent Dungeons and Dragons game played out as follows: The characters learned three planar portals popped up around the city of Ba-Livil, they rushed to destroy one of them, fought slaadi and a beholder-kin creature, lost a party member, and ended split between two planes of existence, the Plane of Water and the Material Plane. Sounds sort of interesting and exciting, right?

WRONG!

Almost always, I emerge from my weekly D&D game with a burst of energy. Recently, the exact opposite occurred: my game ended and I felt horrible, defeated, disappointed, and in a state of disarray. I began the session with hope and excitement, but as it evolved, I gradually became more and more upset with its story and execution. It ended the opposite of how it began: hopeless and dreadful.

This is bound to happen to everyone's D&D game at some point, as pointed out in this video by Matthew Colville. Our games encounter slog. We must recover and rebound from it, mightier and more confident than before.

When dreaded slog hits our game, we must ask ourselves a simple question and explore it:

Why did slog hit my game?

In my experience, three elements contribute to summoning slog.

  1. Poor State of Mind
  2. Planned Circumstance
  3. Greatest Fears
Let's explore each in this article and explain how all three can be combated to, hopefully, defeat slog when it arrives.

Poor State of Mind

The oft repeated saying "No D&D is better than bad D&D" is true. As Dungeon Masters and hosts of the game, we must know when to postpone or cancel D&D. Sometimes, we make mistakes as I did last night and run anyway, trying to push past our poor state of mind. It can lead to the slog or epic failure I experienced.

Although I was excited for my session, I was not creative or feeling well. The group was in the midst of a massacre and a mystery was set to unfold, and I knew a few planar portals were going to pop up across the city, leading to more intrigue! However, when we actually played, I found words difficult and my mind refused to improvise to the point where I was frequently stumbling over my words.

One of my worst fears, more on that later.

Meteor Swarm, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Olivier Bernard, 2021 Wizards of the Coast

Moment by moment, negativity in my mind grew and I tried to combat it. Sadly, it was fruitless. The lack of improvisation continued and annihilated my sense of pride in my world and abilities, leading to the final rounds of a combat to transform into a "he hits you, you hit him" scenario; another one of my worst fears.

If you are in a poor state of mind, do not be afraid of letting the players know and calling off the session. It's the truth: no D&D is better than bad D&D. Be up front about your poor state of mind; if the players are sensible human beings, they will understand. Allow yourself time to recover and recalibrate, you'll return all the stronger and more confident.

Planned Circumstance

Over planning may lead to poor sessions. DMs may build up a remarkable scene in their mind for weeks, only for their players to arrive at it and have it crumble beneath the grandeur the DM has built up for it. This session of slog arrived after an unplanned two week break from the campaign, which gave me plenty of time, too much time, to think about what might happen next. This is a break from the norm for me and it went disastrously, as you can tell.

The lesson is simple: both over planning and under planning may lead to terrible circumstances and slog.

Over planning might lead you force the players into a particular situation or cause you to react poorly to unexpected events. Worse, you may build up a moment in your head as I did and when the players encounter it, it might falter. Preparing the right amount, the amount you are comfortable with, is the key to avoiding this. I constructed a crafty encounter for the characters to fight: a bubbling portal, five slaadi, each unique in ability, and a second phase during which a beholder-kin called an expurgat would rise from the closed portal. It was too much preparation for me and I should've simply written "five slaadi, portal fight" and the fight would've gone better.

Eccentric Apprentice, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Campbell White, 2021 Wizards of the Coast

Across the spectrum, under planning could cause you to freeze at the table or make the players wander aimlessly, unsure of what to do or chase. I'll reiterate that you must find the perfect amount of prep for you and go for it session after session. Straying from the norm works sometimes, especially if you're feeling adventurous, but for times when you're in the wrong state of mind or are fearing something great, you want to stick to what you normally do.

Overall, stick to what you know best. Find your ideal amount of preparation and let it bolster your game.

Greatest Fears

Already unlikable sessions can slip into slog if our greatest fears become reality. Someone acts like an ass to another player, the dice absolutely annihilate any player plans, or perhaps a character dies. The latter occurred in my session with no sensible way out and it compounded on the dreadful feeling inside me.

The slog grew.

Sometimes our greatest fears are unavoidable consequences of the game we play. Player death in D&D, for example, happens. But when it is coupled with slog and multiple causes of this terrible phenomenon, it becomes nearly unbearable.

Of the three causes of slog I've outlined, this is the one you can combat the most. Try to transform your greatest fears into challenges you can overcome. Make death interesting. Change how the dice may affect player plans. Shut down an assholery pursued by the players. 

Eventually, your fears may become strong weapons you can wield at the table or even use to eliminate slog set in by other factors.

Actionable Advice

  • Slog manifests in all of our games at some point. Know it will arrive eventually.
  • Slog comes in three packages for me, and maybe you too: playing while in a poor state of mind, over planning or under planning, and when our greatest fears grow before us.
  • No D&D is better than bad D&D. Do not play if you are in a poor state of mind and be up front about this fact with the players.
  • Find the perfect amount of planning for YOU. Do not prepare more or less than you need to.
  • Fight your greatest fears so that you may wield them as weapons in the future.
  • Learn what causes slog to occur in your games and actively combat it, or know when to call a session quits and how to communicate this to the players. Slog is unique to all of us.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

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Art In Order of Appearance

  • Power of Persuasion, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Brian Valeza, 2021 Wizards of the Coast
  • Meteor Swarm, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Olivier Bernard, 2021 Wizards of the Coast
  • Eccentric Apprentice, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Campbell White, 2021 Wizards of the Coast

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