I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Rocks Fall, (Almost) Everyone Dies: Memoirs of a Dungeon Master

by Joe DeMartino
Aug. 7, 2012

I was not a nice Dungeon Master.

Some DMs (or, “Game Masters”, as they ended up being called in the later editions of Dungeons and Dragons, in a futile attempt to cleanse the role of its light coating of Cheetos and acne cream) want to be liked by their players, so they dole out loot like broken slot machines. You could give a player Excalibur in one of these campaigns, and he’d throw it away because he’d gotten something better five levels ago. DMs call these games “Monty Haul campaigns”, and they are awful. Monty Haul campaigns are the type of D&D Lehman Brothers would have loved.

Other DMs sought to create believable worlds for their players -- every quaint village was fully fleshed out, every barkeep uniquely voice-acted, every mundane magical item given an epic and detailed backstory. Storylines would be worked out months in advance, with the players challenged to actually develop their characters as characters, not just as hit point-laden stab machines or mobile magical turrets. This is, ideally, what Dungeons and Dragons should be -- it makes all the monster-murdering and loot-gathering serve a greater purpose and turns the game into an actual story. It’s also a whole lot of work.

I tried to be that second type of Dungeon Master. I really did. We all wanted to play, but no one else had the patience to actually set everything up, so it naturally fell to me. A few hundred dollars worth of supplemental books, dice, miniatures, and character creation software later, I had some semblance of a framework for a campaign. I had such plans for it, too. Starting off in an otherwise-peaceful confederacy of villages and towns, my campaign would take the players across the world, from the dangers of the spider-infested Underdark to realms outside of space and time. It was going to be epic.

The problem, as is often the case, was my players. They kept screwing it up.

Let’s take a sample encounter, which I still remember despite its happening over a decade ago. The party had fought their way through a forest stronghold, rooting out a tribe of gnolls (read: jackal-monsters) that had been threatening a nearby village. They’d been surprisingly creative in their approach to the whole thing, using the cover of darkness and some strategically-placed illusions to confound and distract their monstrous foes, before hacking the door down (which was their usual approach) and taking the fight directly to the enemy. I had a boss fight for them that would severely challenge their abilities: when they finally made it to the basement, they would find the gnolls being led by a pair of orcish brothers, who would devastate them from behind a line of magically-controlled giant ants*.

*No, we didn’t talk to girls all that much back then. Why do you ask?

That’s how I thought it would play out, mind you. What actually happened was this:

Round One: Due to some frankly devilish luck in dice rolls, most of the party got to go before my custom-made murder-orcs. My friend Conor’s half-orc barbarian, brilliantly named “Filthy Ike” stepped up to the insectoid barrier and clove one of the ants in two with a swing of his greataxe. Filthy Ike had a special ability called “Great Cleave”, which meant that he could attack as many times per round as he wanted so long as his previous attack had actually killed an enemy. He used Great Cleave to attack the second ant, which he also killed, leaving a path open to the first orc, who I had designed as kind of a nemesis to Filthy Ike (Ike used one BIG axe, the orc used two SMALLER axes. Character development!). Conor rolled to attack him, and the group cheered as he rolled a natural 20, which guarantees an automatic hit and the possibility of extra damage. Now, through a series of arcane game mechanics which I’m choosing not to recount here because you’d lose all respect for me, Conor’s attack did about twice as much damage as that orc had health. Basically, he hit him so hard that he split the poor bastard in half, lengthwise.

Fortunately, I had the other orc, right? I could still drop some awful spells on them, maybe take out one of the weaker members before Filthy Ike pulled off another night-ruining piece of numerical bullshit. My friend Dave’s character, an elven archer who was basically Legolas fromLord of the Rings, was up next, and he aimed all five of his attacks at the other orc. All five hit, all five did something close to maximum damage, and the second orc in as many turns had fallen without doing anything.

Round Two: There was no round two.

“That was fun,” one of them said. “What’s up next?”

“Nothing,” I said, holding my head in my hands and mourning another ruined encounter. “I expected that to last a lot longer than it actually did. Congratulations. Take out the treasure charts and let’s see what you guys get. We’ll start up again next week.”

Clearly, this was a problem. The roleplay-heavy approach just wasn’t working out. I couldn’t abide being a pushover, so a Monty Haul-style campaign was out of the question.

There’s something of an unspoken understanding in the majority of Dungeons and Dragons games that the DM, while not necessarily being on the players’ side, isn’t actively opposing them. Encounters may be hard -- even fatal -- but never are they unfair. I couldn’t kill the whole party, because that would very quickly lead to an end to our Friday night sessions. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get these things up and running; just rolling your characters takes a whole evening. The standard “rocks fall, everyone dies” death-by-DM-decree was too heavy-handed here.

