5 Errors I’ve Made as DM

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 23, 2010

DMs aren’t perfect. There I’ve said it. Any DM that claims he’s never made an error when running a game is lying. Even the best DMs make mistakes. Over the years I’ve made plenty of errors while playing D&D. I’ve found that the best thing to do in these situations is to try and learn from the experience. So today I’m going to share with you the 5 biggest and most egregious errors I’ve made as a DM. I think you’ll find that these are fairly common mistakes made by DMs across the board.

By sharing my mistakes I’m giving you a chance to learn from them, ideally so you’ll never have to experience these firsthand at your game table. I try to turn every mistake, every error into a learning opportunity. Once the error’s been made there’s often nothing you can do about it. But if you can learn from the experience then you are less likely to make that same error again. This is a good philosophy to follow in your job, your personal life and when you play D&D.

This article is blog post 404 at Dungeon’s Master. While discussing what to do to mark our 400th article we kept coming back to the idea of tying in the internet errors 400, 403, 404, etc. into this milestone. Eventually we decided to talk about error we’ve made in D&D. We share our mistakes to help other gamers avoid them – not something we’re likely to find in the rule books “404 Error, page not found… in the DMG.”

1. Overestimating the party’s strength

Wizards of the Coast does extensive play-testing. Just because you think an encounter looks weak or unbalanced, don’t fudge the numbers. If the product made it to print assume it’s been play-tested and it’s right.

One of the biggest errors I made as a DM since 4e was release was my first go at running an Epic Dungeon Delve. In order to spice things up I decided to add one more monster to the 3-encoutner adventure. The idea was that this monster would move between the rooms and assist the other monsters already printed in the adventure. My rationale for making this adjustment was that I thought a) the monsters were too weak and b) the players were exceptionally experienced and would welcome the challenge. The result was terrible. My extra monster only acted twice in the first encounter, but it tipped the balance way over to the monsters’ favour. The PC were decimated in the first encounter and the players were angry that I tampered with the adventure as it was written.

I’ve taken a lot of heat for this misstep and I’ve kept it in the back of my mind when I’ve DM’ed ever since. Now I follow adventures as written when playing from a printed source and when I’m building my own encounters I carefully follow the guidelines for creating balanced encounters set out in the DMG.

2. Predicting the players’ actions

Many D&D groups are made up of a core, tight-knit group of friends. Our group has members who have been friends for over 30 years and have been role-playing together for 20 or more. That friendship and camaraderie can lead the DM to think he knows what his players will do. Sometimes this is true. When I was in high school, I played with two guys that were so predictable I knew if they’d turn right or left at a fork in the dungeon. But this is the rare exception. I’ve found that the DM needs to be ready or anything. Assuming you know you your players well enough not to have contingencies ready is a common DM error. Regardless of what I think my players will do, I always have a “random encounter” ready just in case they do the completely unexpected. The alternative is to railroad your players to head in the direction you’ve prepared and not allow them the freedom to choose their own path.

3. Using too many monsters

The best encounters have a variety of monsters filling a variety of roles. In much the same way the best adventuring parties have a controller, defender, leader and striker, so to should the monsters. The down side to this kind of balanced encounter is that you have a lot of different monsters to keep track of. The error I make most often is mixing up the bad guys. I apply damage to the wrong monster or I look at the wrong defenses and tell a player he missed when he really should have hit.

One easy solution is to limit the variety of monsters you use when building encounters. This works from time to time, but it makes for boring encounters. A better solution is to know your limits and only use a number of creatures you’re conformable controlling. It seems like such an easy and obvious way to avoid errors, yet DMs still populate their encounters with too wide a variety of monsters. Keep it simple.

4. Saying No

When I first read the whole “say yes” part of the 4e DMG I thought it was a waste of time. After all, didn’t all DMs do this already? Did Wizards really have to spell it out? Apparently they did. And in retrospect, I’m glad they did. Thinking back on my numerous stints behind the DMs screen I realize that I say no a lot. I’ll admit that I’m trying to say yes a lot more than I used to, but it’s not always easy. In fact I don’t realize I’m saying no until after the game. Seeing “say yes” in the print materials over and over again really has opened up my eyes and I find I say yes a lot more now then I ever did in previous editions of D&D.

