I 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.
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.