So our most recent game of D&D had some difficulties, which I'll try to deconstruct here.
Since I know that at least two of my players read this, let me first make very clear that I'm not shifting blame to my players, or trying to be especially defensive. I'm just attempting to deconstruct things in the hope that I can work out what happened, why it happened, and how to avoid it or do it right in the future.
The problem, I believe, was that they players got frustrated with the lack of success or progress in their attempts to follow the plot. In a very broad sense, I think that I lost sight of what they were after, and I got way too tangential.
The players are following a thread in the game in which a family called the Lathiens seem to be somehow connected to a wicked cult of Orcus. The players have been trying to follow this down.
So far, they've sortof saved the neck of a fellow who was being hunted by the Lathiens, and they send that guy to Illyes. They discovered that a guy named Athurn was acting on the Lathiens behalf when he kidnapped a farm family. They ended up fighting and ultimately killing Athurn, and then did some sneaky stuff and intercepted a shipment of slaves destined for the Lathiens. They also ended up intercepting two orcs who were apparently being smuggled in to Drugen on the behalf of the Lathiens. However, this was where things got a little difficult. The players tried to sneak/beguile their way into the Lathien compound. As a DM, I had two choices, I could either start saying "yes", or roll dice. I went with rolling dice. Sometimes I like to keep things random, instead of just being the Ultimate Decider in stuff. In this case, the dice were not kind, and their ruse was foiled. The guards were onto them, the players fled, and the guards chased them. They fled from Drugen, and that was where we left off from the previous session.
In the future, I'm going to make a point to have some discussion at the end of a session if I don't have any idea what the players are going to get up to on the next session, so that I can prepare more. Last session, when they'd fled Drugen, we did not do any real discussion after, and so I didn't know what direction they were going to go. I don't feel that this has anything really to do with the problems of this past session, as I don't mind winging it, but I prefer to have some inkling as to which direction the players are headed.
After the session in which they'd fled Drugen, some of the players expressed some concern about having "broken" the adventure. I tried to explain that this is not the case, that they can't break it, cause its not written yet. I get the feeling sometimes that there is some conscious or unconscious reservations on the part of the players about not being on a tightly written adventure. And perhaps that ties in to some of the problems that we run into, or maybe I'm misreading my players. Put more plainly, when I tell my players "You are not on rails. THe story is not written yet. I'm responding to what you're doing.", they tell me something to the effect of "But its a giant sandbox and nothing is happening and we're bored!"
So, in my opinion, the problem was that I'd created plot that was too complicated, or too tangential, or my players are too easily frustrated, or all three.
I analogized that I'd blindfolded them, and placed them inside a home, and told them that there are three exits, and to find their way out. They felt along and found a door, went through it and were in a room, felt around and found another door, and when that door was not the exit, they threw up their hands in frustration. So either there were too many rooms in my analogy house, or they just gave up too quickly. Either way, like I said, I'm not trying to pass blame for a mediocre-at-best game session, instead just puzzle out what went wrong.
So lets assume that my players are blameless, and that I am responsible for fixing the problem. Going with that mindset, I need to simplify my plot and conspiracies, or at least make them more direct and less tangential.
In further detail, what happened previously was that after being chased out of Drugen, the players were still interested in the Orcus/Lathien thread, and figured that they had two routes to pursuing it, one being through the Lathiens, which they were at a loss on. They were completely unsure about how to get at the Lathiens. They figured that they could also pursue it via the orcs. The previous session had them picking up two orcs, that they later battled with in the streets of Drugen. They'd picked up the orcs via Velder (via Athurn, via the Lathiens). They decided to go back to Moore's Creek and talk to Velder and see if they could get onto the track of the orcs. I threw in a fight against some bugbears because, well, it IS D&D. They made it to Moore's Creek and tracked down Velder with only a small amount of trouble. As I recall, Velder was happy to give over some information, but not quite all. The party parted with some cash, and wanted to get in touch with the people that set Velder up with the orcs.
At this point, on a lark, I decided that Velder had some stuff that he needed doing, as opposed to simply wanting to get some cash for his info. Why? I like trying to create a world that lives and breathes around the players. I'm not interested in all of my NPCs simply being "quest givers", and entirely one dimensional. I like to try to give my major NPCs at least a couple of motivations and such. Anyway, I think that this was the beginning of our trouble.
Velder tells the group that one of his rivals in town, Palmer, is getting some gems from somewhere that he is using as payment and such. Velder wants to know where Palmer is getting the gems, and figures that the party isnt associated with his people, and could find out more than his own people can.
The party starts to track Palmer, trying to figure out an 'in'. Palmer goes to a number of warehouses and seems to conduct some business there. Also, Andrew's thief goes and breaks into Palmer's place to do some snooping. He finds a list of names with numbers beside them. One of the names is that of a mercenary company captain. This particular mercenary company guards the food stores for Moore's Creek. After a little more snooping, Andrew and Jason's characters ended up deciding to take jobs with the Merc company, guarding one of the warehouses, hoping to get an 'in'. The shift passed uneventfually, and shortly afterward, we wound down.
Now, without trying to show all my cards, my plan involved a link between Palmer, the gems, the food warehouses and its mercenary guards. The party was doing a fine job of trying to slowly pursue this, and all of their actions were moving them closer toward their goal. However, I think that my players felt that they were just floundering, and that I was letting them flounder.
So, I think that I need to have less convoluted plots. My players aren't stupid. They are however expecting more immediate rewards, I believe. I need to keep things to one or two levels of complication. If all of the cats in town are vanishing, it needs to be because a Nasty Monster is eating them, or it needs to be because a wizards apprentice is snatching them to give to his Nasty Monster, but it does not need to be... a wizards apprentice snatching them because his wizard master blackmails him into doing so because an orcish chief holds mystical power over the wizard and feeds the cats to his Nasty Monster. etc.
I also need to be more careful about getting too tangential. I need to remember that side quests are stand-alone, minor quests that are really pretty much optional. I need to keep my players goals in focus. Their goal in Moore's Creek was to find out how to get to the nasty orcses. Instead, I had them guarding food warehouses in the middle of the night to try to figure out where some gems are coming from. Simpler quests. Everything should work toward the goal, instead of going off in all different directions. I'll cite Lord of the Rings: everything in the books was done with focus on the main goal, that of returning the One Ring to Mount Doom.
So I need to find a balance. Crafting stories and adventures and plots that are memorable, and can hold a few surprises, but not ones that make my someone's brain hurt, or that start to read like the entire set of Robert Jordan books.