A Cautionary Tale
This session began with a big fight for which I had prepared a great deal…but, it seems, not enough for what the players would end up actually doing.
What I Had Planned
It was to be a tough fight, on the surface. Trained, battle-experienced mercenaries: 12× Halberdiers, 8× Crossbows, 8× Pavisers (shield-bearers). Almost 4× the PCs’ numbers. The bridge was 4yds wide, which let the halberds advance in three ranks of four, with Reach 3. The mercs had Combat Reflexes, ST12 (which was 1pt under Min ST for the halberd, as it turned out, so “chopping” attacks were less accurate), the Teamwork Perk, and Crossbow Finesse (to pull ST14). The PCs would have to close through 3 reach-attacks to get into range to fight back. This is pretty standard fare for late-period Medieval to early-Renaissance armies. Normally they would probably be using pikes here, but this was a mobile, flanking unit—I figured the pikes would be a bit too heavy for that.
The PCs had a number of advantages, though. The mercs were as lightly armored as before, in layered cloth (with plate bascinets). The PCs had magic—I was expecting Dustan to use Windstorm or somesuch to frustrate the formation, which would have been devastating on its own. Plus the PCs had Plot Points, Extra Effort, and plain-old PC ingenuity. I knew in advance that Lëodan would be on the mercs’ side of the river in hiding, to pop up and start shooting them in the backs—the pavisers would fall back to cover the crossbows to the rear, which would engage the hidden archer(s), but that meant they wouldn’t be bothering the melée fighters. I was, frankly, worried the PCs would wipe the floor with them.
Aside from knowing about Lëodan, I had given the players the opportunity to sort out their tactics on the forum during the week. There was talk of gathering some hay-bales or equivalent to hide behind.
What Actually Happened
When the session got under way, it all came unraveled.
The players immediately deviated from the previously-discussed plan. Now there was a new one that involved a barricade made of miscellaneous stuff piled up, including a wagon, in the middle of the bridge. Of course, I had no idea how long it should take to construct such a thing, but it presented a bigger problem: the mercs would see this and, logically, refuse to go near such an obvious trap—in the modern Army, they would probably have called for the engineers to come breach the obstacle. Furthermore, the PCs on the bridge weren’t really hiding, but taking cover, making it also obvious that the obstacle was under guard. I had already established that fording/swimming the river was a no-go, and that going around would involve many hours of travel to rejoin the army. They had little option but to try to tear down the barricade and press through. (Again—how long?) Plus, whatever they did at the bridge would leave them completely vulnerable to a hidden Elvish archer to the rear, who would, Legolas-like, pick them off one-by-one until their morale completely broke. It was check-mate. But this fight was supposed to take up the whole session, beyond which I had minimally prepared. I was left with the choice of the mercs’ behaving illogically and getting massacred in an unnecessarily-messy combat sequence or ending the session several hours short. It seriously threw me off my rhythm—total brain-lock.
After taking an intermission to think it over, I still had no better ideas. I ended up going through the motions in a semi-narrative fashion, and took the mercs through the least-bad option. They attempted to tear down the barricade, got harassed by archer-fire, and eventually retreated after taking too many losses. I had the PCs make some attack rolls and such, but I didn’t bother tracking HP, or movement points, or specific timing. The melée-focused PCs didn’t even get involved. They won the day, though for me, at least, it felt…unearned—very unsatisfying. The players didn’t quite see it as the catastrophe I did—almost always the case. (See below.)
It wasn’t all that long after the session had ended that I realized where it had all gone wrong. I wanted that fight to occur. I expected that fight to occur. (You might recall my previous caution against “assumptions.”) As a result, I put a lot of thought into the tactics and conditions, with little thought for the idea that it might not occur at all.. Were it not for that “desire” I would have had an alternative plan ready. I realized this very issue had bitten me multiple times already in this campaign so far, and was about to happen again in the next session.
Lesson: when you review your GMing plans, make note of any time you find yourself “wanting” something to happen and fix it. It’ll be easy to spot: you’ve probably put a disproportionate amount of effort into it. Any time the players say, after the game, that they, “felt like they didn’t have a choice” or “felt railroaded,” it’s because the GM wanted something to happen and forced the situation.
I didn’t have this problem quite so much in the early part of the adventure, because the a-b-c progression was fairly easy to follow. Go there, get info. Go there, get more info. But when the adventure reached the parts where that linear nature gave way, I started running into these little “losses of control”—and I hate losing control. This has been a problem for me since my first GMing attempt. I’ve had to re-learn this lesson over and over, but somehow it always creeps back in. It’s insidious.
I’ve been at this long enough that I, at least, didn’t try to force the direct confrontation. I have used a technique in the past of giving out a Plot Point, XP, or whatever, as a reward for “playing along”—I’ve done this specifically for “total party capture” situations, and it does work, but I don’t think it’s always the best solution. It was also later suggested that I could have started the session in media res, with the fight already in progress, which can also sometimes work, but is also less than ideal. You should never take away player agency.
Much later, it occurred to me that what I should have done was to give the mercs a Tactics roll. If they failed (which is quite possible—Tactics is a Hard skill, and they were of merely average intelligence), they would blunder into the trap. If they really borked the roll, they might even try to climb over the obstacle like complete fools. If were to make this roll known to the players, they could use Plot Points to force that failure. The dice would then have mercifully relieved me of my “logical objection,” though it would certainly have led to quite a mess. I suppose that’s Lesson 2 here: if the problem is that “they wouldn’t do that,” give them a chance to fail.
As it happens, just a week prior, Ser Kenrick’s player had experienced the same sort of GMing catastrophe, for essentially the same reasons. I was a player in that one. Although I detected that something was a little off, I really didn’t see it as the disaster he declared it to be afterward. After coming to understand my own disaster, I see now that the players had no connection to the behind-the-screen drama besetting me, so of course, they didn’t react the way I did. Some comfort there, at least.