A rebuttal to some random post on r/rpghorrorstories

I don’t have a Reddit account. The reason I choose not to have one is to ensure I can’t actually post anything to one of the many subreddits I lurk. I have the kind of defective monkey brain where, if I see someone being WRONG ON INTERNET I will bang the keyboard with my face and hands until the poor unsuspecting target knows how wrong he’s being. This is, of course, unhealthy behavior, but I find that the urge to pee all over a wrong person who is wrong passes pretty quickly. Say, by the time it takes to register a Reddit account, I probably won’t want to pee on anyone.

I feel compelled to pick apart this story I found on r/rpghorrorstories, though. Not in a “THAT GUY IS WRONG RAARR” way, but in a “there’s more to this story than the guy is telling” way. It, like many of the tales on r/rpghorrorstories, is the tale of a poor, innocent player who had a draconian DM that tried to kill everyone, failed (because the player is just that wily and resourceful, I guess?), and then yelled at everyone.

You can read the story in its entirety at this link, at least until it gets moved or delisted or whatever, I guess I don’t really know how Reddit archival works: reddit.com/r/rpghorrorstories/comments/awiwmv/thats_not_the_way_that_i_say_concentration_works/

Before picking apart the actual story, I should probably explain that I don’t actually believe most of the stories on this subreddit are real. Reddit (or, at least the subreddits I tend to lurk) is a site where people share experiences with each other, and being part of that kind of community pressures you to share the most interesting experiences you can, which gives people incentive to lie. If you lurk at a community for a while, it’s really easy to start picking up on the social mores they work by, and concocting a riveting story to capture everyone’s attention is a snap. So, every story I read on this and other similar subreddits, I try to take with a grain of salt.

This particular story, though, I found very interesting because I believe a version of it actually happened. Not the version related by OP, to be sure; there’s too much selective memory and lily-gilding for that. But OP shares just enough interesting details about his experience with this DM — more than he probably intended — that reveal the parts of the story that went left unsaid. Here are some conclusions I drew:

  • The DM in the story is probably a jerk. I doubt I would enjoy playing at his table.
  • The players in this story are just as complicit in the eventual blow-up that destroyed the table, if not more so.
  • The OP almost certainly has not run a game himself. His only D&D experience is as a player.

I’ll explain why I think these things as I go. (I’m omitting some stuff from the post; you can read its entirety in the link above, if you like.)

Now, we’d already been having a few issues with the DM by the time I rejoined the group.

You don’t play D&D with someone you have issues with as a DM. I mean, you might sit at the table with them and roll dice and talk about orcs or whatever, but bad blood at the table never translates into good D&D. I remember a lot of games in my early 20s with DMs we had “had issues with”; we would actively try to sabotage those games, because it was the only reliable way to have fun with them. (I, of course, don’t recommend doing this.)

So, either this player identified issues with this DM, and then decided not to talk to them like an adult and help them improve, in which case what was he expecting… or he did voice his concerns (in a rational and polite way) and the DM, in his infinite maliciousness, decided to ignore or punish him. In which case, what was he expecting.

Don’t play at tables you know are sour. Use the time to find a better table.

He claimed to hate railroading the story, but then would refuse to let us have side quests or anything interesting that we requested–either it was his story or nothing.

I feel this DM’s pain. I know firsthand how much players hate being railroaded, and so of course I would tell any group of players that I wasn’t going to try railroading them. Of course it doesn’t logically follow that I’m now responsibile to give them “anything interesting that they requested.” That’s absurd.

At my table, it is absolutely “my story or nothing”. I spend hours every week writing and planning and putting things together. If my players adamantly refuse to engage with any of it, well, yeah, they get nothing. In practice this doesn’t happen with either of my current groups, because I game with nice people who buy into the social contract that 1) I’m not going to waste their time and 2) they shouldn’t actively try to undermine all my planning.

It’s this idea that players have some right to an interesting game, even if they ignore all the DM’s writing and planning, that piqued my interest about this horror story. There is fault on both sides of the table.

