3 Critical Mistakes for Dungeon Masters
Despite what I constantly tell my editor, my wife and my dogs – I am not perfect. Nowhere is that more obvious than when running a tabletop RPG game like dungeons and dragons. When dealing with hundreds of pages of rules, character sheets and encounter designs, mistakes will happen, it is just part of life. I figured I would share with you five of my most common mistakes and how I have learned to avoid them or at least mitigate the disasters I have created.
Not understanding the type of game the players want to play.
Regardless of the robust story you have written, the carefully researched plans, the perfectly designed story trees, none of it mean anything if your players just want to run a low brow hack and slash with very little roleplay. Some players really like the dice and numbers portion of Dungeons and Dragons, while others really love intrigue and deception. This is one of the easiest mistakes to avoid and that is through the use of a Session Zero – a concept used by DMs around the world.
A session zero is the best opportunity for you to gather your players together, review their character sheets and backstories, find similar themes between them and most importantly, determine the type of game to run. If you sit everyone down and see that they have all made Conan the Barbarian style characters, you can assume they might not be that into role-playing a campaign focused on the intrigues of nobles. This is your opportunity to understand how you can provide exactly what the group is looking for and save yourself a ton of work in the long run.
Nothing tears a group apart faster than disinterest, and preparing the wrong type of campaign is the fastest way to kill your game.
Overestimating the strength of the party
Until you have committed your first total party kill and seen the devastation writ large across the players faces, you do not know pain. Much like Oppenheimer who said “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds” after inventing the nuclear bomb – so too does every DM feel the black shadow of regret as everyone shreds their sheets and leaves the table angry.
You may have failed to understand that your party was not prepared to handle this level of threat, or perhaps you carefully weighed each and every mechanic in your head, only to have players try to face tank the dragons breath weapon. Your numerous large spiders cast web across the entire area and now players are being picked off one by one with no way to escape.
Wizards of the Coast has spent considerable time and resources developing challenge ratings, knowing that what seems like a minor ability can have serious impacts during play. Only adjust monster stats, skills or numbers when you are very confident that you understand how your players will react. If you are running a premade adventure, only increase the number of enemies or types if players are breezing through each and every encounter, and even then, tread carefully.
There needs to be at least one player left alive to attend the funeral of the others!
Removing player agency – or crippling the players for a “Cut Scene”
There are times when critical story beats will require you to bring everything to a screeching halt and present the scenario to the players in the form of long winded narration. The big bad encases the players in a force field and now they are stuck, unable to interact or play the game in any way while you drone on and on about the Dark Lord. The characters scream and batter the walls of their prison to no avail as the big bad kills the king/princess/donkey that they were there to rescue, then the big bad leaves and the players feel powerless to have changed the outcome.
This is a bad way to handle a story beat. Obviously, there are times when something like this makes sense as there are big bad wizards who could do just that, but at the same time, it makes for a boring game play if used too frequently or too aggressively. You can do it better. An anecdote from a game I ran where the players felt I had removed their agency, though thematically I felt it was an acceptable approach. The BBEG had grabbed an NPC character that was temporarily with the party, holding them hostage. The players had two choices – ignore the orders of the evil assassin leading to the death of the NPC or turn over the valuable artifact in exchange for the NPC’s safety.
These, being good aligned players, sacrificed the artifact for the NPC. Then in a surprise twist, the BBEG pulled out his crossbow and fired at the NPC, killing them instantly. You see – as the DM, I wanted this NPC to die to create a real hatred for the villain. They had done everything they could and still the villain won. This set off a huge chase scene, across three different maps before they cornered the villain and finished him, quite brutally i might add.
After everything was said and done, my players told me they were upset that I did not give them the chance to save the NPC. I tried to explain that it was for thematic impact, a critical story beat, but they didnt care. All they felt was powerless. Why couldn’t the ranger take a quick draw called shot at disadvantage to kill the villain or at least distract him long enough to rescue the NPC? Why couldn’t the wizard whisper his hold person spell with a stealth check. “Because I said so.” was really the only answer I had. This was a bad move on my part and I know where I went wrong.
Everything they wanted to do was totally possible in the rules and would have given the story beat even more impact, but instead I wanted it to go a certain way, so it did. And the players did not appreciate it.
Improving your craft
Every experienced DM has been guilty of each of these at least once in their career, and possibly many times. The secret is really to learn from your mistakes. This is in no way a complete list, but I find that for me, these three critical mistakes can be the most damaging to your group.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!