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In an upcoming session, my players will be fighting a really powerful dragon, who acts as the "boss monster" of this part of the story. The players already know where he is and more or less what they're up against, so they are capable of planning ahead.

The Problem

The last time we had a fight anything similar to this, the players did a lot of their planning in terms of strategy and buff selection during the session. For the tactically minded players this is great fun. For the others, they will follow whatever strategy is determined and otherwise not pay attention during that. (I have tried to encourage them to do this in the Facebook group for the campaign before the session, with mixed results. It seems to work better with item shopping/crafting lists than it does with combat preparation.)

Between the planning and the actual fight, this single encounter will likely consume an entire session (sessions are typically 3.5-4 hours, starting at 7:30pm). The last time this happened, I noticed that people were really tired by the end of it. More so than usual. It seems to take a lot out of them, and being tired led to mistakes. Tired mistakes against what they're fighting this time will likely get people killed.

I have no problem with killing players in a fight like this, but I prefer it to not happen simply due to people being worn out and unfocused. Thus, what I'm looking for are some strategies to create an atmosphere that will help keep people awake for the entire encounter.

Usual Atmosphere

We play at my house, in the living room. Most players are sitting on a couch with reclining seats, with a couple in chairs pulled up to the area. The game board is a whiteboard on top of the ottoman, and I sit on the floor across from everyone else. The room is pretty bright, and I don't have a practical way to make it any brighter (I can make it darker pretty easily). There isn't typically music or distractions like that.

Snacks are on an "if someone feels like bringing some" basis. Usually it's junk food of some sort (chips, ice cream, cake, donuts, etc). Drinks are typically water and coffee that people bring with them. Typically, people are tired enough to be ready to go home by the end of the session, but still reasonably energetic (ie: they're alert and thinking clearly). For this type of situation, I can get or cook something.

On these really long encounters, people are far more likely to start to nod off or generally act more tired.

I tend to keep combat going fairly quickly, so that players don't wait a long time between turns. Except when someone has to look up a spell or the grapple rules, long turns are usually not a problem. Given the nature of the boss fight, player turns tend to go slower. I am going to study ahead of time so that the NPC turn will not take a long time.

What I have

We're playing at my house, so we have access to my kitchen. That includes stove, oven, fridge, deep fryer, and a gas grill. So, I can prepare almost anything in terms of food. We're also in the city, so ordering things like pizza is easy.

There is a TV and stereo in the room, with cable, Netflix, and a wide variety of music available. I can't crank the stereo up that high due to a sleeping baby upstairs, but I can use it.

The space is big enough that people can get up and walk around, but the area around the game board is pretty tight, so other people have to move to let folks out. That tends to discourage people from walking around a lot, normally. It is possible to open this up more, if I move all my DM books/maps and sit on the same side as the players.

Any suggestions on what I can do/change to help players stay awake?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not an answer for the problem cited, but an answer for this specific instance: Why not have more than one foe? I know this is a dragon fight, and so the main focus should be on the dragon itself, but give the not-main-damage-dealing members of the party something interesting to fight too. Dragons can have minions, or hatchlings, after all. You might also consider setting a time limit on in-combat planning, since each action is supposed to only last 6 seconds, and there's only so much extranneous planning one can do in that time internally. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Oct 3 '14 at 18:35
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What I tend to do is to incorporate breaks in the game where everyone can stand, stretch, and talk about something else besides the game. The switch in contexts helps a lot.

You are also experiencing "decision fatigue", which is the true reason for the blank looks and mistakes in the end. Playing the game requires an incredible number of decisions to make, which is compounded when you are trying to make those decisions in a group. The only way to combat that is to either limit their options (create a condition where everyone must fight unarmed, or slowed, or whatever), or get them to solidify at least some of their decisions before they come.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is basically what I was going to suggest; Take literal ten minute "intermissions" where no game stuff happens. Tell everyone to get up, move around, use the restroom. Have some sort of food in the kitchen that requires minor prep (Ice cream might be good if it's not too cold, or tea, or something) so people go and do something else for a few minutes. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Oct 3 '14 at 15:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah - the minor food prep activity also helps. \$\endgroup\$ – schroeder Oct 3 '14 at 15:50
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Divide the boss encounter into sections that have a different feel. You can do this by time (at 1, 2, and 3 hours into the fight) or by in-character progress (when the dragon reaches 3/4, 1/2, and 1/4 hit points).

At each transition, make something dramatic happen that changes the circumstances of the battle.

At the first transition, maybe the dragon thrashes against the side of its lair, dropping stalactites that convert the battlefield from an open space to a heavily-covered space. At the second, maybe the dragon flees out into the open air, letting him do strafing runs. At the third, the dragon's wings might be damaged, so he lands and starts fighting more aggressively.

