You may wonder… how can you make a paranoia-based story and fail spectacularly?
Welllll…. yeah. It takes a while to explain. Bear with me.
First of all i was the GM and i made a peculiar story. The bottom line is: It was a “reverse dungeon” where the point of the story (repeated as a manthra at the beginning and throughout the first third of the story), was:
“This game is about a dungeon, but the game is not the dungeon”
The story was played as a “play by post” and started with me asking players to create a bunch of people who would be part of a village. Complete freedom in creation, and i repeated several times the tagline above.
I was completely taken aback when i saw that they actually wanted to do things for which i had prepared a bunch of stuff… to basically have the NPCs railroad them into doing. So not only they were going with the flow. They did zero resistance to any of the wrongdoings that the NPCs would be doing on them… complaining with me off game about how hateful those characters were off game… but doing nothing against those actions in-game.
Emphasis on NPCs trying to railroad the PCs, not me. My job was to make sure that the players got the fact that it was a cloak and dagger game where factions were trying to use and manipulate the characters. In that i failed in the most epic way. More on that later.
Sooo here is my auto-da-fé. I acted like a stupid manipulative idiot while trying my best to give them full freedom of action. I timed my jokes wrong, making them feel this was not what should have been. I crumbled under pressure at the wrong times, giving them extreme guilt trips and making them feel like they were “failing” like the worst kind of railroader… and i ended up all but putting literal “invisible walls” all over the place by making them feel they were playing the game wrong just because i felt like the entire thing was being misunderstood and i did not understand why. Even asking “WTF am i doing wrong?” basically ended up getting the opposite result of people thinking that they were playing the game wrong.
If that is not a failing at GM-ing of epic proportions… i have no clue what it is.
Here is how it went:
People wake up in a ditch. Or so it seemed. A ton of mud. Light can be seen above. The two suns, a bright white dwarf star and a red giant star, shining right after the sunrise. As their eyes adjust, they find out they were inside a room. But not any random room. A dilapidated white tiled room with old banners hanging from the walls. Each tile was 3 by 3 meters.
Exploring the place was easy. First thing they encounter are papier mache statues of classic monsters. A cobold, a gnoll, etc. Not animated statues. Mind you. Actual statues. And in disrepair.
They also find a disembodied torso on a pike with an hinged ribcage that contains a key. A “chest”. I wanted to establish that the designerd kept a low profile, with cheesy jokes.
They use the key to open a room, and the key opens it but gets cleaved by doing so by an internal mechanism in the door. Not really a trap. Part of how the door works to unlock itself.
They also find a weird construct inside. It looks like a warforged with feminine features but had (what people assumed was) a human brain in its head. They activate it by placing a gem inside a hole in the collarbone and it asks what should her backstory be with the “activator and master”. After that the warforged starts acting as if that backstory was true, despite glitching heavily every time some inconsistency cropped up.
And you might see what i was going for. Yep. It was a parody of old school roleplaying games, seen as a weird and mysterious “high magic with a techie look” dungeon.
After activating the warforged things slowly start to change.
The players see that there are trails of cleaned surface in the dusty floor that was kicking up dust with their every step until then. They manage to find one of the sources of such things and it was a disc hovering about a decimeter above the floor and leaving a trail of cleaned floor under itself. A very basic item which the wizard identified as just a metal disc with mage hand and prestidigitation, whose sole purpose was to bounce off walls, keep away from anything that moved, and clean the floor. They kept one because why not, and because one of the characters was a Naga, and the player said that a creature that passes most of her life low on the floor and having to constantly drag herself around and rubbing her belly everywhich way would just be thrilled to finally have something with which to clean herself easily like that.
So far so good.
Exploring the first level turns out that this place has things like bathrooms for a large number of people, closets with cleaning stuff (which… should have been suspicious since there was a low magic disc that seemed able to clean everything) even a bar and accomodations for sleeping.
The lights came on while exploring, first flickering then after a few rooms, they stabilized. Nobody could see the source of the lights, but everybody had figured by now this place was magic.
This is where problems started happening. They asked to the warforged (Ancel) what this place was supposed to be.the answer was… “a social experiment to reward people to complete quests, and see if anything can be gained from it.” which… was technically true. Problem is. The players who were excited were the players who really wanted to go down into the dungeon and kill stuff. While the players i was counting on to get everybody out and start actually investigating what this was… welll… they basically thought i was not giving them the investigation game and just dragged them into a “stupid dungeon crawler with a side mistery”.
Those people left the game. I was left with only 3 players. The… “old guard” so to speak, which will stay until the end. A tiefling rogue who really wanted to see what the mistery was. A naga barbarian, bit of a joke character since this player made it specifically due to the nagas not having a good strength, and an elven priest who was alll about protecting others.
