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So I am a new to D&D but I have researched hours upon hours about it, to the point I know more than probably all my players. They are 7 for now (third level bard, forge cleric, ranger, arcane archer fighter, wizard, barbarian and sorcerer), 2 of them experienced, the rest new to the game. I decided to go as a DM because I felt creative, and it is hard to find a DM. First session went great, it went exactly how I wanted to, despite having alternatives. The players enjoyed it a ton and we had great fun.

Second session however.. Some players got angry at each other for picking "bad" classes and not balancing their stats (this player got in the game last minute, I was annoyed but found a way to fit him in, but he did not prepare his character as detailed as the others, so he got angry he had a simple ranger. He picked his character, mind you), for not reading their spell notes and checking them in their turn while a whole fight happened at the same time, and then because they did not manage to save an NPC that got kidnapped. She got kidnapped by a bunch of sahuagin, koalinth and a merrow, with their sharks lurking in the water. I had planned for her to get kidnapped, as she would be turned into the first main boss later on when they gave chase to save her, depending on their actions. But they got pissed it didn't go their way, and "wasted resources" (I mean, it was a big battle, of course you would use your spells, that's the point. They were 7, 8 if you count the NPC, against 16, killed 13 of them, the remaining three escaped almost dead with the NPC last second).

What am I supposed to do as a DM to calm them down? I tried to but they wouldn't stop whining, and then they got angry for the simplest of things, like how the Merrow underwater could see on his right the shark that got attacked (he was charmed, but that too was a mistake on my part, he is a monstrosity so he should not be effected from calm emotions, yet I gave it to them and they still whined) and he broke free of the spell, while they can see detailed the whole map and adjust their actions. Or whining when a sahuagin grabs ahold of the barbarians weapon trying to wrestle with him, and he can't throw his javelin in his turn, but instead needs to break free of the sahuagin.

I lost my patience after some time, being calm and them doubting everything, when they thought 30 minutes about their characters (max), and I have thought about the whole campaign and designed it for days upon days, and thought about alternatives, too. I don't have a problem with them suggesting or reminding me of things, it happened many times in these two sessions and I accepted the suggestions, but when they angrily whine and complain about something, I cannot allow it for their sake.

So I ask the veterans help. What could I do to make this a better experience for all of us? What mistakes did I make and what did they make? How can I be balanced but at the same time make the players feel heroic? And how do I make them understand that not everything can go their way, it's up to the dice and of course if the DM allows it. The battle was too big maybe: should I have used stronger but fewer enemies? The battle took around 2.5-3 hours, with a break, they used a lot of time at talking with each other too: so is this a good time for such big battle, or too much?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you done something akin to a session zero ? \$\endgroup\$
    – Matthieu
    Sep 2, 2022 at 9:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ But I'm forgetting my manners! Welcome to the stack, I recommend taking the tour to get a good understanding of how this site works, and don't hesitate to check out the help center if you have any questions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matthieu
    Sep 2, 2022 at 9:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sounds like lots of the frustrations relate to in-game character challenges, not player problems. The fact that they are getting wound up about it all means that they have bought into their characters and the adventure. That is not all bad! \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Sep 2, 2022 at 14:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify, did you design the encounter to be unwinnable or did the players have a chance to save the NPC? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 3, 2022 at 13:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ruther, it was supposed to be a big overwhelming group of enemies so it gurantees the kidnapping. But if they somehow managed to save her, i would make it work, i can't suddenly say:no you can't do that. It got so close because of the last minute character and bad dice rolls of the kidnappers, really. Otherwise they would easily kidnap her and less frustration would exist. And i obviously wouldn't want to just make it happen, the kidnapping, without letting them fight it out. Then it would defnitely feel unfair for them. But i have considered everything, of course, that's why i asked. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 8:18

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There are a lot of things going on here, and I think that they may be amplifying each other so that the sum is worse than its parts. I'm going to list off a bunch of things that seem like problems to me, but I want you to know I'm not just doing this to beat up on you. (Especially since it sounds like you're not just new to GMing, but new to D&D in general. Some of this stuff just has to be experienced before it really sinks in.)

Also, I have to list them before I can give out advice.

Some Problems

Big Groups Are Hard To GM For

They really are. And my experience is that the complexity does not scale linearly, meaning, the jump from four to five players is one thing, but the jump from five to six is bigger, and the jump from six to seven is bigger still. There are reasons for this, but knowing why is less important than knowing that it is.

Every GM is going to have their sweet spot for what they prefer (for me, five is a good number) but when in doubt modern gaming systems are usually designed for a certain range of players, and 5e tends to work well with about 4 or 5 plus a GM.

