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While playing a game with a previous group, in the middle of a combat, I had an enemy caster hidden from general combat, but still casting different spells like heal and other non-damage spells to support the enemies. My PCs never thought to look for him and were becoming frustrated when I would seemingly randomly add health or other effects to the ones they were engaged with.

To make matters worse, I rolled a dice to randomly pick a party member and just told that character to make a will saving throw without telling him why. When he failed, I handed him a note that told him the enemy I was using had just crazed him, and on his next turn before attacking he had to roll a d6: 1-4 was party member he had to attack, 5 was he attack an enemy, and 6 was damage self in some fashion. He rolled a 2 and attacked the corresponding PC. He ended up dealing a critical and killing that PC. At that point anarchy broke out at my table with ensuing fights and eventually two people getting up and just leaving.

The caster wasn't impossible to see; the PCs were just more concerned with beating things up and I tried to indicate he was there. At one point, I did everything but put a giant flashing sign saying "there's someone in that thicket". Three different times, the guy's raven familiar flew from that location, touched an enemy, and returned to thicket. At the end, while explaining to the players, I asked them if they never thought that was suspicious. They all told me they thought it was just a bird and wanted to know how they were supposed to know it wasn't just a regular raven. There was even a sorcerer in the party who had a familiar, who never said anything during the encounter; he just kept spam-casting.

I didn't even intend on this situation to be a combat encounter. The PCs were supposed to be looking for the enemy that was in hiding to obtain some info. Instead, they got to a camp and never stopped to figure out if the people were hostile or not: they just got murder happy. They all knew the spellcaster 1) should have been there 2) was a high powered individual 3) was a recluse who was opposed to conflict.

My question is: was I wrong as DM to force the player to attack other characters? Is that within my power?

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Since it seems the players are a bit hack & slash loving, but if they want to continue to play D&D, you may want to look at this question to get them to be a bit less... murderous: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/8002/… –  Ze Demon Pyro Feb 23 at 0:04
    
Sounds like you weren't all expecting the same kind of game: bankuei.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/the-same-page-tool –  AlbeyAmakiir Feb 23 at 23:00

12 Answers 12

up vote 51 down vote accepted

Yes, that was fine. You're their GM, not their mommy.

A lot of this comes down to the kind of game you all play. Statements like "dice rolls should never kill a character" or "you should never have hidden enemies" are total BS. Those are valid agreed-upon social contract items for your group, but they are not generally true statements. Players in my group would recoil in horror at the thought of having either of those rules in place.

Now, some of the problem may be a lack of common understanding of the kind of game you are all in, and it's worth a discussion about what you consider to be the parameters of your campaign - how can characters die, what kind of tactics are fair, etc.

Hidden Casters

This is fine. PCs love to put on Invisibility and cast spells, bad guys can too. I just ran a game two weeks ago where there were melee opponents and then an invisible summoner who was doing a lot of stuff. The PCs figured that spell effects don't just come from nowhere, made Perception checks, cast Invisibility Purge, bing bang boom. Of course, they're smart players... With the familiar, you telegraphed this pretty hard.

Mind Control

OK, players never like mind control, but there's 100 spells that do it and fear you or confuse you or charm you or dominate you. It's a part of the game. Also a valid tactic. Some people claim that this caused the other PC to die with "nothing they could do about it." That's patently false - they have as much as they can do about it as when they get attacked by any other threat (have a higher AC?). There's not always a specific "roll to avoid dying" in D&D. If this was a summoned creature or invisible creature or teleporting-in creature or any number of other things, it would be the exact same lethality.

Maturity

The real problem here is likely one of more of a combination of common understanding of what can happen in the game and maturity. I suspect you're newer gamers and perhaps young. I suspect some of these folks would "flip out" in the same way if they lost a big fight in a MMO or a basketball game, right? That's just general social maturity and what do do about that is out of scope of RPG.SE.

But there's also the issue of newer gamers not knowing all what could happen. If it's the first time they see an invisible caster, then it's quite a shock. Once you've been gaming 20 years that's instead like about the first thing you check for if anything unexplained happens. We have various "if person X gets mind controlled" countermeasures planned out. But for new gamers, the combination of the unexpected with general emotional trouble dealing with loss is a hard combination.

