#22 Respect the Unexpected

By Shamus Posted Sunday May 12, 2019

Filed under: DM of the Rings 44 comments

Your Game Master may leave subtle clues in the game to direct the players towards predesigned goals and into intended conflicts. Take careful note of these nonverbal hints and directions and for the love of Crom don’t do any of them.

What are you, a child?

Shamus Says:

I remember when this originally ran there were dozens of comments from people pointing out all of the holes in Chuck’s plan. Their GM instincts were kicking in and trying to yank Chuck back into line.

The real problem is that Casey here is slow on his feet. (A fatal flaw in a GM.) Sure, a decent GM would just say the Goblins have a back door, but Casey is not a decent GM. He doesn’t have “backdoor” in his notes, so he doesn’t have one in the world.

This is actually a common problem even for good GM’s: The players do something you didn’t intend, and you fail to adapt. Then hours after the game ends you suddenly realize a half dozen ways you could have better handled the situation to make it more fun or more interesting.

It really is hard to stay ahead of four other people all the time, even with the world-shaping GM powers at your disposal.

Shawn Says:

Not much to add, except I’m fond of the last line.

Like I said 10 years ago, people can’t resist the urge to critique Casey’s approach to GMing. That’s understandable, but it’s the equivalent of saying, “Man, Charlie Brown really needs to stop trying to kick Lucy’s football.” Okay, that’s true, but you’re arguing that the character should stop having the foibles that create the drama and make the characters interesting.

Also, everyone’s backseat GMing took the form of, “The Goblins would have a back door!” First, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s certainly a possible scenario, but it’s also true that maybe the goblins have built their home in a cave system that dead-ends. Or maybe these goblins aren’t hard-working and forward-thinking enough. Or maybe they just moved in and haven’t finished excavating their backup tunnel. If you didn’t write down that the goblins have an escape tunnel, then poofing one into existence because the players caught you flat-footed is just as much of a cheat as what Chuck is doing.

My suggestion: Ask yourself what percent of goblin tunnels are dead ends. Just take a random guess at the odds for what feels right, then roll some dice and live with the result.

If the players come up with a plan and you reflexively negate their efforts with your world-creating powers, the players will notice. Over time, they’ll notice how every NPC seems to COINCIDENTALLY have exactly the right tool to foil their plans, the guards always anticipate their moves, and ambushers will always know where where to find them. This is really bad for the world because it replaces the in-universe player characters vs. villains conflict with the real-world players vs. GM, and that’s when it stops being fun.

Railroading them into doing all the fights you have planned isn’t any better than railroading them through the story you have planned. If they’re routing around your fights and then getting bored because of the lack of fights then yes, maybe you need to do a little cheating to save them from themselves.

On the other hand, if the players enjoy two weeks of imaginary camping and are having a good time, you don’t need to punish them. People are having fun. Mission accomplished. Don’t mess that up!


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44 thoughts on “#22 Respect the Unexpected

  1. Syal says:

    Huh. I remembered the players trying to find an unambushed entrance and Casey declaring there was only the one way in. I… guess that didn’t actually happen.

  2. Matthew Downie says:

    My GM instincts say: Let’s see how it plays out. Situations that might arise:
    The goblins attempt an ambush when the party try to collect the gold for the food.
    The goblins say they have a prisoner from the nearby village who they’re going to torture slowly to death and then eat unless the party hand over the food.
    A wandering monster shows up at the party’s camp.
    The goblins start trying to tunnel out.
    The goblins resort to cannibalism. (For added creepiness: they resort to cannibalism after the first hour of the siege.)

    Most likely scenario: the other players say, “We were going to take all their gold after we killed them. Why are we wasting time selling them food?”

    1. Dev Null says:

      Or just “All of the hungry goblins come out the door looking for food. Now you must fight them all at once in the open instead of one room at a time…” It’s not really intended (I think) to be a real puzzler how to work around this – Casey’s plan is full of holes – its just Still Life of GM Caught Flat-Footed. Ba-dum tish.

      1. tmtvl says:

        We nail the only entrance to this place shut

        Chuck’s plan isn’t Sun Tzu levels of awesome preparedness, but he’s not that dumb.

        1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

          The only entrance that the PC’s know about.
          No self-respecting scurrillous backstabber would only leave themselves one exit.

