This is a little story about what happened yesterday in our campaign, when the group confronted Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess. As this is one of the best LotFP modules, you may wish the consider the following to be SPOILERS - this one's well worth playing if you are into this sort of thing at all.
So here's what the tactical situation looks like from a bird's eye perspective:
The mission target is the relief and rescue of a couple hundred hostages, plus finding a way out of a hostile fae magic pocket dimension for the party and the hostages. The hostages are held in a village on an island, with a big ivory wizard tower in the middle. The hostiles consist of a few dozen demonic teddy bears (clearly subhuman in combat abilities), five wardog-like poodles (sort of dangerous) and a dozen or so flying, archerous cupids (subhuman, but flying and shooting). The hostages seem ill-treated and mentally defeated, under constant surveillance, but basically free to move about in the village. There's a 5th level magic-user in the tower, plus all the mission-critical mcguffin stuff is in there, too. There's a single entrance to the tower, plus a balcony 30 feet high from the ground.
And here's what our party decided to do about it:
The adventuring party of seven people goes up to the single bridge leading to the island-village and requests an audience with whoever is running the place. The two teddy bears guarding the bridge request them to leave their weapons, which they decide to do, and follow them into the village. The magic-user appears at the top balcony of the tower and addresses the newcomers, welcoming them warmly into this (nefarious, horrifying) place as new residents, but refusing to come down to meet them in person for now. The party decides to attack the tower unarmed in an attempt to reach the magic-user; their plan involves breaching the doors and taking control of a hypothetical internal stairway. A sudden skirmish erupts as the adventures start breaking in, with the enemy forces converging on the adventurers as they fight their way into the tower; the party forgets to secure the stairway as they'd planned, and gets bogged down individually, each adventurer fighting several halfling-sized teddy bears; the party is wiped out, one by one.
The specific concept that motivated the party to attempt to breach the tower was that they had concluded that the magic-user in the tower was the demonic linchpin of the entire pocket dimension; if they could exorcise the devil, they could save everybody in one swoop. As it happened, the assault on the tower proved that their basic concept was faulty: the magic-user was not, in fact, vulnerable to Turn Undead, upon which the entire plan rested. The last member of the party to go down was the priest, after they realized their error.
The peculiar bit in our newest TPK was that once the party was established in the middle of the fae/demon village, with the magic-user unwilling to come down from their tower, the players actually had a long-ish strategic discourse wherein they fielded a number of ideas that would seem in hindsight to provide them with more of a chance for success. For instance, the following concepts were brought up:
* The party could wait for night and try to climb up to the tower balcony stealthily.
* The party could live in the village for a while to observe and learn more about the particulars of the place. They could perhaps foment a rebellion among the prisoners, create some weapons, and so on.
* The party could continue interacting with the magic-user, perhaps over the course of a longer time period, to gain their trust and attempt an assassination when their guard is lowered; the magic-user doesn't seem very smart, after all.
* The party could distract the frankly quite stupid teddy bears and whatnot, attract them away from the tower, and then attack the tower with a momentary tactical advantage when the majority of the village's overseers were not in the immediate vicinity.
So afterwards I'm left to ponder - what went wrong here, exactly? The party starts with at least three viable strategic approaches (stealth, diplomacy and brute force), they pick one (diplomacy, wherein they declare their presence and disarm themselves), but then decide to follow up with an ill-planned impromptu assault on the enemy in the exactly most disadvantageous time and place. All this, in a context where the players spend lengthy amounts of time discussing their options; they even voted on the immediate assault, which vote went 5-1 in favour I think.
This sort of thing is not unique at all - and if you have your own stories of herd stupidity, feel free to share. After thinking about it a bit, the way I'd formulate my thinking is that it's actually pretty difficult to produce smart decision-making in the iterative committee context that D&D offers: there's a complex strategic situation, and there's lots of chefs in the kitchen, all with their own unique ideas and preferences, and the situation is changing all the time, and you need to separate the meaningful tactical and strategic facts from a compex game world narrative. There's some effort at chairmanning the proceedings, but it's not super disciplined by any means. This is an environment in which herd stupidity has a great chance to flourish, causing specific cognitive faults in the proceedings:
* The party may come to lack strategic foresight: they make decisions moment-to-moment without considering their long-term goals.
* The party may come to lack strategic memory: they outright forget what they were supposed to be doing, and thus waste their positioning as they jump tracks.
* The party may get stuck on a singular strategic conceit to the exclusion of all else.
* The party may outright miss important strategic particulars; not because characters fail some checks, but simply because the players do not think to ask obvious questions, or ignore pertinent details as they are narrated.
Lots of things happen in old-fashioned exploratory wargamey D&D, as it's a quite varied game, but alongside tactical combat scenarios and daring guessing games this is one of the classics: a complex strategic situation where the players have great initial freedom of approach, but every move they make rapidly narrows down their choice set (solidifies the situation towards a resolution, in other words). While making smart strategic choices is an excellent skill to have here, I think that simply having some handle on the group debate dynamics would be even better: first train yourselves to act and decide things intelligently as a group, so as to avoid herd stupidity, and then perhaps there will be some room for actual strategic brilliance. But the first thing, before anything else, needs to be to get a handle so that you're not collectively dumber than you are individually.