Once you get folks back, it may be worth using this as a teaching opportunity. "Yes, that was hardcore, right? You can do the same thing, be trickier than your opponents! Now roll a new character even more bad ass than the last one!" "Old school" gaming was a continual exercise in this exact thing - requiring you to actually think about what you're doing and not just run forward and grind - and people loved/love it. If they want to play a different kind of game ("I don't ever want to die! I want save points because I was born after the year 1995! And nothing should ever hinder my character, mentally or physically!") then you can negotiate the kind of game you want to run and they all want to play.

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I voted for this answer, but it's a little condescending –  Eric B Feb 21 at 22:25
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I don't think it was condescending, it rings true to me. I would emphasize that players rarely like mind control. That doesn't mean don't use it, it's part of the game and legitimate. But do approach with caution and don't over use it. –  TimothyAWiseman Feb 21 at 22:31
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"You're not their mommy" is pretty condescending. It's not wrong, though. –  Tridus Feb 21 at 22:47
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It's meant to be a little condescending to those who think that "easy mode" is the only way a RPG can be played. I'm pretty dismayed at the absolutist statements to that effect in some of the other answers. –  mxyzplk Feb 21 at 23:54
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@mxyzplk Fair enough. It is good to have this style of game play represented in the answers. –  Tridus Feb 22 at 0:01

To directly answer the question: no, you did not overstep your power. I completely see where you were coming from. Had I been your player, I would hope I would have gotten the note and said, "Ooooh! I should have seen that coming!"

I suspect you might be interested in the related question, "How do I avoid having this sort of group breakdown happen?"

When the players are doing things that appear insane to you, ask them what they're thinking.

It's hard to overstate that. When the players are doing stuff that doesn't make any sense (like ignoring the raven), it often means that your understanding of the game world isn't aligned with theirs. This is particular common for things that should be obvious to the character, but the player is overlooking. It can be hard to ask a question that flat out points to something you were hoping would be a little subtle, but if the risk is people rage quitting, I think it's worth it. Once you identify the difference, you correct it and with a bit of luck, things move forward better.

In this particular situation, I would have something like the following, tuning based on earlier answers:

  1. Who are you fighting? (Make sure they realize these guys are probably affiliated with the spellcaster.)

  2. Assuming you win, what do you expect to do next? (Perhaps the players thought this was a preliminary fight before another fight that included the spellcaster. Such a mindset seems nuts to me as a GM, but I know I've done stupider things as a player.)

  3. What's up with the bird? (You might have learned here that the players thought it was background color? A good point to nudge the sorcerer, who presumably would consider the possibility of a familiar being used to manage touch spells.)

Relatedly, you might want to double-check what your players want. Some groups want a roller coaster right, heavily on rails, where they go from entertaining fight to entertaining fight. If that's what they want, and you're running a different game, a problem is almost inevitable.

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In my opinion, you were running an intelligent campaign, the only thing I might disagree with was the critical hit. It seems to me that a critical hit while under any kind of mind control would be nearly impossible as a critical hit would require a degree of near perfection that a typical character would be incapable of under those circumstances.

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Please don't answer with opinions, only with facts. –  Ze Demon Pyro Feb 23 at 20:54
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A critical hit doesn't necessarily mean skill. Could just be a matter of good or bad luck. Sometimes a critical can be the exact opposite of what you want. If you're just trying to wound an enemy (deal some lethal damage without killing), but critical and kill them it may mean your character misjudged the strike and hit a vital artery or organ. You wanted to taunt your opponent by slicing his belt but accidentally cut him in two... Under mind control it'd be the same thing: You swung at your ally and hit something vital, skilfully or not. –  Jason_c_o Apr 18 at 21:51
    
@ZeDemonPyro Opinion here is fine because OP is essentially asking for an opinion on the encounter and if he made a mistake that could have been avoided. "Yes, you were wrong, at least in this way" is a valid answer, a valid opinionated answer. My problem with the answer is it doesn't really try to elaborate on why or back it up with Good-Subjective experience. –  Jason_c_o Apr 18 at 21:55

