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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dungeon Master Horror Stories

I jumped back on to reddit a few weeks ago and asked dungeon masters to send me horror stories. I wanted to hear about people's experiences in games gone wrong. I figured it would make for a fun blog post.

I don't want to sit here and make fun of them. I want to read them and see if I can glean any insight from them, to navigate the minefield to better myself as a DM. 

The point of this is ultimately for self-reflection - to identify our own bad tendencies and to try to keep them in check. I think that by reading about what others have done, we can identify the pitfalls to avoid.

Full Disclosure

Seeing how I am about to tap dance on the graves of some DMs who committed the horrible crime of running a game gone wrong, I figure I should fess up to some of my own worst moments running games. I think all of us have made major blunders, right? The fact that we learned from them and still run games is a good thing.

Here's just a fraction of my hall of shame moments
  • I had a player who played a "jerk" character - he'd be nasty to the other characters and use his psionic powers to mess with them. I ran a session that he couldn't make it to. During that session, the other players took the opportunity to throw a hat of stupidity on him and throw him off the side of a ship and into the ocean. At the time, it was hilarious. There was a scene where he was tied to the mast and whipped, and the laughter was deafening. I knew I should have waved the whole thing off, but for some reason I let it happen. I tried to make it right the next time we played, but the player ended up just making a new character
  • I have often run adventures that were simply too high level for the characters. I always figured that they could handle anything. Well, I ran this published adventure about vampire mind flayers, and the whole party had to flee the very first encounter.
  • I have my own "DM PC" moment. Way back in high school, my players were being spastic and jokey. I couldn't get them to focus on the game. So I had my favorite character show up (A silver-haired elf named... Konami). He used made up psychic powers to pummel the heroes and use telekinesis to send them hurtling into the sky.In retrospect, I should have just told them if they weren't in the mood to play, we just wouldn't play.
I think that once you've realized you made a mistake, the key thing to do is to say you are sorry, make every effort to fix it, and move on. Always try to remember what it is like to be a player. It's very easy to lose perspective.

Here's some other DM horror stories:

The Unconscious Debut
A friend of mine invited me to join his group, so I went with him and made a character. The DM acted pissed off that they had to wait while I made the character and couldn't play, even though I told them to go ahead. 

I made an elven fighter/mage, and my first action was to run around the back of the barn where the bad guys were holed up and cover the back window with my bow. The DM handed me a note that said 'You are unconscious, don't say anything', then proceeded to play with the group for about 2 hours, resolving everything that went on in the barn. 

After the session was over she told me 'Sorry, I had written in my notes that they would try to escape out the back window, so they cast sleep on you and then killed you. There was nothing I could do'. 

1) I was an elf so I was immune to sleep
2) I can't remember the details, but my character level also made me immune to sleep
3) "There was nothing I could do" is bullshit coming from a DM. I didn't return for a second session.

As a DM I am very wary of having a player sit at the table with nothing to do. In this day and age, it seems almost rude. It is hard enough to get people to come to your house to play games on a regular basis, to go aead and bore them like that seems like a recipe for disaster.

I understand that PCs go unconscious or die on occasion, but if a player has nothing to do at the table for any length of time you need to involve them somehow. Even if it is cooking up some afterlife visions the dying hero is having, at least the player is engaged and not regretting coming over, or becoming a distraction.

There is no Shadow in the Desert

3.5 Campaign. Had one DM who told us to specifically not make paladins but a mix between good and evil characters. Why no paladin? Because we made fun about the picture of the paladin in the 3.0 players handbook having 2 knees and she did not want us to make fun of a character in play. 

Why a mix of good and evil characters? No idea. It never came out because there was a godlike DM PC who would stop any interaction with anyone by the evil characters. 

We only faced undeads and constructs with 2 rogues, a blightcaster and a mage with focus on illusion I think I attacked a single time in the whole adventure. The only one doing damage was a min/maxed werebear who was neutral (yeah, good thing we went through with only good and evil characters). 

