Mmm…it’s so easy to talk about what not to do…whether in a D&D game or in real life. “Hindsight is 20x20,” they say. I also like the idea, “Wisdom is not ‘learning from experience.’ That’s experience. WISDOM is learning from others’ experience.”
Call it all a justification for analysis or “mulling over” or “re-living” these old game experiences. Hopefully I can impart some wisdom to other gamers, so that they won’t make the same mistakes I have.
As I’ve written, more than once, I was a self-taught DM. This sometimes led to crazy interpretations of rules. It also led to some less than great DM’ing at times.
I was never much of a ‘railroader’ seeing as how part of the fun of gaming to me was seeing where the players were going to take a game. Plus I didn’t get too involved in “plot arcs” anyway until the 1990s (with the advent of White Wolf games). If a top villain was killed (or not killed) made no nevermind to me…I didn’t create adventures upon which hinged “the fate of the world” or anything…not even in Marvel Superhero games!
However, at times I WAS “too clever for my own good.” This is a problem. As I’ve learned (only recently, and from hard-core analysis of RPG theory), PLAYERS CAN’T READ THE DM’S MIND. Nor should they be expected to do so. Game play expectations should be up front, and CHALLENGES to the players (one of the wonderful perks inherent in OS D&D play) should have more than one solution. In fact, for situations and challenges outside the normal rules and/or scope of the game, a DM should allow ANY REASONABLE SOLUTION PLAYERS SUGGEST TO HAVE A REASONABLE CHANCE OF SUCCESS.
This is important! Ugh! I can’t stress HOW important. Especially with regard to most all tricks and traps (which get invented from whole cloth by DMs or adventure module designers) this needs to be the case. If not, you are forcing the players (not their characters) to read your mind…which just going to lead to a lot of frustration. I’ve had plenty of very intuitive players, ones that had known me and known my tendencies and gaming style for years, and STILL they couldn’t read my mind. If I only present one “out” to them, how crazy am I?
Pretty crazy. Let me give you an example (of course):
One of my earliest D&D memories involved my DMing several friends at the home of my good friend, Jocelyn. Players included, J, Jason, maybe my brother (I don’t remember him being there, though), and a new guy named Brian; the latter was a school chum of Jocelyn. This was in the days of our “Original” Campaign (when we played B/X with a Monster Manual) and the characters involved were high level and much beloved: Bladehawk the fighter and Sneakshadow the thief. Brian had a different, regular gaming group, and he had brought along HIS best character from that campaign: a high level AD&D cleric. At the time I still didn’t know what “AD&D” was, and since he had failed to bring along a copy of the player’s handbook, there were some disputes on the subject.
[at one point, B wanted to use his blade barrier spell. When I told him I’d never heard of it, he searched in vain through my Moldvay and Cook rules looking for it…I’m not sure he knew there was a difference either. In the end, I believe we houseruled something…as I believe we also did with his hammer of thunderbolts!]
Not that it mattered. They never accomplished anything in several hours of play.
The night before, I had caught at least part of, perhaps all of, the Rankin/Bass animated film The Return of the King. This was many years before I ever got around to actually READING Tolkien (I had seen the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit, but that was the full extent of my Middle Earth knowledge). For those who haven’t seen the film, well…it’s good, but it picks up mid-story, so if you’re a 9 or 10 year old kid watching it for the first time with no context you might drop most of the content.
However, the imagery was most evocative and being the Great Imitator in those days, I directly stole parts of the plot/film to create my adventure for the next day’s game. Specifically, the Battle of Pelennor Fields.
Some of you see where this is going already, I’m sure…
So our RPG heroes start the game in media res at what might otherwise be known as Minas Tirith, but since that name hadn’t stuck with me, I’m sure I made something up. They’ve been hired (as great heroes) to help repel the invading forces of some ancient evil. What I thought that evil was is lost to me now, though I’m certain it was pretty demonic or diabolic at the time. The bad guys were of course led by the Witch-King of Angmar (again, at the time I never remembered who or what this guy was so he was certainly re-named something else), an invisible figure with flaming eyes and a crown suspended over a suit of spiky armor. Oh and a big sword of course.