I have ran into situations like this. Depending on the age/maturity of the group, when things get too hairy and I have an "ambush" npc somewhere, I normally would cause a "bit" of chaos and then have the ambusher walk away. Since your PC's decided to go "fangs out" and go full combat on a pretty much innocent group, I would have used this as a lesson to them. A simple "Wall of " between the combatants after a time and then a loud and smoky "poof" from the location of the hiding spot. That, and hearing the hidden NPC's voice call out 'What a waste!" should be enough to get even the most ignorant PC's attention to the fact that this combat was not needed and that the NPC that they were looking for just left town. Some other things would be to reiterate to the characters about the conditions of the current quest. Such as "Your character suddenly remembers that NPC Joe is a hermit and would probably not be in an encampment of more than 2 people, much less be this close to the road." etc. Just remember, if you are going to pull sneakies in the game, warn the players in the beginning that this is a "thinking" game and not just a hack and slash. (By the way I have a slightly used Slain by a Dragon Sword for sale, if you want it! i.e. example of one of my favorite sneakies. Talk fast or become a Roasted PC Snack.)

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This isn't really an answer to the question. –  mxyzplk Feb 23 at 4:34

To summarize:

  • Players are to find Yoda who is suspected to live in or near a camp.
  • Despite being on a scouting missions, players raid the (up until then peaceful) camp without need or provocation, just for killing fun.
  • Defenders are mysteriously being healed and buffed, evidently either by divine intervention or by a high level spellcaster. The DM is figuratively holding up a sign with "Guys, this is senseless, you are not going to win this battle" written on it.
  • A raven appears for no obvious reason, attacks a player, and disappears again -- several times in series. At least one party member has a familiar of his own.
  • The battle is going nowhere, and it isn't helping with the plot either.
  • Finally the DM decides that Yoda probably shouldn't fry the party with a couple of fireball spells (although he could!), but still wants to give a bit of a stronger hint to cease battle.
  • The roll goes bad, and the crazed player crit-hits a party member, killing him.
  • Now everybody is whining.

Dying isn't fun, but one character dead when the whole party more or less deserved being wiped is still very reasonable, if you ask me. Only because it's a game doesn't mean you are allowed to behave completely jack-ass and still expect to get out unharmed.
You are of course allowed to make mistakes, and if your DM kills you on the first occasion, then that's a bad DM for sure. It's still a game, and it's about having fun.

However, if you purposely get yourself in trouble and then keep refusing to back off even though the DM is sending a very clear message, you've decided for your character's destiny. What would you do if players decide to strip naked and run a frontal attack on an adult dragon, wielding only wooden spoons? Should the dragon not be allowed to use its breath weapon because, hey, dying isn't fun for the players?

In other words, no, this isn't a case of overstepping DM powers. The way it ended was just bad luck, but the approach was good.

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No, you didn't. Roleplaying as an activity has a default "fog of war", where players are not necessarily informed of things that their PCs wouldn't know. This is true regardless of whether it's a mystery investigation or a fight. What the players don't know could kill them.

In this case, failing to anticipate threats did get one of them killed, and it sounds like it was well earned through ignoring several warning signs, on top of ignoring the intel they did have. In D&D especially, which is a game of skillful use of the PCs' situation, there's only so much the GM can do to save players from their own blunders without playing the game "for" them.

So this isn't overreach... but that doesn't meant it couldn't have been handled better. If your players were used to having an omniscient view of the battlefield during the "combat mode" of the game, then they may have naturally assumed that, during a fight, all opponents and factors would be on the table, literally and figuratively. This kind of implied social contract can lead to people feeling like the shared agreement for how the game runs has been broken when anything about the game changes.

