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I'm a player at a table, and we are running a DM's homebrew world. Over 6 levels, I have received 3 magic items that are non combat focused. The shops do not keep items and every fight is almost fatal. We have already had 2 character deaths and one of my fellow players min-maxed a were creature to help offset the level of creatures we are currently facing.

Is this normal (as this is my first time playing)?

We are also running into an issue with favoritism at the table where our thief is making out like a bandit with all the magical items tailored for her.

We've brought up our concerns with the difficulty and player attention, but it looks like it's falling on semi deaf ears.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi, and welcome to RPG Stack Exchange! Check out our tour to see how we work here. When you reach 20 rep, you're also welcome to join us in Role-playing Games Chat. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 2 '18 at 12:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ How many players are there and how many PCs does each player control? How long has this campaign been going? Is the thief's player related to the DM? What steps have you noticed the DM taking to address the concerns you've brought up? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 2 '18 at 13:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Who is the thief played by? \$\endgroup\$ – Nic Hartley Apr 3 '18 at 15:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ "...our thief is making out like a bandit..." +1 \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Davis Apr 3 '18 at 16:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @concernedPlayer Coincidentally, is this your DM? \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Apr 5 '18 at 1:31
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Whats wrong at our table?

The DM and the players are not in agreement about what sort of game they want to play.

In addition, it’s kind of inescapable to conclude that the DM isn’t very good at DMing, at least based on your reporting. Maybe he or she is not very experienced, or doesn’t know the system very well, and so may not realize the difficult problems with the direction they’re taking the game, or how to address them to maintain a fun game. Or that some of their decisions—particularly favoritism and ignoring player feedback—are simply always bad for the game. But whatever the reason for the poor DMing, it still is poor DMing.

Ultimately, though, even poor DMs can run a fun game when everyone is agreed about what sort of game it should be, and the DM gives a good-faith effort to provide it, and the players give a good-faith effort not to derail it. And, in fact, simply listening to players and taking their concerns to heart would itself vastly improve the quality of this DM’s DMing.

how do we fix it?

You talk to the DM. There is no other option here. Getting into an arms race with the DM is a losing proposition every time. If the DM wants you to lose, you will lose.

If talking doesn’t work, the only options left are to just accept it, or to leave the game. I have a suspicion that leaving will end up being your best option, sadly. Since a major problem here is the DM running a game very different from what the players wanted or expected—and they have already ignored feedback about that—it seems unfortunately likely that it will be difficult to convince the DM to change.

Specific issues, and how they compare to expectations in the books:

Over 6 levels, I have received 3 magic items non combat focused. The shops do not keep items

This is problematic because the game assumes that the “Wealth by Level” guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are being followed. At 6th level, that is approximately 13,000 gp worth of gear that is actually useful and valuable to your character. At a minimum, magic armor, a cloak of resistance +1, and a +2 enhancement bonus to your most important ability score. If a warrior, a magic weapon would also be assumed at this level. If not, that wealth going towards, say, a magic shield or some class-specific item instead.

It is possible—but extremely difficult—to run a game with less wealth. In particular, since magical classes are both 1. the most powerful classes, and 2. the classes least dependent on wealth, you run into a serious situation when you reduce the wealth available to players. You hurt the weakest characters more than you hurt the most powerful characters. Since the most powerful characters were already more powerful relative to the other characters, and only become more so with this change, you exacerbate an already-bad problem with the system. It becomes extremely difficult to challenge all members of the party evenly: anything the mundane characters can handle, the magical classes can solve with a wave of their hand. Anything that actually challenges the magical characters, the mundane characters have no hope of dealing with.

And this isn’t just “harder,” since magic items are so ubiquitous and critical. By 6th level, for example, large amounts of damage reduction that is vulnerable to magic can be found—because by that level, warriors are supposed to have a magic weapon. Warriors without one cannot fight such creatures. Flight starts to become a serious issue, and within a few levels every character in the game is basically mandated to get in the air somehow—and for a lot of characters, that means buying some magic item that allows flight. Likewise with all kinds of important defenses, movement options, and basic “toolkit” answers to common adventuring challenges. Almost all of it requires magic, and if you’re not getting magic from your class, you need to get it from items.

every fight is almost fatal.

Dungeon Master’s Guide recommends an average of four encounters per day, with each encounter requiring the use of approximately, on average, 20% of the party’s daily resources. Deadly fights can and do happen, but they are supposed to be scattered among easier fights, and in particular deadly fights are often expected to be the only (serious) fights of the day, so that daily resources can be focused on them.

