About DM Cruelty
There are times when you can just be cruel as a DM. This isn’t about the scenarios where you make elaborate traps to either kill or dissuade your party into following the line you have made. This is solely the fact that you take petty revenge that makes no sense in the mechanics of the game. As long as it isn’t a constant every time you play with that type of behavior, it doesn’t make you a bad DM. It does however show that you are having a tantrum because it is a game where people think and follow their desires. You can set up the stage however you like, it doesn’t mean players will follow.
Over the years I’ve played with quite a few DMs in different games. Some were good, some were bad, and some were cruel. I’m more freeform when I run a game. I have a couple of things that may or may not happen, but I’m ready to just go off on the fly. The reason I run games this way is that most of the DMs I have played with have taught me that the game is an adversarial process and not a collaborative one.
It becomes a chess match between the player and the person running the game. This has turned into a game where the DM must control the players and the players attempt to do things that the DM doesn’t want them to. It becomes game theory where the players are working together to win a game that the DM isn’t quite sure he is playing. They are doing this trying to follow the constraints that the DM has put forth. The DM on the other hand is trying to tell a story in a grand sweeping world, however, what he wants to do is run it like a dungeon crawl. If they wanted a dungeon crawl, they shouldn’t open up other options.
I’m doing this in a multi-part post to go over some of the cruelties I have dealt with playing roleplaying games. Maybe you’ll be inspired to be better, or maybe you’ll have no ideas to be crueler. To be fair, it really matters what works for your gaming group. Different people need to be handled in different ways. When you start a new group though, you can steer how the game is going to be played in the long run. It’s hard to steer the direction a different way once things are in motion.
The Laser From Orbit
We all have gaming sessions that we remember years and decades later (for those under 20, the decades will come eventually). There is one session that I complain about. It happened around 1996 and we were playing Top Secret SI late into the night.
In the game Top Secret SI you play as a James Bond Spy type. There is a good spy organization and an evil one. We always played as the good guys trying to destroy the evil Web organization. Just like Bond though, quite a few of our missions didn’t revolve around the opposing organization at all. We had many side missions that went off and just saved the world.
Instead of something like a D20 system or classic Dungeons and Dragons THAC0, Top Secret SI used a percentage system. So if you had a 5% chance of shooting a guy, you better roll a 5 or less on 2 d10s. If you have a 95% chance of doing something, roll a 95 or less. For someone starting out this game is a piece of cake to understand. It was one of the first RPGs I mastered. It seemed so much easier than Rifts which I had played a few times before. We had regular gaming sessions and the storylines were enjoyable.
One day after the main mission had been taken off a co-conspirator and I decided we were going to do a get-rich-quick scheme in the game. While we were always looking for an angle, there was something in the mission that triggered this. I wish I could remember what the original mission was.
We were on our side of the table sketching out a scheme that basically was a Salami Attack. I didn’t know it had a term back then, but a Salami Attack is where you take pennies or fractions of pennies from thousands or millions of accounts. The goal is that these small amounts will go unnoticed and be considered rounding errors. The account that receives this money will have an aggregate amount that leads up to a large mass. While I may have read something similar before I did this, when I worked it out, it was a textbook example of the attack.
When we did our write-up to explain to the DM we took the rounding error method in the electric company’s billing practices. At the end of the day, it would take any percentage of a penny ($0.009999999 or less) and put those fractions into an account. The plan was to have this as a reoccurring program that would run for a few months and trust fill up the bank account. I would say my co-conspirator and I laid all this out in about 15 minutes.
The DM was going to make us roll for it. This was fine since my character had been built with very high computer skills. However, during each stage of the plan, the DM required us to roll the dice. I think we went through at least 20 rolls on this. The DM was really hoping that I would fail at some step just so he could put an end to this nonsense. Unfortunately for him, I aced every single one of the rolls. The plan kept progressing.
At this point, of course, we still do not trust the DM. To make sure we crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s our characters went through and double-checked everything. This in turn caused us to go through all the rolls again. We had written this process up as a very tight process that the DM didn’t have much wiggle room. He had agreed it was solid and should work if my dice rolls were successful before we started this whole evening of skill checks.
The process was laid out, the program was written, and there was only one thing left to do – run the program. I announced that I was starting the program and hitting enter. Then a satellite in orbit above the earth shot down a laser. This blew up the warehouse where my co-conspirator and I had been.
The DM used this point to explain to us that we weren’t away from the detection capabilities of the US government and we triggered an automatic defense mechanism. This is what caused us to blow up. Being in the IT field, I knew we didn’t have these capabilities. When I worked at NASA a decade later we didn’t have any sort of laser defense as an auxiliary attack if our IT infrastructure was compromised. It was just him going along and wasting hours of everyone’s time to use his hand of god to show you can’t win.
Why Was This Cruel?
We can use this as an example of how to make your players follow the path. However, there were much better ways to handle the scenario. The internet could have gone out, bad guys could have set up a drug meeting in the building we were attempting this from, the fact that it ran successfully for a week and then was discovered. If we had netted a small amount from it, that would be fine and fair for the amount of work we put into it.
The DM just wanted to apply his superiority to the situation. Money was meaningless in the game. My character was a millionaire through family money. I think most of the other players were rich over time. Our organization would give us whatever we needed, so money wasn’t an obstacle the DM was using within the game anyways. If it had been, this would be a different issue. Money was really meaningless.
Since there would be no tangible gain for the characters that would adjust the plot. That is what makes this cruel. It could have been this interesting side evening game where the DM made all these logic traps to stop us and we rolled the checks to get by, but instead of a mental dungeon crawl – it was just wasting time. That’s why it is cruel.
Next time I do one of these articles, I’m going to talk about how a DM killed everyone because they had prior real life commitments.