I spend far too much time than is healthy on the WoTC forums, particularly the “What’s a DM to do?” subforum. If you post there with any regularity, you will understand what I mean. While there are a few excellent posters dishing out some good advice there, it is often difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
But, while the point of this article isn’t to kvetch about the schmucks who post there, there’s a thread at 23 pages and counting about how to handle times when players “do something stupid.”
There are some DMs out there who pride themselves as “killer DMs.” The people who take some sadistic pleasure out of destroying their players’ characters, burning their character sheets, and pissing on the ashes. Now, I think anyone who enjoys D&D can agree that for the benefit of the hobby, these guys should probably be put into some sort of re-education camp for nerds. But there is a little glimmer of him in the eye of every DM who prides himself on saying “I don’t punish my players. Unless they do something really stupid!”
Really, is there any difference, except for degree, between the “killer DM” who is out to get his players all the time, and the DM who is only out to get them when in his opinion, they do stupid things?
So, what’s the right way to deal with stupid player ideas? Let me tell you a story…
Now, I was DMing a game a few months ago. We had a few people who were new to 4e, so I resolved before the session to say “yes, awesome…” to whatever cool ideas they came up with, no matter how off the wall they sound.
I didn’t realize that one of them would try to use a Molotov Cocktail while on a Zeppelin.
My first thought was that it was an incredibly stupid idea. Had he never head of the Hindenburg?
Secondly, he’s trying to make a Molotov Cocktail out of mundane adventuring gear and actually use it. There’s no mechanics for this. In fact, I don’t think he’s even allowed to do this by the rules as written in 4e. There’s nothing in the PHB, DMG, or Rules Compendium about improvised incendiary devices. Surely, they didn’t intend for adventurers to stock up on lamp oil and empty wine bottles and start chucking flaming bottles of napalm at Orcus?
Actually, that last bit sounds kind of cool, but I digress.
I wavered. I asked the player if he really wanted to start a fire on a Zeppelin. He was committed. My response?
“Okay, cool. That sounds awesome. How about we make it a standard action, skill check with a relevant skill…”
Making up some mechanics on the fly for the Molotov and the ensuing flames, we continued with the session. The fire added a lot of tension and danger to the scene, and while it scared off the remnants of the attackers, the session ended with the party desperately trying to crash-land a flaming Zeppelin and save as many of the poor souls on board as they could before the whole thing blows up. Hey, they had to make up for letting Elfa Fitzgerald die at the hands of gnomish jewel thieves.
In short, it was awesome. Why? Because I rolled with it, instead of trying to block the idea (“no, you can’t do that”) or punish the player with vicious consequences for doing it (“You successfully throw a Molotov cocktail. The fire quickly spreads to the hydrogen chambers and you all die from burning, falling thousands of feet into the ocean, drowning, and then having your corpses eaten by piranhas.”)
When the DM is willing to roll with a player’s idea, that willingness becomes the difference between stupid and stupid-awesome.
I’m going to go for a brief interlude into edition warring, but I’d also say that 4e is great for this because it’s easy to come up with mechanics on the fly. Rather than busting out handbooks and looking through tables to see what they have to roll to throw a 10 pound object 40 feet, and what the radius is on the splash damage from 1.87 litres of flaming lamp oil, you can simply use a set DC for the players’ level, and tell them to roll whatever is most appropriate. I generally tell my players to just roll whatever skill makes sense to them. If they hit a hard DC, they do it no problem. If they hit a medium DC, they do it but I throw a complication at them. If they don’t hit a medium DC, I make it an interesting failure. By using this simple rule of thumb, I can adjudicate all kinds of wacky player ideas on the fly.
“But crimsyn,” some of you might say, “Aren’t you coddling your players by protecting them from the consequences of their actions? Isn’t the game meaningless if you don’t let them learn the hard way about the stupidity of their behaviour?”
Well, no. First off, stupidity is often in the eye of the beholder. The player wouldn’t be suggesting the idea if she didn’t think it was cool or had at least a fighting chance of success. Who am I to say their idea is stupid? Let them try it, and let the dice decide whether that was stupid or not.
Secondly, this is D&D. Our characters are supposed to be badasses. How many movie badasses can you name who are constrained by silly things such as physics – something which has no place in action movies or D&D games. Whenever anything arises at the table, we should be asking “how can this work?” rather than coming up with pathetic excuses – logic, physics, whatever – as to why it can’t.
Finally, we play games to have fun. And rolling with stupid-awesome ideas is much more fun than blocking them or punishing the players for following through with them.