I just had a session that was, in a word, disastrous.
After Book 3, there was a long stretch of downtime, both in-game (6 months) and in real life (2 months). To fill that time, I ran solo sessions for each PC, in which they all got different hints and plot hooks leading them to suspect that Lady Baythorne was not really their friend. For her part, Lady Baythorne decided their usefulness was over and arranged an ambush to eliminate them.
Today's session was meant to be the big revelation of Lady Baythorne's true identity and agenda. She would personally lead them into an ambush and betray them, revealing her identity in the process. I'd been eagerly anticipating it as the culmination of a real-life year's worth of plotting and planning. It was set for 1:30 on Sunday.
Friday night at 9 PM, one player ("Alice") texted me to ask if a guest ("Jenny") could come, and would it be okay if she brought a level 10 lich? I said no liches, but I'd previously indicated that guests were okay, so I allowed Jenny to attend. I asked Alice and Jenny to come over Saturday to work out a character. They said 7 PM would be fine.
That left me struggling to figure out how to integrate another character in my carefully laid plans. I knew absolutely nothing about Jenny. Heck, I didn't even know her NAME at that point. All I knew was suddenly I had to figure out some sane reason for another PC to show up and work them into my carefully laid plans. I kept going in circles based on my lack of information. The best thing I could think of was to give her control of one of the NPCs. But I didn't want to give her Diana Baythorne. I wanted to do that myself.
On Saturday, when they still hadn't showed up at 9 PM, I texted to find out where on earth they were, and they indicated that they hadn't left a social gathering at a city 75 miles away yet, and wouldn't be there before 10:30 at the earliest. I spoke with Jenny on the phone, found out she had a reasonable amount of experience playing arcane casters, and asked if she'd be okay with betraying the party. She was downright enthusiastic.
So I modified the mission. Instead of Lady Baythorne leading them into the ambush, this new PC would do so on Lady Baythorne's behalf. Baythorne's betrayal -- but not her true identity -- would be revealed by orders found on the body of Jenny's PC.
I stayed up till 4 AM working up Jenny's PC, prepping materials to brief her on the character's capabilities and what she'd need to do. I made it a necromancer with lots of debuffs but not a lot of damaging spells. The one really big damaging spell I put in was Death Throes, a spell dealing large amounts of force damage on death. In retrospect, that was a stupid thing to do, but it was really really late and I wasn't thinking clearly.
Today, the session happened. The betrayal went down. There was a reasonably dynamic fight. But it turns out that one of the other players -- "Bob" -- strongly dislikes PvP. And his PC died as a result of the Death Throes spell. The PC was saved by a timely Breath of Life spell, actually. But Bob's fun was well and truly ruined even so. He really felt awful.
Worse, Bob had really liked Diana Baythorne as an NPC. He couldn't understand why she would turn on them like that. He felt so bad, I tried to explain that I'd been trying to figure out some way to integrate an unexpected player at the last moment, and finally let slip that Baythorne was the Big Bad from book 2.
The instant I told him, I regretted it. That was the revelation I'd been looking forward to myself, and Bob was the player who cared most about it. I robbed myself of that, and I robbed him of learning it in play.
Bob's fun -- ruined.
My fun -- ruined.
All of the work and plotting and planning I put into that sub-plot for an entire year -- ruined.
I've been a giant ball of heartsick frustration for the last 8 hours over how horribly this turned out. I've been wandering my apartment second-guessing myself, alternately punching walls and crying. I've been mad at Alice for not giving me enough warning to think things through properly. I've been mad at myself for not thinking faster, and for letting the big reveal slip because I was trying to comfort Bob.
The worst part is, right AFTER the session I came up with the perfect way to handle Jenny: one of the players has a cohort. I could have let Jenny run the cohort. There wouldn't have been any PvP to bother Bob. I could have proceeded with my original plan unaltered. I wouldn't have had to stay up till 4 in the morning building a character and modifying plans. Everything would have worked out so, so much better.
So. Lessons learned:
1) If you want to invite a guest to my table, you have to give me at least a full week's notice so that I can have time to adjust things. If you miss the deadline, your guest can observe or run somebody's cohort, but they don't get a PC.
2) It's vital to find out if any of your players dislike PvP before it becomes an issue.
I'm hope someone else can learn from my mistakes.
That sounds like an unfortunate situation. The safest way to play is to assume everyone dislikes PvP - even when they say otherwise.
As this was a spotlight moment of the campaign, I probably would have also disallowed guest players full stop. Even if you had made the guest player a cohort, as you now suggest, one lucky moment or a well-played spell, etc., could have shifted the spotlight to the cohort, ruining the other player's enjoyment.
Put in another way, after a year of playing with certain individuals, certain characters, having a random person show up for a session where a lot of significant things are happening can be a real bummer.
I've had my share of disasters at the gaming table, though most of mine are due to people with a lack of common sense / lack of common courtesy. Players not showing up on scheduled days, players cancelling with very little notice, etc.
I've had players that intentionally tried to tank a campaign, and due to the group dynamic, it was not easy to kick them out of the group while retaining the rest of the group.
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I've taken part in or run my share of disastrous game sessions over the years. I hope I never have to experience that again, but one can never be sure.
Here's something to remember, though, Tinalles:
It's just a game.
And yes, that's annoying and frustrating to be told, but it really is that simple. It's just a game. You shouldn't be so frustrated that you end up punching the walls or crying. No game is ever worth such an amount of heartache. It's all fiction, and while it's fun and while people can form some kind of attachment to NPCs or their characters, it's important to always be able to step away from it.
I can sit there at the table and feel my throat constrict and my eyes well up, because of the things my characters experience. We often invest a little of ourselves in our characters, to make them better and of course it's uncomfortable when something bad happens.
But it's still just a game.
And we all make mistakes. Yeah, so ... maybe you shouldn't have told "Bob" the big reveal. But you were put on the spot in a stressful and difficult situation on very short notice. You handled it to the best of your ability in that situation.
It didn't work out the way you could have hoped, sure ... but in the end, its something you can learn from and, from the looks of it, you did.
I'd say that leaves you in the positive in the end.
Don't let a game impact you that strongly, though. It's unhealthy and it makes you doubt yourself needlessly and without reason. Anybody could have made a similar mistake. Or a much worse one. But no one got hurt, except some fictional characters. That makes it a learning experience, but nothing more.
So ... don't beat yourself up over something like this. Or the wall for that matter. And don't lose sleep or tears over it.
It's never, ever worth it.