10 Dungeon Master Nightmares (and How to Deal with Them)
My old man has been a Dungeon Master, Games Master, Keeper of Lore, and Jedi for over 40 years. Okay, that last one may not be entirely true, but he has run more games than I can even count across numerous systems. I grew up playing his D&D scenarios, and even though I am now nearly 30 (scary thought) we still play tabletop RPGs together. Occasionally, he writes articles for this blog, and has written articles like An Introduction to D&D (from a DM of 40+ years) that you can read here.
As I have grown older, and DM-ed more, he has given me advice on running games. As part of that advice, he wrote this list for this blog, on different nightmares and how they can take the Dungeon Master or Game Master by surprise. This works across all Tabletop RPGs.
So, with that in mind, and without wanting to write too much of an intro, here are 10 Dungeon Master nightmares, with advice on how to deal with them…written by my Dad, Paul.
#1 The Party Takes an Unexpected Direction
Despite hints and the occasional rolling of eyes, the party insists on visiting a location which is either unmapped or too dangerous for them.
Example: The party enters a village where the DM has helpfully provided an inn and some facilities to enable them to stock up on essentials but the party keeps on marching through towards a large plain which is, as yet, unmapped.
Judicious use of random encounters can make a party turn in a specific direction but this is rather obvious. Consider having one of the PCs having to go a different way for apparently trivial reasons such as getting more ammunition, a component for a spell, or an urgent message received from a friend who’s in the right part of the map. It’s a good idea to have a number of generic locations ready mapped so they can be used to provide context and breathing room if needed – a tavern, a peasant hut and so on.
Example: An hour’s march across the unmapped plains and the PCs are caught up by an out of breath villager who tells them that the village has just been visited by a goblin band intent on loot. Keeping a couple of small bands of a group appropriate to the scenario is useful for this purpose.
#2 The Party Do Something Totally Unexpected
The party does something totally unexpected which has a significant bearing on the campaign.
Example: The party have found Adrax the Evil Sorcerer holed up in his heavily fortified castle. Rather than look for a more subtle plan they march up to the main gate and shout for him to come out with his hands up.
If the party are just being dumb and have had enough warnings before they put themselves into the situation then just let them suffer the consequences. If they’ve been unlucky then modify the result in the party’s favour through the use of warning shots or other distractions. If only one or two members of the party have brought ruin upon all then focus the ire on those primarily responsible.
Random encounters also fall into this category – the randomly generated owlbear that kills half the party being a case in point. An unwritten rule “never kill a PC with a random encounter” seems appropriate.
Example: The guards at Adrax’s gate make rude gestures at the PCs for a couple of seconds. If the PCs don’t take the hint they open fire with the first shot or two always missing. If the PCs still don’t try something different the guards will open fire in earnest
#3 The Odds are Not in the Party’s Favour
The party is just unlucky.
Example: A party needs to throw a rope over a rocky outcrop to allow them to cross a rift in the dungeon floor but all six party members fail their throw and the rope doesn’t attach.
Unfortunately there isn’t much the DM can do about this – that’s what the game is all about after all. The PCs need to think of another way around the problem.
Example: One of the nimbler members of the party ties off a rope around their waist and climbs around the obstacle. If the PC slips, the rope will catch them and damage should be minimal (be lenient on PCs who are doing it right but being let down by the dice)
#4 The Players Split the Party
The party fragments into factions and the DM subsequently has to manage independent factions.
Example: A party is being chased through a wood by undead. It reaches a river and splits in two – three PCs who can swim and have light armour go forward to find a way across while the cleric and paladin hold back to fight off the zombies.
There’s a difference between a party that fragments for good in-game reasons, such as the quieter members going on ahead to scout out a hilly ridge, and those which fragment for other reasons such as two members of the party deciding to go rogue. In-game splits are usually of short duration and the only issue is how to keep the information gathered by part of the party away from the other part until the PCs reassemble. Be generous with noise, shadows and other cues if part of a split party runs into trouble so the other part can come to their aid.
If the party splits for out-of-game reasons the only option is to have a private word with the player(s) concerned.
