Monday, October 12, 2009

Looking back on the worst session ever

I've seen a few posts here and there about the worst GM, worst game session, worst player, etc. and it's inspired me to recount my own tale of woe. It was an easy choice—I've had exactly one really terrible game experience, run by "That Guy" I knew in college, and it almost singlehandedly turned me off to fantasy gaming for five years. Here it is:

At the time, our group (composed of high school students, college students, grad students, one professor) was taking turns in the GM's seat, running short arcs of various games. One week, a player I'll call "Steve" took the reins, promising to run his own homebrew fantasy setting which, in his words, had been under development for decades.

That should have tipped me off right there. Excessive pimping of your own setting and/or game system is often a harbinger of a bad game.

But anyway, we rolled up characters using our generic fantasy system of choice, met in a tavern and got our mission. We were to sail across a vast sea and perform some task. Exactly what it was didn't matter; we never got there. In fact, the session lasted about two hours before we all stomped away from the table in disgust. Read on:

Steve explained that wood was very rare in his campaign world, so all boats were carved out of stone and then made buoyant by magical enchantments. This, he explained, was very commonplace and enabled stone merchant ships to ply the seas of his fantasy realm. Good stuff—we boarded our rock sloop and set sail for the horizon. No doubt adventure awaited us in the wilderlands beyond!

At this point, about an hour of play time had elapsed. Another hour remained, although we didn't know it at the time.

After a day or two of sailing in our magical granite clipper, with no land in sight, we entered the first line of defense set up by the inhabitants of our destination.

It was an anti-magic aura.

We sailed right into it. And our boulder boat started sinking instantly.

This development prompted a huge metagame discussion about what, exactly, we could do to save ourselves. We brainstormed, strategized, dumped excess cargo, shed armor, tried to flee, argued with the DM—to no avail. He had a bemused expression on his face, like he was just waiting for us to stumble across the obvious solution to the problem, but clearly there was none.

After 30 minutes of this, we all threw up our hands. "We don't know what do do!" we moaned.

But Steve knew what we could do. And he told us.

"You all drown!" he crowed, rolling dice to see just how long it would take for our lungs to fill with saltwater and for our bodies to stop twitching spasmodically.

You could have heard a pin drop at the table. One by one we picked up our dice. A few guys went outside to smoke. A couple more went home immediately. The oldest player, whose basement we were playing in, tried to gently talk some sense into Steve and explain what a crappy game we'd just had.

But he didn't get it. In fact, the more he was taken to task for the impossible scenario he put us in, the more he dug his heels in and refused to compromise. He kept insisting that his world was awesome, that we'd agree with him if we just rolled up characters and played again. But at that point, the damage was done.

I didn't play fantasy RPGs for years after that, preferring instead to focus on sci-fi and superhero games—anything to avoid a game with freakin' magic.


Joshua Macy said...

I don't get it. Assuming you could magically shape the stone, why would you need ongoing magic to keep them afloat? We build ships out of steel, which is no more buoyant. Were the ships solid granite? For that matter, what did the GM think happens to wooden ships when they get a hole in the bottom...they just bob around on the surface? I'm not sure I'd have made it as long as two hours...

Michael S/Chgowiz said...


That's just...


Man, I wish he was at my table for 2 hours... >:D

Patrick W. Rollens said...

@Jamused: As I remember it, the ships were like big floating Easter Island heads. Totally dense, not seaworthy whatsoever...kept afloat entirely because of the magic. Gagh. Reliving that drivel is giving me indigestion.

Current Version said...

That's pretty horrible, Pat.

I'll recount some similar incidents:

I was playing a cleric/wizard in AD&D 2nd edition many years ago, and my buddy and I were ambushed by some evil elves wielding longbows. Now, we played with speed factor and casting time, and this was back in the day before the skill Concentration was around, so if you got hit before you cast your spell, it always fizzled. A longbow normally has a speed factor of 8, yet these fellows were rocking a -3 at the very least (at close range, no less), which essentially invalidated every single spell at my disposal. After finally killing these punks in melee, they were ordinary elves using nonmagical longbows. I never played another session with him as the GM.

I used to play a Malkavian in a WoD game (yeah, I know), and I'd been hounded by these invincible werewolves who could smell through my five dot Obfuscation. Anyway, the story turned out that I was cornered by a bunch of them and an elder vampire who told me, "Join the Sabbat or die!" Being a little unfamiliar with the setting, I asked the GM/elder vampire what the Sabbat was all about. He said, "I can't really explain it." The campaign ended there.

Anonymous said...

I think we need more stories like this. I think we need them collected into a giant pdf. Because they remind me that even if I forget to give every player their spotlight moment during a session, even if I forget a couple rules or fudge a couple die rolls, even if sometimes I have to ask my players to forgive a plothole I overlooked, I am still not these guys. And I never will be.

Incidentally, could you allow name/url commenting on your blog? Not all of us have wordpress, and having to enter my AIM password on other sites sketches me out.

Patrick W. Rollens said...

@Demon: Yep, I changed the permissions so you can post with a nam/URL combo. Thanks for the suggestion.

Anonymous said...

We make fun of "That Guy" all the time by quoting what he did at the table.

"My Orcs would have used Marine tactics!" *Points finger at the figurines* "Oooooh!"

Okay, so worst session I ever played in was with this guy who wanted to run his own game setting. It was a civilization built on the inside of a Dyson Sphere (oh god I should have put away most of my books right then just in case). The world isn't especially different thematically. It's just different conceptually. So ... no difference.