          And even if they close the current exits, the goblins can always try to make more…

    2. Sarfa says:

      But surely the goblins wouldn’t resort to cannibalism before they eat the pigs the party are trying to rescue?

      1. tmtvl says:

        But the pigs are protected NPCs with Plot Armour, those can’t be eaten.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          ‘We tried to stab it, but all that happens is we got a ‘PIG IS UNCONSCIOUS’ message! It lay down for a few seconds and then got up again!’

          By the time the party get there, there’ll just be a load of goblin corpses lying in a circle around one of the pigs, all holding broken weapons.

      2. Abnaxis says:

        This. This is what I would do as a GM, with a healthy dose of “are you sure?” before I resorted to “strangely, after much waiting, the goblins still haven’t caved even after you’ve had to resupply you own food rations multiple times…”

        Hell, the first game I ever GM’d the players took one look at a monster, said “hell no” and locked it in a room (which was the unbeknownst control center of a spaceship; hilarity endured). You don’t even need to be that good at thinking on your feet to deal with this kind of stuff IRL.

        It’s still funny to see in the comic, though. Just, y’know, don’t take this as some sort of cautionary tale for all the GMs out there

  3. tmtvl says:

    While players and GMs trying to one up each other on the “you just activated my trap card”/”keikaku doori” front can lead to some memorable stories, it gets real tedious real quick.

  4. BlueHorus says:

    Personally, I always found Charlie Brown’s efforts to kick Lucy’s ball depressing, rather than fun. Dude just wouldn’t learn, and Lucy seemed set to be mean-spirited and cruel her entire life.

    Maybe there’s more to the characters than that. But I never cared much for Peanuts, and the nature of one of it’s most famous gags is probably a contributing factor.

    On the ‘telling Casey how to DM’ front:
    ‘Oh, you’re going to set up camp? Sounds like an opportune moment to order food. ‘ Roleplay those campfire songs while I re-think this encounter. Here’s a song you can try out.’

    1. Mattias42 says:

      Totally agree on the Charlie Brown football bit. Dude, she’s done this s*it for decades now. The ‘joke’ has dragged on to the point where she’s up to counter-counter-counter-counter bluffs to get you to trust her enough to give her her jollies again.

      At that point… frankly, it’s not a funny prank between friends anymore, in or out of universe, but bullying and gas-lighting of a trusting kid by a mean little turd.

      But equally frankly, I’ve never been a fan of the ‘but otherwise there won’t be any drama’ defense of persistent and unaddressed character flaws. There’s such a thing as willpower and learning from your mistakes… and if your story has your characters not even try either, your whole team of characters look like idiots for tolerating them.

      And, well, though I get the writing side of things… from a reader perspective it’s just SO overdone, you know?

      1. kincajou says:

        As a counterpoint i’d offer that Peanuts doesn’t strictly have a “running narrative” per se. Some storylines do exist but their world barely changes as more stories are output (the characters certainly don’t have arcs to speak of).

        As such the Joke in question would come across slightly differently, allowing (some) readers to take each strip as a little world on it’s own where the characters are the same and they are essentially “reset” each time (then playing with this concept and changing the end of the strip allows for some humorous moments). A bit like Garfield who will always hate mondays and eat lasagna.

        Which is why it’s easy for people to not hate lucy and to not see charlie brown as an idiot, they are reset every iteration of the comic with slightly different parameters. Lucy and charlie haven’t really been playing that gag out all their lives because in the single strip format they live int, they don’t have long term “lives”.

        Well… that became a bit bleak…

        1. Nessus says:

          Consider what that means though. If they implicitly have no “real” continuity or “lives”… then what you see is truly all there is when it comes to their personalities. There’s no depth or details, implied, implicit, or intended, to redeem or give context to persistent bad behavior. Lucy is a dick not because that’s all we happen to see from our limited window into her life, but because that’s literally all there is to her, and that’s by design.

          1. kincajou says:

            That’s also true. It’s not flattering, although from a single strip information we could also know that Charlie Brown chooses to play with her which may allow us to infer that she’s at least likeable enough (to him) that she’s worth playing with.

            From this it is possible to read the “pulling the football away” as a one off joke between friends (especially since CB didn’t expect it so it’s gt relative novelty to him, from what we can understand) which makes the characters more likeable (him less stupid and she less dickish).

