Zombie Murder Mystery

Oops! How to Gracefully Recover from a DM Mistake

Written by Janna - Published on January 6, 2009

DMs have botched encounters since the dawn of time. In the image above, St. George slays a dragon – that DM must have screwed up!

The art of quick recovery

You’ve pitted your party against an evil monster renowned for its superhuman toughness. So imagine your surprise when the PCs cut through your antagonist like butter. Scanning the monster’s stat block, you realize – ¾ of the way through the encounter – that you haven’t been incorporating the creature’s damage resistance. That explains the cake walk your players have been enjoying. Have you failed as a DM?

Of course not. Let’s be honest here: the game table is a semi-controlled sea of chaos at the best of times, and there are a zillion stats and mechanics for DMs to remember. It’s no wonder we sometimes make mistakes. But while you shouldn’t do anything drastic (like seppuku), you should have a plan in place for how you’ll handle the inevitable “Doh!” moments.

Step One: Stay Calm

Gamers are a pretty understanding group. As long as they don’t think you’re being dishonest, they’ll probably be sympathetic to your plight. Let he who is without mistakes cast the first d20.

Step Two: Own Your Mistake

If your party is halfway through a spirited encounter, don’t force them to start over so that you can play the monster the right way. This is lame and detracts from the fun. Just admit that you flubbed up, and figure out a way to repair the damage.

Step Three: Repair the Damage

You might have to think on the fly, but there are ways to repair the damage done by a DM goof. To continue with our example of the too-easy arch enemy: let the encounter play out, but come up with a way to increase the difficulty. Maybe the monster has some buddies just around the corner who jump into the fray. Maybe it has a magic item or ability that kicks in when the creature becomes bloodied. Or maybe it has a way to use healing surges. Can it split into two creatures, or summon allies from another plane? Just because you made a mistake at the beginning of the encounter doesn’t mean you have to leave things as they are.

Having trouble with combat encounters not being much of a fight? We can suggest 18 ways to increase combat duration!

Step Four: Do Better Next Time

Write yourself a note, use post-its, or just brainwash yourself until you remember the forgotten bit of information that you left out last time. Mistakes happen. But when they happen repeatedly, there’s definitely room for improvement.

Honesty is the Best Policy

If your party encounters the same monster in the future, one of your players will doubtlessly sense something’s amiss if the creature has damage resistance that wasn’t there before. To avoid suspicion, just explain to your players that you forgot to utilize one of the monster’s powers this time around, and that the monster will be significantly more challenging when next they meet it. If they laugh, they’re laughing with you, not at you. (Okay, you’re right. They’re laughing at you.) But it’s better to let your pride take a bruising than to let the players think you’re changing the rules because you’re out to get them.

Have you made a truly epic DM mistake? Did you catch it in time, or did it cause havoc in the party? Let us know so we can all point, laugh, and sympathize with you!

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Written by Janna

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20 Responses to “Oops! How to Gracefully Recover from a DM Mistake”

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  1. Cyclone Says:

    Good Advice!

    This has not happened to me yet (and hopefully it never will), but I do often forget conditions and afflictions that both sides suffer from.

    Luckily my players are an absent minded lot….

  2. Salamander Says:

    Honesty is the best policy? Pff! Lie, I say. Lie through your teeth. Thats what your dm screen is for!

  3. Drekey Says:

    this has happened to me a few times. Once i forgot the OGD from a Orche Jelly, and lately i lost track of a construct HP in the middle of the frey.

    for the first one i talked to the players and we started using the OGD from there on, but for the latter i just account as if the construct as just been bloodied and kept myself quiete, not to bother the players.

    It happens a lot more though to my players. They often forget attack bonus, magic items and usefull tatics. I try to help them as much as i can but… should i?

  4. Jonathan Says:

    This has happened to me a couple of times.