Starting At Higher Than Level One

This isn't always a bad thing-- I tend to like to start at mildly higher levels in different systems because first level doesn't always feel heroic. In some systems, it isn't meant to.

But there are severe drawbacks for both new GMs and new players. Third level characters, especially spellcasters, have a lot more options in play than first level ones. I can virtually guarantee that this is where some of...

not reading their spell notes and checking them in their turn while a whole fight happened at the same time

...was coming from. It shows up in a lot of ways, too: There's more abilities to remember. There's more abilities to internalize and understand on an intuitive level. (The first is just remembering what things you can do; the second is having a quick feel for how well something will work.) There's a lot more for you, the GM to remember in combat. And with seven players, there's a lot of time as you go around the initiative cycle to get bored or irritated. If your experienced players are also your most impatient players... well.

Eight Vs Sixteen Is A Big Battle

It's not completely unreasonable (except, see this excellent analysis about challenge ratings) but still, it is a big battle. Running big battles is also an intermediate player/GM skill just like running large parties.

This was a really heavy lift-- for you and all your players-- to be doing on what was the second session ever for you and the majority of the players. This is hard on the players (especially if the more experienced ones think the challenge rating is off) but it's really hard on you the GM. And you've seen exactly why, in your admission of making mistakes in combat.

(Don't feel too bad about that. It happens to everyone. But do recognize when you're putting yourself into situations that make that very likely.)

You can see how these things start to feed on each other, right?

Some Mild To Moderate Railroading

I can't tell from your brief description whether this is a major issue, or just the seeds of something that could later become a major issue. If your game plan starts with the assumption that an NPC is going to be kidnapped away from the PCs in a big combat, you're running at least two major risks:

  1. The players are crit-rolling geniuses who annihilate your combatants, and with it, your plot arc.

  2. You get so caught up in making the scene go how you want that it's no longer a game, it's a script... and trust me, sibling, your players will figure that out.

At this stage, that's just a heads-up and something to read up on in your copious free time.

Sniping And Whining

I think you bear some responsibility for this because of the first three points above-- you didn't know it, but you were putting together a crucible for your players. But I don't think you bear all of the responsibility for it. Some players are jerks. Some players are overly excitable. Some players get caught up in the moment, and even momentary setbacks hurt acutely. It's understandable, to some degree, but it does not come with an automatic apology and it's not a justification, either.


Some Candidate Solutions

Some of these can be started during a belated Session Zero; other things you have to address during play. And somethings probably can't be fixed directly, you just have to grow into the roles you're all collectively in.

Address The Tone Of The Group

This can be a hard conversation to have, but it probably needs to be done. You need to devote either your next session, or some part of it, to the questions of tone that you've brought up. You're well within your rights as a GM to put a rule into place that says "No sniping at each other for sub-optimal choices in combat or character builds."

You can do this, because you're the GM and you can stop the game when it happens and tell the snipers, "No, stop doing that." The players can't always do that for themselves without being even more disruptive.

Address The Nature Of Challenging Play

As a GM, I am firmly of the belief that a game without challenge isn't much of a game. This does not mean every fight should be a backbreaking nightmare. In fact, few of them should be that hard. But the general sequence of events should be challenging, should come with risk, should punish poor shepherding of resources, etc. Something has to be at stake or the heroes would not be necessary.

This puts the responsibility on you (and it's not easy!) to balance encounters right, and on the players to trust you a little, unless or until you flagrantly abuse that trust.

But! You and you players are mostly new and learning. It's okay to actually spell this out to them: You're not trying to kill them, you are still trying to find that sweet spot of challenge that makes things fun.

Address The Preparation Issue

This one is harder, but unless you address it, it will never change. If you have to beg your players to know their characters' abilities better, do it. One suggestion I've used are asking the players to make 3x5 cards for some of their more complex stuff. It seems demeaning, but my experience with it (player and GM) has been very positive.

But I'll warn you, some players won't or can't for whatever reason. It is really hard, in my experience, to get 100% compliance on this unless you pick your players based on that trait.

Consider Asking For Help

This one is going to be a judgment call on your part, based on your understanding of your players. But if you have two experienced players and five unexperienced ones, it's worth trying to redirect any aggression from the two experienced ones into mentoring.

When this works, it works brilliantly. What you need are experienced players who can constructively, quickly, and succinctly explain what they would do and why if asked, and then back off and let the new player make their decision. Your mentor players feel respected, your new players get some hopefully good advice and learn quicker, etc.