We have already had 2 player deaths

Unsurprising, given the above. Not typical for most games, however.

one of my fellow players min-maxed a were creature to help offset the level of creatures we are currently facing.

D&D 3.5e does have an extremely wide variance in PC power levels, so optimization definitely could be a factor here. It could be that the DM is expecting much higher amounts of optimization, and if you had it, none of these issues would be serious issues (well, the wealth still would be, at least for mundane classes). And your party’s optimization does appear to be quite low—you’re new to the game, but even for the rest of the group, a were-anything is not likely to be optimal (level adjustment is near-crippling).

But anyway, it’s pretty clear that if optimization is what your DM is expecting, they haven’t been clear about it, don’t have particularly realistic expectations of new players, and should be doing more to assist if that’s the goal. I could imagine running a game where I, as DM, want to help optimize the players some more so I could throw more interesting challenges at them. I could see offering that assistance, and in extreme circumstances I could even see requiring that a PC be optimized some more to avoid problems with challenging the party. But that isn’t what you’re describing.

Is this normal (as this is my first time playing)?

No, and particularly not for a first campaign. The DM is making numerous changes and deviations from the game’s recommendations to dramatically—and unevenly—increase the difficulty.

We are also running into an issue with favoritism at the table where our thief is making out like the bandit with all the magical items tailored for her.

Considering all of the other poor DMing choices you have already described, I suppose this isn’t any great surprise. The aforementioned Wealth by Level guidelines definitely expect that all characters gain similar amounts of wealth.

Long story short: Your DM isn’t very good.

While a number of the decisions here could be pulled off by a good DM, and justified by a party that was on board with that sort of game, this is very much not the way D&D 3.5e was intended to be played, nor would it be how I would expect a 3.5e campaign to go. I would not feel like I was getting the game I signed up for. The fact that the DM did not describe the ways in which their campaign would deviate from the expectations set forth by the books, and is ignoring the players’ dissatisfaction with the game, and worse is, on top of everything, favoring one player, all lead to “the DM isn’t very good at DMing” as the almost-inevitable conclusion.

It sounds like inexperience, possibly coupled with immaturity. As I’ve said elsewhere, the DM’s control over the game—Rule 0—isn’t their right and privilege—it is a tool with the express purpose of improving the game. This DM is not using that tool for its purpose, or at least not doing so well. If the DM is inexperienced, or even if they’re not but the party is, sticking closer to the guidelines in the books will improve their game. Considering how things are going, if anything this DM should probably be more generous and forgiving than those suggest, rather than being far, far more stingy and challenging.

So I recommend talking to the DM about how the difficulty level is too high, to ask for a more-typical game of 3.5e where the Wealth by Level guidelines are followed (within reason, they give a lot of flexibility), encounter design and spacing guidelines are followed (again, flexibly), and overall the system is run in a way that is more conducive to getting one’s bearings and learning to play a new game.

It is, of course, not helpful to accuse them of being a bad DM, even if they are, so I wouldn’t go there. Nothing good will come of it—that’s just there so you know that this is not typical or expected or lauded behavior.

Even if the DM digs in their heels and refuses to make changes to the game, there is no point in starting that fight—just politely excuse yourself from the game. Hopefully you can find another one—possibly with some of the other players who are dissatisfied with this one. But even if you can’t, no gaming is better than bad gaming—and this definitely seems pretty bad.

(But hey, some good news: if you’re enjoying this game, at least somewhat, despite all the issues, you can look forward to really enjoying a game where you actually get to, well, play.)

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I agree with KRyan; no, this isn't normal, and at best, your DM is not communicating with you well enough. It might be possible to salvage the game with improved communication.

It's possible that your DM is trying to encourage a game where traditional combat takes less of a focus than the typical D&D game (in which case magic weapons/armor don't matter as much either), in order to encourage the "role-playing" part of the game, but as KRyan pointed out, that should be addressed up-front, whether the players are experienced or not. New players in particular will need additional help from the DM with an atypical game since the rule/guide books will advise you as though the game is a typical one and are thus less helpful. This might also explain the character favoritism, if it is instead role favoritism; if the thief is the only character with significant non-combat skills (and rogues typically do have many more non-combat skills than other classes), items that benefit that kind of role might seem to only benefit the thief's character. It's possible your DM isn't responding to your criticisms because the DM thinks the game is working as it should, not realizing that you aren't in agreement about what sort of game it ought to be.