All doors and sealed hallways had anti-teleport-protection, we could not use shadow walk to get to a desert because there is no shadow in the desert. In the last fight against the endboss who was the madking that was even feared by the gods, he stunned all of us for 10 in-game minutes when we entered the room (absurdly high saving throw no one succeeded on). 

I think our wizard player was already sleeping at this point. Then one character was freed and the DM said to the player "pull this one item out i gave you and say die". At this point we all just wanted to go home, I had tossed my character sheet and was playing with the backside of a chocolate bar, the blightcaster had at some point crashed his chair and was playing wii on the couch, the not-stunned character told the mad king to die and he did and we went home.

Best thing was everything had in-game reasons. She later explained everything and we agreed that it would have been a great book to read...just the typical small mistake that players usually want a bit of agency ;)

As a DM it can be very scary to run a game for players who have a lot of spells and power options. In this DM's case, she decided rather than to try and "ride the lightning", she clamped down and forced the heroes down a particular path. I think you have to know your players and know what they can do when you cook up a scenario.

This is why I always try to start campaigns at level one. That way I get to know the character, I know what they can do, and I will understand their capabilities as they grow. So then, when I'm designing a scenario, if I know a PC has a mass teleport spell, I know that it is likely the heroes will just teleport where they need to go, and I shouldn't waste time making encounters on a road they won't be traveling.

In fact, what's best is to write adventures that depend on the PCs having certain spells and magic items. Though that might become a problem if a player can't make a session at the last minute.

DM Regret

Usually a good DM, if a little batshit insane. One campaign we were playing he suddenly decided that he wanted to undo so many cool things we had earned. We had painstakingly acquired a flying ship, crewed by, and I quote "badass dwarven mercenaries." 

We park it about 60 feet above ground to go run a quick errand, we come back about 2 hours later, and immediately get fired on. I, being the only person who can fly (armour) head up to see what kind of fuckery is about.

The ship had been taken over by a group of 40 orcs. We managed to take it back through a combination of brute force (great cleave is a hell of a drug) and setting the deck on fire, but all our dwarf buddies were still dead, and I'm fairly certain that the DM didn't intend for us to take the ship back at all.

He also took away everyone's magic items through use of an enormous anti-magic wall.

Usually a great DM, but this campaign went sour pretty quick because of stuff like that.

This is another tricky spot for DMs. The party gets their hands on a cool magic item that makes it harder to write a good adventure. In this case, the DM was probably worried that the ship was cutting out the overland journey section of adventures, which makes it harder to write adventures that can fill a session.

Also, having 40 dwarven mercenaries can be problematic, because the heroes could theoretically march them into battle with them.

The concept of bringing NPCs into battle will come up in every campaign (we call them "Trap Bait" in my games). In my games, I would tell my players that if the NPCs joined in a battle, then they got a cut of the XP. So, if you take on an encounter with 40 dwarves.. you're getting no XP, and you'll probably have to split the treasure. That goes a very long way in discouraging this behavior.

Not that it necessarily needs to be discouraged. You can make a lot of cool encounters for the heroes and their 40 dwarf badasses. That might make a really cool campaign, actually.

The World is About to End

He was pretty damn terrible but his last session took the cake. He decided to blow up the world except for 3 buildings, have his weird npc send us to god knows where for god knows what, and when we got to the final boss, he said he couldn't be fucked doing the encounter and said we beat it. Then one of his gods decided to restore the world to what it once was. The plot made no sense at all.

I have no idea what was going on here, but I think the idea of a campaign where the whole world is about to be wiped out except for a single city is awesome. Everybody would be racing to that city, which only has so much space. Maybe when you get there, they're not allowing anyone else in. 

The Maid Did It

Once I played with a DM that was so excited to lead a game he prepared a campaign weeks beforehand. The bad thing? He had made a great big world, but made a linear story we were supposed to follow.

As you all know, players doesn't do what you've planned and this DM learned that the hard way. He thought we, the players, would figure out a mystery in the beginning of the campaign quite quickly (we didn't! It took ages, and you could see him getting irritated about it). 

