This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Chopping Down the Adventure
Whenever I confront my players with a locked or barred door that they can't make the Open Lock or Strength DCs for, they use a method which is beginning to tick me off. Instead of looking for a key or an alternate route, one character pulls out his adamantine weapon and hack his way through, sometimes taking six in-game hours to get through one door. I've tried everything that I can think of to stop them from doing this. I've tried trapping doors, pulling the "constitution check" rule, and increasing encounter chances. They simply demolished the traps the same way, took the Endurance feat, and killed the creatures. When I put iron doors in the dungeon, the characters hacked through ten feet of worked stone instead. Am I trying too hard to herd my PCs? Do you have any useful ideas?
-- Jamie, a slightly ticked-off DM in Redmond, WA, from AskWizards.com
You asked two questions there. To the first one, yes, you probably are trying too hard to herd your PCs. You are getting irate that they will not go through the proper forms of picking locks, searching rooms, and exploring more of the dungeon to find the long way around. Still, you are part of the gaming group, too, and that means that your satisfaction is part of the bargain in determining whether the campaign is fun.
Before I make suggestions, though, make sure you think about things from your players' perspective. Why should they do the adventure your way? They have found a universal key that always goes through the shortest and most direct route. Yes, this makes the rogue-type characters in the party feel a little useless with their umpteen ranks of Open Lock and Disable Device that will never again see the light of day (3rd Edition D&D is not nearly so bad about obsolescing rogue-types as were earlier editions; Complete Scoundrel, released this January, promises to help with such issues). Nevertheless, players tend to go with things that work, and this strategy works. I had a high-teens level 3.0 character with a maul of the titans, high Strength, and Power Attack, plus the ability to enlarge himself. Doors, walls, it didn't matter. He could bust right through stuff and, combining Power Attack and the triple-damage-vs.-objects power of the maul, he routinely did in excess of 100 points of damage to objects per attack. With four attacks per round, smashing through a 3-foot-thick stone wall (hardness 8, 540 hit points) was easy. I mostly used it to bash down doors -- rarely did it take more than one shot. It probably was highly aggravating for the DM, because as the rules were laid out, there seemed to be nothing she could do about it. Sometimes there were consequences, especially if opponents on the other side heard us coming and readied attacks.
Destroying a weapon or other item in the midst of combat is a challenge, because it requires you to sacrifice attacks that could otherwise be devoted to attacking creatures. It also may represent destroying potential treasure. The fact that it is an opposed roll means you can't just go max Power Attack to beat hardness -- if you reduce your attack roll, you might spoil the attack entirely.
Bashing down a door or wall has none of these limitations. You can stack your damage bonuses, and by far the biggest one is Power Attack. You almost cannot miss a stationary object, so a high-level fighter type can really go to town. It's there in the rules, and your players (and me, in one of my more min-maxing moments) found it, used it, and abused it.
My point is that, from this perspective, if you can chop your way through the dungeon, why would you even care about walls and doors? Your point is that this violates your sense of heroic gaming aesthetics by reducing PCs to miners and sappers behind an unstoppable drilling machine. You tried to stop it and used some good ideas. Invoking the Constitution check rule is excellent DMing, as is using wandering monsters and trapped doors. These are all sensible and logical, fair play as a DM, and thoughtful as well. But your players are sensible and logical too, and they know that for every measure, there is a counter-measure. If Constitution checks are a problem, take Endurance, just as you stated. If wandering monsters are attracted, hey, that just makes the PCs' job easier in a way, because now the "xp on the hoof" are coming to them instead of them having to find the monsters.
I'm not sure how it's possible for it to take six hours in-game to smash through a door, though, unless you are counting the time taken up with wandering monsters and dealing with them. Still, it brings up a problem with contrast in styles. Your players spent six hours dealing with the door their way, bashing and smashing and taking on all comers. I wonder how long it would have taken them to achieve the same thing (i.e., going through the door) using what I'll call "your way" -- searching for the key or special whatevers needed to pass through, using skills and such. Would it have involved several hours of adventuring to achieve the same thing? If so, is the problem that their method took more time than the one you would have preferred or that it just created an un-fun situation, at least for you.
So yes, you are trying to herd your players, because you want them to play the game your way rather than their way. In this case there is no simple, happy medium on which both sides can agree. It's OK to herd your players sometimes, and it's OK for them to stray sometimes. The problem here is that the situation seems to have gotten out of balance, and you have given them a tool that they are now using to beat you over the head. I've said many times that it's not a crime for PCs to be really good at something. If that one thing takes over the game, on the other hand, you have every right as the DM to try to rectify the situation to make it more fun and equitable for everyone.
Now you want to fix it, and you're doing good work, but you're going about it the wrong way. Your strategy has been to counter-design to compensate for the adamantine weapon or to impose in-game consequences for using the adamantine weapon. Your real goal probably should be to get rid of it. Some people may say this is a cop-out or lazy DMing, but you've already tried to play fair while the players have not. They are exploiting a rules loophole (the fact that the adamantine rule does not discriminate between types and sizes of items it chops through). Maybe it's time for you to fight dirty. Next time out, I'll show you how.
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About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.
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