There are two different ways to handle this so that introducing new dynamics into a game doesn't upset the implicit social contract of the group:

  1. Make the social contract explicit at the beginning. In this case, it sounds like something like this would have been an appropriate conversation starter for your game:

    "I'm going to run this game as if the characters are real people in a real world. Expect NPCs to be as clever as you are. Also expect that if you start getting complacent, or start assuming you know things that your characters couldn't know for sure, that the game world will not be kind about it. An example would be, say, monster stats: if you get into a fight assuming you know the numbers, prepare to be very wrong."

  2. Alternatively, introduce change in ways that are mostly benign at first, to demonstrate that their assumptions aren't correct. Then later you can introduce threats that aren't obvious, now that they know that they are not safe when they make assumptions. Not every group likes having an explicit social contract; this is a way you can lead them toward understanding how you run your game, without immediately punishing them before they have the chance to correct their assumptions.

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I'd like this answer a little better if it went into the situation beyond the usual "get the group on the same page" advice. –  mxyzplk Feb 22 at 0:00
    
@mxyzplk Eh, it was just going to be "no, you're good, players be spoiled", but then I figured explaining the disconnect would be good. The fixes for the disconnect are limited since it's getting pretty far off the core question. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 22 at 0:06
    
This doesn’t mention the mind-control, which a lot of players find highly problematic. This answer would be completely right, IMO, if it was just a hidden enemy, but the mind-control at least bears some mentioning. –  KRyan Feb 22 at 0:21
    
Yeah, I get it, it's just that it's a slightly improved version of the "here's the same page tool" response to every single GM problem question... It's true but not specific enough. –  mxyzplk Feb 22 at 0:39

My answer is basically that, depending on what is agreed within a particular group of players as part of the social contract, any or all of the other answers given could be correct. There is an existing question about what a social contract is here.

I have played in some groups where it is has explicitly been agreed that PC death is off the table unless the player concerned is happy for it to happen. However, this is not my personal style as GM, and when I run games I make it clear at the start that I will let the dice lay where they fall and that PCs will get no special protection. Other games rule out the possibility of control being taken away from players. The list of possibilities goes on and on...

So, my answer is that you haven't stepped over the mark, but equally, it would have been better to discuss this type of thing at the start of the campaign and get agreement from all players as to what was and wasn't allowed. As you didn't do it then, I would strongly advise that you have that discussion at the beginning of the next session so everyone understands and agrees the situation moving forward.

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The outcome of every encounter is your responsibility as DM. That's why your dice rolls are secret. So yes, you bear responsibility for getting your players into a corner where they ended up killing each other and bad feelings caused a row.

Being a DM is art, and psychology, and downright parenting at some level. What I might have done differently:

1) Asked for perception checks when the hidden spellcaster acted. He was invisible; was he muffled? Was he casting spells with a verbal component? Was he using physical components that could be smelled?

The reason for the perception check is irrelevant; the point is, the players would have known at the meta level that there was more to this encounter than they realized. This is part of your toolkit for managing players.

1a) Heck, if the invisible spellcaster is too effective, make him visible (for a fun and logical reason).

2) If a fight breaks out where you don't want a fight to break out, use your in-game resources to end the fight quickly and smoothly. Ex: The players could wake up a in a jail cell not knowing how they were defeated. Or someone powerful enough to make them retreat shows up. The fact that you let the melee go on, and become lethal, was your fault. Heck, the opponents could have retreated!

3) Not let the encounter escalate to lethality. I am part of the camp of not letting the players die through bad luck. More than that, they should be allowed to try things and fail without fatal consequences. (Gamasutra had a great article on this related to video games last week).

There is a school of thought that characters should always roll their own saves. I find that philosophy impractical. In this case, I might have rolled the player's saves for them against the hidden caster and used my thumb on the scale to keep the hidden caster from dominating the battle.

4) Never, never pit two players against each other (unless it's that type of game from the start). I've used various tricks where characters have to act against their will in combat, but pitting player vs. player in combat doubles the importance of #3.

My personal style would have been, instead of passing a note, telling the player "Your character attacks Tom's character". Since I take the choice away I take responsibility. This might still result in a lethal roll, but at least the players can blame me instead of each other.

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Never kill a player only because of bad luck

That's far from universally accepted, but I think lame deaths as that anger players.

