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Bad Dungeon Masters

Two weeks ago a guy I barely know whom I haven't seen in years invited me to join a new D&D game he was starting up. I had never seen him DM but I have been looking for a good Dungeon Master (someone who really knows what they are doing) so I figured I would give him a shot.

Today (November 27th 2016) was the first session.

Our (5th edition D&D) characters started with 9000 gp worth of gear, which meant a fair amount of magical gear right off the bat. Despite designing 90% of my character prior to today's game the first 2 hours of game time were wasted by people buying equipment. General time wasting, so much so that the game that was supposed to start at 12 noon didn't actually start until approx. 2:15 PM.

When we finally got to play here is what was accomplished...

2:15 PM
1. The wizard's bag of holding got stolen on the docks as party members were debarking from a ship as we arrived in the city. He chased the thief down, cast Charm Person, and got his BoH back, but was promptly arrested for using magic without a permit.

2. My dwarf drank some ale with his hireling while watching this. More drinking occurred later in the session, but this was not important to any plots.

3. The bard cast a summoning spell while trying to help the wizard, and likewise got arrested for using magic without a permit. [1, 2 and 3 took approx. 30 minutes of game time.]

2:45 PM
4. City Guards spent an inordinate amount of time filling out paperwork before eventually handing out a fine of 750 gp. This process alone took about 30 minutes of game time.

3:15 PM
5. Two party members had to become registered spellcasters. This bureaucracy sucked another 45 minutes of game time. It became pretty clear the DM didn't have any adventures prepared and was literally winging it. Poorly. And deliberately wasting time.

4:00 PM
6. Party looked about for an adventure hook. Now usually DMs are happy to hand out adventure hooks left, right and center. Unfortunately he apparently wanted to railroad us into joining a local adventurers guild (which would have been more bureaucracy and the party was frankly tired of this bullshit). The DM made it very difficult but eventually we got a possible adventure hook at a disreputable tavern which had ties to the thieves guild. This process of looking for an adventure hook took another 45 minutes.

4:45 PM
7. 15 minutes wasted trying to get to the tavern.

5:00 PM
8. Bard decided we should snoop around behind the tavern. We did so, interrupting a pair of cutthroats in the process of killing a drunk. Battle ensued. Cutthroats pulled a *Classic DM Disappearing Act*. Party was uninjured, but got nothing for their trouble.

End of Session, approx. 5:30 PM.

Now let me explain the *Classic DM Disappearing Act* before continuing. This is when a DM wants to have the bad guy get away and is willing to pull shenanigans to do it. This phenomenon has a complex number of causes...

• DM Power Trip
• DM has grown attached to the bad guy(s).
• DM wants to deliberately frustrate and annoy players - which can sometimes be useful to motivate PCs, but if it doesn't have a narrative reason then it really should not be used.
• DM doesn't want party to be able to loot the bad guy(s).
• DM doesn't want the PCs to accomplish anything.

So what did our party accomplish during a 5.5 hour session?

Lets see. Got briefly robbed. Roughed up by city guards. Drinking. Large fine. Bureaucracy. More bureaucracy. Party attempting to avoid bureaucracy while DM tried to railroad party into more bureaucracy. Vague promise of a possible adventure hook. Tiny battle which ended with the Classic DM Disappearing Act.

So... technically we accomplished NOTHING.

Some roleplaying yes. In the barest sense. But otherwise it was a woefully unprepared DM who clearly didn't know how to do an adventure hook, running a game in which he spent most of his time describing bureaucracy with a level of detail that had me literally with my head on table as if I was going to fall asleep.

Needless to say I will not be attending any more sessions of that dismally poor DM.

Note - I was tempted to tell him off for being such a bad DM, to communicate my displeasure of wasting my Sunday afternoon on such a fruitless non-adventure. However he is one of those super sensitive types who cannot take criticism (which explains why he is so horrible and will likely continue to be horrible). Thus I decided to save myself the trouble.

Player Bribery by the DM

I also had an epiphany moment. I realized that DMs who give out too much starting gear and starting levels are probably just *buying* the loyalty of their players. Meaning they give the players lots of nice starting loot and players feel like they have already accomplished something even though they never earned it.

Sometimes writers do this to main characters in books. Eg. Harry Potter starting off in Book I with lots of gold, an invisibility cloak, an extra powerful wand, a secret benefactor who sends him a really nice flying broom (Nimbus 2000), Hogwarts staff who protect him... Oh and he is naturally good at flying and Quidditch.

The same thing goes with a DM who gives players ridiculously high starting stats. For example the above DM used the point buy system for stats.

26 points is considered to be a low powered game. 28 points is more average. 30 points is a high powered game. 32 points is a very high powered game. Guess how many points the above DM gave each player?

42.

FORTY TWO. That is ridiculous.

So... starting level 5th. 9000 gp worth of stuff. 42 point buy stats.

So do you understand now my point now about bad DMs bribing players with lots of stuff?