It's also possible the level of lethality is a result of the DM not helping you to pick up on the hints in the story that are meant to help you understand your options in approaching encounters. Since different DMs can drop hints in different ways, and new payers don't have experience on picking up DM hints, it might help to ask your DM for some guidance in parsing out those hints until the party has gotten the hang of it.

Since examples can be helpful, here's a brief introduction of how I might set up an encounter where straight-forward combat is not the answer (and is likely to be lethal, on purpose). For the sake of the example, I'll assume we've already agreed on a game that is less combat-focused, and had a discussion about how realistic the world is going to be (ie that there may be threats presented beyond the party's capabilities and that they will have to make that determination based on the information they have). The bits I'd speak in-game I'll put in quotes, with explanations afterwards.

As you approach the outskirts of town, you can't help but notice a sense of gloom; the absence of chatter among the townspeople is striking, and they're trudge about their business with their heads bent down. A middle-aged man, whose light armor bears insignia matching the town flag, looks you up and down as you walk into the gate. 'If you folks are here to challenge the dragon', he says sadly, 'you should reconsider; too many have died already, and some of them better-equipped than you.'

This is obviously an encounter hook, but something is off. A dragon--and in particular, one mature enough to strike terror into the town--is most likely way beyond the power level of what you ought to be fighting. The insignia on the armor suggests the man has some formal capacity in the town--probably a guard, but could be some other official--and when a town is facing a problem beyond its own abilities, town officials are typically eager for help; instead this man is trying to warn you off. The fact that he mentioned equipment specifically is a hint that you don't even have the gear it takes to make an "honest fight" work. I would expect an experienced player to pick up on all of that on their own, and I would expect a party with experienced members to at least partly help new members figure that out, but might pause here to help the party parse out those hints especially if everyone was new.

As the player, you now have a number of options:

  1. The "null" hypothesis: leave town and skip the encounter permanently. You're there to play, but you don't have to be railroaded into suicide.
  2. Come back when you're better equipped. The story revolves around the players, but the world does not; particularly on a long-term campaign, it can make the world seem more "real" to set up larger problems in advance, rather than pretending that no big problems exist until the players are powerful enough to deal with them.
  3. Charge straight for the dragon anyway. As a DM I would not feel bad about party deaths in this case, because the players have enough information to reasonably expect lethal combat and chose to pursue it anyway. While arbitrary deaths are bad DMing, deaths due to bad player decisions reinforce the importance of player decisions in the game.
  4. Try to find more information about what is going on. This could be asking the town official for more information, it could be spending some time in the local tavern talking to locals, it could be a passive "gather information" skill check, however the players want to handle it.

In particular, the things the players might be looking for are:

  • A) How exactly has the dragon been menacing the town (perhaps the problem be solved by changing the town rather than the dragon)?
  • B) Ideas about the dragon's motives (that is, could the dragon be persuaded by means other than combat?)
  • C) Information about the previous failures. Just how well-equipped were they? How experienced? Were they expected to have been victorious?
  • D) Is there a scholar or library nearby where they can find more information (assuming none of them already know about dragons)?

Here are a set of examples of what those questions might turn up:

For A, from the town official:

For the past year or so, the dragon sometimes takes townspeople right off the streets in broad daylight. We get about a month of respite if someone goes to its lair to fight; otherwise it will start taking people more and more often. All the same, it wouldn't be fair for me to ask you to lay down your lives just to buy us a little time.

For A, from locals at the tavern:

It must have been, what, a few weeks after the new barkeep started? Dragon just swoops right out of the sky and takes people. Nobody ever comes back. Seems to prefer picking on our friends, too; the chairs you sat down in? Didn't used to be free this time of day.

For B, from anyone:

It hasn't said anything about why. Weird thing is, it lays off for a while if somebody tries to hunt it down, even though nobody ever succeeds.

For C, from the town official:

We've had a variety of folks try, but the two most interesting were a band of knights sent from the Queen herself, and a group proclaiming to be adventuring dragon-slayers.

For C, from locals at the tavern:

Oh, you wouldn't believe some of the people who come through here. Had a whole group with fancy-looking gear that laid out their tactics right at the table over there for hours, all kinds of magic and countermeasures and the like. Seemed like a good plan, too, but maybe that was just all the beer we were drinking.

For D, from anyone:

Nothing in this town, but I'd bet the library at the capital has something.

