That time the Dungeon Master ruined the campaign for you?
Was there ever a time when the Dungeon Master (DM) did something that completely ruined the experience for you?
This is a thread of caution and wisdom for all DMs. An insight into what ruins campaigns for players and how to avoid them.
I had a DM who did everything in their power (which was considerable since ya know they are the DM) to prevent me from obtaining a bag of holding. For those who don't know, a bag of holding is a magical item that looks like a normal bag but can magically hold much more. In DnD 5e (5th Edition and the one the campaign was set in), a bag of holding is an uncommon magical item that costs between 100gp-500gp (DMG p135).
It was a fresh campaign, we had played maybe one or two sessions, and I had mentioned that I would be looking for a bag of holding. Every major city after that, any place that looked like it could have something interesting or magical I would look. The DM made me roll constitution checks, notice checks, investigate, and perception. I could never roll high enough. My character would get exhausted just from looking. Other players would be able to find anything they needed right away, with no need to slog around the city.
It got to the point where I stopped asking, stopped looking. But the DM couldn't let it go, they would bait me.
"Hey did you have anything you wanted to look for?", rousing me to find the unobtainable.
"No, I don't want it anymore."
My dismissal produced a look of cutting disappointment across their face, and I realized that they enjoyed denying me. That I was never going to get it.
The DMs twisted quest for power all over this one bag of holding completely turned me off the campaign, and it wasn't long before I decided I was out. A DM, who says no without reason, just for the joy of saying no, is a bad DM.
I ended up leaving 5e behind and starting a FATE campaign, which has been wonderful. One of the best tabletop roleplay systems for those who want roleplay as the main course and not just a little roleplay salad with their combat meal.
As a DM, I like to pretend things are loosey-goosey and very improvisational when in fact I know the binary outcome that each campaign leg will culminate to.
I do not speak of a railroad, i just mean something must be solved in this chapter, and it's either pass or fail, each providing a best-case or worst-case scenario. Now, how we get there as a table is up to the players. But in simulation theory, fate is inevitably written on the 4th wall, and that is the illusion of choice I maintain with my players, and I think that ability to keep the scope wide enough for the cast to feel a sense of autonomy makes me a pretty good DM. I lead my players to a "Chekhov's gun" situation that I know someone has a spell for, and I act super surprised when they defeat me by simply paying attention to their sheet. They feel good when I act like I've been bested. It's a good tactic that has worked for me. That's my secret Tony, I'm always pretending to be aloof. Please don't tell my friends. lol
As a player, i can't help but see behind the curtain a little bit. And to answer your question, my experience is ruined when I try to think ahead in-character, always trying to be helpful in the suspense of the story by leading the DM where I suspect they are going, only to hit a narrative wall.
"The baddies knew we'd be coming this way... it's been too easy thus far... rogue... be mindful of traps! I will stand guard while you inspect the room"
(looks to DM with a big wink as to say: "hey let the rogue have a moment to shine by finding and disarming a trap with their superior skillsets. They haven't gotten to use their tools all campaign. Give us a lay-up!")
^this moment is crucial for me as a player, because a fun DM would throw us a bone. A fair DM would roll a d100 to improvise the possibility of my words being true, and a clueless DM would tell me i have something in my eye. All of which are fine by me...
...but the worst is when the DM had something planned, a real WOW factor moment that was scripted, and no matter how we anticipate it, or how good we roll, my 26 perception check at the door, the paladin's divine sense, the wizard's detect magic, and the rogue's 31 investigations will not prepare us for the hidden trap and stealth ambush that await us.
That's my first red flag. After strike 3, I usually stop taking notes, try to die, and when i can't die on the chain gang, i just come up with a reason to leave the party and roll a new character that is dum dum the barbarian, and i run into every trap headlong while nursing my beer.
My wife and I call it "Book club" or "Antpile vs magnifying glass." It's that moment where you realize you can't win, but you also can't surrender. Forgive my language but for lack of a better word, it's rapey. The DM doesn't want you to fight, but doesn't want you to go limp either. and for me that's absolute torture as a player.
You're right, the trademark of an amazing DM is how well they adapt to the spontaneity of their players while maintaining a coherent storyline. I think I fail in this particular regard, as my players love to spiral into murderous little 2 years olds bent on making dragon transformers (oh please ask so I can tell you) out of deception rolls. Maybe they see I have created a holy sanctuary, rife with proof that there are fouler games afoot. But they don't investigate (probably my fault, my breadcrumbs are too small) and even I'm surprised when they just blow it up, consequences be damned. But I just love to watch them work.
I like to think that my approach at least makes everyone happy, and they aren't sitting around waiting to die. Wait.... Do you think they blow stuff up because they are WAITING TO DIE?
@mianngu I feel this in my bones lol. It is sooooo critical to be flexible as a DM. I have never done it before, but I can definitely see the pitfalls of being to rigid and set on the story you want to tell. I think it would take a master storyteller to successfully manipulate all their players to unknowingly flawlessly follow a script. But then what fun is that? I feel like half the enjoyment from DMing would come from seeing what your players do with what they are given. In my opinion, it is like a performer giving a performance to other performers who are in turn giving one back.
I definitely had a few boring DMs in my day. I think my least favorite is actually when the whole game is nothing but combat. Just straight forward mindless killing of faceless hordes. Week after week. I play for the story, not the fighting.
In what I believe was my very first DnD game (nearly 20 years ago....yikes), I had a DM who was very very serious. This is fine if all the players are on board with it, but they allowed ZERO goofing around and we were a bunch of silly goofy teenagers. There's definitely a time to be serious but I feel like DnD is a game and should have room for fun and silliness! It really soured my opinion of DnD and tabletop gaming for a long time until I played a walk-on character in another DM's game and realized, oh! It CAN be fun!
It was a campaign that barely had two sessions before it collapsed. The DM was well intentioned, but needed way more experience. He was trying to run Strixhaven, which I was already not really a fan of in concept, but I went along with it with a few other players to give him a shot.
He didn't understand how to keep things moving or interesting. It was so ploddingly dull and one could tell he hadn't really studied the module. Right in the beginning, he had us trying to do an easter egg hunt sort of challenge, but he didn't bother explaining the layout of the mage's school beyond a quick four-second description. He also dumped a metric ton of forgettable NPCs on us before anything even happened. I'm not sure we got far beyond the starting lobby in Strixhaven over several hours.
We told him what was going on and he then switched to some brutally hard Darksouls type 3rd party module where we were to explore a haunted house. While I liked the concept, taking damage for no discernable reason and being given no clues during the mystery just made everything feel arbitrary and tedious. I don't think he's run since.
Wow that sounds awful.
I will say I do find modules constraining, both as a DM and as a player. WIth a homebrew, you get the ability to improvise on the fly and that facilitates interest. But I get the draw of having someone else provide the materials.
That being said I can't imagine not leaving a room over the course of several hours. That seems like a nightmare. Finding the right ambiguity for clues is rough, I'm constantly second guessing myself about whether my players will get what I'm putting down. But as a DM you have to move it along, and give in if people aren't getting it.