The equipment buying is a bit like a shopping spree. The higher starting level and high stats basically turn it into a powergamer's wet dream... But if the DM sucks at doing his/her job, all of this is effectively bribery to get players to play and hopefully stay.

But if you've ever had a good DM. A truly good DM who knows what they are doing, then you don't need to be bribing the players with equipment, levels and stats.


Imagine a good DM and what things he or she brings to the table...
  • Prepared.
  • Good well-thought out adventure hooks.
  • Well written plots and adventures.
  • Able to make up new quality things on the fly if the situation requires.
  • Good mix of roleplaying and combat.
  • Rarely uses shenanigans and if they do there is a narrative reason for it.
  • Will make certain all players are involved and get to enjoy themselves.
  • Players leave the game feeling like they accomplished something and excited for the next game.
 
A bad DM in contrast...
  • Unprepared.
  • No adventure hooks.
  • No adventure at all. Just time wasting.
  • Unable to make up new quality things when the situation demands it.
  • Almost no roleplaying and no combat either. Time wasted doing things not important to any plot or action.
  • Frequent shenanigans.
  • Will play favourites, giving some players more "interaction time" than others.
  • Players leave the game disheartened and vow to never return.

Other Types of Bad DMs

Now lets talk briefly about two other really bad Dungeon Masters I have encountered in the past... and a third really bad Dungeon Master whom someone else told me about.

1. The Mischka Incident. Spent hours creating a character only to have the DM (known as Mischka) kill it by having King Kong stomp on it during the first round of combat. No to hit roll. No saving throw. Autokill. I then spent the next 6 hours playing a NPC druid that I never wanted to play, which a fellow player decided he wanted to kill and the DM decided to allow it through shenanigans, even trying to ignore rules / invent house rules in an effort to help the murderous PC to kill the NPC druid. Oh and we never accomplished anything. We were there to kill King Kong, but they wasted 99% of the time trying to kill the druid who was helping them. Part of the problem here is that Mischka was playing favourites with one of his more veteran players and had apparently decided to haze me because I was the new guy at the table. This was the worst game I have ever been in.

Note - I vowed after that incident that I would punch Mischka in the face if I ever saw him again. He ended up being a player in a different person's game many years later and as a fellow player I confronted him about the incident and described how I had felt like I was being hazed by a bunch of assholes. He claimed to not even remember that because it was so many years ago. He did however stop coming to that game, I think because he was now afraid of me.

2. The Planescape Incident. A player I knew wanted to try his hand at DMing and decided he wanted to run a Planescape campaign - a highly detailed campaign requiring the skills of an experienced DM. We created our characters, got sucked through a portal, ended up in a tavern in Sigil and according to the DM were so stupefied that they were unable to act, roleplay and do anything. Whenever we tried to do anything he would tell us "Nope. You are still stupefied." ... "Okay. So when that wears off..." ... "Nope. You are still stupefied." "Okay. We wait until it wears off." "Nope. You are still stupefied." We never accomplished anything. End of session.

To his credit the DM in this example knew he was a bad DM, and evidently needed more practice. He took criticism. I was a Guinea Pig in another of his failed attempts at DMing before I decided I no longer wanted to be a Guinea Pig.

#3. The Character Creation Incident. This story was related to me from a friend. It goes as follows... The group created characters. Spent hours doing this. Then during the start of the game they had a strange sleep spell cast on them which caused them to all fall asleep and dream of new characters. The rest of the session was spent creating new characters which they never got to use. Group never played again.

Seeing any patterns here?
  • Time wasting.
  • Poor planning.
  • Not allowing players to roleplay or take actions.
  • Boring.
  • Hazing a new player.
  • DM plays favourites and helps one PC to murder other PCs.
  • Inordinate amount of time spent making new characters.
  • No accomplishments.

Older Dungeon Masters vs Younger Dungeon Masters

It has been my experience that the older and more experienced a DM is, they are often better at doing the job of DMing. DMs are like wine, they either get better with age or they go sour and should be dumped down the drain. Some people in my humble opinion should not be DMing because they are so piss poor at it, while others should quite possibly be paid to DM professionally because they know what they are doing and have so much experience at doing it properly.

In contrast younger DMs often resort to Player Bribery via stats/equipment/starting level, are more likely to pull shenanigans, and have various hallmarks of poor DMs such as Disappearing Acts, etc. Now that doesn't mean that all young DMs are horrible DMs, it simply means that their lack of experience has not afforded them the opportunity to become good DMs. And as mentioned above, some older DMs also sour with age - or usually quit DMing - in which case it is a survival of the fittest situation. The older/more experienced DMs are the veterans who are typically much better at it, and the younger DMs are inexperienced and often resort to bad DMing tactics - not always, but often.

This is one of the reasons why I want to someday play with Ed Greenwood, whom I have bumped into several times here in Toronto but I have never had the chance to play with. (For those who don't know Ed Greenwood created The Forgotten Realms, is a celebrated author of both books and D&D adventures. eg. Check out "The Haunted Halls of Eveningstar", an adventure I am currently running and close to completing.)