    If I forget to apply something the players have no way of being aware of (such as HP), I usually estimate and move on.
    If it’s something where the players would notice (such as an immediate reaction that can be used any time someone moves next to the creature), I usually start using it thereafter. After all, the monsters might have chosen not to use it. If someone points it out, I simply tell them it was something I forgot about.
    I will try to even things out by adding a couple of monsters next time though, I hadn’t thought of that…

    When it happens to the players, as Drekey mentionned, I usually try to help them, pointing out things that would seem obvious to the characters. Things like “if you stop there, you will be immobilized” or “shooting an arrow from there will leave an opening for the dwarf to attack you, are you sure you want to do that?”
    If on the other hand, the characters have no way of knowing that something will happen, I obviously won’t help them, let them find out the hard way :). After all, experiencing it is the best way to learn, if not the kindest.

    Still need to figure out a few ways to help the players if they get in over their heads. For example, they have a knack for attracting several encounters at once. Last time, they discretely opened a door, saw the dwarves, closed the door, went to the next one, were spotted and then fled towards the dwarves… Any ideas?

  5. Wampus Says:

    Auras are the hardest thing for me to remember as a DM (in 4e). Their numbers are in a different place in the stat block, and they move around with the critter. I’ve taken to printing them in red on the init card I use.

  6. Drekey Says:

    Well you could always pull an “Old Kung-fu Flick” on them, and have the baddies wait in turn for attacking. But the players will feel that you’re being benevolent.

    Other way is to make a sudden alteration to your dungeon on the fly. Its heavier on the campaign but its easy to pull off. I use this more often then I should actually, ( I should let them pay for pulling more then they can shew ) but I often create a trap door or even an unseen lever that can kill half the monster horde with a good hit. That way they don’t really have to fight them all, just to push some of them into a place. I’ve also used cliffs, rolling boulders, etc.

    The last but not least. Just dumb up the monsters. “So you’re facing the 3 tralls all by yourself… one of them seam to be more interested in some pretty bird up in the mountain, but the other two mean business”… that sort of thing.. it can generate some comic momentes and no one seams to care that instead of 3 tralls, they’re actually fighting 1 trall, 1 trall is trying to make the other one fight and the last of them is just trying to make the pretty bird come down and play. Of course when the first trall goes down, the other two feel and huge urge to revenge their brother.

    Don’t know if they are good ideas but i’ve used them so far and no one seams offended… hope it helped…

    On the helping the players issue, I mean helping them out with their bonus and stuff, not with strategy, there I stand where you stand. “Don’t forget the dire bear behind you.”…

  7. Mike Lee Says:

    Great post. I disagree on one point.

    I think you should own your mistakes SILENTLY. Don’t tell the players you flubbed because it steals their glory. Telling them that the creature is tougher than you’re playing it, makes for a hollow victory. This like an actor who announces to the audience that he forgot his line. Don’t be that guy. Just make something up, and keep it going. Do what you can for damage control, and let the encounter continue without interruption. If the players are having fun, then you haven’t flubbed at all.

  8. Drekey Says:

    Mike Lee: Yeah that makes sense too :)

  9. Saragon Says:

    It’s never happened to me, but it HAS happened to the DM of the D&D 3.5 game I’m currently in – he was running SOME sort of monster, can’t recall which (it was quite early in the game), and he forgot one of its special abilities that would have made the fight much tougher (and which the monster would have used). His solution was simple: When we examined the body afterwards, he described it as missing that particular bit of anatomy – presumably from another fight – and unable to use that particular ability as a result. (Thinking about it more, it may have been an ankheg missing its acid sac.) That provided a believable explanation for why that particular monster didn’t act as expected.

  10. Janna Says:

    @ Jonathan: As for helping players who keep getting in over their heads, you could always make a few of the monsters into “minions”. That usually means they’ve got better AC than their buddies, they do a set amount of damage, and they fall from the first hit they take. If that turns out to be too easy, keep a lurking monster on standby. My PCs recently struggled through a battle with a band of drow, never realizing that a drider was poised to drop on their heads if the encounter had been too easy. :) Also, if the party is low level or lacks a cleric, keep a healer NPC in town who can raise dead.

    @ Mike Lee: Good point! I should have clarified that, if it’s a mistake nobody will ever notice, you should run with it. But some players get suspicious, at which point I’d fess up.

  11. Jonathan Says:

    @ Drekey : Thanks for the suggestions. I agree with the dumbing monsters up a little, I’ll try that sometime.
    On the other hand, I don’t think my players would be fooled by a trap hitting the monsters. It would seem weird if the monsters have been wandering around the dungeon for months, but never noticed that particular trap. One could argue that in their rage they forgot about it, but I don’t think my players would buy it.

