I have observed GM punishing players by punishing their PCs, often through intentionally implausible, humiliating, and sometimes fatal events. Where and when does this GMing technique originate, and how did it catch on and become widespread in the community? What historical material created or popularised it, if any?

The question Should I leave this group or recover it? provides an example of this punishment behaviour.

Hackmaster 4e also incorporates this concept in the form of the GM Smackdown Tables and frequent (hilarious, presumably non-serious) suggestions for putting players in their place. Hackmaster was created as a parody of AD&D, drawing concepts from D&D play-group culture of the time, so it seems that this is an established part of gaming culture.

I'm more interested in the origin of punishments that have a (fake) in game justification, like "rocks fall, everyone dies" (not because of an actual trap) or "The tarrasque teleports on top of you and eats your face" rather than meta-game punishments that aren't translated into the narrative (e.g. lose 50 XP or one point of Good Stuff or something like that), though the line might be blurred.

As a reminder, you should support your answers with experience and/or (preferably and) citations. This is also not a debate on whether this behavior is acceptable or not. The best answer, I expect, would be something along the lines of:

X work was published, promoting this, having evolved from the author's experience with Y cultural stuff, and it gained traction with the larger community because of Z cultural/psychological stuff. The technique was further popularized by works P, Q, and eventually R (Hackmaster?) and remains prevalent to this day.


4 Answers 4


Actions have consequences

The published guidance on trouble players from the 1979 DMG (cited in @novak's answer) did not arise ex nihilo. While you can argue that there is some post hoc reasoning in this, @novak's second link shows that Gygax had strong opinions1 on how the game "should be played." That post shows that he didn't change his views on that over the course of thirty years. His opinions were woven into this game from its origin, as were Tim Kask's once he was hired as editor of Strategic Review, Blackmoor(Supplement II, OD&D) and then Dragon Magazine.

There is evidence in early TSR material (before AD&D 1e came out) of two themes:

  1. There is a proper way to play D&D. (And criticism for those not playing correctly).
  2. The DM messing with the players is expected, although the original intent reads that this is in order to make the game challenging enough to be "played properly." (Full disclosure: I tend to see it Kask's and Gygax' way regarding high level characters, so get offa my lawn!)

These two themes lay the foundation for the meta action of punishing the character(s) due to the player(s) "doing something wrong."

Surprising and tricking the players

Point 2 has been with us since at least Greyhawk (probably before, given Arneson's fluid style and continuous adjustments in to his little black notebook during the proto-D&D games in the Blackmoor campaign). It arrived (p. 61-65) in the Tricks and Traps additions. There is one entry that always struck me as "meta" game (DM versus players) in origin.

Fire-resistant mummies. Many players will get used to frying these monsters with oil. but watch the fun when they run into one of these critters!

This looks like a recursive loop of player-DM-player interaction during early play, and play test, that leaked into published material. (How do I beat this guy? I'm the DM! Here, this'll fool 'em!)

There's a right way to behave at the table

Gygax and some of his co-creators at TSR had strong ideas on how the game should be played, though it was a "wide open game" from the get go. Gygax said this in his explanation of Vancian Magic (Strategic Review, Volume 2 Number 2 (7th and last SR). He addresses it also in his article "D&D is only as good as the DM." (p. 22 of same issue)

... players ... in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s of levels ... have not really earned their standings, and their actual ability has no reflection on their campaign level, they are easily deflated (killed) in a game which demands competence in proportionate measure to players’ levels.

He alludes to DM "intervention" ...

This is not to say that you should never temper chance with a bit of “Divine Intervention,” but helping players should be a rare act on the referee’s part, and the action should only be taken when fate seems to have unjustly condemned an otherwise good player, and then not in every circumstance should the referee intervene.

The point made here isn't that hard to assess:

As the DM, you are to judge the conduct of the player and respond by doing something for the character (even if very rarely). In humans, that logic can be applied in a negative way as well as in a positive way. You can infer (@novak's DMG citation from 1979 supports this) Gygax' intent also being that you can punish a player by taking an action versus his character.1

If "Divine Intervention" can help, it can just as easily hurt, because it is an exercise of DM authority at the table. As a principle this folds into the meta concept of the DM having authority over "how the game should be played." The rules lawyer can try to use the power of his reasoning, the DM has other sources of power at his table. It's a people thing.

How hard is it for any of us GM's (who are supposed to be having fun too) to react to friction and negative energy when confronted with it by applying our GM tools? It is not that far to go from "you aren't playing properly" to (at table) "you aren't behaving properly1 and this is the consequence."

Dungeon Masters are entitled to a little fun too!(p. 23 of Strategic Review issue 7).

In summary, the points made in that issue of Strategic Review include:

  1. There is a proper way to play this game.

  2. Yes, you should use Vancian magic.

  3. No, level 30 campaigns aren't the real game.

  4. I'll act {fudge this dice roll} in my role as God/Luck/Fate/DM.

  5. There is a proper way to behave/perform at the table, and the DM is the judge of that.

Tim Kask alludes to "the correct way to play" in various writings before the AD&D 1e DMG came out. In the Forward to Eldritch Wizardry (TSR, 1976) he latched onto the "messing with players" theme.