He was very much one of those Player vs DM people, and viewed the players winning encounters as ‘losing’.

This is a red flag that pops up a lot in the various D&D forums and subreddits, this “vs. players” DM that is unfairly antagonistic. Having played with many bad DMs over the years, I am highly skeptical that this sort of DM actually exists. The DM has infinite capacity to “beat” the players. Just say, “And then five more orcs show up!” until the players are all dead or until everyone gets bored and leaves. Beating the players is trivially easy.

The alternative makes absolutely no sense. A DM who honestly views players winning encounters as “losing” should… logically… never have more than one encounter per campaign? Right? The very first combat encounter is a TPK, because he can throw titans and tyranosaurs and tarrasques at you? And then you all die and he wins?

I have another theory as to why this DM is so hostile, which we’ll explore later.

…I wanted to explain why my bard had left the group and leveled up to 7 in the process to be consistent with the rest of the party. I don’t remember the specifics, but it had something to do with…

…I pulled aside the DM and asked him if how he wanted to go about having my character meet back up with the party. That conversation is fuzzy for me, but it boiled down to me being told that my character was going to magically reappear with the group, even if I didn’t want to do it that way because his word as DM was law. Already not off to a great start, but I figured that it wasn’t a big enough deal to make a fuss over it.

I’ve bolded the line in these two quotes that make me feel like this story is embellished quite a lot. Isn’t it interesting how OP remembers very tiny details about this very long story, but has no head for specific information about his character or, indeed, interactions with the DM? In a true horror story that actually happened, you would think these details would be at the forefront of one’s mind.

In the parts OP does admit to remembering, though, we see a clear example of player antagonism. He’s joining a game already in progress, where presumably the DM is already engaged in a narrative with the other players. (Which puts the lie to “he always wants to win every encounter”, as noted previously, because the game is past its first encounter.) It’s perfectly fine to spend the time and energy working a new or returning character back into a story. It’s also perfectly fine to just hand-wave it, declare the character to be “magically there”, and get on with things. OP says this is a revolving door campaign, where players were coming and going all the time. I haven’t run a campaign like that in many years, but I remember driving myself mad trying to improvise story for every meeting and parting. If I were to run a game like that now, I wouldn’t bother trying. You’re magically there now, sure, fine, let’s do the adventure now, shall we?

Note too the binary in this player’s mind. if the DM does something he “didn’t want to do”, it’s because “his word as DM was law.” I have dealt with many players like this over the years, and even been one from time to time. There is a pervasive and possibly growing idea in the various online D&D communities that the DM’s job is to provide the players with funtimes, and give them whatever they want, and always have something great planned for any random or lulzy thing any player happens to do. It’s exhausting to think about.

Despite OP saying this isn’t a big deal, it was apparently a big enough deal for him to change his approach to the game. Specifically, when players feel like the DM is cheating them somehow (being overly adversarial, not giving them what they want, saying “my word is law”) they begin to check out of the game:

About a half-hour into the session, the party clearly is not interested in following the main lead that the DM has left us.

This isn’t really anyone’s fault; if you find yourself at a table you’re not a good fit for, and you’re not going to have fun whether you expend the good faith or not, why go to the effort? Even if this is just a simple disconnect in playstyle, and there should be no harm or foul, it can still cause problems for the table. And the player, who doesn’t feel he’s done anything wrong (because maybe he hasn’t!) sees in his part no blame for the game falling apart. And what’s left? Just the jerkass DM, of course.

This pattern of “the DM didn’t give us what we wanted, so let’s ignore his stuff, which causes him to give us even less of what we want, which makes us ignore even more of his stuff” becomes a self-feeding cycle. Let’s look what happens next:

More than one of the party members were trying to find a bounty board or some sort of lead for an odd job of sorts.

There is a lot to unpack in this statement.

First, a job board filled with bounties is a thing you find in video games. It is not a real thing or even a D&D thing. I have read countless prepared adventures during my time, dating all the way back to the 1970s, and I cannot recall one description of a town or tavern having a bounty board filled with low-effort combat encounters for the players to pick and choose from. The idea is ridiculous outside of its intended place as quick and dirty grind-quests in video games.

