There’s Nothing Quite Like A Dungeons & Dragons DM

There’s Nothing Quite Like A Dungeons & Dragons DM
Image: The Lone Crusader

We’d spent hours the fortnight prior discussing, rolling, and pouring over our character sheets. That was how I was introduced to D&D: a night spent creating groups called the Nigerian Scam Fam, discussions about the lack of a dedicated healer, the initial crafting of backstories, and the pondering of abilities.

What I didn’t do was spend some time with the DM, finding out the way they like to run campaigns, their particular idiosyncrasies. And Christ how I wished I did — because what nobody told me was just how much you need to rely on the DM’s good graces.

We’re standing in a room. It’s a kitchen on the first floor of a three-storey mansion, the centrepiece of a campaign that I’d later discover was called the Mad Manor of Astabar. Everything seemed fairly straightforward: the party was hired to break into the mansion, retrieve a magical artifact, and bugger off.

We’d get 100 gold pieces for our efforts; seemed simple enough.

Until we came across a simple kitchen.

There was nothing particularly fancy about the kitchen. It had a stove, some bench tops, implements in draws, the usual stuff you’d expect. And there was also a pantry, the innards of which were so dark that even Darkvision (a racial ability that does what it says) couldn’t penetrate it.

In hindsight, a pantry that you can’t see into is a bit of a red flag. But we’re first-time adventurers! You don’t turn down an opportunity to hunt for loot. So the fearless, frontline warrior half-orc wandered in.

And then the DM told us all to piss off to the balcony outside. Not our in-game characters, but ourselves. He was going to have a chat with the half-orc.

Who proceeded to have a massive swing at the nearby rogue when everyone returned to the D&D table.

There’s Nothing Quite Like A Dungeons & Dragons DMA map of our surroundings, or impending doom. One or the other.

I didn’t discover until the end of the night that the doppleganger, who had assumed the form of our unassuming half-orc — and left him unconscious in the pantry in the process — was an optional part of the campaign. It was there if our DM decided things were progressing too smoothly, which seemed reasonable.

Everything had gone more or less perfectly up until that point. A bright blue ghost appeared and was summarily dismissed thanks to some exceptional rolls. A few people turned red, yellow and blue thanks to some magical apples, and we got rewarded for what might have been the simplest chess puzzle I’ve ever seen.

Everything was fine. Until the doppleganger took a swing at our wizard, missed completely, and socked the cleric — our only healer — six feet under.

“Uh … can I heal myself,” our cleric asked cautiously.


And that’s where you need to rely on the benevolence of a good DM.

Much like a good storyteller, their plan is to guide characters through the adventure in a fashion that’s enjoyable for everyone. The experience isn’t meant to be a walkover — there should always be a very real, very present fear of death, even if the characters are attuned to ignore that fact.

As part of our backstories, our DM introduced a dwarven wizard NPC who served as a companion — if a brutish, unwelcome one — on our adventures. He’s also the group’s employer. And, thanks to the DM, he’s also the closest we have to a battlemage.

After all, some of the group are playing D&D for the first time. Others are playing 5th Edition for the first time; others only have the briefest of experience with D&D at all.

The DM is as much our ally as he is the instigator of traps and tricks. He’s the bartender at the innkeep, the one who greases the wheels of adventure with an appropriate backhand when necessary.

I can almost see it as the equivalent of being a teacher. You think about the campaign days beforehand, reading up on the surroundings, areas you might want to tweak, possible hypotheticals, considering what kind of questions and actions each of the characters want to take.

What if all the characters struggle in this room — what can you tailor from here on in? And what does the environment around them look like? What details are missing from the campaign? What details would be useful as a red herring? What things would you like to add?

This was only my second experience with D&D proper, outside of the confines of Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and so on. And while those games use D&D as a foundation, the developers are the DM. They’re a force you can’t see, an entity you can’t physically or visually engage with as the campaign unfolds. You interact more with individual objects, characters and monsters in the world, but you don’t have a living, breathing entity in front of you that gets amused, perplexed, frustrated or visibly unlucky.

And maybe that’s why the DM should always be present from the first night. Their unspoken, unwritten character has just as much influence and force on the in-game world as anything else. It’s an element video games even today struggle to emulate; the narrator from The Stanley Parable and the AI director in Left 4 Dead are the only things that have come close.

Thank God for the DM. And I mean God — because without their benevolence, our cleric would have bled out on that kitchen floor.

This is the second story in an ongoing series about Alex’s experience playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. You can read the rest of the series here.


  • When my players are in trouble … I wing it. I try to ensure the players are having fun but also a challenge I am never out to “get” the players. I know one GM whom is “rules are rules” and if the players bumble into a situation they can’t handle – its party wipe.

    • Ha ha, I know! The way the party starts cracking at the seams and eyeing the exits when the shit hits the fan… classic. It’s led to many a time where one player or another has sulked that their character was callously abandoned by the rest of the party, but deep down, it’s about survival.

  • I’m not a fan of sending players outside the room to discuss “secret information”. It’s boring for the players outside, and the payoff usually isn’t worth it. Players always know something is up when they are asked to leave the room. It’s a bad technique.

    Much better is to let the players in on the “secret”. It’ much more fun to play it out with the players knowing that one of their number has been replaced with a doppelgänger but their characters are blissfully unaware of it. This way, the players can contribute to the peril they put their characters in to, rather than being entirely reactive. It also adds to the tension and fun in the scene. The players are flirting with the peril their characters are unaware of – will they discover it before it’s too late? Or will they push themselves deeper into the peril?

    Also, I think it’s a dick move by the GM to put a character in a position of being killed without any warning.

