Saturday, April 23, 2011

Your Biggest DMing Screw Up?

Okay, I spent a lot of time envisioning how this dungeon of mine changes as it rotates through space.  There's sand shifting, there's water slopping about, and hinged brass plaques.  I feel like I got this down.  I remembered a list of things Zak said he included in designing his own adventures.  One was, something that could throw everything off the rails if the players mess with it, forcing him to improvise.

Okay, I thought, I'll put a lever in the center of this dungeon that will change the axis of the dungeon's rotation.

 And lo, he said,

"Let the dungeon tumble!"    

First session, they pulled it and put it back in its first position.  Later, the same.  Last night they pulled it and left it.  And I realized I hadn't thought this through. . . my hallway of four spheres has no way of keeping the stone boulders from falling and crushing the alchemist's bed below them once that hallway becomes a vertical shaft.  The water will also fall out of the well room via its hallway now become a shaft under it.  Ditto the sand.  Arrgh, I'm just wavin' my hands like crazy now until they get out of this place: "The stone spheres are floating above you . . "  Damn my hubris.

So, I'm curious what was your biggest DMing screw up was.  Please.  Be honest, this is a safe place . . .

Update: Thanks for the comments so far.  I thought I'd add this pic to demonstrate what should have happened if I hadn't pretended it hadn't.  The water is pouring out the opening, down the hallway there, and off into the rest of the dungeon:


  1. Back in the days of being a teenager DM, I put my players through the typical save-the-world plot. When they failed, I didn't want to have the world that I created go up in smoke, so I offered them a compromise.

    A Lich would cast a Wish for them to save the world. His price? Each player was asked to state what their character's most important goal in life was. I assigned those goals a number from 1 to 4 and then had the players roll a D4 to receive their new life's assignment.

    Ok, so totally lame up to this point, right? The players rolled their D4s and in the end, everyone got their own goal back.

  2. I would say my biggest ones (because i have done this more than once) was have the party in an adventure, but if they did not find, solve, defeat, unlock or explore a certain thing the rest of the adventure wouldn't make sense or couldn't go on. My ability to wing it is pretty good, but it does mess with the mojo of an adventure.

  3. They *aren't* screwups. They are opportunities.

  4. mine is humiliating. One session game, in a rich fantasy world, my idea was to have them surprise some bad guys doing bad things to the PCs families out in the jungle. There was a town nearby, they could call for reinforcements, they could scout and attack the bad guys' camp, it was open-ended, option to extend into a regular thing (why are they being attacked? what role does the lord in his palace play? etc). For extra flavour I had the bad guys shoot down their flying boat as the first announcement something was wrong.

    They heroically saved the boat by crashing it high up in the trees, then spent the entire rest of the session trying to figure out how to climb down. Never got as far as the bad guys, plot or decision making. Went home with one man dead from falling and nobody satisfied with their experience. It sucked.

  5. I once had a NPC medium locked in a tower. The PCs found him and I made a reaction roll. He turned out to be hostile, so I rolled for his his spell: sleep.

    The PCs are captured and used by the medium as a bargaining chip with his master. The PCs become slaves and never get up the never to try and escape. In the mean time, the wizard has been attempting to create a life-sucking devise in the attempt to attain immortality. The PCs become the first subjects and are killed when the machine exploded (a malfunction)

  6. @Anthony Going with a d3 each might have been a better idea, yes :)

    The thing that immediately comes to mind for me, was when I had a group breaking out of prison. I was making the entire thing up as we went along. When they reached the final room before safety, I figured I needed something with a little more oomph. A captain of the guard with a magic sword. What sword? Hmm.. sunblade has a nice name.

    What I somehow failed to realize, despite the Captain using the blade for.. oh.. two rounds or so before getting slaughtered, was that the sunblade was not just a nice +2 bastard sword. It was a seriously high-powered weapon, not only inappropriate for a captain of the guard, but also for a bunch of 2nd level characters. After the group's fighter took the blade, he stated having a tendency of killing every monster in every battle, before the other members of the group got a chance to enter the fight.

    That campaign ended up being discontinued.

  7. I once launched a campaign with a murder-mystery plot, wherein the assassin deliberately staged the killing in such a way as to frame someone else. Yet when questioned, the framed individual would say things that revealed he had no knowledge of the citrcumnstances of the crime and couldn't have done it. So the PCs were supposed to track down the REAL assassin, who was part of a larger evil organization / plot that would fuel the rest of the campaign.

    Yet the PCs never even began searching for the real assassin because they were completely convinced that the scapegoat was lying and was the real murderer. So the players spent an entire session trying to figure out how that guy committed the crime, and meanwhile, the real assassin escaped (along with my intended real adventure campaign hook).

    What's worse is that it never dawned on me that the PCs would fall for such a (to me) obvious frame-up, so I literally had nothing else planned. In the end, the PCs simply left the murder locale (an isolated keep) in frustration and sought adventures elsewhere. A total failure on my part; and an invaluable lesson about the pitfalls of railroading. My campaign was so dependent upon a certain outcome that I was at a total loss when the PCs did not achieve it. My fault completely.