Second, this happened after the players already decided they didn’t want to do the DM’s prepared adventure. Here, I actually will hold the DM to blame. If you all sit down to play an adventure, and then all the players say, “We don’t want to play the adventure, point us to the job board!” the proper response is to close up all the books and end the session. Watch a movie or play Smash Bros. instead. If there’s no harm in refusing to play what the DM has planned (as OP has already agreed), surely there’s no harm in refusing to run a game only the players want. This DM wasn’t mature enough to make that call, to everyone’s detriment.

As a DM, I would be absolutely livid if all my players decided they didn’t want to play the adventure I prepped, but then insisted I run for them anyway. What a terrible way to treat someone. I’ve tried running games in that headspace before, and it’s barely possible. And oh look at what happens next in our horror story:

After a bit of huffing from the DM’s part, we’re given a bounty to kill some giant spiders in a nearby forest. Finally, some easy combat!

Note to all players everywhere: if your DM is huffing and puffing, he is not enjoying himself and something needs to change, fast. Why on earth would you, as a player, press on in a game where the DM is so clearly distressed? If this person is your friend, and you’ve put them in that situation accidentally, why would you double down?

Oh, phew, that’s right, because as a video-game-mentality player, all you care about is “easy combat”. And since the DM isn’t a person with feelings, him agreeing to give it to you means you can finally put all this silly “not getting exactly what I want” to bed, and get on with getting exactly what you want. Hooray! Everyone’s happy! (Except the DM but who cares.)

I’m going to summarize the actual encounter OP had in the forest, but I do want to quote this part:

We get to the forest, and it’s exactly what you would expect for a spider’s nest: webs covering everything. Eventually, the party’s path is blocked by a massive web covering the entire trail. After very little deliberation from the party, we decide to burn the web down in order to get past it. The second our party member says their torch touches the web, the entire forest goes up in flames.

This part is just funny to me because, yeah, if the webs are covering everything, and you set fire to the webs, then everything flammable is going to be on fire. The only way you can not expect this is if you’re approaching it as a video game, where the spider webs are flammable but the wood and branches they’re attached to aren’t. (See OP’s own admission in the comments section of his post!) This is a resonable DM call and it’s exactly what I’d do to my players if they took this action in a scene I had described in this way. Actions have consequences, and fire is a particularly destructive action.

So these players set the forest on fire, which causes a nearby spider demigod to take offense, and combat kicks in. Except it turns out — possibly because the DM is hot and not having fun — it’s not the “easy combat” the players want or expect. It turns out to be a harrowing battle against a demigod creature the DM adapted from 4th edition (which, of course, OP calls foul on).


Nobody at the table was mature enough to see the problems with this game, walk away, take deep breaths. So now everyone’s locked in this hatefuck of a spider encounter that the DM doesn’t want to run, the players don’t want to play, and everyone is made sufficiently miserable.

I’m actually a little impressed at how the DM handled this encounter. I’m pretty good at on-the-fly combat enounters, but I don’t think I could have cooked up something this interesting on zero notice when I was already in the headspace of, “These players don’t care about anything I spent work on this week.” A minor bounty against some spiders that turns into a tussle with a demigod in the middle of a huge ring of fire sounds so badass I might actually steal it and drop it in my own campaign.

Clever and blameless OP, paragon that he is, casts banishment on the demigod to buy his party some time to escape. (Which OP describes as “outwitting his death sentence”, and we’ve already established why that’s dumb.) This causes an argument at the table, because that’s all anyone at this table is capable of doing at this point, and then this happens:

Me: “How many spiders are there around the ring?”

DM: “Fucking hell man, use your imagination. A lot. Hordes. What do you think. Now stop asking irrelevant questions, you’re starting to piss me off”

Isn’t is strange how the earlier conversation, which potentially included an admission of blame on the player’s part, was “fuzzy”, while this one, where the DM uses bad words and admits to being mad, is remembered with perfect clarity?