5. Admitting when you’re wrong

After you’ve made the error of Saying No comes this gem. Being the DM can be a rush. You’re in charge of everything in the game other than the 4-6 PCs at the table. It’s a power trip. The key is not to let that power go to your head. Some of my biggest regrets as a DM come from situations where I’ve been wrong and refused to admit it. Sometimes I genuinely didn’t think I was wrong and in others I realized I was wrong but was too proud to admit that I made an error.

The lesson I’ve learned from this error is that as the DM you should be willing to take a step back and be objective. Remember that everyone is at the table to play a game and have fun. Although D&D is not a game that you win, player can feel like they’ve lost if they’ve had to argue with a bad call by the DM. A DM who argues over little details has to remember the fundamental reason for playing D&D – to have fun.

This is certainly not a complete list of my less than stellar moments behind the screen. But these are certainly among the biggest errors and the ones that have impacted my game the most. If reading about my mistakes helps you avoid similar issues in your games then humbling myself by admitting my imperfections was worth it.

What are some of the biggest errors you’ve made as a DM? Were you able to learn from the experience?

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1 Asmor June 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm

You forgot #6… letting one mistake stop you.

Specifically, your first issue (overestimating the party’s strength). You screwed up once. BFD. The guidelines in the DMG are just that, guidelines. Don’t be afraid to experiment with them a bit and stray a bit. Also, don’t forget that the DMG doesn’t say every encounter should be the same level as the PCs… The encounters should vary a bit from a few levels below to a few above.

And when you do mess up and send too much at the PCs, it’s not the end of the world. Just take it in stride. There are many potential solutions. You can have the monsters use worse tactics or forget to recharge or use powers. You could have some kind of an environmental effect which gives you free reign for arbitrarily adjusting things (i.e. a weakened tree which could be easily pushed over on a too-powerful monster– who’s to say how much damage the tree should do? You are!). Hell, you can even do nothing and when the party wipes have them be captured…

2 Mike June 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm

“Wizards of the Coast does extensive play-testing.”

Stop right there. If you ever looked over the extensive errata for the MM, you’d know that’s not true. There’s a fairly wide range of danger for monsters of the same CR without even thinking of what an individual party’s make up is. The rules covering encounters will only get you so far. The rest is up to your experience.

3 Brian Engard June 23, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I’m not sure your initial comment is entirely fair. I think that WotC does do extensive playtesting; the errata is not an indication otherwise. What it’s an indication of is that there’s only so much playtesting they can do before they release the product to the world, and no amount of playtesting is going to hold a candle to thousands of D&D fans picking your product apart simultaneously.

However, I do agree with your main point: the rules as written are a guideline, a starting place. The reason there’s a live DM in that chair is that not every monster or encounter or adventure is going to be perfectly balanced for every party. Things are going to need tweaking, and even well-playtested published adventures are not above this.

My first real experience with 4e was running Keep on the Shadowfell for my party, a party that included two defenders, a leader, and a striker (then later, a second striker). This is not the standard group; there was no controller, and even with only a single leader, there was a lot of healing in the group (paladins make good secondary leaders, and fighters can heal themselves fairly well). Keep on the Shadowfell, while well-balanced from a purely rules perspective, was not designed with this group in mind, and needed to be tweaked.

I discovered this after the first few encounters, which my players completely thumped mercilessly. So, I started tweaking. By the end of the adventure, I’d say that I’d changed at least 50%, if not more, of the encounters in some way or another, and the encounters that were the most memorable were the ones I had changed.

The rules are great. I’ll be the first to say that. I love 4e D&D, it’s easily, hands-down, my favorite version of D&D so far. The rules are not perfect, though. I’ll be the first to say that, as well. They need tweaking from time to time. And I agree with both Mike and Asmor: you can’t let one bad experience discourage you from rolling up your sleeves and tinkering with the works. The tinkering is where all the good stuff is.

