Worst. Session. Ever. (Part 1)

UGHI was pretty pumped for last week’s D&D session. It was the first session of the new year, the first since we ended the first story arc of the first campaign I’d ever run and enjoyed, and the first time ever playing D&D for our new player.

I’ll cut to the chase. This past session was, in some ways, the worst I’ve ever run. In other ways, it was worse than that somehow. It was like eating a bowl of Lucky Charms with salsa in it. I’ve gone to the dentist after not flossing for months and felt better about myself afterward.

Prepare for neurosis.

Good Morning! I’d Like A Steaming Cup Of My Death

When I arrived at work that morning, one of my players texts me with “hey, can we kill off my PC tonight?”. I wasn’t surprised. He’d been disenchanted with his character for some time. We decided that my big epic scene would be this PC’s death scene (though I didn’t say how it would happen). The scene was simple enough: the party is standing by a big lighthouse whose light protects the land from evil and one of the PC’s items causes Bad Things that make it fall over. I’d already planned for this. I was just going to drop the lighthouse on him to kill him as well. It was going to be arbitrary, and I felt weird about ending a PC on a note that didn’t tie up his story, but it was his PC and he wanted to move on. We did agree the condemned PC would get one final moment where he said his catchphrase he used all last year: “Nice face.”

When the moment came to drop the lighthouse, I experienced my bane as a DM. A wave of self-doubt crashed over me, and I thought everyone was going to think this was the dumbest thing they’d ever seen, and I panicked and decided to abandon the whole plan and wing it. The scene itself went OK. The lighthouse crashes down on a building and causes chaos and death, spawning a quest to go fix it, and my players’ WTF levels were within acceptable tolerances. About 5 minutes later I realized the PC’s death was a planned event I’d promised someone and couldn’t just wiggle around it. I’d also forgotten all about the battle I was going to have happen right after the crash and let the PCs go hunting for the next step in a quest I hadn’t planned for at all, thinking we wouldn’t have time (since we’d be fighting).

(I even managed to forget to introduce the new PCs in a way that hooked them into the story. That’s a tale for another time.)

I hastily concocted a plan that involved both a fight and the death of the dead-PC-walking. Black, oozy monsters showed up, and some of them were really big, and I had one do a large amount of damage to the damned PC. I quickly realized I’d sent 2 of them, and the rest of the party combined couldn’t take on one of them, so I gave them a really obvious Achilles’ heel that the shiny brand new PC that replaced the dead one (which the player had secretly prerolled) could exploit. The entire combat was incredibly half-assed and it felt like it. It embodied everything I hate about combat when it’s DM-arbitrary and fake.

The Secret Ingredient

It never ceases to amaze me in this world how powerful confidence is. When I was younger, I remember a lot of thinking that if I wanted to impress people (usually girls) that I just had to be really good at something and it would happen. I also remember being really disappointed when it didn’t. I know now that if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will either. I just suck at it sometimes.

D&D is a very different game on the other side of the DM screen. As rules arbiters, we sometimes clash with our players (which is an extremely unpleasant experience). Emotions can run high, especially as regarding long-beloved PC. You have to know when to stick to your guns, and when to bend for the good of the story (or everyone’s sanity). Without confidence, the rules (or worse, someone using the rules to their advantage) run your game.  As entertainers and storytellers, we have to sell the story to the people at our table. We have to make decisions and stand behind them (even if the decision is to bend). And, as I was reminded last week, we need to make plans that can survive contact with the players, and have faith they’ll work out OK.

If we don’t believe in ourselves and what we’re doing, neither will our players.

Next Time

Having a game go south always comes with a consolation prize for me in that I have plenty to write about, and unfortunately I’ve got another column or two left to wring out of this one. I’ve also got plans for next session that involve not having it suck like this one did, and I’ll be talking about those in the hopes I can save one of you from this cruel fate.

Is having DM issues a First World Problem? We are usually dealing with another completely fictional world, after all.

 

Photo Credit

 

Comments

  1. I DM’d a evening like that myself. A player wanted to make a new character but they wernt anywhere near a place where he could say goodbye and leave or retire. So I agreed to kill them off but in a good way. The death was to include the dragon at the end of the module and a large fall from a tower into lava. Now the rest of the players didnt know about all this and I asked the player not to say anything to them. This however was the biggest mistake. We both underestimated the other players wanting to keep the character alive. It took three attempts to kill the character before they realised what was happening. Every time the player tried to put the big death in to motion the rest of the party stopped him. Be it with items they had been saving or with spell that was just enough to keep them going. the third time he throw himself off the tower at the dragon they got the message. even then the feather fall ring made his desent into the lava even more tortureing to the group as they could do nothing to help.