Anyway, this is a grossly inappropriate response to a grossly inappropriate question. Yellow flag on both parties. No DM should react this way during a game. (No DM should be running a table while this angry, either, but that ship has sailed.)

However, he’s not wrong when he declares the question to be irrelevant. We’ve already established a huge horde of spiders circling the PCs. The exact number isn’t calculable or interesting. No player can do anything useful with that information, and it’s not worth extra work on the DM’s part to track it accurately.

There’s this little dance we do while playing D&D. As a DM and a player, I’m on both sides of it. The world we’re meant to inhabit is ostensibly a real one, with physics and science and butterfly wings and whatnot. But it’s not possible for a NASA supercomputer to properly simulate that kind of world — a real one — let alone some guy with some books and graph paper. As a DM, you want to simulate as much detail as is necessary to make the adventure work. Common things like distances, materials, colors and smells and sounds. Your instinctual understanding of the game world is probably a lot broader than that, but you don’t have enough bandwidth in your voice to bring it all across.

It falls to players, then, to ask probing questions about the scene, to increase their own understanding of things. They don’t have the same instinctual understanding of the world, though, so they don’t know which questions are worth asking in a given situation. This can lead to some really bizarre rabbit hole scenarios, where a player asks an innocuous question, and the DM answers it, possibly with improvisation, and the players pick up on the answer as a crucial detail and spend the next 40 minutes agonizing over the significance of this metal tube or bale of hay or whatever.

There’s some give and take on both sides of this. It’s a skill both DMs and players need to hone over time.

There is a type of player, though, that will ask incresingly irrelevant questions not because they’re trying to increase their understanding of the scene, but because they’re fishing for the answer they want. In a scene where we’ve already established hordes of spiders coming out of the burning woods, it’s kind of dumb and maybe a little passive-aggresive to insist on knowing exactly how many there are. Is there some cunning plan that involves having more than 117 spiders, but fewer than 153? Is the character standing there, in-universe, for minutes on end, painstakingly counting individual spiders? Maybe this would be a good place for the DM to ask, “Why do you think that’s important?” but, as is abundantly clear, nobody at this table is playing in good faith anymore.

A few rounds of combat later, the PCs try to break the line of spiders. The DM declares the retreat to break OP’s concentration on banishment, causing the demigod to re-appear on the scene. Another perfectly-remembered conversation ensues:

DM: “The second you move, your concentration breaks. [the demi-god] pops back into existence, and moves to attack you

ME: “Wait, what the hell? The time on my concentration isn’t up. Why did it break?”

DM: “You can’t move and concentrate on a spell at the same time.”

ME: “Yeah, you can in 5e. The only things that can break concentration are taking damage or casting another spell that requires concentration.”

DM: “I’m getting sick of your shit! WE AREN’T PLAYING 5E! THIS IS MY HOMEBREW! That’s not the way that I say concentration works in my world. Now, you have a choice. You can move, and break concentration, and have [the demi-god] attack you and the party, or you can stay behind and let the party escape. Although, if you do, she’ll kill you instantly.”

OP is 100% correct in this interaction. In 5e, rules as written, cocnentration on a spell is only broken if you sustain damage (and fail a save), or by casting another spell that requires concentration. (You can also drop concentration on a spell, at any time, even if it’s not your turn.) OP can be completely forgiven for believing this is how his movement would work in this case, and being surprised when it doesn’t.

But OP is not the DM. OP does not get to determine how the rules are applied in a given scene. That’s the DM’s job. And this DM, in this encounter, was seven kinds of pissed off. I don’t agree with the DM’s call here, but I definitely understand it. Whether the DM is a jerk or not is kind of irrelevant to the way he’s been treated at this table, by this player’s own admission. Never mind the D&D angle, in what context is it smart to push someone and push someone until they finally snap?

At this point, I was honestly speechless. I just gathered my stuff and left the table.

And this is the first intelligent, mature thing this player has done in this entire story. Kudos to him for that!

