The current Critical Role podcast episode I am on is over 4 hours long and they are fighting a Beholder. This is an advanced Monster that graces the cover of the Monster Manual and throws all sorts of challenges at players. The interesting part for me is that I have been learning higher level D&D play and the impact that prior DM choices have on the game itself. Not to put things into spoiler territory but one of the players has an attack that imposes the disadvantaged state to who it hits. That player has successfully used that skill on the Beholder twice in the battle (it’s still not over, I get it in chunks) and while it has been an epic battle that disadvantaged state has trivialized some of the scary things the Beholder can do. (Disadvantage, as explained here at DnDBeyond, forces a player or creature to roll twice on an attack or check and take the lower of the two)
As an aspiring DM this example forces me to think about how I would deal with that situation. I could, of course, just ignore that or impose an advantage situation to the Monster to nullify the disadvantage. I could fake rolls, behind my screen of lies. There are many things I could do to make my big evil bad guy more of a challenge. Truth is, as I think through it, is that that player chose that ability for this exact reason and him/her being able to use it would be highly satisfying – regardless of what intention the DM had. My personal take on this is that the game is there for the players to enjoy and ensuring there is a balance of them being able to have their moment to shine for the group. Giving them a real challenge becomes a bigger difficulty the higher level they get, the more items they get, and the more skills and skill checks they get. But in the end the adventure is for the players and the DM is one to help that enjoyment along.
I have two other examples of things that trivialize some of the game play I am experiencing that perhaps as a DM I would have been very careful not to give players – especially after I see the effects that it has had on the current adventure I am taking along with them. The first is a bag of holding. They have an awful lot of things in there that are convenient to have in specific circumstances but also things they would most likely not have on them if they were restricted on items and weight. The idea of being mindful of the exact items you have for a deep dungeon dive – and the scarcity that could create – is gone when you can throw in the kitchen sink. The Barbarian lost his Great Axe on a bad throwing attack, but no worries, I have a Giant Sword here in this bag too. Chances are he isn’t carrying both if he has limitations.
The second is a magic carpet. I don’t know where or how they got it (must be from a prior adventure!) but the carpet is huge – 10’x15′ and they neatly store it in the aforementioned bag of holding – so it is not an issue to lug it around everywhere. They have already used it three times in the first ten or so episodes to trivialize what would otherwise be a really interesting problem to solve. Of course they are going to use it and I don’t begrudge them to doing so but it makes me very aware that if I DM a group and give them something really good they will use that to their full advantage. So I need to have the adventure prepared to understand how prior loot found impacts future adventures. Again, I believe this is less of an issue in the early game when getting a +1 sword is a huge deal. This is also not as much of an issue if they didn’t have the bag of holding as carrying it around a dungeon would be cumbersome. So the combination of two items makes for the problem, and something I would need to be prepared for.
I personally don’t like how the DM does Stealth checks on the podcast as well because players have a good idea of whether or not their stealth is good. A sneaky rogue that rolls a 5 knows he isn’t sneaking well, and could alter what he does based on the roll. I suspect there is some argument there that they can tell if they aren’t stealthing well (hear their own creaking on boards, etc.) but I feel like if the DM rolled for them it could create some better stories. They think they are stealthed and unseen but are noticed (etc.). If I roll a 2 on my stealth check I will be far more careful than if I rolled a 19. The challenge here is if I should know that or not. I do agree with the idea that players should “own” their own results and rolls and the DM already gets to roll for a ton of things so this is an area I am curious for advice on from people who DM. This is similar to other checks that players can trivialize by hearing what they shouldn’t know. In one episode the DM forced a perception check. It was a low roll, and the person didn’t see the thing. One of the other players (with better perception) went to where that person was and then decided to “look around”. If the player didn’t know they rolled poorly on the Perception check then it wouldn’t have encouraged the other player to go and try and see what they may have missed. I am guessing these aren’t new problems to D&D but sorting through how I should deal with them.
Vox Machina, the name of the group of these adventurers are a fun and varied group of personalities and this greatly enhances the enjoyment I get from the podcast. Their Gnome Bard, Scanlon, sings renditions of current songs and alters them to the appropriate time period or event they are trying to influence and he gets a lot of them bang on and really funny. Grogg plays like a character with a 6 Intelligence, and his actions reflect that. Their Wizard is absent minded and plays the part amazingly. You can tell there are novice players when they are asked to directly role play out a situation – like when Pike, their Cleric, asked for Divine Inspiration for their God. The DM pushed her to be specific on what she asked, and in the tense moment she said something along the lines of “Come help us kill this thing!”. The God didn’t come, and as a DM if she would have been more specific on how and what she said I would have influenced the roll based on that. I already feel like the effort put into how and what is said would influence the outcome via modifier as the roll as well.
I think I am going to jump ahead and get in on the new campaign which is lower level characters. I’ll be able to keep up with the new releases and learn better how to run my lower level campaign ideas, and can jump back and listen in on the old campaign when there is no new campaign material available – as they are releasing weekly. I have never been much of a Podcast guy but this is very entertaining and engaging.