So. I “puppeted” the rest of the players as NPCs and tried to drag in more people to reinforce the group. Which… did not go well. More on that later.
You could basically picture in your head one of those old school maps, down to the place being made by 3x3x3 meter blocks. It should have evoked something that belonged to Wolfenstein 3D, though my main inspiration was the phase of Albion where you go and meet the (unkillable) end boss I… thought it would be good foreshadowing.
But everybody was talking “Portal” so i shrugged and went with more portal-esque aesthetics. After all that boss too was unkillable and would revive every time she got killed. Plus that boss was female. I thought that would be good foreshadowing too. Added a strange box with an “hearth” (yes, a fireplace thingy) drawn on each surface that led to “a void”. A “Fellowship cube” where they could store items.
The group reached the “end” of “level 1” which was a fairly straightforward level. Basically a snaking single line of corridor with single rooms opening left and right. The entrance to “Level 2” was walled. And not in a “white tiles roughly the size of a party just like old school games with a bit of modern aesthetics”. A very conspicuously out of place brick wall that had nothing to do with the aesthetics of the rest of the place which was all white tiles, sliding doors, black numbers for each room and other things like that. Not only that… but bricks were popping out of existance one at a time. And after an easy skill check they found out that it would take about 12 hours for the wall to form a hole big enough. Also the paladin found out it was holy grounds.
At this point in my mind i should have given them plenty of chances to understand that something was afoot and that they should have checked outside what this all was about. Except. The players set up camp in there. Saying. “Yyyyeah. Obviously we are meant to go down.” i kinda facepalmed, not that the rest of the player could see because this was a play by post game. I asked people if they would wait for the 12 hours to pass by letting me introduce new players into the game. Which… did not go well.
The new players started in the town coming from one of the ship that stopped at the dock. The two suns shining brightly above as i described that the horse eye festival (when the two suns were in such a configuration that they would appear as a red iris bisected by the white star and accretion disc) would happen in a few months. The town was a bit of a mistery i had made… since it had no apparent way to support itself. 80 people, only 4 farmers and 4 hunters, goods getting shipped constantly in, as well as the occasional passenger. Buuuut nobody paid any mind to that.
The new players did rounds of the town and meet the various NPCs which had gotten snobbed by the original players, because nobody was interested in knowing what was above… as the really interesting stuff was “obviously” below. Which… i mean… it was exactly true, but i did not want to outright say that they should research stuff about the place and disrupt their gaming, i wanted them to figure things out… buuut also… you know… not do something as pointless as doing the whole dungeon which i had not even prepared as barely i had sketched what was supposed to be in level 3, aiming at the fact that people would just be creeped out and try and find a way to get out as soon as possible.
The new players were… a mixed bunch. Half of them were interested in the dungeon… as a dungeon. Those stuck. The rest wanted to know what was going on… complained that the town did not make sense for the very reasons i wanted them to recognize it did not make sense since the installation itself was “holy ground” and they thought i meant “unholy ground”… and when i insisted it was… they left.
Basically at this time i was in full panic mode. The people who recognized something was afoot thought it was just your average sloppy thing. All my hints and prodding taken as sarcastic quips and the game being just your average “railroad into a dungeon to do the dungeon, find some treasure, solve some cheap “mystery” inside the dungeon, did i mention there was a dungeon? Yeah. Dungeon…. and saving the town… or something”.
I was basically failing spectacularly at showing that all this was artificial and that the people in town were “real” people who you could talk with and had lives… and there was something afoot… because of the janky almost comically over the top way in which the dungeon lacked only a “this way here” to “get inside and do it”… aaand all my attempts at showing this was not some sloppy work on my part but something devised inside the game world… were failing.
People were not attributing these events to what was going on *around* the installation. They thought it was just your average GM railroading players into doing the usual railroaded single direction dungeon. The map of level 1 was available and it was almost completely uncovered, with people basically thinking the stuff that was still covered was the same as everything else… Aaand it showed a very linear dungeon with a clearly defined entry point a clearly defined exit point and a single snaking corridor between them.
Yes… that was the intent… of the in-game people who designed the dungeon. I never thought it would be so effective with actual players. None of the new players went to the library for some research, and nobody pushed for answers on the old people despite the old people getting extremely suspiciously scared about the mention of “something below”. As soon as “a door was locked” no attempts were made to find an alternative route or to convince people. People just… shrugged and moved on, or rolled eyes at the “railroading” and left.
Of the 2 players left nobody cared about “why” and everybody wanted to get to level 2. In their minds, as the off character posts described, the solution was “obviously” below.
Sooo the night camping inside the dungeon to wait for the level 2 to unblock itself was joined by the new 2 players… for level 2 i ramped up to 11 the creepy factor. With “enemies” being all constructs, all with those same “””human””” brains as Ancel… and all of them were called Ancel.