Believe it or not, my intention is not to pick on this OP. He had a terrible D&D interaction, and ran to the internet to tell a version of the story that paints him as the hero. This is Human Experience 101.

It’s also not my intention to glorify this DM. I’m sure a version of this story told from his perspective would be similarly embellished, just in the other direction, and I would no doubt find lots of stuff to pick apart in that story as well.

But even in this story, as presented, where the author paints himself in the best possible light, there are some very troubling trends on display. In the minds of this player, and in those of Reddit commenters who agree with him, it is perfectly okay for a player to:

  • Dictate how their character is introduced to the game (without regard to the DM’s plans),
  • decide to completely ignore the adventure the DM intended to run,
  • insist the DM run something anyway, once the adventure has been discarded,
  • pepper the DM with pointless questions about an improvised scene that aren’t of use to anyone, and of course
  • run off to the internet and demonize another human being.

It’s not just this story. It’s something I’ve seen over and over again in lots of D&D communities where I lurk, and the problem seems to be getting worse: players approach D&D as a video game, DMs are not capable of providing that experience, everyone has a bad time as a result. And because the ratio of DMs to players is so lopsided, horror stories skew very far in one direction. I could re-write this post for some new horror story every week, if I were so inclined.

We have this weird situation where DMs are in high demand, but players also seem to hold them to unreasonable standards. What might a new DM who reads this story take away? If they side with the DM it’s, “Wow, some players are really demanding and entitled! I’d better clamp down to make sure my players aren’t like that.” (And then alienate his players by being overly punitive.) If they side with the player it’s, “Wow, some DMs are absolutely terrible! I’m going to work really hard to not make his mistakes!” (And then bend over backwards to please their players, possibly burning out as a result.)

It really doesn’t surprise me to learn that some of them act like jerks, sometimes.

I don’t really know what to do about the situation, other than share my thoughts and advice where appropriate, which is why I wrote this big ol’ nasty post on my big ol’ nasty blog. Here’s what I would have told the people in this story, before this unfortunate event occured:

To the DM: Deep breaths. There’s no need to ever run a game under these circumstances. Getting this super mad at your players is not healthy. If you put a lot of work into a story you want to share with a group of players, but this group has decided to ignore it, end the game and find new players. You have all the bargaining power here. Players constantly complain about how hard it is to find a game, even online, because there are too few DMs to go around. Someone out there wants to play the game you want to run. Don’t waste time on people who don’t.

To the players: Deep breaths. There’s no need to ever play at a table under these circumstances. If you don’t want to play the game your DM is presenting, the best option is to go along with it anyway and see if maybe your mind can be changed. If you don’t want to change your mind (or the DM is unable to change it, after an honest effort) it’s time to find a new table. Trying to force your DM to change into something he doesn’t want to be will not end well, even if you manage to succeed for a time.

To everyone: Please do not stop making up stories about some terrible D&D game you played once. I find them endlessly amusing, occassionally thought-provoking, and as long as I enjoy D&D I will never, ever stop reading them!

4 comments to A rebuttal to some random post on r/rpghorrorstories

  • Drathnoxis

    This was really interesting even though I’ve only played DnD twice. I’d read another one, but I do suspect they’d start to get a little samey and your advice would probably boil down to the same problem issues pretty quick. Good post, though!

  • QEXP

    This was a really interesting read. I’m gearing up to DM a 5e campaign for the first time. I’d love to see a post on how to prep and run a campaign, based on your experiences as a DM.

  • Jikkuryuu

    I’ve been watching these animated shorts about individual DnD spells and playing creatively. One such video reminded me this post and I think you’ll either get a good laugh or just say “Of course, that was exactly what should have happened.”

  • Anonymous

    Well for me as a DM, it isn’t that I can’t run a video game, it’s that I don’t want to. D&D is lots of fun with the creative responses to situations, interactions, and character development with stories based around your characters and your heroes journey. D&D as a video game is a boring, repetitive hack & slash. Combat is important, of course, but just because the majority of rules relate to combat doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing. And planned adventures almost always go much better than improvised ones.

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