Other transitions might involve summoning minions, activating traps, revealing a hostage that must be protected, or even a short puzzling section where the players have to figure out how to disable some of the dragon's defenses.

The goal here is to make the encounter feel like a series of short encounters instead of one long one. That can reduce the fatigue of doing the same thing for hours.

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In general, I feel that the main issue here is with your intended pacing of the session. With a four hour session, I don't think it is generally possible for the entire time to be intense and expect full concentration from your players. It simply isn't going to happen no matter what you try and do.

I run sessions of a similar length, and always always plan to have lulls in the action and intensity. In part this is because of the types of issue you are encountering, but it also helps give contrast, and makes the intense sections even more so.

However, assuming that you need or want to continue with your session structure, there are a number of things that spring to mind.

The first is to build breaks into the session, even if it means having to shorten the encounter a little so you can fit it all in. It is virtually impossible for anyone to concentrate fully for a full session like that, so you have to allow time to relax. I would suggest a 15 minute break about half way through. Depending on how you do food, you could turn this into a snack/food break.

The second is to change the seating arrangements for those sitting on the couch with reclining seats. Assuming people have had a full day before coming to your house for the evening, giving them a really, really comfy couch to sit in is only going to encourage them to nod off. If you are able, I would give everyone chairs and ditch the couch for the session.

I would also try and clear space around the table so people can get up, move around and stretch when they need to. Arranging furniture so that they are stuck sat down through a whole session is not going to help things.

Another idea would be to find some energetic/appropriate music and have it playing in the background. You need to try and maintain the players' energy, and this might help do the trick.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In my experience, the energetic music can really backfire. It can become a source of irritation and enhance the fatigue (maybe I'm old). I was also going to comment on the comfy chair issue, but I agree that players should be in a better seating arrangement than a recliner. \$\endgroup\$ – schroeder Oct 3 '14 at 15:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was thinking appropriate film scores, that kind of thing \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Oct 3 '14 at 16:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ My normal session pacing isn't like this, but it tends to be an issue when a fight with a big boss type monster starts. You don't expect to have a few of those in a session with discussion and exploration in the middle, unless it goes a lot faster than I expect it to. Last time around, the "boss fight" took the entire session because it was long and the players went more slowly due to the danger. \$\endgroup\$ – Tridus Oct 3 '14 at 17:57
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I would suggest having a break in the middle of the session. For example, playing for two hours, then having dinner, then playing the remaining two hours. Having some players sitting down and playing for four hours is just too long. Having snacks on the table is good because it keeps everyone happy and not too hungry.

Music is not a distraction and can be very useful if you use it correctly. Music can help set the atmosphere and get people immersed into the game. Make sure you have music that suits the atmosphere of the game, usually instrumental music is more subtle and less distracting. The music should not be too loud or distracting.

Before starting the game, give the players a while to settle in and meet new players so that they don't feel rushed. If they come and start playing immediately, the players may be distracted. Make sure to give the players to muck around with their friends so that they can be more focused when you play.

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You could force them to plan faster. This will add another level of immersion to the game, speed things up, and even make the tactical guys in your session have even more to focus on.

This is relatively simply. If they see the monster, and the monster is about to engage, they will only have 1d20 of words or so that each player can say. Or you can give them only 10 seconds to speak (since a turn is 5) so that they have 5 seconds to think, and five seconds to act. This way they really need to focus on limitations (a hopefully fun challenge for the tacticians), and the encounter runs faster (appeasing the the rest of the group).

If the monster does not see them, you can still limit how much time they have to talk, since the characters talking tactics will give the monster a chance to notice the sounds of their voices. If this enemy is supposed to be hard of hearing, maybe it has a great sense of smell, or there is an old alarm spell that goes off on a trigger word.

In almost any situation, remember, when the players talk tactics, their characters are doing the same thing. Feel free to use this to cut their tactics short, with some warning of course.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like this idea. In my specific case it might be difficult, because when they're talking spell selection, they're doing it the day before they plan to engage the dragon, probably from several miles away (they won't go towards it until they're ready to engage). Thus it's hard to implement short of just dropping the dragon on them early, which would significantly boost the encounter difficulty. Do you have any advice on how to deal with that detail? \$\endgroup\$ – Tridus Oct 3 '14 at 17:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tridus You could try having the dragon scrying them, and when he sees them plotting, he sends some of his minions, and they can interrupt the preparation. If they are being protected, it can just be a sudden thing, a simple group of wandering monsters hears them, and attacks \$\endgroup\$ – Flotolk Oct 4 '14 at 17:35

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