And he’s big, and he’s boastful, and of course he has Grond (whose name I probably DID remember) smiting the gates of the fortress, and I myself was very descriptive and evocative as a DM (years later I ran into Brian who ended up going to the same high school as me, though he was two or three grades ahead…he remembered me as “The DM” from this one game session).
Oh, anyway, so the Dark Knight (or whatever he was) is of course shouting about how invulnerable he is, how NO MAN can slay him, how it has been foretold that NO WEAPON OF MAN can even harm him…
…and of course I’m hoping for a kind of Eowyn show-down with the Baddie, right?
Because: The most prominent player in our campaign was my (female) friend Jocelyn with her (female) fighter Bladehawk…a consummate badass of at least 14th level or so (she’d eventually end up around level 24, if I remember correctly) with her magic plate mail and her enchanted talking sword (more on that guy later). I was trying to goad her into a fight, you know?
And of course she wasn’t having any of it.
One of the reasons WHY she was 14th level and why she was so prominent was she always played smart and cagey. Jocelyn knew I was already a bit of a “killer DM” and had watched other PCs get trampled by cyclopses and such. So she wasn’t about to plunge headlong into a fight.
Not that she wasn’t brave, either…she was willing to fight, but was afraid the dude was invulnerable. At some point they used a flying potion or spell so that she could buzz the guy from above and try hitting him with holy water and such…to no effect. She and Brian reviewed the cleric’s spell list to see if there was anything that might defeat the guy…dispel evil, blade barrier, even bless at one point.
But I, the DM, was resolved that the guy could only be defeated in melee combat, and only by a woman. I was too attached to my set-piece combat.
And yet, I wasn’t a railroad-type DM…meaning, it wouldn’t be fair to give away the solution to the puzzle. The players would either figure it out, or they wouldn’t. My way or the highway, so to speak.
Turns out it was the highway…as in, time expired and we all got driven home by Jocelyn’s mom. RIGHT BEFORE we had to pack up our things, J had figured she might as well TRY attacking the thing and was strapping on her sword. But she was doing it fairly reluctantly, figuring I was just going to kill her character (Brian did point out he could raise her from the dead, which might have been the impetus she needed for this measure of last resort). But she still wasn’t very hopeful. Three (four if you count my brother) players had been sitting around a table for hours, with a break for lunch(!), trying to figure out ways to defeat this wraith lord, while the whole time I was going on and on about how “no MAN can defeat me.” Call it a sign of our patriarchal times, but they figured “NO MAN” referred to both male AND female humans. I now remember my brother WAS there, because he had a dwarf character that they tried against the guy…to which the creature proved invulnerable, of course.
On the way home I explained my dastardly plan to my friends who all thought it was fiendishly clever (they’d never seen the film or read LotR themselves, and my 8 year old brother for whatever reason never connected the movie with the adventure despite my hints) but also plainly stated they had ABSOLUTLEY NO IDEA what the hell they were supposed to do. While they had fun (planning and strategizing and repelling orcs) they were slightly disappointed not to have defeated the main bad guy.
And this is MY fault as a DM. My made up “wraith lord” is not a standard monster they may have read about or known. Its vulnerability was not obvious and not revealed. AND I disallowed reasonable attempts by the players to damage it or hinder it in any way, shape or form. Totally lame on my part.
Ugh…I realize this was more than a quarter-century ago, but it still bugs me to this day. Despite the good time had by all, it could have been better, if I had been a bit more flexible…hell, maybe if I’d had some training in how to be a DM. Ah, well.
Let it be a lesson to others!
Actual Play: There is Therefore a Strange Land, Episode I
36 minutes ago