Greatest Hits 2010: 5 Errors I’ve Made as DM

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 19, 2010

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2010. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

Nothing helps you overcome a problem like talking about it. After I wrote this article I made a point of referring back to it a lot the next time I took over the DM’s chair. I found that seeing these errors in print served as a good reminder not to repeat any of them. In some cases the learning I’d taken away from analyzing these errors actually let me make the right call the next time thereby making the whole experience better for everyone.

As a bonus, I’ve add a 6th Error I’ve Made as DM to the list below. I hope you continue finding these errors educational and that everyone can learn from my mistakes.

From June 23, 2010, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: 5 Errors I’ve Made as DM

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 you 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

  2. 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.

  3. Predicting the players’ actions

  4. 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.

  5. Using too many monsters

  6. 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.

  7. Saying No

  8. 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.

  9. Admitting when you’re wrong

  10. 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.

  11. Creating long, complicated campaigns

  12. I’m often guilty of creating elaborate and overreaching story arcs. I get an idea and then I want to expand it into an epic storyline. What usually ends up happening is that the players either forget the purpose of the campaign or they get bored. I’m just as bad behind the DM’s screen because I want to continuously add side-quests that are not directly related to the bigger campaign.

    I’ve learned that as the DM I need to create a clear, concise story and keep the players interested. Providing incremental objectives and rewards helps keep everyone focused and excited. It also provides good places to stop if the group decides to put this particular campaign on hold for a while. You can still create massive story arcs; just recognize the limitations of your gaming group and your own limits as a DM.

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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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeff December 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm

I can say I’ve made the above mistakes at least a few times when I was DMing.

EX: Over estimating PCs
It actually happened the first time I switched groups I DM. I was used to power gamers in the party loaded with feats and abilities to maximize critical hits. I was used to spell casters trying to figure out new ways to use spells. I was used to the players knowing the rulebooks off by hand and catching me if I fudged the rules a little in the monster’s direction.

Nothing could of been different when I DMed with a new group.

I also might add that when the player strategist/power gamer is absent or a healer is absent easy encounters can become difficult!

EX Saying No
I think D&D’s roleplaying end is improv and the first rule in improv is saying yes.
Its easier to say yes in 4e IMO because of the RPGA balancing.

EX Creating Long Complicated Campaigns:

On part I’d disagree on. I’d refocus a story gone bad. Poor storytelling skills = boredom. Big campaigns = lots of world-building = More DM work. Not many DMs can put world building from scratch. Like DM guide says, do you want to spend 8 hours preparing for a game or 1 hour?

Concise story yes. Long story is okay though IMO. But leave room for improv.

2 Ameron December 22, 2010 at 12:50 pm

@Jeff
I too have misjudged the party’s abilities when they are lacking a key role. Most recently the absence of a striker reminded me just how long combat can take without at least one guy capable of hitting for uber-damage consistently.

I still struggle to say yes more, but believe it or not, D&D Encounters is really helping me with this. All of those low level games with new players really encourages creative thinking and crazy ideas.

I wasn’t sure if the new 6th point really highlighted a mistake. I think the problem for me is that I get too ambitious and fall into the exact situation you describe. I spend all week planning a 4-hour game and then I feel that the players didn’t get as much out of it as I did. I’ve discovered that for me the story needs to have lots of mini-milestones to reward the players along the way and remind them why they’re doing the quest.

3 Susan December 30, 2010 at 2:49 am

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by saying yes. Are you talking about accepting innovative player solutions to problems they’re facing?

Thanks for this site. I’m trying to run a campaign for the first time in about 25 years with gamers ranging from 8 to 42. Because of the age range it’s mostly either custom built or highly modified, and sites like yours are priceless for keeping the game fair and interesting for all, myself included.

4 Ameron December 30, 2010 at 8:56 am

@Susan
One of the new rules for 4e D&D was for DMs to “say yes.” I didn’t think it was necessary to spell it out because as you say DMs should accept innovative ideas for solving problems. However, when I finally sat back and thought about my DMing style I realized I said no a lot because I was trying to hold the players to the rules as written. Seeing “say yes” in print in the DMG reminded me that the rules are meant as a guideline and not an absolute. By saying yes it encouraged more creativity and better role-playing from the players. I became more willing to let the players try the craziest things and then found a way to judge its success based on my interpretation of the rules. For the most part “say yes” has greatly improved my game.

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