But I warn you, when it doesn't work, it can blow up in your face. Some people do not understand mentoring and just convert it to a different form of overbearing bullying.

And frankly, some new players won't take well to this no matter how politely it comes across. That's okay. People are different. This should be opt-in, not imposed.

This is a risk only you can judge based on your knowledge of the players.

Run Smaller Combats

At least for a while, run smaller and less challenging combats. And I mean that in all senses of the word-- smaller with fewer combatants, less challenging in terms of CR, and less challenging for you to deal with. Resist the urge to set up a grand slam and swing for the fences. Just work your way up the complexity ladder gradually.

Admit Some Fault, Ask For Feedback And Advice

If this or other answers have convinced you that you share some of the blame-- if you've been convinced to do things differently-- share this with the players. Eat a little crow. Share your self-improvement plans, even if they're modest. Ask for a little feedback. The players are invested in this enterprise, too, and a little bit of humility goes a very long way.

Do this even before you go into what you want from your players. Trust me on this.

Have A Smaller Group

Aside from your comment about one of the players soon departing, not much you can do about this. Yeah, technically you can uninvite someone just because the group is too big, but that's... harsh. Especially when you let everyone in.

Start At Level One

Not much you can do about this one, either. Unless everyone is willing to scrap the game so far (unlikely) you'll all have to grow into it.

Read An Adventure Path Or Two

Another answer suggests running an Adventure Path. I disagree mildly. It's certainly a thing people do for their first game. And it's a thing other people don't do. But what I would absolutely advise is reading through at least one that is targeted at lower levels. It will give you a much better sense of what a story arc is supposed to look like, how sequences of encounters are strung together, etc.


Don't Give Up

You had a rough session, true.

But we all have and we all will again in the future. If there's any virtue at all in making mistakes, it is learning from them.

You'll do better next time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you a lot on your comment! Very kind and useful. I have answered most things you pointed out in comments on higher answers, and they are big and explain much, so if you would like, you can check them. I completely understand your suggestions and my mistakes, and i will try to improve. I apreciate your time in answering so detailed and nicely \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 10:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Novak this is one of the best answers I have read on this site. I've DMd for a few years and played for many more, yet still learned several things from this post. \$\endgroup\$
    – jla
    Sep 5, 2022 at 5:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a top notch answer. I generally tend not to like GM advice answers, because they always seem to be full of preconceptions about what a game is supposed to be like, but this one is spot on. Well grounded on the OP's problem, excellent diagnosis, and very strong advice, valid across the board. Nice one! \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5, 2022 at 11:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ To all: I'm humbled and gratified by the responses to this answer-- thank you all, very much. Especially @nitsua60. I'm sure the mods will clean this comment out as ephemeral chatter (and rightly so, because it is) but if it's possible to leave it in place for a few days so people see it, I'd appreciate it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Sep 6, 2022 at 21:13
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The solution here is don't DM a large group unless you're already experienced DM'ing a small group.

Every problem is made worse by a large group, and you probably aren't ready for them.

Just as an example you gave us, there is no written mechanic in the game for an enemy to grab a Player Character's weapon. You came up with this on your own, and it created a problem. We don't know how many other things you did that created similar problems. If you had DM'ed games for a year already all this would be figured out by now.

I would also like to address your combat. You say they were fighting Sahuagin and Merrows. These are not monsters that players should be fighting in their first or second session. I'm guessing you decided to start play at higher levels, which is also a bad choice for new players. Players need time to learn basic play without worrying about long lists of spells and abilities. Start at Level 1, let everyone learn how to play as you go along. Then let players change spells, change subclasses, even change entire characters for the first few levels. This helps you the DM as well, giving you time when things are simple to figure out how to best run combat. At Level 1, players miss a lot, monsters miss a lot, everyone get one attack per round, and things are just simpler.

