I ran a session on the 5th of December. I think it went very well. The mission the players spent time on was to attack a small tower defended by warforged, without letting any final messengers (from the Eberron campaign book) escape. When I first planned the mission, I thought that two of the defenders would have final messengers. As the players began talking about the mission and began examining the difficulty I decided to only have one defender with a final messanger. As they spent more and more hours on planning and came up with a plan that would likely eliminate a chance of failure (multiple redundant contingencies) I considered putting the second final messenger back in. I decided not to do this to allow the players to succeed well given their deep planning (which they don't often do). Once they scouted the tower (with the rouge under the effects of Fly, Gaseous Form, and Invisibility) they confirmed that there was only one final messenger. Once they began the assault, one of the player's used a magic item that granted a once per day use of True Strike (+20 to attack) and they destroyed the Final Messenger in the first round, on the first shot. I hadn't know about that item so in the end, the mission was too easy. But, it didn't really matter.
In the future, I might hold a tighter reign on magic items. I already have a process that reduces where they can purchase from without consulting me but it seems that even if the item is approved, they will have better experiences if I know about the item. I might require a review of all items before the player can confirm a purchase from now on.
Rules-wise, I did make detailed notes about the creatures and NPCs that I was running, continued to go more slowly when multiple modifiers are affecting a roll, reviewed briefly and carefully each ability before an encounter, and then briefly again before each first use of a power. This reduced the obvious and painful rules errors on my part to zero for the session.
However, if I was to pinpoint the process that contributed the most to the sharp uptick in the satisfaction at the table, I would definitely cite the players accomplishing their secret player missions. Each player received a secret mission to accomplish during the session. If the player accomplished a mission, they received an extra action point usable this session only. Here are the mission with explanation in case anyone is interested:
Player #1 [Wizard, Veteran Player]: In the 2-3 hours of strategy discussions last session the other players overlooked one simple potential obstacle. Your secret mission is to not allow the tower assault to be ruined because you and the players didn’t think about a basic (a level one party could do it) precaution against this assault. Do it nicely and in character. [They hadn't thought of Alarm and it took several hours of review by this player to figure it out. At first, he was certain they would have thought of it. I added the part about doing it nicely because he can be kind of snarky. We appreciate him for that snark but I didn't want to trigger snarky condescension through a mission.]
Player #2 [Rogue, New to P&P, Girlfriend of Player #3]: Go to the PHB, page 160. Read the section on “Readied Actions”. Your secret mission in today’s session is to suggest a readied action or to use one yourself. The readied action doesn’t have to go off it just needs to be readied to accomplish this mission. [Since giving her rule oriented missions like this she has become a much more active and valued member in strategy discussions.]
Player #3 [Warforged Fighter, Veteran]: Two Secret Missions Today (and the potential for 2-action points):
First Secret Mission: Continue to roleplay the discomfort you are having about killing/attacking warforged. In the strategy discussions, consider ways that more warforged can be captured instead of killed once the main objective of eliminating the Final Messenger is covered. Once you’ve got some disabled and or captured, roleplay an appropriate set of actions after the combat as well.
Second Secret Mission: Do 3 things (hold up a single finger to me when you’ve done one and wait for me to nod to acknowledge it) in character or out, to enhance and improve the enjoyment other people have of today’s gaming experience. Examples:
(A) Suggest a way someone might use their character’s skill(s) to maximum effect.
(B) Encourage someone to stay positive/optimistic about the coming missions
(C) Encourage an optimistic interpretation of the past (like the Ziggurat mission).
(D) If [Player 1 or 5, who had been absent to last session] ask about the last two sessions, offer an account of the in game events without emphasizing your frustration with those sessions (because it can taint their perspective of the present and bring the group down)
(E) Express in character appreciation for another character’s skill/service
(F) Suggest an end to pointless argument/debate about the past by keeping the focus on the present and future planning
[This was the player that had been frustrated and angry several times in the previous sessions. In my opinion, these positive action oriented missions really helped refocus the energy and reset a positive tone at the table. They also allowed me reward him for it.]
Player #4 [Ranger, veteran player, also GMs]: The last two sessions have been kind of tense, dissatisfaction has been running pretty high. As someone who hasn’t been here you bring the gift of not being caught in that negativity. Your secret mission is to do some things that might lighten the mood and to try to help the group keep a positive-optimistic take on the upcoming missions. The attempt is enough to succeed in the secret mission. I’m not holding you accountable for changing other people. [This person is the default leader of the players. He communicates clearly and because of his experience as a GM can sometimes help players consider that there are things on the other side of the GM screen to make sense of what is happening. He might have even done this without this mission but I wanted to help focus some intention around to make sure of it. It was then also a bonus to reward him for it.]
Player #5 [Cleric, Veteran player, second session with this group]: Your secret mission today is to add [your character's] religious considerations to the planning. This is more likely to come into play during the second mission but if you can include it before that, I’ll count it. [This is more or less just an encouragement to try to lift the bar for roleplaying at the table and introduce him to expectations when I'm GMing. It rewards him for learning the table culture.]
As Obama would say, "Now let me be clear," it wasn't the fact that I gave them the missions, but the fact that the players accepted them and accomplished them that I think led to the increase in satisfaction. From that perspective, I really have to attribute the success to the player's willing acceptance of this mechanism. This might not work for every group. However, I love it. I've used this strategy successfully with two groups now and it gives me a small degree of conscious influence on player group cohesion, cumulative rule knowledge, depth of roleplaying, and mission success. I think it helps that I use reward only, no punishment, to gain that influence.
Despite the satisfaction in the session, few things were accomplished (the mission mentioned above and one random encounter with 4 Vaath from the Book of Vile Darkness). It looks like at least 3 more sessions before this campaign is over. The Psi-marine campaign is delayed yet again.