It was something about a murdered noble. We were supposed to figure out it was the rival noble that was the murderer, but we suspected the angry old maid! So instead of declaring war with that noble, as our DM had planned, we rushed down to the kitchen and arrested the maid.

It's here the DM shuts down the game and says "if you're not going to play the way it's supposed to be played I will walk out of here!"

Fun guy....

I have run into many DMs who expect players to think the way they think. They'll set up a situation, and the only way out is the way they thought of. Even if the players come up with a viable alternative, the DM is baffled they can't think of the "simple" solution he or she had in mind.

I think you have to shed that mentality when DMing. You have to be loose and impartial. If the PCs come up with an idea that would work, let it work. If it throws off your adventure, ask for a 10 minute break so you can brainstorm enough material to fill the session.

The Dreaded DM PC

So I get invited to a Pathfinder campaign by a couple of friends, expecting the first meeting to be about making the characters and being introduced to the world.

We get an hour to make a character, all of them are bland and their only personality is their class. This one I admit might be a bit on me for not asking beforehand how they played the game.

Anyways, we get introduced to each other by the DM and given a quest to go explore a haunted mansion nearby. We get up to the mansion, it's the usual haunted mansion stuff, dead quiet, nothing there. We get up to one of the rooms and the door is locked so our skill rogue decides to lockpick for a collective of 2 hours of in-game time, about 2 minutes in real life time of continuous rolling the die, and finally get the door open. As we walk inside the door shuts behind us and giant maggots come out of the ground and walls, our gunslinger who is ranged dies immediately because there is nowhere to move in this tiny room, and the rest of us come out unscathed.

We decide to go back to town because we're down one member and the DM brings in a DM PC who's a Paladin, probably a couple of levels above us, with a Bag of Holding to babysit us because he made his encounter far too hard.

I talk to the other players and learn that this is commonplace for this GM, he loves killing his players and hates story.

The DM PC is the worst. I have never ever seen it done well. Just give the party a sidekick NPC to fill the role and let the players be the stars. You have enough to do as it is!

The Laugher

Played with a guy I found online, he was nice but his laugh was so loud and frequent that it would silence everything. It stopped game play every time. We'd have to wait 5 seconds for him to stop laughing, it was distracting and awful. I stopped playing with him after that.

Oh he was also just a boring DM.

Well. I don't even know what to say about that. Maybe ask the guy to mute himself when he laughs?

Avoid the pitfalls and carry on, my good friends!


Benji said...

I have seen DMPC done well but it's a fine line. If it's a pc class that stays with a party, fills a role they don;t have and levels up at the same time,it's like a friendly travelling companion who adds drama and is occasionally as useful as the PCs. None of us minded that our half-ogre barbarian fighter killed an Ettin in one swing because A) We'd seen him work his way up to it from when we got int rouble with the law at level 1 B) it was all mechanically sound and not fudged by the dm, who seemed as surprised as anyone he'd dealt that much damage C) The Character was flawed, he had a combined intelligence/Wisdom of about 9 and the social skills of a child - Had to teach him to not set himself on fire while baking, to read, to fall in love etc. D) he was a character, not a vehicle - He was an outcast with rage issues who one of our party eventually fell in love with. It ended tragically too. E) None of us were to interested in being the character who was on the front line dealing damage, We wanted to be the arrogant sorcerer, noble knight, damaged marshal or amnesiac rogue. As such, he allowed the combat stuff to get done while we sniped at each other and got the story we wanted. It's all about balance, I think.

Jason R said...

I always marvel at these types of stories. Certainly DM'ing is an art that can be learned, improved upon, etc, the main issue seems to be one of attitude. If a DM is not committed to the goal of his players having fun, all is lost right there and then. Conversely, players can put up with a few rough edges if they know the DM is trying to give them his/her best.

Benji said...

Thought I'd leave this here as another set of far worse stories....