Dungeon Master Brings the Pain

life is baby meme

When I’m running a campaign, I have a script in mind. I think most dungeon masters do. For me, everything is moving towards an epic final confrontation. Throughout the encounters, the villain is established and shown to be a powerful, formidable threat. The motivations are laid out. The stakes are revealed. The encounters are set up so the action crescendos in intensity until it reaches its peak at the Final Battle. Everything is laid out with precision and care.

And then players try to pull stuff like this.

Jacob Holo: Okay, what are you trying to do again?
Twinkie: I want to dodge the robot, grab Shrike, but not where he’s drenched in acid, jump up to the next level, and flip us both over the ledge.
Jacob Holo: <sigh> Acrobatics check.
Twinkie: <rolls D20> Okay … uhh, it’s a one.
Jacob Holo: <blank stare>
Twinkie: This is going to hurt, isn’t it?

Sometimes I wish they would just read the script.  Except, yeah … They don’t have my script.

Well, shoot.

That being said, it’s a fun and challenging exercise to guide players towards their goal without letting them feel like they’re being led by the nose. Case in point, Twinkie was supposed to just shoot the robot, which had (what I thought were) conspicuous weak points. Instead, he lathered up with acid, melted his armor, and later asphyxiated on the lunar surface because, you know, no air.

futurama leonard nimoy headFortunately, this is science fiction, so the party was able to rescue him as a Futurama style head-in-a-jar and then get him a new body. I particularly enjoyed coming up with that bit.

So, after much coaxing that (I hoped) didn’t seem like coaxing, the players were ready for the Final Battle. And this is where I deviated from the norm. I had a script, and darn it, it was going to be followed. After all, this was it: the end of our campaign. I wanted it to be memorable and exciting, and the players were not going to get in my way, darn it!

Jacob Holo: Perception check.
Agnis Crane: Thirty-one!
Jacob Holo: You see a vague, ghostly silhouette down the ship corridor. It appears humanoid.
Agnis Crane: I shoot it!
Jacob Holo: Go ahead.
Agnis Crane: <rolls D20> Umm … let’s see here …
Jacob Holo: Yes?
Agnis Crane: Hold on. I’m doing math. Twenty-four?
Jacob Holo: Hit.
Agnis Crane: Yay! Ten points of damage.
Jacob Holo: The optical illusion falters, revealing a crusader. He raises his Gatling gun, and he’s not alone. Three more crusaders decloak and raise their weapons. One of them has a thermal lance.
Agnis Crane: Well, crap.

dragons of jupiter crusader firepower-small

And that was just the start. After that, the foes kept coming, impeding them every step of the way. It was a long, grinding battle as the party fought through obstacle after obstacle, struggling towards their target at the center of the enemy starship.

They chewed through a huge number of gun-spiders, crusaders, and three tank-spiders before I finally wore them down. Those of you who have read my book, The Dragons of Jupiter, will know this is no small feat. In retrospect, I should have given the tank-spiders beefier stats, but oh well. They did their job.

At the very end, three party members had been knocked out. Agnis Crane, with only five hit points left, took out the last tank-spider with a lethal shot. After that, the flow of new enemies stopped. Because, you know, the rules of drama had been satisfied. The party had seized a victory from what could have been a Total Party Kill. Throwing more enemies at them would have served no useful purpose.

Angis revived the team, and they went on to complete their objective. The campaign ended on an emotional high note, with players talking excitedly about what had happened and how close to defeat they had come.

Just as I had intended.

As a dungeon master, I don’t just see myself as the guy running the game and setting up the encounters. I’m a story teller, and if I have to bend the rules to tell a better story, well … yeah, consider those rules bent. There were exactly enough enemies, and their attack rolls were just good enough to make the battle a tense nail biter. No more. No less. The players don’t need to know that, right?

At the end of the day, I had four happy players who enjoyed my campaign and will probably ask for another someday in the future. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.

For a sample of our misadventures, click here.

Drake Squad Mercenaries at Large-small

Categories: Games, Roleplaying

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6 replies

  1. I’ve never been the scripting sort. I’m more sandbox. I try to build up a rough framework of the world around them for as far out as they could possibly travel in a few weeks of play, and seed it with people on various levels of the morality spectrum. I spend the most work finding out how all those seeds interact with one another.

    I can’t imagine building a rpg campaign with a clear bad guy. Who I think is the worst NPC my characters might like. They might want to overthrow an NPC I admire instead. I just don’t want any of them to be caricatures. Instead, I feel like I share the storytelling experience with the group. More of a choose-your-own-adventure book.

    I like your blog, especially the Cryxes.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Rocket. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      I’ve actually given some thought to laying out a campaign similar to how you run yours, but I haven’t had the opportunity yet. I think a lot of my approach stems from my writing background, so I end up structuring my campaigns in a manner similar to my novels. That, and these particular players do need a bit of a nudge every so often. 🙂

  2. What campaign are you running?

    • Hello, Miggs. Thanks for dropping by.

      It’s a sci-fi campaign I put together based loosely on the events in my novel, The Dragons of Jupiter. I used Pathfinder as the core ruleset, then went about creating rules for the various weapons and enemies, and expanded those where I thought I needed to. For example, I created a number of specialized crusader variants that don’t appear in the novel because I wanted to spice up the combat variety for the players.

      The campaign definitely took on a lighter tone compared to the novel, but that’s just because we like a good helping of levity when we play.

  3. As a player I’d pulled more than my fair share of shit

    • Now that I’ve gone back to being a player for a while, I’m actually struggling a little bit not to change my rolls. 🙂 I got used to doing that at really critical moments as a DM. You know, for drama. So far as a player, so good, but I haven’t had any do-or-die moments yet.

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