            But of course this plays off the idea that each strip is essentially independent.

            It may be worth stating that at this point we’re probably overanalysing the “peanuts” and going beyond what they were at the time… (it doesn’t make the discussion any less interesting though!)

    2. Drathnoxis says:

      Charles Schulz only had about 40 jokes that he told again and again for 50 years. Charlie Brown’s constant failures does get depressing. You can only crap on a character so long before it stops being funny. Same for Team Rocket. Just *once* I’d like to see them succeed at stealing a pokemon.

    3. shoeboxjeddy says:

      I always got some slight enjoyment to the new twist Lucy would put on why THIS would be the time she didn’t pull the football and Charlie Brown would wrap himself into Princess Bride-esque logic knots convincing himself that she was on the level. Despite how OBVIOUSLY she was not. The only one that actually makes me mad is the TV special where Charlie Brown is the successful kicker for the school football team and she pulls the ball during the pivotal kick of the season. That doesn’t work as a climax because the other kids on the team and the stands are not characters, so the plot can’t turn on their realistic reactions. Only their reaction as a mob “Charlie Brown is a loser!” It just doesn’t work the way the normal scenario does because usually it’s just between the two of them.

  5. MadTinkerer says:

    I dunno, if I was GMing, I would have said that counts as a “defeat” and everyone gets full XP on top of whatever treasures the goblins traded for their freedom.

    Of course, if the heroes never go in the cave, then they can never check how much treasure the goblins actually have, or how many goblins there actually are (and therefore how much XP they actually would have obtained), and so on. Also, the goblins will certainly tell other, smarter monsters what happened…

    In short, Chuck’s idea is the best possible outcome.

  6. Sannom says:

    Isn’t the simplest solution “The Goblins bash down the door once they realize they’ve been trapped” ? You factor in damage to some of their weapons, tired state and boom !

  7. Thomas Adamson says:

    Don’t goblins live off cave-mushrooms and cavern-slime, or at least use those resources to farm squiglings and dungeon-snails? This is a simple failure of the “what do they eat” rule.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      ‘Man, it’s been months! When are those damned goblins coming out? I peek through the keyhole?’

      ‘You see…a fungus farm. The goblins, it turns out, have given up their life of banditry and are happy as farmers.
      One of them approaches the party with a quest!’

      1. kincajou says:

        this is the best answer i’ve seen :)

  8. Joshua says:

    “Take careful note of these nonverbal hints and directions and for the love of Crom don’t do any of them.”

    If my Players come up with a creative solution to an encounter, good on them. If it’s one here that turns the entire session into a snooze fest, I don’t have any issue with telling my players that I need a few minutes to think it over, and that I want to respond with a scenario that both respects their ingenuity while also keeping an entertaining session.

    However, players start deliberately skipping hints/hooks and trying to do everything but what I’ve planned for them as a way to get their jollies, and they will do longer be players in my game. If they have an issue with not wanting to do what’s in the current campaign, they can discuss it out of game like adults.

    1. kincajou says:

      I agree to this, there is a clear distinction between “players being creative and showing initiative” and “players griefing the GM”. In this comic it seems to me that this is the latter, Chuck gets his kicks not by being smart but by griefing the GM (which is obvious from his last reply).

      In all RPGs (and most social activities really…) the cardinal rule should be that you don’t have fun at the expense of of other players’ fun. The GM himself is also a player and as such actively trying to derail their world for your own giggles is a horrible thing to do and is unacceptable in my book.

      I wonder if there isn’t often a misconception that a DM is supposed to be able to think quickly all the time… personally i find a good GM is a good storyteller, not specifically one who can respond to even the most outrageous unexpected moments at the tip of a hat.

      1. Joshua says:

        Shamus has a story that he posted a dozen or so years ago about one of his players pulling out a Horn of Blasting or something similar and blowing it on an official visit with the King, stunning said King and everyone around him. There was no in-game roleplaying reason for doing this, and it seems like the player (as some tend to do) just wanted to do something outlandish to see how the DM would respond to twist his world to make sense of a nonsensical player action. As I’ve gotten older, I find I have no patience for this kind of jackassery. The DM is not your trained monkey to do stupid things deliberately to see the DM try to contort their game world for you in response. As a DM, I don’t do things just to screw with the players and I don’t want them to screw with me. The world should make sense, and the DM provides honest and reasonable challenges for the PCs to use reasonable responses to try to overcome.

