Today’s blog post comes from the talented hands of my good friend Tom. He is an author, gamer, spinner of tails and all round gent. In this post, he will be enlightening us on how it’s sometimes necessary to come down hard on players making downright stupid decisions to maintain the logical coherency of your world. As always please Re-tweet, Re-blog, favourite and share.
Me: In the vampire’s sanctum you see an ornate fountain, with lifelike stone-sculpted figures of leering demons. From their mouths pour steady streams of dark, thick, viscous fluid. You can already tell that…
My brother James: Krazak drinks the water.
Me: Uh… well, you can tell immediately that it’s not water
James: I’m a dwarf, I can drink anything.
Me: But, your mage companion notices that the liquid in the fountain is giving off a palpable aura of evil.
James: Dwarves have strong stomachs and are resistant to dark magic. Krazak drinks from the fountain.
Me: Ok roll a Constitution check.
James: 15, that’s a pass right?
Me: No, the tainted blood from the fountain burns through your stomach wall and begins to dissolve your vital organs. You take 15 unmodified damage and if you survive then you’ll lose D6 points from your strength and constitution attributes for the remainder of the adventure, as your body struggles to counteract the blood’s necrotic effects.
James: Oh, I thought it would make me stronger.
Me: Yeah, it didn’t.
This was a genuine occurrence from one of my early attempts as a DM. It was a pretty simple adventure designed to coax my brother and housemates into the world of D&D so I didn’t want to drop too many nasty surprises. However, there is a very valuable lesson that new players need to learn when descending into a dungeon for the first time:
If you insist on doing something dumb, expect bad stuff to happen.
The party was given an unoriginal but hopefully stimulating quest: investigate a vampire’s lair, find the big bad and slay him. Oh, and by the way guys, don’t forget that you’ve got these vials of holy water, they’re good for throwing at undead nasties but also can be pretty handy for cleansing areas that have been defiled or desecrated. Just a thought!
The setup with the fountain was pretty simple too: I was going to use it to revitalise the adventure’s end boss vampire once he had been wounded. I thought it would be a nice dramatic moment to throw him into the fountain, only to emerge fully healed from the party’s lethal attentions. I thought that would swiftly prompt one of the party to fling a vial of holy water into the fountain to deny the vampire his source of regeneration.
Perhaps, I thought to myself in my most hopeful DM state of mind, perhaps one of the bright sparks would devise an even cleverer interaction, such as the rogue slipping the holy water in surreptitiously while the vampire gave his evil speech, hence giving him a nasty surprise once he leaped in for a rejuvenating blood bath!
Krazak’s course of action… was not what I had in mind. In fact, I hadn’t even considered it as a possibility, it was that ludicrous.
After a few seconds of mental gears whirring, I devised a suitable punishment for the dwarf’s foolhardiness. Fortunately, one of his compatriots forced some holy water down his throat, which handily staved off death by tainted blood ingestion and Krazak lived to fight, and drink, another day.
This situation turned out to be quite a formative moment in my DM career as it helped me realise a couple of key things:
Firstly: players will often do the unexpected. They will stab a vital information-giving NPC to death just because they don’t like their tone. They will take a Warhammer to an intricate rune-warded dimensional barrier “for funsies” and yes, they will dunk their head in a tainted blood fountain and slurp it right up.
Secondly: some of the best scenarios in D&D arise when things aren’t going to plan – either yours or the parties.
Thirdly, and this is the main thrust of what I’m trying to say with this article: as a DM, you should never be afraid to punish your players a little where necessary.
Regardless of the players’ familiarity with D&D, in my opinion, it is the DM’s job to design a compelling game world and guide the players through it, allowing them to fill it with their presence and act as they believe their character would. Part of that guiding process is balancing the difficulty of the adventure to give the players a sense of agency. Torturing players, in the sense of making the adventure unreasonably difficult, is simply no fun for them. Nobody likes to feel helpless in real life, let alone a game they play for relaxation and to feel like a powerful hero, anti-hero or whatever else they imagine themselves to be.
Similarly, nobody likes to breeze through a game without a sense of challenge and overcoming adversity. If the world doesn’t feel dangerous if your players feel like their characters can waltz through it unharmed, then that sense of agency will disappear and they’ll feel like they’re being railroaded towards an inevitable but unsatisfying victory.
Maintaining such a balancing act can be tough at the best of times but I think it’s one of the key skills that any aspiring DM needs to learn. Not only must you plan a balanced adventure, you need to balance it on the fly, reacting to the (often surprising) decisions of the players and allowing them to influence the game world without breaking it, either by making it too lethal or too safe and fluffy.
This is where the punishment element comes in.
There is often a temptation to take it overly easy on newer players, lest they get turned off D&D by the grisly death of their character. Subsequently, there is also a temptation to steer them away from trying out courses of action that you, the DM, view as foolhardy or just plain dumb. This is because you want them to succeed, you want them to experience your adventure to the fullest, with plenty of tense moments and tight squeezes along the way.
However, in my opinion, you do a player (even a brand new D&D convert) no favours by dissuading them from their crazy/reckless/stupid action, or worse, compromising your adventure in order to keep things on an even keel. Your job is to understand their intention, rationalise it within the context of your adventure and then decide on a result that makes sense in terms of the story as well as the balancing act. Ultimately, you want to let the player know that their character is suffering the consequences of their rash action, but in a way that is still fun, funny and not too devastating.
Let’s look at my example. It would have done no good to make Krazak’s punishment a fatal one: You drank blood tainted with necrotic magic. That was stupid. Now you’re dead, better luck next time. Similarly, it would have been a complete cop-out to have whipped up some kind of weak justification to pardon the dwarf’s overly hasty decision: Well, Krazak’s legendary Constitution for drinking toxic substances saves him from the worst of the blood’s ill-effects, he throws up and takes 2 HP damage.
Instead, I chose to enact a fairly harsh punishment but also gave the party sufficient scope to help rescue their comrade and rectify the mistake. The result? Well, you’ll be pleased to know that Krazak no longer drinks from contaminated or unholy sources without making at least some relevant checks first.
More importantly, the player was allowed to enact his decision, he was then abruptly acquainted with the realities of the gaming world and finally, he and his party were given the opportunity to avert disaster. It resulted in teaching the players involved that their characters are free to act as they wish, but also that they should expect their actions to have consequences that can be harsh.
Furthermore, it resulted in a memorable story, a moment of lasting impact and entertainment that – in my opinion at least – is the fundamental point of playing D&D. So give your players a challenge, give them the chance to make – and rectify – their own mistakes and if they do something dumb, give them a lesson that they’ll not soon forget!