Tag Archives: Basic Roleplaying

My 5 Biggest Game Mastering Blunders Ever and What I Learned

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.

Needle for convention DMs

Needle for convention DMs

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.

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

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.

The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons

The first Arduin Grimoire starts by explaining how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Sure it claims to be an explanation of how to play “a fantasy game,” but in 1976, when Dave Hargrave penned the tutorial, the range of fantasy games included D&D, D&D set in a world called Tékumel, and a game designed under the generic name of D&D until it reached stores as T&T.

Gamers needed the how-to. The original D&D rules read as a summary for people who already knew how to play. D&D arrived as a companion to a miniature battle game called Chainmail, and the rules built on a foundation of turns and moves. Gary Gygax’s peers felt comfortable with rules for inches of movement and for how many 10-foot squares a character could search in a 10-minute turn. To Gary’s audience, D&D made sense. But the rule books confused folks accustomed to rolling dice to see how many squares a wheelbarrow could move.

Hargrave’s how-to amounts to this: move, roll for monsters, repeat. If monsters appear, roll for distance, surprise, reaction, and then initiative.

As hard as D&D proved to grasp, this “sequence of play” isn’t too different from Risk. Aside from the referee, the game seems nearly as constrained as Clue—except D&D features a hidden board like Battleship.

Ken St. Andre wrote T&T—Tunnels & Trolls—because he found the D&D rules “nearly incomprehensible.” He describes T&T as having the same relationship to D&D as “Chevrolet does to Ford.” His explanation of how to play T&T worked for D&D too. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon.” In 1975, games needed boards. (See 4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.)

There exist numerous enchanted tunnel complexes (call them dungeons or underworlds if you wish) that are liberally loaded with many types of treasure, and abundantly guarded by every imaginable form of monster, magic, and trap. Generally speaking, the greatest treasures and most powerful monster are found further below the surface. Brave men and women arm themselves and venture within the tunnels at risk of body and soul to seek treasure and experience.

In 1975, games also needed a way to win. St. Andre explained how. “Every time your character escapes from a tunnel alive, you may consider yourself a winner. The higher the level and the more wealth your character attains, the better you are doing in comparison to all the other players.” (See But how do you win?)

Neither D&D’s original rules nor interpreters of those rules describe the loose play of D&D today. They describe a tightly-focused game where treasure hunters enter dungeons, spend turns moving and fighting, and keep score in gold.

From 1974 through the 80s, the evolution of role-playing games marks a move from D&D’s medieval fantasy to universal systems like GURPS, the HERO System, and Basic Roleplaying. In the early 90s, universal systems peaked, and the hobby started moving toward games optimized for one genre or even a narrow range of activities. You could play Kung-fu or vampire campaigns in GURPS, but for many players, optimized systems like Feng Shui and Vampire the Masquerade offered a more compelling experience.

D&D followed the same evolution. Original D&D didn’t aim for the same scope of a modern D&D campaign. The 1974 game arrived laser-focused on dungeon expeditions—and not even on naturalistic lairs, strongholds, and tombs. Original D&D assumed multi-level undergrounds with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. (See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die in dungeon crawls.

Almost everything in the little, brown books supports dungeon expeditions. Sure, the books included rules for wilderness adventures, but as a way for characters to find castle sites. The rules for castles and followers only build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. Few players crossed that bridge. Even subsequent editions of D&D largely ignored it.

As a focus, the dungeon crawl proved a massive success. Dungeons provided an evocative environment with built-in threats and rewards. Plus, dungeons kept characters on that secret board behind the DM’s screen. The walls made the game manageable for new DMs, and all but two DMs were new. (See How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.)

Even though the D&D’s turns and hidden boards felt familiar to gamers in 1974, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured the imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. Hardly anyone held to the rigid structure or stayed in the dungeon. A city, The City State of the Invincible Overlord, became the first setting for D&D. (See A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.) By 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery offered rules for everything in a medieval fantasy world, from kings to peasants, and from jousting to courtly love. That game stemmed from a D&D campaign where players had tired of dungeons and embraced the larger world. (See Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun? Newer games with more realistic combat systems even made dungeon crawls too lethal to be a campaign’s focus. (See The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points.)

As the role-playing hobby broadened, D&D’s scope grew too. By 2000, third edition arrived late to the universal system party. D&D became a branch of the d20 system, which extended to modern settings and Star Wars role playing.

By 2007, the trend toward systems optimized for a narrow range of activities reached D&D and its fourth edition. This version returned to the narrow focus of the original game, but with a completely different choice of optimal activities. Now the game focused on designing characters capable of dynamic battlefield stunts, and then showing them off in combat encounters. Dungeon expeditions became an interchangeable backdrop for combat encounters and skill challenges. This new focus drew criticism from players who felt that a miniature skirmish game, or perhaps a video game, had replaced the original role-playing game. Sure, most players knew you could run fourth edition in the same wide-open style as the prior editions, but plenty saw the new focus as a sign that D&D no longer invited role playing.

Today, D&D returns to a comfortable balance between the sharp focus of the original game and the sprawl of d20. Rather than optimize a system for a narrow focus, the game seeks to embrace three pillars of exploration, combat, and interaction. The game is bigger, but you can still dungeon crawl in the original style—as long as you can live without 10-minute turns.