I figured that if i was unable to convince them that they were on the wrong track by telling them via hints on the surface, i would just make them feel bad about killing the “monsters” to convince them about desisting. Which led to… worse results. People did feel bad, but also… they wanted to get down because “obviously the game was about completing the dungeon”. Cue me facepalming.
I tried every trick in the book to raise every alert flag. The dungeon level 2 featured stuff like rewards for killing obviously friendly monsters who acted only in self defense and berated the players for killing their friends, the monsters were also obviously locked inside each room and unable to get out, some of the conversations telling the players that these constructs had been living in blank and empty rooms for 30 years. Still… characters killed them because… “obviously that was the purpose of the game”. While telling me they felt bad about it. I tried showing them every despicable thing, from chance games to micro-transactions, to money useable only inside the dungeon, to prizes that would litterally turn to dust outside the dungeon.
I wanted to create an atmosphere of one of those “cheap games” that rein you in and send you seeking more of your time and hanging you in there.
I was not expecting this to actually work exactly as the NPCs had intended it to work. I thought everybody would have all their alarm bells and flags up… which they did… off game… but they were still convinced that the answers were below… even after several recountings of the various “Ancel”s that would tell them what exactly was below in direct and impossible to misunderstand terms. They even sometimes replied off game “it’s as if [doomsday scenario]” to which (still off game) i straight up linked to a post in-game where the doomsday scenario they were talked about was straight up confirmed in even more detail. By one of the NPCs.
My first huge and game-breaking mistake was telling one of the new players that i was frustrated that everybody wanted to continue going down a pointless if not suicidal route. That… basically started a flame war in which the player, now fuelled with righteous intent started a crusade about the fools who wanted to continue… misunderstanding character and player actions and making a mess. That player left that day. Mostly because he would not abide by the other players asking him to “tell these things to their characters in game and not tell them (the players) off game”. Which the player i had confided into… did not grasp as a concept and thought they were mocking him.
Sooo with the cat out of the bag, after that player left… yes i told people that the intent was to do research about the dungeon… which they did by… switching direction in-game inpromptu without any motivation, leaving stuff half resolved and getting out of the village … because they now knew they had to explore the game world to get clues.
Players wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. Aaand it kinda made sense that the characters would too… I had confirmed the creepiness of the place in such unquestionable terms pointing out everything that had happened, summarizing everything and painting the picture in their minds which… they were only jokingly suspecting that was the truth up until that point… that the players were more than relieved to get T.F. out of there in the most speedy manner ever.
But the characters and the players both had exactly zero clues as to “where to go next” because… well… they did exactly zero research. The two suns shone bright in the sky the horse eye configuration festival probably being several monts afar still, the day was hot and they heard jingles in the air that resembled some of the cringe-worthy jingles they heard inside the installation. And by now the fact that the enemies registered as Good was thought of as just misdirection or me being careless.
I brought new players… with one “Ancel”, implied to be the same they left behind, that was obviously a mix of organic and metallic parts in the shape of a gnoll… she told them she was able to “regain” a small part of her memories and all the other “Ancels” were clones of the original brains with the entirety of their memories locked away… and there i did my second huge mistake.
I brought them in… wanting to build the adventure with them and trying to add more details… but i am an handicapped person… and i ended up doing several months of hospital during that time due to my disability. My concentration was completely shot and i still tried to play, minimizing the fact i was playing as a zombie.
So. The new players had exactly zero to work with. And my initial plans of letting them know stuff were buried under rather stale roleplay due to the fact i was trying to play while barely able to lift my arms in hospital.
I tried to do “quantity over quality” because i thought i could bring back the game onto the “path” which… well… was not so much a “what should be the next encounter” as “how should i portray things to let them know stuff was afoot”.
So the new players were brought in by what appeared to be a GM uninterested in their backstory that did the bare minimum work to set them up, gave them a bunch of mysterious things happening and was evasive about the answers. And the “Ancel is actually a gnoll” reveal got a bit of a idiotic joke turn because i was grasping at straws due to me being under heavy medication at the time. Good job me!
Why did i not stop the game until i was well enough to actually play properly? Welll… i thought the game would die. And i did not want it to die. In hind sight it would have been a mercy kill and would have allowed me to reboot it.
Once i was well enough i tried to show players more hints about what was happening… buuut players were by now numbed down by the tedious evasive stuff… that they were taken aback, and disregarded the “new gameplay” as something out of the ordinary, not how the game was supposed to be. Enemies killing NPCs by mistake and wailing in agony asking to be killed were completely misunderstood… as well as people misunderstanding enemy reactions for weird end of round stuff… despite the round being still happening and me telling them to wait for their turn.