        1. shoeboxjeddy says:

          I would cut this sort of shenanigan short by insisting that any action a PC takes must be able to be described why the motivation for that action was. If the PC comes up with a stupid reason (I think this isn’t the real king, he’s a fake, so I’m attacking him!) fine. Live with the consequences. If it’s clear they’re breaking the 4th wall and not attempting to do ANYTHING with the story, it’s ignored and not carried out. Otherwise players will do stuff like “I stab my loyal friend of 20 years in the neck with my new dagger, ha ha!”

        2. Nessus says:

          I’d find it hard to not kill that guy. Not out of any animosity as a GM, but simply because, well, I’d assume the area where petitioners would stand in a throne room would logically be set up as a kill box, guard-wise. The king is the most important person in the land, and petitioning would be an easy way for an assassin to get access, so security there would be robust AF. Lighting up an offensive ability like that would get that player attack-of-opportunitied by like at least a dozen guards simultaneously. If he’s VERY lucky it’d just be the top most badass pole arm fighters in the royal military, and not the top most badass archers (or battlemages). He’d get insta-killed, and the rest of the party would end up also dead, imprisoned, or THE most wanted people in several kingdoms, depending on how things shook out.

          Like I say, this wouldn’t be done in any kind of anger or to “teach him a lesson” or any of that. I’m just a bit of a simulationist as a GM. I’m gonna do my best to arrange things so they’ll have fun, but if their response to “Danger: high voltage” is gonna be “I pee on it”, I’m not gonna Teela Brown them out of that.

  9. Decius says:

    You don’t have to change the world instantly to install a back door.

    A: The goblins can tunnel a new front door, and conceal it better than you can find. They circle your camp and build a fence around you.
    B: The goblins can break down the door you nailed shut, at which point you’re just trying to camp their front door. All of the combatant goblins charge your camp at the same time, resulting in a big fight scene.

  10. kincajou says:

    This strip really makes me feel sorry for Casey,
    He may be the worst prepared GM in the world and not good at his role but he’s really trying. The “i’ve spent 80$ in minatures” really makes me feel sad… of course that was over-ambitious, of course he should have known better (it’s happened to him previously with the orcs after all) but he doesn’t deserve for it all to be burned like this in an instant…

    I just cant help but remembering the many times at my gaming tables where someone got excited and bought a new RPG just to realise they were bad at mastering it and you could just see the whole thing catastrophically unravel through an evening. Or when a player brings an “awesome game” to the table and it rapidly becomes evident that the players find unexpected ways to break it or it just isn’t as fun… but they really love it and want you to love it but you can’t (or you dispel their love).

    It’s never really anybody’s fault, but it’s just a really sad event (with sadness, of course, being proportional to the amount of investment the person has put into it). So yeah, this element turns what should be quite a light hearted strip into something more tragic for me.

    1. Ciennas says:

      If it makes you feel any better, Casey was the DM for DM of the Rings, where he made three of these players utterly miserable for over a year.

      These guys are kind of masochists for putting him in charge again, but breaking his cutscenes over the knee is self defense.

      1. kincajou says:

        It helps and it doesn’t.

        I mean, in this case i can see it and it mitigates the whole thing… but the individual event still gets to me (of course this is a personal reaction).

        As i said, i just find the crushing of excitement by sheer incompetence and the “Sometimes no matter how much effort you put into something, it just won’t cut it” inherently tragic.
        For this individual element i don’t think there is blame to be passed around to anyone, Casey is a bad DM (and his players are bad, that’s sort of the point of this and DMOTR, after all) and , yeah, he’s not cut out for the job and will fail at it. That’s how it goes.

        I do have criticisms for chuck’s actions, which i have discussed above. But these are distinct from the Casey’s investment, he would have failed irrespective of Chuck’s presence.

      2. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        Well, at that point it just becomes a group of people doing their best to make each other miserable.
        And that’s not very enjoyable to me.

  11. Mr Compassionate says:

    I’ve had my players outright bypass dungeons by doing smart stuff. My favourite was when I planned for them to do a heist to acquire a puzzlebox but they just found the woman who owned it and offered her an absurd amount of money (which they legitimately had) to just buy it. Obviously she accepted so they got the McGuffin without any trouble.

