The Troll’s Dungeon and the Stubborn Young Dungeon Master

I was IMing with Jim, talking about gaming and we both had a situation like this.

I was in a young teenager and the players were caught and put in the dungeon under the castle. I don’t remember much about the adventure, only that the castle was controlled by this bad-ass troll I had grabbed from Dragon magazine; I think it was half-demon or something and could throw lightning bolts. It had a hammer that had a unicorn horn driven through the stone of the hammer-head. I thought that was pretty cool and now, decades later, I still remember that detail. I have no idea if I made that up after falling asleep with the movie, Legend, on the TV or if I stole it.

So, they got stuck in the dungeons and I refused to let them go free. They failed rolls and couldn’t trick the guards. I just fucking sat there while they bickered at one another.

Hours went by.

Hours.

I don’t know why but I just decided to sit there through sheer cussedness.

Then, one of the players looked at his character sheet. “I have a sleep spell!”

They got the guard to sleep and grabbed the keys. I have no memory of what happened after that.

I only remember being a young DM, refusing to let them off the hook, even if it meant having a shitty evening in my friend’s living room. I don’t think I was wrong, necessarily.

I was just wondering if anyone else had experience with that kind of thing, recently or in their younger days.  Chime in with any odd hiccups at the table or advice for that 15 year old kid.

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7 thoughts on “The Troll’s Dungeon and the Stubborn Young Dungeon Master

  1. I’ve done the “The guards show up with overwhelming force, don’t even try to get away” bit, only to (of course) have the PCs fight back. Being pigheaded, we played it out only to have players pissed off that they were brought down by an “unfair” encounter.

    Looking back, I’d say there are two things that work well: Failure can move the story forward both on the player’s side AND the DM’s side. That and failure can be success with complications.

    To you back then, I’d say, “Let the escape rolls fail, but let them get out of the prison. It just means they attracted something WORSE than being locked up.”

    To me back then, “Always expect PCs to fight back. If they’re overwhelmed, do it before the game starts and have them wake up in prison. Or, let them escape as wanted criminals, maybe they gain favor with an underground resistance.”

    I recently was playing with my 6 year old and her ranger was hiding from some goblins. She blew her stealth check, but I didn’t want to undermine her idea of a PC that can easily hide. So a little chipmunk above started chattering away and throwing nuts, revealing her hiding spot.

  2. I think it’s fine to have PCs fail at stuff – they’re regular folks at level 1, and by level 8 they’re only maybe Batman-type superheroes. In Zarntson’s example, I’d say the Ranger was hiding well but not well enough to foil the Goblins, and their sweep through the area flushed her out.

    Similarly, it’s ok if the PCs push too hard and somebody bigger than them decides to take them out; if you play for high stakes you can win big or lose big. And it’s fine if, given the opportunity to get captured, they refuse and fight. And if they die, that’s ok too – again, they had an out and then even had a chance to fight their way to an escape!

    So let’s assume they just got KO’d and are now cooling their heels in the prison. Despite all their terrible decisions, pompous assholery, and maybe a little bad luck, they’re still alive. Their magic items are still out there somewhere. They proceed to fail all their rolls and/or can’t think of any decent plans for escape.

    One way to handle it is to look at this as a learning experience. If you hand them an escape on a silver platter there’s no reason for them to think up cool things in the future because they know you’ll bail them out. And there’s no reward for clever play. So let them stew, give them 30 minutes real-time, and if they don’t get things moving we roll up new PCs.

    Another way to handle it is that clever play results in them choosing how they escape, probably upward toward civilization and retrieving one or two choice items that were stolen by the guards instead of the villain, plus plenty of regular gear they find along the way. Poor play results in them having a crappy escape: further into the dungeons and without a scrap of equipment. In this case I’d also give them a real-life time limit of about 30 minutes and explain what’ll happen if they fail. “Yous guys enjoy dem rats an’ spiders down deer while ya can, ‘cuz da floor pops open an’ da prizzin gets flushed ever’ day. HAR HAR!”

    • Regarding failure, it’s all about player expectations of what a 1st level character can pull off. I’ve played games where yeah, a 1st level PC is expected to be pretty rotten at this stuff. Baseline old-school D&D. I’ve also played games (I’m looking at you Spycraft) where even a 1st level PC should be pretty damn badass.

      In my case, my daughter already described her 1st level ranger as an elven princess and expert archer who often snuck out of her castle to go on adventures. It was also the first time she’s played D&D (at six years old).

      I suppose it’s all about “know your audience”. I love Ralph’s post below where he had what you’d assume would be a soul-crushing experience. Only he LOVED it.

  3. My very first roleplay experience in the second grade was like that. The DM had forgotten his dice so he just free formed everything.

    I was a first level M-U newly thrown into a party of 3rd-5th level characters. We were storming the castle of an evil druid

    Eventually we fell into a trap that delivered us into a dungeon cell. We tried a bunch of things to escape…digging out, bending bars, picking locks. One kid even had a potion of gaseous form which he used to slip the bars…but nope the druid popped in caught him in a jar and threw him back in the cell.

    Eventually the other players got bored and decided they’d kill me for fun (I must have been a spy in cahoots with the druid). After plinking off my magic missile I wasn’t much of a challenge so I died. They buried me. Then dug me up and dismembered me. Then buried me again. IIRC they were considering using me for rations when the game ended.

    I was hooked. I immediately went home and typed up all the rules I could remember on mom’s manual typewriter on onionskin paper and staple bound them into my first RPG book.

  4. Here’s how I know if I’m wrong while GMing. I try to imagine retelling the events of the night years later. If I can’t do it without wincing, I know I’m wrong.

  5. Still happens today, only for me, it’s usually something like social combat or differing ideas of how the world works. I think the thing to do is step back. The “would I wince retelling it” sounds like a good test. So does “Is this actually fun? Is it actually fun for anyone who isn’t me?”

  6. Pingback: Dungeons and Dragons Monsters – The Voracious Troll They Have Adventurers As Appetizers

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