  8. Thanks everyone. And don't get me wrong, mistakes are unavoidable and actually necessary to learn, but that doesn't make them fun when they happen.

    So, I see three trends here, Tim mentions forgetting something that players will need later. Man, I've done that one too.

    The Rubberduck, and Anthony's error is about not seeing the future implications of something. Which is sort of related to Tim's; we DMs have to make rulings now but we're constantly dealing with what came before and what will come next.

    Carter and richard seem to have made the error of, I wouldn't say railroading, which is presenting only one way forward, but expecting players to act in certain way.

    This reminds me of my DM in highschool. He had us encounter a whole tribe of Wemics. They had prisoners in cages they were going to eat. And because he made it clear we were overmatched, we just left them to die. My DM was distraught. I asked him what he had expected us to do. He said for us to exchange ourselves for the prisoners and then pick the cage lock at night. !!!

    Ian, I'm not seeing the error here, sounds like an unusually slow TPK, no?

  9. Again, I view all these as opportunities.

    Use a table or have something awesome happen, etc.

  10. He was expecting them to try and get out, was the thing. They weren't supposed to go docile, you know?

  11. @C: There's no doubt a mistake can be generative, because it, like the result from a random table, is an unexpected constraint. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to learn from your mistakes.

    I think it's a pretty good rule of thumb to not design an adventure which requires the players to take a certain course of action. Likewise, if you are going to put a lever in your dungeon that will destroy the dungeon and cause a TPK, you should know it will do that.

  12. dammit, lost my comment.

    if you are going to put a lever in your dungeon that will destroy the dungeon and cause a TPK, you should know it will do that.

    I'd say the players should know (or be given every chance to know) it too. That's a controversial stance around some bits of the OSR: some folks think it smacks of illusionism or poor simulation or whatever, but my own rule of thumb is, games are entertainment and accidental TPKs are hardly ever entertaining. There has to be a chance to fail, but I feel that chance should rarely come in the form of dumb luck and never in the form of inadequate explanation (blog post on this when I have time). Sure, Blofeld wouldn't really label the self destruct button, but he does in Bond films because that's how we, the audience, understand cause and effect - where the explosion came from, how we got to the next scene. It's how we can learn from those mistakes. If the TPK lever is unlabeled, the lesson we learn is "don't pull levers" (just like pit traps teach us to carry 10' poles and ear seekers teach us to carry trumpets or glasses for listening at doors).

    Can you salvage the situation at this point? Much depends on what you revealed after the alternatumble and whether they saw the desperation on your face. Whether you can still pull off an "I meant to do that" or whether it's best to come clean, say "I screwed up" and reset from some mutually agreed point. Or work through the messy consequences in the most forgiving and option-opening way possible.

    Possible get out of jail card ideas:
    1. welcome to administrator privileges mode! All this tumbling requires some messing with physics, yes? Maybe a bit more messing is how the alchemist set it up in the first place. Yes, the rocks float, and you can push them around. Now the PCs get to play with the tools a bit, and maybe get themselves into an even worse situation, but it'll be through their own deliberate actions. Maybe there's a time limit - clearly marked by a magic hourglass or tolling bell countdown or something.
    2. the alchemist anticipated what you didn't. Lots of machines have failsafes to prevent them breaking: sliding safety doors, diversions for the water. Maybe there's even a control room/console where you can manipulate the dungeon as a puzzle.
    3. Did I say it makes the dungeon tumble the other way? Sure, but not all at once, not in the same configuration. Maybe there are now new connections/disconnections, a shuffled map, new rooms? If it opens up secret rooms/tools/cheese the players will likely plain forget anything went wrong. A place where they can clairvoyantly see what's going on with their ship/other places on the island? The alchemist's library?
    4. What was the purpose of putting this lever in, for the alchemist? Could there be some unexpected consequence of "breaking" the current state of the dungeon? Where does that water end up, actually, and might it be useful. What if you're now at 90 degrees to reality? Does it help to reconceive the physical laws themselves - are the giant rock balls now something other than giant rock balls?
    5. Yes, it's broken now. And you're trapped. And whatever force field is keeping the spheres off the bed isn't rescuing the rest of the dungeon, or is slowly weakening. There's still a silver lining. All the other creatures in here are trapped too. Maybe you can work together to get untrapped, and the witches can make their own creepy but sincere attempts to help the intruders for mutual salvation.

  13. ...maybe this was the only way to get to the root.

  14. Thank you, I really appreciate these suggestions. And, oddly, spurred by C to try and approach it positively, I was thinking along the lines of your #1.

    I thought, maybe I'll have everything frozen including the grubs and the witches. My players really want to kill the witch they know of, this could be a way for them to do that if they make the connection that she's stuck somewhere.

    But I also like the idea that the water is in fact meant to go somewhere-- maybe floating around the central potion to cool it- but this is all mixing my carefully thought out explainable rotations with anti-grav. Which, if I were a player would be hard to extrapolate what might happen next from.