  12. Zeddy says:

    Back when this comic first ran, I got inspired to DM a game of my own. It was a very small affair, with just one dungeon and one player, but I spent a day or so drawing the dungeon and thinking of the ecosystem. Because of this comic, the goblins had a farm behind their cave.

    The session itself was fun. My friend had some adventures, then totally cheesed the goblin’s leader at the end with a trap I didn’t expect, landed a critical hit, won a lot faster than I imagined. I was surprised, but not disappointed.

  13. Kyte says:

    I am most curious about what food he intends to sell, considering they themselves have to camp out there, which means they have to consume their stash of food. Moreover, money isn’t edible, so afterwards you have to ask how they intend to make it to the next stop, or whether they can enough food to return to town and buy more.

    (For that matter, do goblins even use money or have wares of equivalent value (which would be extra bulk to carry somewhere where it can be turned into money))

    1. Asdasd says:

      You lure some of the starving goblins out with the promise of food, ambush them, eat them, and sell your food to the rest.

      Better yet, butcher the goblins and sell their meat to the rest and then you don’t have to eat goblin!

  14. Asdasd says:

    This reminds me of a story about a group of players who, passing through a dungeon, encounter an open portal to the elemental plane of salt the DM had added for flavour to an encounter with some salt golems. They immediately abandon any further exploration of the dungeon, or their DM’s prepared campaign, and embark on an empire-building project using this limitless precious resource as capital. They secure the dungeon using mercenaries, later a standing army, and begin hiring caravans. The players all become merchant-monarchs and arch political rivals during their steady conquest of the world.

    It read like the wishful thinking of someone who wanted a really cool story about their D&D group, as opposed to something that actually happened.. but it was a pretty good read all the same.

    1. Eigil says:

      It’s not that hard to come by an magical infinite supply of salt in D&D, so the natural question is why nobody else has done this before the players (tanking the market price of salt in the process).

  15. Zaxares says:

    My approach would have been “As you’re working on nailing the door shut, a goblin patrol (with wort riders!) comes back and leaps to Attack with howls of rage! Then, as you’re busy turning to Attack these new foes the goblins inside the cave hear the sounds of battle and rush out to assist their clan mates.” Sandwiched! ;)

  16. Gethsemani says:

    About a year or so ago I was running an Edge of the Empire (Star Wars) campaign and the players were hired by the rebels to infiltrate an Imperial weapons lab posing as a private R&D lab. I had a few ideas for how the could do this, from guns blazing to bluffing their way in as prospective partners or as new hires or maybe finding some of the secret entrances if they could find a blueprint. Instead, they quickly caught on to the fact that people coming in and out wore ID badges of different color and that some of them used a cab company to move to the upper levels of the skyscraper the lab was in. What followed was a 2 hour session when the entire group got hired as cab drivers and spent months of in-game time posing as cab drivers while they tried to figure out what personnel was assigned which color.

    It was probably the weirdest RP session I ever had, but we all had a blast with it.

    1. Jeff says:

      Those players must also play Shadowrun. I remember multi-session preparations for heists.

  17. shoeboxjeddy says:

    This joke doesn’t work particularly well for me because all the players have ruined is this dungeon. Have the miniatures you bought attack them outside, they’re a patrol group who leaves that dungeon often. Why not? Or say there’s actually 3 exits to this place (roll for how many exits there are if you feel some kind of way about “being fair”). Or have the gobs tunnel out because they have digging tools inside the area because why wouldn’t they? Or have the gobs attack DURING the process of the blockading of the entrance because they’re close enough to hear it happening.

    Basically, the joke is, Casey cannot react to ANY change from the players, no matter how small or within the rules it happens to be? That makes me sad more than makes me laugh. His game won’t be any fun for anybody.

  18. Misamoto says:

    Personally, I don’t understand where the pcs would get enough food to turn enough profit for the plan to be worthwhile.

  19. Disc says:

    I’d probably make it so that their camping gets disrupted/ambushed by another group of goblins. Let’s say a raiding party coming back home or a caravan/supply convoy of somesorts if that makes sense in the setting. Basically throw anything at them that would make sense and discourage silly plans like this.

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