We arrive from the Forgotten Realms and get some stupid fetch quest from the local king or whatever. We encounter a local prince out with a hunting retinue. We're about 20th level and he's being pissy and arrogant, and starts trying to slap us around and confiscate some magic items. So we fight back. Well Princey Boy is one of his old PCs, so ...

Turns out Random Minor Prince has (seriously now) +10 equipment. And he's life-linked with hundreds of subjects back home so they take damage instead of him, until they die. Even Vorpal Sword limb-cutting. Even poisons and death magic and petrification.

Best part of all? Around these parts +10 magic isn't unexpected. So basically he took our 20th level characters and put them in a setting exactly like standard D&D, but where they were relatively only 3rd - 4th level.

A TPK almost ensued except that the fight carried on until the end of the session. He let an unavoidable throwaway encounter with an Author-Avatar Mary Sue degenerate into a session-long slugfest full of recrimination and a complete lack of supplementary amounts of wild ass.

Speaking of, this was in his small apartment (which I have too, but I don't expect to game there) and his wife changed their son's poopy diapers in the next room over. Kid started to stink about the time the game did, but at least you could wipe his shit off.

Swordgleam said...

"And he's life-linked with hundreds of subjects back home so they take damage instead of him, until they die. Even Vorpal Sword limb-cutting. Even poisons and death magic and petrification. "

That would be totally awesome for a BBEG to have. First encounter - PCs have no clue, a couple innocents die off, either PCs retreat in shock and dismay or the BBEG finds an excuse to get out of there. Final encounter - PCs have gone on X number of sidequests to find a way around this problem and totally smash the BBEG, who is unprepared for anyone being able to hurt him.

@Patrick: This is Demon. Thanks plenty.

Anonymous said...

Crazy. Sometime I am sad that I do not have any stories like this, but usually I am happy I have never played in such a terrible game.

Patrick W. Rollens said...

@1d30: What a terrible experience. Makes me loathe to ever retaliate against a jackass NPC. And no supplementary amounts of wild ass? Rients would be pissed.

@seaofstars: You never know. You could be one FLGS visit away from a crappy game experience. Nah, just kidding, I'd never wish that fate on anybody.

Jack Badelaire said...

"Do you expect me to talk?"

"No Mister Bond, I expect you to die!"

I guess you didn't have Miss Galore in your campaign...

Actually she doesn't save Bond, he BSes his way out. Too bad you couldn't lie your way out of drowning. What a miserable experience. Did he honestly think you'd think it cool that the sum total of your adventure was setting sail on a stone ship and then drowning when it sinks? Give me rot grubs and lock lurkers any day.

MIK said...

We had a pair of DM's (embarrassingly rather recently) who cooked up this big elaborate campaign and convoluted plot to run us through. One played while the other ran the game and they switched up. They created the "super-Bard" who was their baby and first love, he was untouchable, super-human, and their plot engine. He dodged natural 20 attacks and magic missiles, tamed dragons, and used Beholders as soccer balls. We were powerless to stop or influence him, and the co-DMs did all but giggle at our futile efforts.

They don't run games anymore for our group.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm thinking every DM needs to go through a few basic paces before getting his boy scout badge.

1: Run a short adventure that will last exactly one game session.

2: Create a sandbox setting, say a small kingdom, and let the players drive their adventuring. No plot. No moral. The rails have all been pulled up and melted down to make chainmail for the hirelings.

3: Run a few-month campaign where the players, at fairly low level, are the most physically and magically powerful people around. People might sometimes boss them around but the players still make real decisions on what they want to do and who they want to obey.
(And no cheating by having a dragon take the place of the Bard)

4: Run a few-month campaign where you never let game balance become a consideration. All you care about it accurately modeling relative strengths. You don't let the players run you ragged. You just let things happen as they should even if it means they get too much money or magic.

If the DM really just can't handle those for such a short term, if he is just incapable of letting his players have some fun, the ego on him is not something I want to interact with in a more complicated way than defining the contents of my drive through order.

Donny_the_DM said...

Lol! DM Certification :) Would save a lot of unwitting lab-rats from pain of death...that's for sure.

Our group - over it's almost 9 year lifespan has had several guest DM's and such. Most of them are just plain awful. But there is a difference between an unprepared, unlearned, newbie DM - and a self-important jackass that wants to flaunt his all-powerful NPC's.

Last one we had - every time his uber-mary sue would show up to boss us around, we would laugh at him and go play dice or cards. Totally ignore him - even speaking over the DM to show how little we cared about this person.

He teleported us here. He teleported us there. He pontificated and threatened. We just played craps :) Eventually, he broke down into whining, and started mewling about "why we were being so mean."

It luckily became a teachable moment, but so many others are just fools. Cheapens the DM's hat, having to share it with people who just dont care :(

Anonymous said...

The worst was the very first group I ever gamed with, ( 1st Ed AD&D ). I could tell I loved the game, but hated playing with these guys. No one single worst game just a series of bad things, like finding out a couple games in that I had rolled up a Lawful Good character and ALL of them had gone Chaotic Evil! Like the DM letting the 1st Lvl Halfling thief strangle an adult Black Dragon with a garotte and succeeding! How about the only one who gets experience for killing a monster is the character who delivers the final blow. After a few games of that nonsense, me and another guy started our own group without the idiots.
Now, I have to admit that the other guys will tell you that their worst games were probably me DMing when I had only played a few times myself.