    I usually do remind them about their bonuses, but not about their powers. Unless they are on the verge of annihilation, in which case I do suggest the use of powers or items they may have forgotten. I figure their character would probably not forget that he still has the daily power from his dwarven armor that can heal him…

    @ Janna : I am very much in favor of replacing a couple of monsters with minions, thanks for the idea ! Just recently my players have been complaining about there not being any more minions (I am currently running the H2 adventure, I don’t think there are any minions at all…)

  12. Questing GM Says:

    One of our DM made a mistake once and it ended up in a TPK. We realized the mistake after that but we just laughed it off together as a group. It became an inside joke for us too.

  13. Janna Says:

    @ Questing GM: When a flub-up becomes an inside joke, it’s the very best kind of flub-up. :)

  14. Hmott Says:

    Wow, nobody has any hilarious stories.. I thought for sure there’d be a dozen or so. Sadly, I don’t have one either ;(

  15. Janna Says:

    @ Hmott: I was kind of hoping the same thing. But I’ve got nothing. My crew was fighting a group of gricks in a cavern one night, and I forgot to factor in their physical resistance. But other than the look on my face when I realized what I’d done, there was nothing hilarious about it. Sorry! :/

  16. Jonathan Says:

    @ Hmott : I keep racking my brains, but I can’t remember any funny story that involved the DM making a mistake. Except that once the party noticed a trap, but during the fight I (the DM) forgot about it and sent one of the monsters through there. When the players pointed it out, I figured it deserved to fall into the trap, so it died (it was a minion).

    Doesn’t seem all that funny told like this, but it was funny at the time :). Actually, that was the time they were fighting kruthiks and I forgot about their aura that deals damage each turn to anyone standing too close… In my defense, I will point out that it was about 4 in the morning and I was tired :).

  17. Gabriel Says:

    I have been running a group of 11th level characters. They got there with the deck of many things, but they wanted to play with it so i let them. Needless to say a few weren’t heard from again.
    But i digress. After i took the deck away from my player with a gambling problem i gave them the choice of whether or not to run into Tarrasque. I dumbed it down of course. He only had 1 attack per round. Where i messed up though was forgetting regeneration and the killing blow that came from the wizard i decided not to bite in half. He flew up Tarrasque’s nose and in a few rounds cut and blasted his way to the brain. If you’re not familiar with Frostburn theres a spell called flesh to ice which turns a medium creature into ice, no saving throw, just ice. We all reasoned that the brain was roughly medium in size. So, tarrasque’s brain froze and he died.

    I didn’t give them xp for it because we all agreed it was just a What if fight and it had been dumbed down alot.

    They each found a major magic item in his snot though.

  18. Snakeyes Says:

    I was DMing with the new dragons, they were fighting a green one if I remember correctly. It went down super quick, the whole time I was wondering why it was so easy. When they killed it I realized it gets an attack of opportunity everytime someone starts their turn adjacent to it>.< oh well.

  19. Josh Says:

    Ha, I recently started DMing my first campaign in 5 years (haven’t played in that long either, so the rules were all nice and fuzzy). One of my group is a rules lawyer, but frequently gets the rules wrong, and he convinced the rest of the party that a platinum piece was worth 100 gold, rather than 10 gold.

    I couldn’t figure it out, because the loot that I gave them wasn’t supposed to be so rediculous. I let it slide, thinking that not much could come from it. I was very wrong. The whole group ended up buying level 20 equipment at level 7. Being a guy with a heart, and knowing that I was running a super-campaign anyway, I let them keep their equipment.

    I eventually balanced this folly out with some traps that destroyed random magic items (I wrote up a list of their items, put it on a table, and assigned number to each item, made them roll a d20 to see what item got destroyed and a will save to try to keep their items.)

    So, after a few level bumps and some of those items disappearing, the party is well-balanced(ish) again, and they can actually have a challenge against whatever they are facing. Good times.

  20. theSnark Says:

    It wasn’t the real monster; it was just an illusion!(or clone or whatever) *gasp!* The real monster is still loose in the dungeon!

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