    • “I’m not a fan of sending players outside the room to discuss “secret information””

      This is why tag-team GMing is inherently superior! Being able to split up the group can be hugely valuable. I once ran a convention game that was one GM per player for a four person group, but that was only two three hour sessions. For a campaign I reckon two GMs is ideal.

      “Also, I think it’s a dick move by the GM to put a character in a position of being killed without any warning.”

      This x1000. Arbitrarily killing off characters is no fun for anyone.

    • Vampire the Masquerade was a game where machinations of a player of one clan against another player where the bane of many gaming sessions. Players asking “special time” with the GM or passing notes …

      • Bloody White Wolf. All their games had that particular ‘feature’, which was great fun until it wasn’t…

        • Agreed, we had one particular player and a not so good GM that allowed him to do what he wanted .. that involved screwing us all other players over … and well it did not end well.

  • Player death and the unexpected are essential parts of an engaging roleplay session. If the DM pulls punches. the players notice they have a safety net and they don’t take threats seriously. If they go into a fight they can’t win, death is the likely consequence of that action and it absolutely should be carried through.

    The same goes for the unknown. A pitch black room that darkvision can’t see in is a huge red flag. There could have been anything from a monster to a 500 foot pit trap in there. What happened in your game wasn’t without warning, it was just that you didn’t heed the warning that was given. Sometimes that’s because of overconfidence (“I can handle whatever’s in there”), sometimes it’s because of a false sense of safety (“it’s our first game, the DM won’t kill us this early”), sometimes it’s because you just genuinely don’t know what to look for.

    There are mechanisms in 5E to separate unconsciousness and death. You only die if you go 50% of your max HP below zero in one blow (eg. if your max is 30, you’ll instantly die if something takes you from >0 to -15 or lower), otherwise you have the death save system to give your party the chance to react.

    Assuming your cleric wasn’t already seriously wounded, it sounds like you ran into an encounter with a challenge rating a bit too high for your party. I’m guessing you guys started at level 1, which is fine but health pools are so low in the first few levels that it makes challenges difficult to tune. In games I’ve run and most games I’ve played, levels 1-3 are intentionally undertuned in terms of combat until health pools stabilise a bit. Failing that, I usually prefer to start a new campaign with characters between level 3-5.

    In any case, it sounds like you have the right idea about what role the DM plays. If they’re doing their job right they’re not your opponent (even though they will play your opponents), they’re on your side. They’re not trying to kill you, they’re trying to give you opportunities for awesome heroic stories. A story is only heroic if there’s a real chance of failure, otherwise it’s just a handout.

    That time your warrior decided to naively go into a pitch black room nobody could see inside and then seemingly came out and smacked your cleric unconscious, that was scary. You all got confronted with just how mortal you all are. It drove the point that there’s no safety net, really bad things can happen if you’re not careful. It’s a memorable encounter for you, and that’s the important part. You’ll learn from it. You’ll remember it next time there’s an unnaturally dark room or something else that feels off. You’ll become better adventurers/burglars next time.

    (An aside: I don’t agree with other people here that DM whispers are bad. They’re an excellent tool for keeping in-character and out-of-character information separate. Bad players metagame deliberately, but even veterans sometimes metagame unintentionally. Having some of your players know things the others don’t is a perfectly fine tool for storytelling, and it can make for much more exciting reveals when those secrets come to light. Some of the best DMs I’ve ever played with use whispers.)

  • That whole story smacks of bad adventure design mixed with poor GM judgement.
    0. Why is a doppelganger even hanging out in this place? It’s not the house butler. If I were a doppelganger I’d have more important things to do.
    1. Why would anyone cast permanent darkness inside a pantry? That’s not “Mad”, it’s just foolish.
    2. Why didn’t the party hear anything when the 1/2-orc got ambushed? Was the doppelganger such a super-ninja that it executed a totally silent, perfect one-hit knockout in total darkness?
    3. how could the doppelganger have taken the knocked-out half-orc’s form without being able to see it?
    4. why would the doppelganger, having successfully taken the half-orc’s form, go into a suicidal attack upon exit of said pantry?
    The mind boggles…

    • I mean, it’s pretty easy to come up with reasonable answers to these questions.

      0. Perhaps it lives there. Perhaps it came looking for food. The adventure says it was in the kitchen and retreated to the pantry when it sensed the players approaching. Doppelgangers commonly use their abilities to infiltrate human society. The fact it happened to be in the kitchen at the time tells you nothing of its motives, which you’d have to find out by other means.

      1. You can’t apply rational logic to madness, why would you even try? One possibility: the owner of the manor was terrified that monsters live in his pantry and come out when they see people. So in his paranoia, he had the pantry enchanted with permanent darkness, convinced that if the things inside couldn’t see, they wouldn’t come out. Easy.

      2. Maybe it did make a noise, Alex hasn’t narrated every single individual thing that happened here. As for a one-hit knockout, it managed to knock the cleric out in one hit and they both wear heavy armour. The base doppelganger is CR3, and it sounds like the party started at level 1.

      3. Change Shape doesn’t mention any requirement for sight. Perhaps this doppelganger has to touch something to be able to assume its form.

      4. Living things do seemingly irrational things when they’re feeling cornered. This doppelganger retreated back into the pantry to avoid encountering the party; when the warrior entered, it probably panicked and wanted out. Monsters (and players) making optimal choices regardless of their emotional state is bad roleplay.

  • Read to the Players: you are dispatched to escort the tax collector to a farm a few miles from the village.
    Teb the Farmer has decided to not pay taxes any more. Teb, leaning on a walking stick (1d4+1 club) will push the tax collector into a pile of dung. If a pc manhandles him Teb will push him/her onto some farm implements (2d4 damage) and flog on the remaining pcs with his walking stick.

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