DMs are already the closest thing to god in whichever game they’re running. What I needed to do was go from an optimistic New Testament god to one from the darkest parts of Leviticus. I needed to start punishing them.

But only one at a time.

I tested out the concept in a non-canon session one week -- we only had about half the group there, so we couldn’t continue with the main storyline (which they seemed dead-set on ruining anyways). I set them up in an arena and tossed random monsters at them, biding my time as they were cut down one by one. I waited until they were fully and totally confident, and then I tossed the dire ape at them.

Apes are real strong. This should go without saying, but your average chimpanzee could tear a person to shreds, and apes are a lot stronger than chimps. There are regular apes in the D&D setting, of course, but they’re no serious threat to a reasonably well-equipped character. A direape, however, is an ape on ape steroids -- something like triple the size, a lot angrier, and capable of ripping a character in half if it happened to get even the tiniest bit lucky, which is exactly what happened to poor Filthy Ike. I can still remember Conor’s look of consternation as I described the aftermath of the dire ape’s assault on his character’s person.

Fortunately for Conor, this was all just a practice session. The real pain was yet to come. They’d gotten complacent in their new fort -- my friend Adam and my brother Steve were busy with plans for patrolling and expanding their territory, while Conor and Dave spent the time lounging around and starting bar fights (actual quote from Conor: “I walk into the tavern, order a mug of beer, pound it down, slam it on the bar, and glare at everyone in the room”. Roleplaying!). They obviously hadn’t learned their lesson from Filthy Ike’s practice death. Even a close call involving Adam’s half-drow half-flying demon, a solo patrol, and an ambush with nets (he got so, so lucky) hadn’t scared them. It was time.  

Fortunately for Conor, this was all just a practice session. The real pain was yet to come.

Dave’s Legolas ripoff met his temporary* end in an encounter with a centaur berserker. I rationalized that he did the majority of his damage when given time to hang back behind the line and shoot as often as possible, so I had the centaur charge directly at him as soon as round started. He had a lance, and a lot of open space to run, and Dave’s character was flat-footed, so it came as no surprise to me when said charge gutted faux-Legolas like a fish.

*I say “temporary”, because you can totally resurrect characters in this game. It’s just expensive and time-consuming.

My favorite little set-piece, however, came near the end of the summer. The party needed to cross a river, and as they sat on the other side bickering about the best way to do so (sadly, I neglected to provide them with a boat), I had two giants emerge on the opposite shore and start tossing boulders at them.

Now, most giants have two arms, right? These giants were athachs, a particularly nerdy variant with THREE arms. That meant that they could throw 50 percent MORE boulders than your average giant, which meant six boulders per round heading right at our dauntless heroes, with only a recently-chastened Dave able to actually fire back at them. I’m getting goosebumps here over how freaking clever I was.

Of course, all six boulders were aimed at my brother. Steve’s character was a bard, kind of a fighting musician who could boost the party’s morale with songs. He’d saved the party from destruction way too often for my liking, so I felt this had to be remedied.

For once, I didn’t have to fudge a die roll to get the desired result. About halfway through the second round, I rolled a natural 20 on a boulder attack. When I rolled to confirm it, I got ANOTHER natural 20, which meant that not only did this boulder definitely hit the crap out of Steve’s stupid bard, but I could roll one more time to see if it instantly killed him. When I rolled that third 20 in a row (in the open this time, to the best of my recollection, so everyone could see it happening), I started giggling.

“Steve,” I remember saying. “The boulder clocks you in the side of the head, crushing your skull like a grape. You topple over into the fast-moving river and disappear beneath the waves.”

Now, they had to get him back. If they were going to actually resurrect him, they needed a body, right? The problem was, they were still under fire -- those athachs weren’t going anywhere. One of them had to dive in. Before anyone else could say anything, my friend Ricky had his character jump in the river and start swimming after him. The problem was, Ricky’s character a) did not know how to swim and b) was wearing full-plate armor.

“You’re drowning, Ricky,” I said, now all but cackling. “Roll a constitution check to see how long it takes you to drown.” They have charts for everything in this game, man.

Now, we had Steve yelling at someone to go after his character, Ricky yelling at me for telling him that, no, you can’t swim in full-plate armor, everyone else yelling at Ricky for jumping in all impulsive-like, and the athachs still raining boulders down on top of their heads. It was glorious.

There’s a misconception about this game, and games like it, that it’s inherently antisocial. We stopped playing shortly after the boulder fiasco (not my fault -- college got in the way), but whenever I see one of the old group, the talk will inevitably turn towards those high school sessions, and our brief but memorable war of dice-rolling and miniatures. We’d much rather go out and do something else these days, but whether your DM was a pushover, a dramatist, or a borderline-sociopath, you got some good stories out of it -- and you didn’t do it alone.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.