My next piece of advice is that you need to treat the entire session as a learning for all involved. That means everyone plays along, including you. Even a game with an experienced DM with experienced players will have rules discussions & conflict during combat. A good DM will make a ruling and then follow up after the session on the long-term ruling. So treating it all as learning and sharing the learning process means that even if you tell an experienced player that their barb can't attack because the enemy grappled their weapon (!), they can just chalk it up to your inexperience and fix it at the end of the session. If a player chooses less than optimal spells, everyone treats it as a learning process. As for the jerk mad about someone choosing a ranger, they need to be told to pipe down, rangers are fine, good grief.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the last sentence is, to me, the most important. One way or another, someone complaining angrily about someone else's character choice strikes me a huge red flag; something has gone wrong, and expectations need to be set with something like a session 0. (The rest is good too, don't get me wrong. The last sentence just jumped out at me.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Beska
    Sep 2, 2022 at 17:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, even very experienced players get nervous when they have to look up the grappling rules... \$\endgroup\$
    – vsz
    Sep 2, 2022 at 19:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ About "grabbing a player character weapon" not being a written mechanic: I might be an inexperienced player, but aren't the grappling rules pretty much meant for this sort of thing? \$\endgroup\$
    – Nzall
    Sep 2, 2022 at 21:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nzall, see the "grappled" condition. That is what grappling does. Even restrained doesn't stop you from using a weapon. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tiger Guy
    Sep 2, 2022 at 21:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Tom For me it comes down to keeping the flow, I will use my gut and experience (and maybe some speedy googling) to come with a resolution so we can continue playing and not spend the next half hour getting sidetracked looking up rules. Once I have some time to think, consider, research and if it's something that's going to come up again I will go back to my players and say "If this comes up again, I think this is how it will work". That might mean "It'll work how we did it this time going forward" or "Today was a one-off, next time it'll do this" \$\endgroup\$
    – Kialandei
    Sep 3, 2022 at 15:55
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You have chosen the hard road.

DMing is an extremely challenging task, and you're going into it with no experience. That's not completely impossible -- heck, I did it when I was in college, back when 3rd edition first launched -- but it is the hard road.

I understand the difficulty of finding a DM, so I can't say you're wrong to do it this way. However, because you are on the hard road, you need to find ways to make it easier on yourself for this first foray into the game.

Start at the beginning, and use the provided materials.

The first big point I want to emphasize is this: Don't try to write your own adventure the first time out. Writing an adventure that's both fun and relatively balanced is tricky, and a lack of experience (on everyone's part) is going to only make it more difficult. Start off with a pre-written adventure module for level 1 characters that will guide you through the difficult first experience behind the screen. Level 1 modules are often (but not always) written with new players and DMs in mind and go out of their way to give the DM some extra support on the "How do I actually make this work?" side.

It won't be the most inventive adventure ever devised. It'll probably be a pretty straightforward dungeon crawl with a very obvious mission and final fight. But that's fine, simplicity is not a bad word. Simply running the game takes a lot of effort until you have the rules internalized to the point that they're built-in reflexes. Your players will be having the same struggle. Making the action "on screen" simple and obvious will allow more brain-space to keep track of the mechanical parts.

Second, start at level 1, or level 2 at most. I know the characters are flimsy at level 1. I know it feels like they don't have all their "stuff" yet. But there's a reason most classes don't get their archetype until level 2 or 3 -- that's an extra layer of complication you shouldn't drop on the players until they've gotten used to the basics.

Herding cats

The fact is, you simply have too many players. I've been playing D&D for over 20 years at this point, often as the DM, and I would balk at running a 7-player group. I could do it, but it's going to be a slow, complicated game. The fact that most of the players are brand new is going to make that worse. In my experience, 4 or 5 players is the optimum number to provide good role coverage but not bog down too much, and for beginners I'd prefer 3-4.

The player count contributes to having a 3 hour long combat session (which yes, is too long unless it's the big final fight against the big boss). You would think a round of combat with five players would take only slightly longer than four and a bit less than twice what it takes for three, but for various reasons, time-per-round actually has a geometric growth rate as you add additional PCs. There are ways to mitigate that, like using fewer big monsters rather than lots of weaker ones, but at its heart, you still get a lot more down-time for each player, which means more cross-talk, chatter, and distractions at the table, which leads to more wasted time. Tight, fast flowing combat rounds encourage your players to pay attention. When the rounds are long and slow-moving, attention wanders, phones come out, people stop actively listening, and you have to do a lot of repeating what you already said. When the fight is ultimately meaningless, the fact that it took so long to actually finish the fight will only increase the sense that the players have had their time wasted.

Was this just a cut-scene?

Speaking of, here's a hint: If you want a specific outcome to an event, don't give the players an option to try to change it. When you throw an overwhelming force against the PCs, especially with new players, it feels like you're being cruel and unfair rather than creating a dramatic story beat. Making them spend three hours slogging through that fight just makes it worse. They just spent the majority of their game-time in a fight that turned out to be a cut-scene. That's a really bad feeling.

If you must run a fight with a predetermined outcome, it needs to be over quickly, maybe 20 minutes, or it will feel like an insulting waste of time. That means you have to take your group size into account -- an experienced 3-4 player group might get a good three or four rounds knocked out in that time, while a large group like yours might only have time for two rounds before it starts to feel like a big time investment for no payoff.

