I’m something like a recovering simulationist. I’m happiest with a campaign when it makes sense, when causes lead naturally to effects, and when I don’t have to leverage my willing suspension of disbelief too much. I do understand that we game to have fun, and sometimes hard realism has to give way to an interesting narrative, but every once in a while my meta-sense triggers and tells me something is happening as it would in a story but not as it would in real life. On a bad day it takes me out of the game. On a good day it forces me to look at what I’m doing from another perspective and improve my campaign world. And on a great day it lets me see what my players are doing, recognize that things don’t work the way they assume they do, and punish them for it.
Let me tell you about the vampire ambush.
In The Umbrageous Sodality and the Ghost Opera, the players all brought vigilante characters because we wanted to build a superhero group like the Avengers or the X-Men. The PCs then all moved on their own and kept as many secrets from each other as possible, violating the stated campaign concept and extending the campaign with three solid sessions of absolutely nothing, but they did finally assemble and do a single thing together at all. That thing was going after an undead paladin who’d crossed swords with them a few days ago, one who was a match for nearly the entire group. The party got a lead on the paladin and broke into the manor of the man they believed was her patron, stealthily killing their way through a few magical defenses and preparing for a showdown with the big bad.
They made it to a large, ominous-looking boss door, and on the other side they could hear the paladin discussing things with another person. For the first time, the party had the upper hand on the villain, and they took the time to discuss their ambush. They decided to split up and surround the paladin and her friend, with some people using the door and some swinging in dramatically through windows. They timed their attack so both sides would enter the room at once, and they activated any buffs they had and coordinated their plan of attack once the fight started. They split up, took their positions, and at the exact second they had planned, they burst into the room to fight their two enemies.
Except that in the intervening few minutes, those two enemies had become eight, and they were patiently waiting for the party.
You see, while the party was very smart in planning their attack before committing to it, they did also do it right next to the door. The paladin’s friend, a vampire, picked up on the conversation with a fairly decent Perception check, and he opted to let the party continue explaining their plans out loud rather than yell to them or storm over. Instead he kept talking, saying whatever came to mind so it sounded like he was merely rambling, and all the while he was signaling to his minions, moving them from one place to another, and counting down himself until the moment they attacked. The party didn’t surprise a paladin and a helpless ally, they bungled into a carefully-planned reverse-ambush by a vampire and his undead and animal friends.
Luckily for them the vampire was a bit of a showboat, and instead of ordering everybody to ready an action to kill the party, he just let them enter the room so he could explain to them exactly how dumb it was to discuss a secret plot within earshot of its intended victim. The party fought anyway, aiming to free a specific hostage and flee, and they performed admirably in a dramatic mid-campaign battle. The only casualty was one PC they did have to leave behind; he was captured, dominated, and allowed to “escape” as the villain’s sleeper agent (which is not the first time this has happened to this player, but that’s another story).
I want to give credit to my players here. I’ve DMed for people who would whine and fight, arguing that of course they had been whispering the whole time even if they didn’t indicate it in any way and the door definitely should have muffled their voices so the Perception check was impossible and adventurers of their skill would obviously have walked three hallways away before casting any loud spells but come back in time to hear their enemies say anything important. But this group didn’t degenerate into an argument. Instead they took it in stride, admitting that their planning might not have been as quiet as they’d assumed and they hadn’t sufficiently presented themselves as a super-quiet-all-the-time party. They also trusted they wouldn’t be wiped because they knew I knew it wouldn’t be a fun game; even if the party was wiped out, we’d find a way to turn it into a pivotal campaign moment instead of just ending game there. The players were trying to beat the villain instead of the DM, so they didn’t see any need to fight about what was happening. They were going to win eventually, probably, and this just made it interesting.
They were much more careful about planning in secret for the rest of the campaign. It didn’t much matter because their dominated ally was reporting their plan to the vampire right up until the final session, but it’s the thought that counts.