Again, experienced payers probably recognize the hints, and may already be discussing their guesses about what's going on among themselves, but if not, this is a good place to pause to help them parse out what they've found:

  1. The reinforcement that the dragon is definitely not meant to be fought on a level playing field. At this point, if you choose to charge the dragon anyway, you should expect character deaths.
  2. The suggestion that the barkeep and the dragon may somehow be linked. There's the proximity of timing, the fact that it seems like many tavern patrons have been the ones abducted, and the fact that the barkeep most likely overheard the dragon-slayers' strategy. This is a potential avenue for further exploration; if there is a link, perhaps it can be exploited to the players' advantage. Given how dangerous the dragon seems to be, however, and its apparent penchant for taking people who've been to the tavern, this would need to be pursued carefully, though it is less risky than attacking directly.
  3. The suggestion that the townspeople don't have full information about what they're dealing with, since they lack a reference source about dragons. Is there an additional detail they can't provide because they don't recognize it? Would it be wise to seek out this information before trying to tackle this encounter? This option has almost no immediate risk to the characters.
  4. The lack of apparent motive and the pattern of attacks. Why does the dragon back off for a while after combat? Why does it attack more frequently in the absence of combat? Does the combat have to be with a humanoid, or could an occasional summoning spell or animate object keep the dragon "satisfied", at least until another another solution can be found? Do the players want to risk staying in town long enough to find out, now that they've been in the tavern asking about the dragon, and do they want to try to mitigate that risk by hiding during the daytime, since the dragon seems to take people from the street during the day?

That extra bit of communication can change things from what seems like arbitrary character death, to an understanding about the range of risks the party gets to choose from. Everyone still needs to be in agreement that this is the kind of game they want, but within that agreement it can make a lot of difference.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a very good answer, but I have to say, to any DMs doing things this way: there are better systems for you than D&D. D&D is immensely combat-focused, and offers really very little assistance outside of combat. It tries to sell itself as a system for everything, but combat is the only part it really tries to handle. You can find better systems for this kind of game, and doing so would give players a hint that you aren’t playing D&D as the books and rules present it (because you’re literally not playing D&D). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Apr 2 '18 at 18:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I want to play in your campaign. (Who am I kidding, I don't have time) \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Aveling Apr 3 '18 at 13:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I run encounters like that in D&D (well, Pathfinder mostly but it's essentially the same thing) all the time. You don't really need a system for roleplaying... \$\endgroup\$ – Tim B Apr 3 '18 at 13:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ "You don't really need a system for roleplaying" I have echoed this statement for 20 of the 30 years I have played. D&D covers combat for me really well, the rest I can use any system for. I house rule a LOT of things skills used in ways not intended for instance, it's an ever changing organic game. \$\endgroup\$ – Vethor Apr 3 '18 at 21:12
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It seems your DM and the players may not be on the same page. I recommend using the same page tool which helps to know where everyone stands on the game. Kryan addressed everything, but I thought the tool might come in handy.

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Contrary to the other well-received answers, I believe your problems have one or more of the following causes, for which I suggest solutions you can try.

The DM is in the habit of not adhering to the recommended challenge rating

When I ran D&D 3.5, my players eventually became so skilled at the game, and so good at optimizing characters, that I regularly increased the challenge rating above recommended rating to keep the players challenged. It's possible that your DM is doing the same, which puts new players like yourself at a significant disadvantage.

Solution: Ask your DM if adhering to the challenge rating guidelines is right for you.

The thief player is stealing your treasure

Players of rogues sometimes scout ahead and take treasure before the other players find it. This fundamentally breaks the group expectation that and items the party finds will be distributed evenly.

Solution: If the thief appears to be doing this, explain to them why it is unfair. The rest of your gaming group should support you in this.

The thief player is deliberately monopolizing the DM's attention

Sometimes, one player steals the spotlight, and it's often a rogue, sneaking ahead to have their own personal scene time. That's what motivates some players, and it's tolerable to an extent, but D&D is a group experience, not a single-player video game. All players have to remember that.

Solution: When this happens, speak up! You have a right to your own share of screen time and loot. If the thief takes an item you want, and they already have better items than you, speak up!

The DM isn't in the mindset of giving the items you want

It may be that the DM is adhering to the item value guidelines, but giving you it on the form of non-combat items. The problem is that either he's placing items you need and another PC is taking them, or that he's not thinking along the lines of placing items that you need.

Solution: Frequently drop hints. Suppose you wanted a +1 longsword. Every time you find treasure, ask "Are there any magic longswords in this pile?" If a defeated enemy has a longsword, say "I take the longsword. Does it appear to be magical?" Ask NPC shopkeepers "Do you know where I can buy a +1 longsword?" Eventually, the DM will get the hint.