One player (A) lost a character because:

a) Another player (B) failed a saving throw. b) B rolled a 2 on a D6. c) B scored a critical roll.

Result: he lost his character without being able to do anything at it.

I generally avoid killing player characters because of bad rolls. If a character dies is because:

  • He took very bad decisions.
  • He got into unnecessary troubles, or went against a powerful enemy without outsmarting him.
  • He took great risk in hope of great reward or in an act of heroism.
  • He was killed by another player (I try to avoid this, but I can't deny players their free will).

How could you have avoided the situation? Well, mind controlling enemies are logical, and you can't avoid them to use smart resources. But if your player died because of bad luck, or he couldn't do anything to avoid it, simply rule that he is unconscious and not mortally wound.

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I'm not sure how to feel about this answer - I don't think that saying 'no-one can ever die unless they do something very risky/another player kills them' will improve a game, since everyone will be complacent about all 'normal' encounters. However, I agree with your point about Player B's bad luck killing Player A being a less-desirable outcome. –  Dakeyras Feb 21 at 23:29
    
I'd rather die by a bad dice roll than by an arbitrary decision of the DM. It also takes the risk out of most combat if you don't acknowledge the dice, so what would be the point? –  Jason_c_o Apr 18 at 21:47
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@Jason_c_o I said nothing about killing characters by arbitrary DM's decisions. I talked more about their players decisions. Also I didn't say to never acknowledge the dice. I said not to kill a character only because of bad luck. –  Flamma Apr 18 at 22:31

Did you overstep the bounds?

Probably not. As long as you were giving the pcs appropriate chances to notice and make any appropriate roles to spot the hidden character, then it was perfectly legitimate tactic that a smart enemy might use and might even organize their entire squad around exploiting the tactic.

It hearkens to the use of things like ambushes, snipers, and even artillery in real life and it is totally legitimate.

Was it smart?

Well, it was certainly a smart tactic for defeating the PCs, or at least harrassing them. But, this is a game about having fun more than competing. And it is most certainly not GM vs. Players.

Given that, it is not smart to use any tactic that reduces fun. The GM should instead be focused on increasing the fun, not just using brutal challenges.

How to improve.

Creative tactics used by the enemy in combat can add diversity and help make things more fun. With that said, they need to be tactics that the players have a real shot of overcoming and where appropriate a real shot of figuring it out.

As part of that, this might have worked better if it had been foreshadowed to start with. Perhaps before going into the fight they heard that a hostile group exhibited strange behavior like healing and that some of their enemies took wounds without apparant cause.

That way they wouldn't be surprised when it happened, and would start looking for a reason during the fight Also, during the fight you could have dropped increasing more obvious hints that something else was interfering that they should look for. Along with that of course, they need to get their rolls to try to check the caster, who isn't just huddled and observing but is actually doing things. And if you describe the terrain well enough, they might start thinking about where the enemy might be hiding a caster and start doing area denial attacks like dropping fireballs over possible areas to see if anyone screams or reacts.

I would also tread very lightly on any enemy effects that take away the character's agency, like say crazed. In the right type of game with the right setting, using mind influencing powers might be fully justified (this was big in Vampire: The Masquerade), but tread lightly, especially in a tactical game. You as the gm control the whole world, they as players only control their character, and if you take that away you take away everything.

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@gareththeelf If you feel the need to "punish" players, you need to step back. The DM's goal is to run the game, not to punish people because they're annoying you. –  Tridus Feb 22 at 2:02
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As long as @gareththeelf 's NPC had that spell on his list and/or memorized, and therefore wasn't pulling it out of thin air, it's totally within his rights as a GM to smack around a party being willfully obtuse. EVERYTHING he mentioned in his initial post screams that these guys were just using combat as an all-encompassing solution, when clearly that's what Gareth had been trying to warn against. So maybe Gareth and his players need to decide whether the game is just going to be a hack-n-slash or if they want to play an immersive role-playing campaign. –  Squish Feb 22 at 20:33

There are two problems I see here. I wouldn't say that either one really constitutes overreaching, but they were problematic for other reasons.