If you wanted the NPC to get kidnapped, just have her kidnapped off screen, or have the PCs see her getting dragged into the water while being too far away to interfere effectively. Don't give the players an implicit promise that they can Fix This, which then turns out to have never been a reasonable expectation. This goes double for new players -- an experienced player can probably look at a fight and go "Oh, that's a storm giant, we can't handle that!" and correctly read it as a cut-scene, while the noobs are going to be trusting that you wouldn't give them something that they can't deal with.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your answer! Yes, i understand my mistake on my part. Let me explain and share thoughts on some thing: For the campaign, i spent a lot of time creating it, and with a lot of thinking, rule reading, and the like. It took me weeks to complete, a ton of research, and i still haven't added everything. As much as i apreciate your suggestion, i can't change the campaign now. It is to much time thrown out the window. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 9:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ For the players, yeah.. i wanted 3-5, not 7. They suddenly got 6 (i started this campaign with 2 players, one left cause bored, then the other guy brought his friends) so i said, okay, i will make it work. And last minute when we got in the game they called another player. It was very frustrating on my part(more too because this guy was in a test camapign with the other three original players 1 year ago, and left imidiately. And now that we were more, he came without informing me. So i was extra annoyed). If i have to kick someone out, it will be this guy. But for now he stays. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 9:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ As for the cut-scene questions, as i answered to another commenter: it was supposed to be a big overwhelming group of enemies so it gurantees the kidnapping. But if they somehow managed to save her, i would make it work, i can't suddenly say:no you can't do that. It got so close because of the last minute character and bad dice rolls of the kidnappers, really. Otherwise they would easily kidnap her and less frustration would exist. And i obviously wouldn't want to just make it happen, the kidnapping, without letting them fight it out. Then it would defnitely feel unfair for them. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 9:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ But i understand how to improve now. Thanks a bunch! \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 9:15
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Learning from your mistakes is an important part of being a GM.

Bad sessions happen, but the important thing is to identify ways to improve in future.

Try asking your players individually how you think things could have been done better during the session. It's useful to get feedback from the players' perspective, and it helps reassure the players.

Three hours is too long for combat, generally. This may caused by the combination of various factors: lack of player experience, lack of DM experience, too many players, too many monsters, and too powerful monsters.

It sounds like you're starting the game at level 3. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it has drawbacks when most of your players are new. Players have more options in combat, so they take longer to decide actions on their turn, which is already a problem with new players. It's also easier to build a suboptimal character, which will draw ire from experienced players.

Your combat here was extremely high difficulty compared to the guidelines in Dungeon Master's Guide p.82. Consulting the 5e Encounter Size Calculator, a "deadly" encounter for eight level 3 characters is 14 CR½ sahuagin, or 5 CR2 merrow. A medium encounter would be eight CR½ (e.g. six sahuagin and two reef sharks), or three CR2 (e.g. two merrow and a hunter shark)

High difficulty can work, but again, these are mostly newbie players, so their suboptimal character builds may upset experienced players, who blame their teammates' lack of skill for the group's failure. (This often happens in online video games.) Some experienced players would rather have highly optimized characters who can take on more powerful encounters. Easy or standard difficulty is more appropriate for new players.

If an encounter is actually supposed to be clearly unwinnable, it should be a clearly overwhelming force, like an entire army. Giving the players a fight they can't win makes them feel bad, especially if it takes as long as three hours. It just feels like wasted time, which is frustrating, which generally isn't a good feeling to create.

Be sure to learn the rules well. This is a necessary skill for a DM, since it allows you to adjudicate rules in a fair and consistent manner, and avoids confusion and slow-downs in play. I'd even recommend knowing your players' spells work, even though that's the players' responsibility.