Example: The three PCs find a shallow part of the river to cross and are never out of shouting distance so can run to assist when the cleric and paladin have to face off against twenty ghouls (although whether they arrive in time is open to debate)
#5 The Dungeon Master (ahem) Makes a Mistake
The DM isn’t infallible and has messed something up.
Example: The DM misreads a reference table and uses the wrong dice roll modification in a large battle.
Never apologise. Never explain. Never own up. The PCs probably didn’t notice.
Example: One player got hit when he shouldn’t have, but he took minimal damage, so the DM got away with it.
#6 One of the Players is Dominating
One or more players are riding roughshod over the others, talking them down and either ignoring or limiting their contribution.
Example: Fred keeps shouting down other members of the party and acting like his character is the only one in the room.
You need to differentiate between when a genuine PC goes first and player is just being pushy. It’s quite normal for a barbarian to dive in without thinking when he sees axe-fodder in front of him, less usual for a rogue.
If pointedly asking all other players for their actions and opinions doesn’t do the trick then having bad guys focus on Fred because “he’s usually out front” should do so. Explaining how the scenario could have gone so much better for PCs if Bill or Henrietta had played a bigger role also helps put Fred back in his box.
Example: Fred’s rogue is out front as usual. The DM bumps up the next encounter from 6 goblins to 10 and rules that the rest of the party are at least one turn back from the action…
#7 The Party are Doing Better or Worse than Expected
The party is in significantly better or worse shape than was expected when the scenario was put together.
Example: The party enter a critical encounter with significantly less ammunition than the DM envisaged when she first designed the scenario.
Although key characters in an encounter have to be played “as is”, design the encounter with variable numbers of minions. If the PCs turn up in a far better position than expected, the number of minions can be increased to make life harder. Meanwhile if the PCs are suffering, a reduction in the number of minions can ease the load a bit. A similar tactic can be used with magic items. For example, a +3 ring or protection worn by the bad guy can become a +1 ring if the party are in a bad way when fighting him.
Example: The party finally encounters Wizzikki the necromancer with his ghoul assistants. The party are low on spells and ammunition so the DM reduces the number of ghouls from the 12 originally planned to just 5.
#8 The PCs Keep Missing Clues
Despite hints, coughs and meaningful stares the party resolutely refuses to do the one thing needed to progress .
Example: The party needs to read an old document to get a critical clue to the whereabouts of a stash of treasure but keeps avoiding the location where the document is hidden.
Hide the clues in several places or give the PCs multiple ways to achieve the required goal.
Example: The key document is hidden in the study desk, behind a picture in the lounge, on a bedside table and among other papers in the library. Whichever copy the PCs find, the other three simply disappear.
#9 You Accidentally Give The Game Away with Your Naming Conventions
An unexpected (and usually fairly minor) flaw in naming conventions gives away a key plot point.
Example: The party are interrogating surviving townsfolk after a goblin horde massacred ten people in the town square. Some of the townsfolk have names but others are called “er, Dave” which implies the named ones are more important to the plot.
Have a list of NPCs available which can be rolled out seamlessly if required. Alternatively make a social convention that all NPCs have a surname which is their profession so it’s not so easy to spot ones who are invented on the spot.
Example: The PCs are still asking townsfolk who are called Joe Tailor, Jane Baker, Mike Butcher, Ethel Washer, Juliette Weaver….
#10 One of the Players is a Rule Book Lawyer
One or more players keep questioning the rules and the DM’s interpretation thereof, backing up their interruptions with frequent referrals to the rule books.
Example: Fred keeps insisting his dwarven special abilities make his character more powerful than is actually the case and there are long gaps in play while Fred looks up the relevant part of the player’s guide.
There’s are a few ways of dealing with this in the game. The first is to always give the bad guys the initiative whilst players are referring to their player handbooks for reasons that aren’t vital to the situation at hand. Alternatively, it is possible to put a time limit on turns or to limit usage of the rule books whilst the game is in session. If none of those work, a quiet word to Fred outside the game could be needed.
Example: “I’m sorry Fred, you were so busy admiring your dwarven muscles that the five goblins all hit you with advantage…”
So, there we have it. Ten different Dungeon Master nightmares, with suggestions on how to deal with them. What are your thoughts? Are you a player or a DM? What nightmares have you come across? How do you deal with them? Let us know in the comments below.