You shouldn't have introduced "hidden enemy" tactics with a spellcaster. Every player knows that when things happen which you don't expect, you need to investigate why. But mid-combat really isn't a good time to go investigating things, and if the characters have never encountered the tactic before, I can understand why they would prioritize dealing with the baddies they knew were trying to kill them.

Better ways to handle this would have included:

  • Make your first "hidden enemy" a sniper with a bow and arrows. Direct damage from an unknown source makes it more obvious that someone is hiding, which will prompt a search pretty much immediately. Once the players know that sometimes baddies hide, then you can try it with a caster in later fights.
  • If you have to use a caster and the players aren't looking, flush the caster out overtly. An injured baddie, delirious with pain, might rush the thicket while begging to be healed. Or maybe a wild shot (allied or enemy) goes into the thicket and everyone hears a scream: the caster was unexpectedly hit.

The 'crazed' spell was too powerful. Your problem here was that the die was heavily loaded in favor of attacking the players. Better ways to handle this might have been:

  • Assign each character on the field -self, friend, and foe- a number on the die, and roll that to determine the target. This produces something that's still random, but has a balance that the players are more likely to see as fair.
  • Tell the player to attack "the nearest creature." This is how the analogous effect on the standard confusion spell works, and may still result in the character attacking an ally, or it might result in the character attacking an enemy. But it gives the PCs a chance to figure out what's going on and mitigate the problem.
  • Negate the crit. The character is still in there, and while he can't fight the spell enough to stop the attack completely, he can throw it off just enough to keep the hit from going critical.

But that's all postmortem stuff. How, then, to handle things going forward?

Honestly, I'd retcon the crit down to a regular hit if this would be enough to stop the PC from dying, and say the players heard a quickly-stifled victory cry from the thicket (the caster got excited). It's a small change: the PC isn't dead, and now the players know about the hidden caster, but they're still in trouble. They can move forward from there.

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In general for DMing or Roleplaying in general, if you make it apparent that something is up and give several clues, it can be fair game. Keep in mind they need to know what they are looking for. It could have been an item the NPC's had, the room itself, or DM powers for the sake of story. It doesnt sound like you adequately described the whole situation to them.

That said, most magic does require a certain amount of Line of Sight. Line of sight is a two way street. It also typically involves sonomatic (movement and gestures) and verbal components. Failing to make them aware of such things or even hinting of them puts the DM at fault. A caster that isnt using skill checks to conceal what they are doing is blatantly going through the motions and verbalization all while able to see the party. The party should be able to at least see the motion or hear the chants.

Advice for a solution? Retcon if tension runs too high, or try and play it as the pieces have landed if the players are ok with it.

Addendum: You can cast Invisiblity and still do non damaging things but it does not make you silent. Also, rule number one whether player or DM: Dont be a dick. Just because you CAN do something doesnt mean you SHOULD.

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That doesnt explain how the hidden caster was made aware to them. Yes, they might be a fault for being a bunch of "Murder Hobos" but if they were not aware or made aware of the caster who ultimately disrupted the whole encounter then part of the blame lies on the DM. They arent able to see the scenes you lay out for them in your mind unless you precisely and accurately articulate it for them. EDIT: If they arent familiar with that ability they wouldnt notice anything out of the ordinary...just something happening and some seemingly innocent woodland creature. –  user3303373 Feb 21 at 21:00
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@user3303373 What "innocent woodland creature" just flies up in the middle of combat, touches someone, then flies back to where it came from multiple times? The very fact that he said that once should have been a pretty big hint... –  Ze Demon Pyro Feb 21 at 22:44
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-1 If it's in the rules, and a fairly standard tactic (you can't honestly say that hiding in a bush is an exotic tactic, can you?), and the players expect it to work a certain way for them, then having different rules for NPCs would be the abuse of DM power. And simply retconning situations where the PCs act stupidly is something I personally find horrible. Take the dice as they fall, and turn it into a story. And if the players can't handle it, they should be playing a different game. D&D is about killing things while they try and kill you, and if you can't take that, change system. –  Dakeyras Feb 21 at 23:35

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