Finally, have confidence. Don't let players bully you into backing down, in situations where you're certainly correct. Some players will pick up on this and learn that they can bully the DM into submission to gain an advantage. However, do listen to your players when they bring up issues, since any DM can make an honest mistake, and you want to be fair to the players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to echo this: it is risky to plan a story arc that requires forcing defeat on the party. This kind of thing is extremely common in movies & TV but is a bad fit for tabletop RPGs because players generally expect that true failure is not a possibility. Until your table has a chance to gel -- meaning, work out all the social and gameplay problems that you've described, so you all can implicitly trust each other -- I strongly recommend that you review your campaign plans and remove any other forced failures. There will be more palatable ways to accomplish whatever are your storytelling goals. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tom
    Sep 3, 2022 at 1:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your suggestions. Here is my take: 1.I got feedback already, no worries. 2. It was long yes i didnt expect it so long, will be honest. But it was 7 players taking their time(not all, but some of them yes) and like 16 monsters and one NPC. So yes long fight. There weren't powerful enemies really, other than two leaders, which got like 1 action each on the players. 3. ShardTabletop automantically tells me how hard an encounter is. 2.300XP and deadly is 2.800XP for 7 third level players, 3.200XP if i also count the NPC. And as i said before, it was supposed to be hard. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 10:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ If i did what you suggested, the fight would be over in two rounds max, and no kidnapping for sure. This already was close. 4.I understand the frustrated part and thanks for the feedback, but wasn't this already like a small army? How much more? They ambush the ship, kidnap the NPC and leave. 5. I also understand the suggestion on the blaming part(also a newbie blamed two other newbies, not an experienced one on one newbie) 6. Yes i already try to do the last two points, thanks for reasuring me \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 10:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ 7.As for the fighting higher levels, it was so i don't simply have extra fill in sessions for the first boss, and make it boring. This campaign started already level 1 with two players, and they had done like 3 sessions, but one decided to leave and then we added the new ones. So i had to make the campaign from the begging, and inn a way it makes sense. So i did so, starting them at level 3(the one player that stayed just got level 3 and it would be boring to put him back to level 1, plus the 3 sessions where important) Also, the battle was supposed to be hard so the monster kidnap the NPC. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 10:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SupporterUntilPurificationSUP 2,300 XP is the correct total for, say, two CR2 merrow and fourteen CR½ creatures, but as per DMG p.82 you have to modify the XP total for multiple monsters to determine difficulty. In this case it's a x3 multiplier for 6,900 XP, way above deadly. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 19:22
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As most many of the other answers have already pointed out in great detail, you have multiple challenges leading to a perfect storm: too many players, inexperienced players and DM, a slight tendency to railroad by yourself, starting at a higher level which is more complex, and at least one bullying experienced player who instead of helping the newbies to learn is putting them down for understandable mistakes.

Some of these may not be easy to change anymore at this point: you may not want to throw anyone out, and you may not want to restart at level one, and you will not become magically experienced overnight. But here are some concrete things you may be able to do:

  • Keep the game moving when in the session. It's important to keep the game flowing, sometimes more important than getting the rules exactly right. Unless that means permanent damage like death of a PC that cannot easily be undone, assert your authority to make rulings in game and move on, even if some of these rulings will be wrong. Promise to work it out afterwards for the future long-term ruling, and do so.

  • Postpone Meta-Discussion When things devolve into discussion of rules or how a player should play their character, that is not something best worked out mid-session. Ask someone to a note of it, and address it after the session ends, or at a separate time, in a debrief. Look up what a session 0 is, and have one if you had not already.

  • Don't tolerate bullies. The game is for all to enjoy, and if an experienced player puts down a new player for suboptimal choices or needing time, that is not OK. Ask them to stop it. Sometimes these frictions can arise between players focused on tactical optimization and players wanting to experience a story, but here are many ways to play, and respect towards other players should never be sacrificed.

  • Read up on player agency and railroading. These are important concepts to understand as a DM, and they are not that that deeply discussed in the DMG. The classic Don't Prep Plots might also be helpful for how to design your own adventures.

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A D&D game is a collaborative effort; everyone has a role to play in having fun. It is not solely or primarily the DM's job to ensure that the PC players have the most fun.

Yes, the DM's role at the table is special in that they have to set up the scenarios for the rest of the players to have fun with, and they have a special role in terms of interpreting the rules. This points to two areas of self reflection -- were there defects with the scenario? were there defects in how I adjudicated the rules in relation to the players' actions? Sit down, and if it suits you, write out what aspects of the game went well, and which went sideways.

However, what I see in your description of the scenario is a case where at least one of the players got off the track of trying to ensure that everyone has fun. This is forgivable -- peoples' emotions can get away with them. However, the responsibility for trying to smooth over these kinds of things is not only on the DM's shoulders. If the channels of communication are still open, it might be worth trying to have a review of the session with the players -- not just the ones who were manifestly upset, but all of them. When you do this, take any criticisms that arise seriously, but not to heart. Avoid getting defensive, but be sensitive to the possibilities that there are areas where you could improve.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks Dave, i see your perception and if i encounter any similar problems i will review the encounter with my players \$\endgroup\$ Sep 4, 2022 at 10:24
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Talk about optimal culture and gameplay

This seems to me to be a problem of game culture. Everyone approaches the game from their own culture, and sometimes cultural expectations clash. The obvious solution is to integrate the various cultures in a copacetic way, which I believe is the point of your question.