  2. I think the phrase is “Zeroth World Problem”. ;-)

  3. Why not have the PC ride off into the sunset instead of killing him? Any excuse will do. “My hometown has been attacked by goblins. I have to ride off and seek my revenge!” Exit stage left. I’ve always felt much better about this than killing the PC off in some epic battle.

    In my games, when a player wanted to switch PCs, he was essentially saying: “I’m bored; maybe a new PC will make the game fun again.” But it never did. Inevitably, the player would drop out one or two sessions later. Considering that the story, the setting and everything else stays the same, choosing a new PC isn’t a big enough change to make the game fun again.

  4. Gah I know the feeling, its the worst.

    Sorry bro, better luck next time!

  5. MyFaceIsNicerThanYours says:

    To be fair to you, the player didn’t exactly choose the best time to spring that on you. “Oh hey, there’s a new player and a new story arc and the first session in a long while, but you can squeeze in an epic and satisfying PC death with less than a day’s notice, right?” Not that a player should have to slog along with a PC they don’t like, but they probably could’ve had better timing with that request.

  6. That is the worst feeling. I recall non-fondly a table of Living Greyhawk I ran at DDXP./Winter Fantasy 2007, where it was a murder-mystery type adventure. I really liked the adventure, but somehow the players just ended up off-track. They had the answer, then suddenly convinced themselves it couldn’t be right. I didn’t want to give it away… I wanted them to feel so great when they came back to that answer… and thus we spent 30 extra minutes becoming increasingly frustrated. In the end I finally had an NPC arrive with information pushing them back on track. I should have done that from the very beginning, and I apologized profusely to the table for my bad judgement. It was such a terrible feeling to have pursued greatness and achieved failure.

    But, honestly, what you describe is small potatoes in the world of bad tables. D&D is often a social contract, and I think players know when they have a good DM that tries hard at a job the players asked the DM to do (if only by not doing it themselves). There is an understanding, I like to think, by all players that sessions won’t be perfect. I think that’s a lot of my source of confidence. I know I have their trust to do my best and the understanding that sometimes that will be sub-par. In the end, it is usually still a pretty good evening. On my end, I’ve seen my favorite DMs fall flat, so I know perfection isn’t achievable and excellence isn’t sustainable.

    When it comes to PC death, I always like a hero’s death. Perhaps the creatures were created from pure malice and greed – they can only be destroyed by the selfless sacrifice of a PC. Or, perhaps the item that causes them to die/vanish/etc. is in the tower, and the tower will surely fall, but the PC could scale the tower and grab that item – getting rid of the creatures just before the tower tumbles to the ground and maybe even over into the sea.

    And that’s one last thing: when you kill off a PC, never leave the body. Always use TV Magic to create that small chance that the PC could come back. The crumbling lighthouse topples into the sea and surely the PC is dead. Surely. That covers the possibility that the player changes their mind later, or even of the player wanting more for their PC as an NPC. It creates possibility.

  7. Try not to let it get to you. We all have games that leave us feeling flat and useless. Learn from it, plan your next game, remember you’re not useless, and move on! :D

  8. I think the other part of this is “don’t second guess yourself”…. I mean, first off, you are the all powerful DM… 2ndly, no one at your table is going to 2nd guess you (especially if the player knew his PC was getting the axe/lighthouse/big salami/whatever)… and chances are the other players would have been more like “whoa, don’t piss off the DM tonight!! he just dropped a building on Spud!!!”…

    As far as organizational things go, yeah, that stinks when you forget your order of events and end up having to back track or wing it out of order and things don’t line up… just a good reminder to give yourself a check list or “goals for tonight’s session” so you can keep the sequence of events (somewhat) in order barring the party messing with your plans… (which they should always do of course).

    Josh

  9. Harry Culpan says:

    I wonder if your players share your perception of it being a horrible game. I’ve felt like that after a session or two myself, only to have one of my players say it was one of the best sessions we’ve had in a while. Players can’t read your mind, so they don’t always know how half-assed something was or that things didn’t go according to plan.

  10. Actually…yes. I will totally back Harry up on this one. Sessions often turn out a LOT better than we think they do. Chances are, because the players are all about having a good time, if you throw something interesting out there, they’ll eat it up.

  11. the whole slow motion fall in to the lava with the dragon hitting it first was very memorable. It just was the way it happened. Character die during play but when I agree with a player to kill there character its like pulling teeth from a dragon.

  12. This could easily be avoided if you told the player to retire their PC gracefully. Contrived death-on-demand is a bad, bad idea in the first place.

  13. If you don’t like your PC, man up and commit seppuku!
    Can be quite amusing when the GM won’t let you die…

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