A funny thing happened at my D&D session last week. The PC’s were fighting a dragon that was extra-tough due to being all Dark and Corrupted™. I figured a level 4 elite green dragon with enhanced stats should be at least somewhat challenging for a group of 5 level 2 characters. I was wrong. They were mercilessly kicking its scaly butt. I didn’t know what to do. The exciting combat encounter I had planned – complete with NPC intervention after a few rounds to remove the corruption so they could kill the beast – was going to be over even before I could do anything. So I decided to cheat. That dragon now had unlimited hit points until I decided otherwise. And I decided to make him get bigger and do way more damage to make them all think they were going to die. Then, I had my super-cool NPC show up and he removed the corruption and…….
Well, it was lame. I the PC’s hit it a few more times, and then had their next hit kill it. In retrospect, I’m reasonably sure I violated the Code of Good DMing – Article 5 Subsection 34e – which states that the NPCs should not be more important to the story than the PC’s. As it happens, it’s not my mistakes that weigh heavily upon me this week. Those have been acknowledged and will hopefully improve with practice. My mind keeps going back to my dragon, kept alive only by dark DM magic. The players were rolling dice in earnest, hoping their combined powers could defeat this fell beast, and it was for nothing.
You Can Never Go Back
I started thinking about hearing some of my more experienced DM friends talking about adjusting hit points and fudging die rolls. As a DM, I didn’t have to follow any rules, and I could just make it up as I went along. How much of the combat my characters have participated in over the years was real? (And yes, I understand the duality of this term used in this context. Please do not make a TV movie about me and turn me in to Fox News for trying to cast Mind Bondage on my dad.)
Talking to my best friend (and former DM) Dante officially Did Not Help. “Don’t feel bad about cheating,” he said. “If you don’t let on, they’ll never know.” He confirmed that many fights had been Adjusted and that many dice had been Fudged over the years. Well, that’s just great. All those memories, suddenly put under harsh fluorescent lights. This was worse than when I found out there was no Santa Claus. How could I ever go back to being a player again?
I Have Seen The Matrix. Put Me Back In.
I asked Dante how he deals with this, as he’s been a player in a few campaigns with me. He confirmed that being a player was different for him after being a DM. He also made a crude analogy about it being like going to a strip club, and not caring what was fake. (He always knows how to make me feel better.)
Even so, I’d been wrestling over the last few weeks with the general feeling that combat was just getting in the way of storytelling. It was frustrating before. Now, it was false. Useless. A waste of my players’ time, and a breach of their trust. It was good to see all the melodrama exercises I’d been doing were paying off. Still, I had no idea what to do in order to make combat OK again. I kept thinking about how much effort had been put into balancing the combat in the various editions of this game and other RPGs, and all the millions of hours spent by players over the years rolling up character stats that effectively meant nothing.
I have to admit, I was not expecting to enter the “existential quandary” phase of my DM career before my fifth session. So it was that I once again turned to the ever-cryptic wisdom of Dave Chalker. Even he admitted to fudging.
The fights might not be fair, but that’s not really your job. Your job is to create an exciting story for them to take part in. You’ll just have to make sure their actions mean something.
That’s great! But how? How do I do this?
Wax on, wax off.
Renovations on Dave’s bathroom should be finished by Gen Con.
The Way Home?
I’ve gotten some good advice on this, but I’m still shell-shocked. I’m still going to keep DMing, of course, and trying to make this game as fun for my players and myself as humanly possible. Half the fun is just getting together with your friends, after all. I can’t believe I’ve been playing this game for this long and none of this ever occurred to me. I place a high value on good memories, and seeing them all in a new light was jarring. On a purely cognitive level, I can understand that I’ve played under some excellent DMs if nobody ever noticed and we all tell epic tales of battle years afterward.
I don’t know whether or not I would erase this part of my memory if given the chance. Since I find this prospect incredibly unlikely, I will file it along with my desire to time-travel back to before I asked that girl out in high school starting with the words “if your mom says it’s OK” and replace it with something way smoother.
In the short term, I have a plan. Since the “cheating” aspect of running combat is what’s disturbing me so badly, I’m not going to use it unless I have a damned good reason. That reason will always be “it makes the game more fun.” Wait, isn’t that why I was doing it in the first place? Yup, I’m screwed. (Note to my players: from now on we’re handling all combat via competitive eating contests. Anybody know where I can buy hotdogs in bulk?)
As if all this weren’t enough, I learned one final brutal lesson last week: it’s a terrible idea to get all sugared up on E.L. Fudge cookies when you’re trying to DM. It is really hard to concentrate. You have no idea how disappointed this makes me.