On one hand, this is a personnel issue. Some people like getting "pissed" and arguing or making demands. But, unless everyone is comfortable with that behavior, it is going to make the game worse for others. The only real solution here is to talk to the player about what kind of atmosphere they want in their game. Almost universally, the best solution is one that involves maturity and solidarity. So, find ways to promote those qualities.

On the other hand, this is a mechanics issue. Properly adjudicating when to enforce, bend, or break the rules is the challenge and calling of a truly great DM (and leader, for that matter); furthermore, the challenge is highly contextual and relative--both to the group and the campaign. That being said, there may be some relatively simple approaches to solutions.

In the first place, some of the issues are easily solved. The character who regrets choosing ranger can simply make a new character, for instance. The PC can leave the group in any number of ways, ranging (pun intended) from heroically sacrificing [it]self, to remaining out of combat by holding down the fort, to simply abandoning the mission and wandering off. The player's new character could even save the group from their previous character's betrayal. The only limit here is human creativity. It's the player's prerogative to make a new character if they are dissatisfied with their current one.

Secondly, some issues are the result of misplaced expectations. For example, on the point of "wasting" resources, the mechanics of the entire game are built upon a kind of resource economy. Anytime a PC misses with a spell or consumable item, it is likewise "wasted"; anytime any attack misses, precious action economy is "wasted".

Consider the following: The entire game is built upon 1) narrative and 2) strategy; if there was no risk of "waste" there would be no strategy, and the game would be entirely narrative. If that is what your players want, maybe you could try different games that cater to those preferences.

To really drive the point home, maybe ask them to consider a version of the game where no resource is ever wasted, where attacks never miss, for example. Would they enjoy that? My guess is, no (especially if the NPC's likewise never missed) because it would detract from the success/failure dynamic of strategizing; it would dramatically simplify the game, removing creative dimensions, richness, and complexity. Personally, as DM I would actually let these players playtest this simplified version in order to prove that the game is more fun when there is real risk involved in decision-making, but I am probably in the minority in favoring that approach. Regardless, I think there are ways of inviting them to see things from the perspective that the game would be less enjoyable if they got exactly what they think they want.

(You could even extrapolate the principle even further, and literally let them decide everything, at least for a little while. It would be much less fun for you, probably, if you enjoy the creative dimension of D&D. But, if could have the desired effect, it might be worth the experiment. If your players do all the research, design all the maps, fill in the all of the decision trees, contrive all of the histories, and decide the outcomes of all of the events in battle, they may quickly change their tune. Not only will they appreciate your effort more, they will better appreciate the virtues of being a player--namely, the joys of discovery, exploration, and struggle. And, if they don't, maybe they will discover that they enjoy the virtues of being a DM, and they can try their hand at it in another setting.)

Maybe give them the following thought experiment: all of them become level 20 instantly, and they defeat the BBEG without breaking a sweat. Would that be more fun for them? If so, you have the answer to your question, even if it is unfortunate for the fate of your group.

You might consider that, as DM, you have all the power. Don't sweat the small stuff and "play the long game"; i.e. occasionally give them some of the trifles that seem emotionally salient in the moment, but contrive ways to exploit those decisions later. This is not to say that you should play "against" your players. On the contrary, it is encouragement to mutually challenge and learn from each other.

As a final note, the whole point of D&D, in my opinion, is to have fun and co-create something marvelous with your friends. Reinforce those ideas and you're going to have a good time.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ On this same topic, Canadian documentarian Dan Olson recently released a feature-length documentary called Why It's Rude To Suck At Warcraft that explores the culture surrounding "optimal gameplay" and why it often manifests as anger directed toward players whose choices are not in perfect alignment with the consensus of the wider community. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tom
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Many good answer already addressed the main issue, but I think one aspect is lacking: the problem with homebrew. This is my take on it.

Like Mary in her room

In the famous thought experiment, Mary is a very clever person, with access to all the theoretical knowledge available in the world and the intellectual faculties to understand it. That said, she is locked in a room without color: everything is either black, white, or some shade of grey. Of course, she read about light as a physical phenomenon, and knows how human eyes react to light of different wavelengths, but she hasn't seen it by herself. The question being: when she will come out of her room and encounter a bowl of tomatoes, will she learn something?

This is a complex philosophical question that I won't answer here. The point is that you are not Mary. You didn't have access to all the knowledge in the world that exists about D&D: you only read the rulebooks. That is perfectly fine, indeed, but not everything is written there. You may know how grapple rules work, but you probably don't know why they work this way. I bet you didn't even ask yourself the question (once again, that's fine, I would even find it strange if you did).