4 Lahrs June 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Saying yes is still a problem I have, particularly with the new 4.0 races. Having established a homebrew years ago around 3.5, adding in new races has been a challenge and I say no too often. I also have a heroic only rule, because in the beginning our group had too many issues with party cohesion due to allignment, but now rogues and rogue types have suffered in my games, and I am still trying to relax my grasp. Robin Hood was a thief and Raistlin was a black robed mage, yet both played a heroic part, or at least had party cohesion.

My other big problem, which has thankfully been overcome, is severely hurting my wife in gear and role playing ability due to wanting to make sure I did not show favoritism. It got so bad, that she was no longer effective, which hurt the party. I have learned to treat her as any other player, and haven’t had any complaints of ignoring or favoring my wife in game. And I have to say, having a spouse who not only supports my gaming habit, but also participates, is a very wonderful experience.

5 mbeacom June 24, 2010 at 3:17 pm

This is a great article. As someone who is getting back into the hobby after close to 20 years away, I really need to freshen up my perspective.
Also, to agree with Asmor I would add this: Maybe I’m not doing it right, but with regard to the overpowered encounter, I usually just fix things on the fly. If the party is getting pummeled, I have no problem halving monster HP, or fudging missed rolls to keep the battle balanced(I love Asmors “pushing over a tree” idea, I hope you don’t mind if I steal for my next encounter!). I’d never fudge rolls to make things easy, just survivable. Also, in designing encounters (plugins for published adventures), I have no problem subjecting my PCs to a forced retreat. I firmly believe that not every encounter should be at their level. It only makes sense that if the PCs are truly in a living breathing world, there will be plenty of enemies both higher and lower in capability. Sometimes badass PCs will stumble on a small group of puny goblins, or even stumble into an immense dragons lair that they have no business even approaching. It makes the world feel real.

I started to realize this the first time one of my PCs (who was also a fledgling DM) encouraged the group to forge ahead with little planning simply because he said that the published module wouldn’t contain any encounters that weren’t balanced for their level.

One thing I’ve had a lot of success with is to create an encounter that is intentionally too hard for the PCs. Let them run in and fail, eventually fleeing out bloodied and humbled. I encourage them to rest, and re-think their strategies and plan more, use the group more effectively and work as a team. Then when they go at it again at a later point in the story, I lower the difficulty enough to make it realistic. This does two things. It encourages them to work more as a team, and rewards them for playing more strategically. I know I’ve been successful when I hear the talk after the game and they say things like, “Man, if we had just been more careful the first time”. Little do they know that it was planned for them to fail the first time and now the game seems like a more genuine challenge to everyone, not to be taken for granted.

6 Skallawag June 28, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Great post! I would add that excluding one of your PC’s from an encounter is another one. I remember being the PC who was captured in a prison and the rest of the part had to rescue me and I didn’t do anything the whole evening.

7 DM16 July 15, 2010 at 11:10 am

Another thing is not having a back up if the players go way off the story line

8 Jet July 26, 2010 at 1:55 pm

“Saying ‘No'”

A little while back I took a few acting workshops, one of them focused entirely on Improv. A lot of DMing, in my experience is just that; improvising an encounter when your players do exactly what you don’t expect them to do. Anyways, during the workshop we worked on the concept of “Yes, and…”

The idea was that as you role-play a scene from scratch, saying “yes” to a player generated idea opens up new possibilities and allows you to build off of them.

A recent example that comes to mind involves my PCs resuscitating a downed NPC. I had originally intended for the players to stumble across the NPC, have the hapless half-elf mumble some trivial clue about a future encounter, and then die. The party, quite altruistically, refused to let him die, and after 3 Heal checks at 25+ I agreed and ruled that yes, he was stabilized, but he was still unconscious. Not wanting to drag dead weight around, the party left the NPC with the first group of “trustworthy” individuals they could find, which just so happened to be a group of Deathcultists. This opened up the door for me to use the half-elf, now a half-crazed cultist, as a recurring antagonist, much to my PCs’ chagrin (but secret enjoyment).

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