Just a hunch, but I am guessing Ed Greenwood (who has perhaps 40 years of experience DMing) is probably extremely good at running a game. I totally want to play with him someday.

Below Left: Ed Greenwood at Fan Expo in Toronto.

Months ago I even contacted Ed Greenwood via his website. Here is what I wrote:

Hello Ed!

Long time no see. We've bumped into each other several times over the years in Toronto, but I have never had the chance to ask you an important question I have been meaning to ask:

Can I join your game or at least watch?

I am currently in 3 other games, 2 of which are infrequent, and the 3rd of which is the game I have been running for 16 years now. Thus it would be nice to be a player. However finding a quality DM is truly a nuisance. You would not (or maybe you would) believe the number of shoddy DMs out there who either lack experience in what they are doing or lack storytelling skills. Therefore it would give me great pleasure to be a member of your gaming group, or even to just operate as an observer so I can see Ed Greenwood himself in action.

Ideally I am looking for a permanent game to join, something which lasts decades, but I will understand if your gaming group is full (overflowing I dare say?) and you cannot take any more players.

Well met and see you again in the future!

- Charles

And the response I received is below. (I checked the link mentioned but it doesn't seem to work currently.)

Dear Reader,

Thank you for you using Mr. Greenwood's site to be in contact...below is a reply from Mr. Greenwood himself.

On Sunday 27th November The Archmage will be answering questions live at his new blog...please do drop by and say hello.

https://onderlibrum.com/the-edverse-the-blog-of-ed-greenwood/

Cordially,

~Ed's Minions

----------

Sorry, Charles, but right now the time pressures of looking after my invalid wife (who is 80 years old and has just come back from a hospital visit) plus juggling a "day job" and getting The Ed Greenwood Group up and running (which means writing a LOT of novels and game stuff and more) means my playing time is almost nonexistent. The playing time I do get in is playTESTING, for top-secret, not-yet-released projects that can't be open to anyone not covered by legal NDAs. So I'd love to, but there's just no way. I try to DM sessions at the rare conventions I get to, and prefer it when these sessions are open to all to at least observe even if they can't grab a seat at the table as a player, but the rules of those occasions are up to the individual conventions.
So, someday - - but not this day, perhaps not even this year. Sorry!
Ed

Which is both sad and disappointing. Disappointing because I would really like to play with him. Sad because his life has its own share of downturns and his skills are going to waste doing playtesting.

Conclusions

It is hard to find a really good DM. Some of the ones out there are really horribly bad. If you know one in Toronto who wants an experienced quality player, let me know by leaving a comment below.

Update January 2017

The young (Millennial) DM in question mentioned above later unfriended me on Facebook over a comment wherein I said the following:

Millennials are overly sensitive.

So being an overly sensitive Millennial, he unfriended me - thus proving my point. Irony.

Double Irony, I wanted to unfriend him anyway, so he was doing me a favour. Hilarious. :)

5 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and for the most part i agree with you. People who do not put the time and effort required to DM ruin it for everyone else.

    The only part that got a little under my skin ws the assumption that younger DMs and worse than older DMs, while this may be true in your experience i wouldn't of used such a blanket statement, i believe there are bad DM at both ends of the age range, i have seen 16 year old DMs put a ridiculous amount of time and effort into building a world and adventure for us to play and interact with, i have also seen 40+ year olds railroad players into death and give little to no wriggle room for player to decide their own fate.

    This was jsut my opinion on the matter and i idnt mean for it to turn out like a rant so im sorry about that

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  2. Just found your blog. Very entertaining. I am amazed that you have had a game running for 16 years! Longest I ever had was 3 and a half (we had an amazing DM). Thanks for sharing.

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  3. About 15 years ago, I went to Winter Fantasy and I actually got to play in a classic game with pregen characters that was DM'd by Ed Greenwood. I really enjoyed that game and he was just what you hoped for.

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  4. I am a pretty new DM. I ran one campaign (maybe 8 sessions?) for my parents and then started a campaign for my friends. That one is on session 20, and has been going a year. I had about a year as a player before this, so I don't have much experience with D&D or any Tabletop RPGs at all.

    I worry constantly about how not to be a bad DM, but sometimes I have to just chill and do what I can do. I have a problem going slower than I want to sometimes, and this is because of being new. My point in writing is just to say that I hope people will tolerate bad DMs, because I believe that's the only way you get a good DM.

    Being DM is HARD. There is a lot to do, a lot to know, a lot of balls to keep in the air and a lot of flying by the seat of your pants. I strive to be the best I can be, but I have things I'm still learning and can only learn by doing.

    I'm lucky,my players enjoy my story and world. My priorities are FUN for the players, FAIRNESS to the players and FULL ATTENTION (meaning I'm as prepared as I could have been, try to be as rested as possible, try to eat well so I feel well enough to run, try to coordinate things smoothly and constantly constantly work hard to try to be better, faster, smarter, funnier, more interesting.)

    I really enjoy DMing but I hope that players like yourself, who need an advanced DM, can tolerate those who are trying and learning how to be great.

    I want to be the very best...like no one ever was. ;)

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