I have played in a lot of bad gaming sessions, but in over 30 years of gaming I’ve only ever walked out on one session. I’m not saying I’m perfect as a GM either, I’ve definitely run some bad sessions, but I’ve never had a walk out. This session though wasn’t just bad, it was just horrid, and a good example of how to do everything wrong as a GM/DM. I thought it was worthy of sharing, because often in life we learn more from failures than successes.
To set the scene, it was somewhere in the ’90s and we already had a wealth of excellent game systems to enjoy. GMing was usually done either by myself, or one other guy we’ll call … Jay. Jay was always one of those GMs who cast himself in the role of adversary to the players, and he needed to be seen as the most powerful person at the table. Yet despite that, he tended to offer more unusual gaming systems that were worth playing, if only for the experience of enjoying the system and game world. As a player you had to learn how to manage Jay, lest he go off on killing spree to show you who was boss.
Out of the blue, Jay decided to offer some good old fashioned Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t recall the version, but I think it might have been an early edition of AD&D. We had six to eight players, a couple more than usual as we had some newer people join. Everyone generated their characters; first level, mint edition, beginning characters.
A sign of things to come
I believe the premise was simply to investigate some cave. I’m sure there had to be more to it than that, yet that’s all I recall. As first level adventurers we entered the cave with extreme caution. This caution jumped to paranoia as we found the cavern near to filled with one of the most grand dragon hoards imaginable. Piles of gold towered over us and magic items of all types lay littered about. The skeleton of a dragon the only sign of the previous owner. Choosing a magic item was more a case of ‘What are you looking for?’ rather than what do we have to choose from.
Needless to say, this treasure hoard was toughly investigated before any looting took place, but it proved to be entirely real and entirely unguarded. Even the dragon skeleton was just a skeleton, not a Dracolich. We took some time to properly gear up with the items there, and took pockets filled with gems in case we had to run. We looked around some more.
In our investigations we found a very ordinary passage at the back of the cave that lead deeper into the mountain. Of course any sensible party would have simply taken the loot and left, but we signed up for some adventure, so we pressed on.
Given what we had already seen, we maintained a state of hyper-awareness. The passage we walked down was simply cut stone in the traditional 10′ x 10′ sections. Before too long we came upon a wooden door, and with great care we opened it to look inside. What we saw were six hobgoblins asleep in their beds. This was before the days when a D&D character is expected to be killing young dragons at first level; our HP ranged from 2-10 so six hobgoblins were a fearsome challenge. However, these ones were asleep, and we certainly didn’t want them behind us if we made noise further up the corridor. We decided to kill them in their sleep, where each strike should be an automatic kill.
As we moved in Jay asked for a stealth test from the whole party. Almost everyone rolled well, but one or two people ended up with average totals. Apparently these hobgoblins had amazing perception, and an average stealth check was enough to wake them. Before we got a chance to roll an attack, all six of the hobgoblins leapt out of bed and took up a military style formation with pole-arms. At this point we also learned they were all dressed in full plate armour, something we somehow failed to see by looking at them from the doorway.
We held the doorway, and thanks to the free magic items handed out at the door, we won, but only barely.
And things get worse
Having made so much noise we decided to fall back to the treasure room, heal up and take stock of what we had seen. We retraced our steps down the corridor we came from only to discover the 10′ wide corridor was filled with 300 military edition hobgoblins in full plate using pikes. If we had had some heavy area of effect attacks or similar, then maybe we might have stood a chance, but remember, we’re level 1. We were doomed to die.
At this time the fighter in the party came up with a brilliant plan. From the dragon hoard he had taken a Potion of Invulnerability. The potion was described as making you immune to non-magical weapons for a decent duration. Our fighter could hold the front line, immune to enemy attacks, while we all dealt damage. Of course the hobgoblins might wrestle him down or something, but it was a chance. It’s not like we could retreat further into the lair because we could hear a great many hobgoblins assembling there as well.
We charged, our fighter in the lead with a pole-arm while the rest of us trailed along with ranged weapons at the ready. As the two forces met, our lead fighter took heavy damage. It appeared that 300 hobgoblins had magical weapons, thus rendering the Potion of Invulnerability useless. Not only that, Jay also revealed they all have magical armour, which explained why good attack rolls were still missing.
I’d had enough. I told him in no uncertain terms how poor I found the experience and I walked out.
Much to my amazement the game session continued. Two of the players I spoke with later said they wish they had walked out as well as things got even worse. Those newer players were never seen again and therein lay one of the greatest sins. I spoke with Jay about the experience as well, and he was his usual smug self. He tried to explain that the treasure hoard at the beginning was to allow the party to afford constant resurrections back at the city, which only makes the matter worse in my opinion. He also tried to tell me that the over the top military trained magically outfitted hobgobins were all for a good story reason. He couldn’t explain how 300 hobgoblins in full plate manage to sneak around and prepare to block our escape in the 10′ wide corridor, but I was beyond caring.
So What did he do Wrong?
Jay did many things wrong, but let’s start with the very very basics. Did people have fun? In talking to other players it was a resounding ‘no!’ It’s rarely ever fun for players when a GM takes such an adversarial role, because the GM can always win whenever he wants to.
On the technical side there are countless things to list even in this short story, but I’ll try to hit the main points.
Starting with a monty haul treasure hoard creates a logical dilemma for any role player. If their reason for becoming an adventurer is wealth, then the only smart thing to do is to fill every sack you have with treasure then leave, adventure over. Even for those who want to stay and do good, the priority should be to get the treasure to the townspeople before continuing the quest, because that empowers the people to hire better help if this mission fails. The only character type who would sensibly leave the loot to continue on is someone who is as much a do-gooder as they are greedy. In this case we only stayed for the metagame reason that we wanted to actually play a game.
If the hobgoblins had set a trap and were waiting in their beds pretending to be asleep, then I can maybe(ish) forgive being in full plate armour with a pike in hand, but the GM made a point of mentioning that they would have to suffer a small penalty for a round as they had only woken up. Not giving any credit to the players for being cautious and making good rolls is unforgivable. You should always reward good role play however you can. In the very least, give the characters initiative on the first round to account for the hobgoblins having to get to their feet in full plate.
As for whatever reason lay behind the training and equipment of the hobgoblins, you should always foreshadow that level of divergence from common sense. Of course as the GM, you can throw normal conventions out the window, but always allow the players to feel like it means something. The pile of treasure outside does not foreshadow 300+ hobgoblins, because as intelligent greedy creatures themselves, why didn’t they take the treasure for themselves.
All that I experienced of that adventure seemed to make sense only from a meta-game perspective, not a story perspective. That’s from the little sense I can apply to it at all. Players need to feel like they have a sense of agency, even when facing difficult odds. When you as a GM begin with the assumption that player deaths will be high, then you’re not even attempting to balance things. Playing Whack-a-mole with a team of first level characters is not good adventure design. When writing for a low level party, you’re challenge is not ‘how can I kill them’ but ‘how can I keep them alive yet still challenge them’. A treasure hoard to pay for resurrections is not the answer.
This didn’t end my gaming experience with Jay. It was the impetus for me to move more into the GM role more often. I began one of many Rolemaster campaigns with most of the players from that day. Importantly for me, it showed me where my line was, and I came to understand that ‘Any RP’ isn’t always better than ‘No RP’.