I had made them completely unused to enemies doing more than “i attack” and “i take a hit, oh, woe” bland, uninteresting stuff.
Sooo… once again i had overcorrected.
After people showed interests in doing something and not finding an easy way i tried to straight up give them a way to do the stuff that they were asking for… but in the most blatantly suspicious way as possible… which… given my previous record was chalked out as “rail roading”.
By now i was furious at my own incompetence… but the players thought i was furious at them. Because apparently pointing out that people are misunderstanding the intent of something does not mean that i am bad at portraying what was happening… and me making a slew of bad decisions… rather it must be that i was “obviously” telling them that they were playing the game wrong.
I tried one last thing… and they were litterally put on a train by the NPCs and told to do exactly what they were trying to do: find the creators of the installation. And “coerced” by magical means… to do exactly what they were trying to do… and given a freaking treasure from a hoard of a dragon that was straight up kidnapped and set on the same train as them. Which were now “wearing” her hard… to… babysit them. Which the dragon did not like one bit. But she did as she was told because she was scared 💩-less by the people who were doing this to her.
For some reason… i thought that would hammer in definitively the nail that the NPCs were bad people and they were trying to rail road them. The imagery in my mind was unambiguous.
Obviously it was not. Players shrugged and thought this was the endgame were they were now going to find the makers of the installation and kill them with all the new bling… and when they told me that… i basically spilled the beans.
They were only level 7. This was not the end game, they were about 35% into the adventure. They had no clue about what was happening and … honestly i had no clue how to salvage the game and tell them what they needed to know… without actually doing railroad-ish stuff.
I asked them if they would do one last combat encounter, where they would ask me everything that they felt was wrong about the combat encounter…
…and that was the nail that killed the game. People realized only now that they had no clue how to use the new equipment, they also realized that they were just 6 people in a sea of neutral people battling each other. They realized that the “installation constructs” that they had been fighting were basically little more than mooks and were being destroyed by a train of adventurers going towards the installation.
Not only that… they realized… they had no clue what was happening when one of them spotted that some people were acting suspiciously and asked if they were spies keeping an eye on them… and i confirmed they spotted 2 out of 4 spies of 4 different factions keeping an eye on the group during the fight.
This started hell… from people re-reading everything from the beginning, lamenting things not done… and basically panicking way more than me… and thinking (for reasons that honestly still baffle me) that it was all their fault.
The combat ended… the two suns shone bright as ever over the landscape of destruction i had created. Players making pictures of charts hanging from their walls from having re-read the adventure from scratch, and big huge missing pieces of information being highlighted and people panicking about it.
And blaming themselved.
What i thought was me not being up to the task of describing a certain atmosphere and the events within… became a weirdly reversed game of shifting blame… towards oneself. “it was my fault!” “it was MY! fault” “I failed you all!”
So… i closed the campaign. It… was impossible to continue like this. And spilled the final beans.
They had always known the installation was hallowed grounds, and the enemies were good. They saw how they trashed and how they made sure to never kill people and how they wailed and basically asked to be killed if they happened to kill an NPC helping the players by mistake.. They knew the installation was tinkering with time… despite time alteration stuff being seen as heretic by the gods. They knew that raising people from the dead was also seen as heretic by the gods but the installation was doing it by the thousands… sooo… what was exactly happening?
Well… it was simple… the installation was trying to save the world by becoming an altar where it continuously sent clones of its original brain to get killed. Over. And over. This was a sacrificial offering to the gods that would take all these “cloned souls” to power themselves and stop one of the two suns (the white dwarf with the accretion disk) from going nova. It would take about 50 years.
Sooo people were obviously incredulous. And asked a lot of stuff… In the end… everybody agreed i overreacted every time i thought i was not doing things right and i ended up railroading them by trying my hardest to not railroad them… because i could not accept that what i was telling them was being misunderstood.
(And also next time i should not try and play while being hospitalized… y’know.)
Buuuuut to this day what worries me is that some of the players left by thinking they ruined the game… and every now and then they remind me that they still feel bad about how they behaved… and dammit to this day i still really want to strangle them every time they say that they feel bad.
And… honestly i am still scared 💩-less by the whole situation that was created by me.
I ended up behaving exactly how i did not wish to behave… by trying my hardest to not behave like that. Those players were not idiots. They have jobs and families. But i still feel like i treated them like idiots putting myself on a stupid pedestal of “you do not understand MY art”. Scheming behind them with some of them and not others. Tring to answer questions with more questions… aaand in general wrapping a mystery inside several other mysteries, without ever giving players the sensation they were accomplishing something… only giving them the idea they were digging themselved deeper and “failing” at every turn.
If you ever play D&D. Never play it like i did.