As a dungeon master, I’ll never stop making mistakes. Between the demands of the task and my own limitations, missteps will come and I try to forgive myself for them, and then learn from them. Looking back at all the games I’ve run, a few blunders stand out as the memories that my brain insists on fretting about late at night when I struggle to sleep. Most of these goofs came at conventions, where the strangers at the table added to my shame. At least the lessons from these five mistakes made me a better game master.
1. I meddle with a player’s character.
Very early in my journey as a dungeon master, the party scried the campaign’s villain, the anti-paladin twin-brother of a paladin in the group. (I pioneered connecting a characters’ backstories to the campaign in reckless ways that I would avoid now.) The anti-paladin had gained a wish and as the party watched, this blackguard wished that his brother could become just as good as him, meaning not good at all. All this seemed to make sense at the time. In my memory of the scene at the game table, I hear a record scratch. The paladin’s player stood and said, “No way. I won’t play that character. If you do that I quit.” So I improvised a reason to make the wish fail. Perhaps in the Gygaxian tradition of perverse, literal interpretation, the anti-paladin suddenly became good. Meanwhile, I learned that DMs can kill and curse characters, but their players still deserve creative control over their characters.
2. I arrive overconfident and under-prepared.
In 1984, my gaming interests had wandered from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to other role-playing games. I was not an RPGA member then, but I had run an event of my own at Gen Con, landing me on the RPGA DM mailing list. Perhaps the RPGA found themselves pinched for judges, because they asked if I would run an RPGA slot, and I agreed. The RPGA sent a dot-matrix printing of the module that would reach stores as I11 Needle.
With the confidence of youth, I gave the adventure a quick read and assumed I could return to the AD&D rules after a couple of years away, and I expected to dazzle my players. The event failed to go as planned. As we played, I found myself scrambling to read the adventure ahead, and at the end, my players politely filled me on on the rules I’d forgotten. I got no complaints, so I cannot be certain that I left unhappy players, but thinking back on this event makes me cringe. I suspect that in a box in the Wizards of the Coast headquarters sits a file transferred from TSR that includes a permanent record of any poor feedback scores I received. I wish I could run that table over again and do it properly.
Whenever I sit down as a dungeon master, especially with strangers at a convention, I feel a keen responsibility to make them pleased they spent hours gaming with me. Every time I sit in the DM’s chair, I try to redo that table in 1984 and do it right.
3. I cut short a game instead of failing forward.
At Gen Con 1985, I brought no lack of confidence despite my 1984 misstep. Inspired by Fez, I created a tournament of my own, a three-round, science fiction roleplaying event. I wrote and adventure, previewed it for friends, and recruited some to help me as game masters. This listing from the event catalog describes my game.
2000: Begin journey to Alpha Centauri. 2012: Communications w/ earth are cut short. 2015: Alien life is discovered on Alpha Centauri. 2029: You return to a vastly changed world.
No, my blunder was not my optimistic date of 2000 for interstellar travel. I imagined an economic boom fueled by cheap fusion power. Oops. At least we have social media.
Like Fez, Homebound mostly factored rules out of the adventure. The outcome of the players’ choices came from natural consequences rather than die rolls. But one puzzle proved so hard that no one solved it. Instead, every party found themselves captured by secret police in the train station. Steeped in the unforgiving roleplaying tournament style of the time, I saw the players’ failure as the end of the adventure. In my defense, decades later I would play in tournaments where falling rocks caused sudden TPKs. Better luck next year.
But my buddy Mike also ran tables, and he improvised an escape from the secret police. He let players fail forward. Guess what? His players had more fun. I still regret creating an adventure—even a tournament—that failed to put fun first.
4. I fail to warn a new player of a risk their character would understand.
Flashing forward a few years, I was running a science fiction campaign set on a colony planet cut off from civilization and fallen to ruin. Mike invited a friend who had played some D&D and relished the chance to revisit some monster bashing fun. Meanwhile, we were playing a more realistic and more lethal game using a version of Basic Roleplaying from Chaosium. The new player decided to ambush some guards, rolled a series of misses, and then died suddenly to returned fire. Our guest player felt enraged. “I just wanted to play a fun game, and you kill me just like that?” To the new player, his character’s death felt unreasonable and personal.
Setting aside the problem of matching the game to expectations, I should never have let him take a substantial risk without explaining the danger. This became the third of my Four Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break.
5. I fail to consider my players’ emotional reactions.
Not all my mistakes come from thirty years in the past. I still learn. In 2019, I ran Blood on the Moors multiple times for the Adventurers League at the Origins convention. Players filled out feedback forms and weeks later I got rating scores. To my dismay, I scored lower than I usually do. Where did I go wrong? I only have theories, but I know a mistake I made.
Blood on the Moors works as a creepy adventure where players enter a dungeon and hear unsettling voices in their heads. “The characters should occasionally hear whispers they can’t block, geared to their vulnerabilities. If they have lost someone, perhaps they are whispering about their loneliness. If they did not want to descend into the darkness, perhaps the whispers are about being lost and forgotten.”
The adventure succeeds at setting a disquieting mood, and although my draft lacked a content content warning, the published version includes one. “This adventure contains themes of abandonment, grief, mental illness, and mind control. Player discretion is advised.”
I should have started the adventure by advising players of the the troubling aspects, gotten feedback on whether I should voice the whispers or just summarize the mood, and then given ways players could tell me to skip past any uncomfortable bits during play. Instead, I performed the voices.
I don’t know that my voices ruined anyone’s fun, maybe other mistakes led to my poor scores. But I know I would never run a similar adventure without taking steps to ensure every player feels comfortable.
Later, when I received my scores for Gen Con, I saw a big increase and never felt so much performance anxiety lifted.
Hey there, I played for aout a year in 1984, I came back to the game in 2017, DMing from 2018 [5 active campaigns some weekly some alternative fornightly]/
It feels at times like I make mistakes each session even now. However its rarely the same mistake once its identified.
As a result I found your article really instructive. Thank you!
Off to read the four unwritten rules you linked here.