DM Diary: Pulling out the Rug

This last week, a couple of things happened about which the players were clearly unhappy.  I think that one of those situations involved something that I did that I shouldn’t have done (or at least not have done the way that I actually did); and one involved something that I arguably did OK, but that, had I to do it again, would do differently.

In last week’s session (link here), the PCs were facing another wave of attacks as they attempted to, literally, “hold the fort” versus an enemy encamped at the gates.  They made certain preparations, most of which I respected in how they worked against the marauding foes.  However, I put an item, the Wand of Wonder (which I called “The Wand of Wondrous Might”; just as I have called the Deck of Many Things they have “The Deck of Many Wondrous Things,” into the hands of the party.

The party’s magic user, Norm, tried to use it several times.  Two of the five times he tried, it randomly turned him invisible.  Fine.  One time, it useless spat gems out of the end.  That is meant to be an actual attack, presumably, but the enemy that he was attacking was well beyond the range of the cascading gems.  It was the two other abortive uses that caused the consternation.

On the first use, the die roll to determine the “Wondrous” effect was in the range 21-25.  According to “You cast Detect Thoughts on the target you chose. If you didn’t target a creature, you instead take 1d6 psychic damage.”  I clarified when the player attempted to use the item (this was the first actual attempt to use the WoW) that he was targeting an area, not an individual creature.  “You’re not targeting a specific creature?” “No, I’m targeting this area.”  Therefore he took 1d6 psychic damage.  I have no problem with how that played out.

Later, when the player was clearly targeting an area again (I didn’t ask this time, I was wary that repeatedly asking the same question would raise a flag), he rolled a result in the range 98-00.  That result, if not targeting a specific creature results in the wielder having to make a certain saving throw.  As written, if one fails, they are restrained and are beginning to turn to stone.  If they fail by 5 or more, they are instantly petrified.  The player made their save.  However, I still imposed a Slowed condition and they were clearly starting to turn to stone.

This result does not match the rules as written.  And it imposes a penalty, even though the player made their save.  That’s harsh, I’ll warrant.  My plan was to allow them to attempt a saving throw on each turn.  On a failed save, they’d move first to Restrained, then to Petrified.  Each positive save would move them in the opposite direction: Restrained ->Slowed -> Normal.  The players were upset that the individual had made a saving throw but still suffered a negative outcome.  I should have given some flavor text when the got the initial result that made it clear that something bad had happened, and that the save was only to determine how bad it would be.  Having things like the WoW and the DomWT require that the DM be flexible and think quickly on his/her feet.  An example:

On a roll of 63-65 the following result is produced: “An object of the DM ‘s choice disappears into the Ethereal Plane. The object must be neither worn nor carried, within 120 feet of the target, and no larger than 10 feet in any dimension.”  What?  What kind of object would I choose, on the fly?  I guess it would be good to familiarize myself with each of the options and make a note or two on what I might want to do if that object is selected.  Next time.

The other issue was one of tactics.  The players had learned from the previous session that one PC could effectively hold a staircase in the fortress against an unlimited number of foes by blocking their path.  As long as the PC could hold out, the bad guys couldn’t move past that character.  They (not surprisingly) deployed that tactic again in the most recent session.

The bad guys sent a stream of combatants against the stairs, and the PC cleric, AC 18 was easily able to hold them off, since the bad guys, buy and large, couldn’t hit him.  Eventually, with a lot going on, I had a raging berzerker hit the cleric successfully (on a fair roll, not that that matters), do a decent amount of damage, then move past him.  His allies followed on the same turn.  The players objected (not right away, but before much time had passed).  How had they managed to get by the cleric?  Just because he had been hit, he hadn’t been moved or knocked down.

The truth was, in the excitement of the moment, I had considered the hit on the cleric such a success that I had simply discounted the blocking maneuver.  I hadn’t consciously  decided that now the situation had changed.  It just seemed like such a watershed that the cleric had been hit at all, that naturally the bad guys could now move forward.  When called on it, I offered a lame justification.

Much better would have been, between sessions, to have given some thought to how the bad guys might have adapted to the tactics that had failed in the first assault and have them developed a new approach to the problem of the stair-block, given that it was almost certain to occur again.

The bad guys, for instance, could have started “shoving” the person on the stairs.  I had to just search for what that action was even called.  There used to be an “bull rush attack option in previous D&D iterations.  Now you “shove.”  I think “bull rush” or “overbear” sound better.  They could have shoved and probably would have been at least as successful.

But simply letting the bad guys get past the blocking maneuver, when I had previously established that it wasn’t possible to get past it, was not the way to go.


  1. before handing out an item like the WoW: print out a list of all the options and have a note on the sheet of any special results and any special rules you want to implement.
  2. Have some narrative fluff prepared for the outcomes of a new item like the WoW.
  3. If the PCs have implemented a successful tactic in one session, and it’s likely to recur in the next, have a plan that the bad guys would try as a countermeasure.  But live with the outcome if it doesn’t work.

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