Try these solutions and let me know if any of them work for you.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The solutions proposed in #2 and #3 might be amplified by also appealing to the DM for assistance in managing and resolving the situation. If the thief takes the spotlight that's part on them, but the DM also needs to learn to manage spotlight effectively, so it's not 100% on the thief. I suggest mentioning something about how to get the DM involved, talk with them and get their assistance, etc. (For #2 it might be: don't deliver all the treasure in ways the thief can just make off with, and/or don't make it all thief-appropriate? The question seems to suggest it is thief-appropriate treasure) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 4 '18 at 10:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I’m a bit unclear on how this is “contrary to other well-received answers,” since I don’t see anything that really contradicts them. It’s a bit more “accepting” of these problems, and it speculates that the thief player may bear more blame than is apparent, but still seems to be running similar concerns. Anyway, +1 from me, there’s some useful ideas here. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Apr 4 '18 at 11:41
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Is this normal?

There is no normal.

I've had campaigns where no-one died, I've had campaigns where someone died nearly every session.

What's wrong at our table and how do we fix it?

Whether it's fun or not depends on the journey, not on the destination.

If your definition of fun = "get lots of loot, yay!", and your DM knows this, and they probably do, then maybe you need a different DM, one who's happy to offer you the sort of game you want.

Assuming some players are enjoying themselves and some aren't, but you all enjoy each others company, then one option might be to run two campaigns in parallel - perhaps alternating each session between yourself as DM (easy fights! lots of loot!) and your current DM (fighting is dangerous! people get hurt!)

If that doesn't appeal to you (and fair warning, being a good DM is a lot of work), then maybe try a different character. Instead of roleplaying someone who is trying to score as much loot as possible, pick a character with different goals - perhaps someone who works to protect the local village, or the local forest creatures. That way, death becomes heroic, and the lack of loot becomes no big deal - it wasn't the point anyway.

they are experiencing major issues with being starved for useful relevant loot, and a single character is getting all of it

This is the same problem, from a different point of view.

Another character is the 'star' in this story.

Let's start with why that's happening.

Nobody here has a direct view of what's happening, but there are two obvious possibilities. At least two.

Possibility 1. There's an in-game reason.

If so, you're not the star of this show. At least, not so far.

Given that the DM seems to have set up a world in which 'kill it' seems to be wrong answer to most situations, it's not a surprise if a non-combat oriented character is able to make better use of the available magic items.

You can still help the team succeed, if that's important to you.

Possibility 2. There's an out of game reason.

Sometimes there's more than one game being played.

Are you OK with that?

Because life's like that.

You're not the star of this show.

You can still help the team succeed, if that's important to you.

Possibility 3. How to put this.

If you're used to being the star, then getting equal billing feels like a demotion.

I'm not saying this is the most likely possibility, it's not.

But don't rule it out either.

As I said before, you have options.

You can either accept the situation for what it is, and make the most of it - don't focus on what's "useful relevant" loot for yourself, focus on what's useful and relevant for the shared objective, etc.

Or (and/or) you can try to offer something different, put in the effort to create your own world, and maybe people will prefer it to what they are currently doing.

Or you can just take a back seat. Be a spectator. Enjoy your friends' company without feeling the need to engage emotionally with the game(s) being played. End of the day, it's just a game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I see people are downvoting without commenting. Why? \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Aveling Apr 4 '18 at 2:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Probably because you're answer doesn't provide much to answer the question. Your answer of "Focus on the journey, not the destination" is exactly what the question is saying - the "journey" is not enjoyable, and they want to find out why, and how to fix it. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Apr 4 '18 at 4:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps I could be a bit more explicit. But if that's why people are downvoting, I don't think they'll like a more explicit answer either. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Aveling Apr 4 '18 at 7:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I downvoted earlier because it wasn't providing actionable helpful advice. The suggestion to run a 2nd game is an improvement. However, "Instead of roleplaying someone who is trying to score as much loot as possible" and "that way (...) the lack of loot becomes no big deal" come across as tonedeaf advice. They are not trying to score as much loot as possible, but they are experiencing major issues with being starved for useful relevant loot, and a single character is getting all of it. This problem isn't caused by their character outlook. Having useful relevant adventuring gear matters. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 4 '18 at 7:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I can be a bit more explicit. I'll expand my answer, but the only thing here that's under the OP's control is the OP's outlook. If they can't change that, then there is no solution. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Aveling Apr 4 '18 at 11:58

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