This type of information about the game is typically acquired through experience. For example you may find it weird that moving one step away from a foe would trigger an attack of opportunity but circling around it wouldn't, but it is by far the easiest way to handle this if you play in a "theatre of the mind" style, without minis on a map. Knowing this would be very important if you wanted to homebrew how attacks of opportunity worked: If you intend to have some sessions where you play combats without a grid, then it is probably a bad idea. If you don't, then it is probably fine.

From that you probably can see why homebrewing a "grapple weapon" action could be an issue (not saying it was, only that it might have been)

The optimizer mindset

From what you say, it looks like some of your players are optimizers: they enjoy finding ways to build characters that can do specific things. For that they need to know how rules work, and even when they don't know them better than you they most often think they do.

A homebrew can be a welcomed by such a player, but for that you usually have to make it public right since the character creation. If the homebrew seems to come from nowhere and pops up during a hard fight it will break their fun as it means that all their efforts carefully put into building the best damage-dealer possible with the options at their disposal can simply vanish on a whim the next time you decide that biting a goblin require them to make a CON save or be sick after they found a way to do a bite attack as a bonus action.

Even in the eventuality where your homebrew doesn't really stop them from doing what they want, it makes the game less fun for them as it diminishes the value of the work they put on their build. I once (in Pathfinder 2) had a player getting mad because I ruled that some cliff was easy enough that he could cross it either by rolling the appropriate skill, as part of his move, or by spending an action and he simply could not accept this: for him not following the specific rules about how climbing should work may have been some kind of treason toward an other character who would have been good at that.

How to make that work

You can't realistically just stop homebrewing anything and completely stick to the rules: D&D is not that kind of game. Even if it pisses off your optimizers, some things have to be homebrewed. Here are my tips on how to do that while minimizing the risk of your players being mad at you.

  • Homebrews should be written down and the players should be able to read them, unless they are about the specificities of one monster's ability or a similar topic. This will help you remember how your ruled it the first time when, ten sessions later, a similar situation happen, and let your players build their characters and strategies around that.

  • Homebrew should not make the PC's abilities worse. I am not talking here about "nerfing" a PC that is too strongly optimized, but specifically about ruling that make sense, but also incidentally make some abilities worse. I have earlier mentioned the example of the bite attack: if you unilaterally decide that biting a monster exposes you to nasty illnesses despite it not being explicitly written in the rules, then a player who previously obtained that bite attack will feel cheated.

  • Homebrew should not outclass non-homebrew options. In your specific case it seems like you homebrewed some kind of "grapple weapon" action. I don't have the details around it, but it looks more powerful than the standard grapple. From now on, if this maneuver is an option, it becomes the default maneuver to disable an opponent. My advice for that is to make this kind of homebrew action overall less effective than the normal ones and to only make them when no normal action would make sense for what the character is trying to do. Your ranger wants to feint their opponent before stabbing them? Just roll for attack and adapt the description. They really want to get some kind of system benefit from that? Make that cost their action, require a Charisma roll, and grant them advantage on their next attack against this target if they succeed. That's a terrible deal? Yes, it is.

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Some of this can also come down to story design. "All war represents a failure of diplomacy". Your players are probably running under "Might is Right" builds so combat is something they want, but also want to win convincingly. This will lead to more combat because they will win. It also means the other skills of the less-combat characters get ignored, which will make their characters seem "less" than the combat min-max. Counter to this you have to consider:

  1. Killed opponents have families and lives, and sometimes the legal system behind them. Make death (and thus combat) something to be avoided.
  2. What happens if you can not heal, or not stop long enough to heal? Some stories involve constant harassing to drain combat resources, so even OP characters find themselves low on abilities to call on.
  3. The players are heroes, most stories will automatically have them better than the average person in the world. The players need to see and feel this. Bad guys in bulk should be easily killed mobs, but maybe some early strategy (e.g. archers at range, home-field advantage with traps, etc).

For this encounter if you needed the players to lose: a scripted auto-loss to some "deus ex scepter" type event could have been used after 2-3 rounds of combat (teleport other, plane shift, etc. spell), with the remaining mobs either trying to flee or being brutally slaughtered by the party. That way they lose, but can still claim a minor victory for killing x number of mobs to their 7. As a GM, you know where the scripted event "can" come from, don't broadcast it to the players unless there is only one opponent left on the field. Be prepared for the script to break and have a second NPC character to fill in the story if the first one dies (e.g. the players may throw a fireball centered on your necessary NPC, it happens).

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