When all the players had all of the rules in front of them, it became next to impossible to beguile them into danger or mischief. -- snip-- D & D was meant to be a free-wheeling game, only loosely bound by the parameters of the rules. We feel that ELDRITCH WIZARDRY goes a long way toward fulfilling the original premise of danger, excitement, and uncertainty.

Kask also makes clear that there was an idea about a correct way to play D&D (campaign level perspective) as shown by his disdain for super high level campaigns in the Forward to Supplement IV (Gods, Demigods, and Heroes) to D&D. This echoes Gygax's similar sentiments in Strategic Review.

This volume is something else, also: our last attempt to reach the "Monty Hall" DM's. Perhaps now some of the 'giveaway' campaigns will look as foolish as they truly are. This is our last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters. When Odin, the All-Father has only(?) 300 hit points, who can take a 44th level Lord seriously?

The idea that there is a "correct way" to play D&D came across in various Dragon magazine articles (which I no longer have, sadly) and editorials under the "Out On A Limb" (Gygax) and "the Cauldron"(Kask) features in Dragon.

The "correct way to play" and correct table behavior overlap. Who is in charge at the table, and who has authority to assign consequences (punishment) for improper behavior? The DM.

Experience With Referee/DM punishment of player behavior

Table Top game referees punishing difficult players is not unique to D&D. D&D grew out of table top miniature war gaming. (Forward to Men and Magic, Book I of OD&D, Gygax, November 1973). I offer an example of a GM punishing a player in a non-D&D case of a "Hand of God" punishment. This fits the question's desire for experiential evidence. The terms "referee" preceded "DM" in the early published version of Dungeons and Dragons as a carry over from Chainmail.

My first non-D&D experience with a game referee / judge laying a "Hand of God" on a player was during a Microarmor game circa 1977, played on a sand table: Germans versus Soviets, WW II, with a few hundred micro armor vehicles all over the table.

The fight was on hilly terrain with trees, houses and obstructions (we used mirrors and other tools to determine line of sight to see if a shot could be taken or not). The captain of the Soviet team was quite the rules lawyer, something we all knew. There was bickering during almost every turn. About two thirds of the way into the battle the Sov's were up on us. The Sov captain was denied two engagements across the creek (at my tank platoon, Panzer Mk IV) based on the judge's ruling for line of sight. The kvetching went into a higher gear.

The look on the referee's face was not pleasant to see. He picked up a small trowel and dug up the sand beneath the tank platoons across the creek from me (T-34c), upending and burying the vehicles there.

When asked "What was that all about?" his response was: "Call for fire, long range artillery barrage." (IIRC K18s).
My team captain, surprised: "What? I don't have any of those units."
Referee: "The Corps Commander's Storch was flying over head, and had an artillery spotter on board. They called in the fire."

This led to a protest of course, in a tone that was acrimonious.

Out came the trowel. The Soviet artillery battery behind the farm was dug up and buried.
Referee: "A Flight of Stukas just shot up your field artillery battery."

My team captain and I looked at each other and shut up. The game didn't end well.

GM's are human, and will only put up with so much grief. To put it in a way that better fits the question, people use power in different ways and in response to different stimuli. The use of situational power by a GM when confronted with a situation that is "wrong" by a large margin should not be surprising. Given that TSR's founders cut their teeth on miniatures gaming, it would not be surprising that they had run into something like this in that portion of their hobby. This was confirmed for me in the recently released film (funded by Kickstarter) The Secrets of Blackmoor; during the first half of the film Dave Wesley reminisced about the difficulty in finding referees, how various players would or would not prefer a game with a given referee, and how Dave Arneson grew as a referee in that gaming group to where he became a preferred one. He mentioned the problem of disagreements and arguments as a part of that recollection.

1 The second post in novak's answer:

... I recall composing those admonitions...and I note my expression was "Blue bolts from the heavens," implying as I suggested earlier lightning from an angry deity.

As a matter of fact I did not use them but when a player or players became obstreperous I simply rolled a d6 and informed the miscreants that their PCs had suffered that much damage. Unless they wanted more of the same, all misconduct had to cease. I did roll several d6 damage for a couple of very unruly and rebellious young players. When asked why their characters were taking such damage, I said because they had offended the rest of the group, me in particular, and if they wished to play further they had better note the damage, be silent, and mind their manners.

They did just that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Such a good answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – BprDM
    Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 15:48

The earliest official source I know of for punishment tactics in this vein is actually the First Edition Dungeon Master's Guide, 1979, E. Gary Gygax. The discussion is "Handling the Troublesome Player," described as "Those who enjoy being loud and argumentative, those who pout or act in a childish manner when things go against them, those who use the books as a defense when you rule them out of line." After some more standard-sounding advice (don't invite the player back, employ peer-pressure) the following paragraph appears:

Strong steps short of expulsion can be an extra random monster die, obviously rolled, the attack of an ethereal mummy (which always strikes by surprise, naturally), points of damage from "blue bolts from the heavens" striking the offender's head, or the permanent loss of a point of charisma (appropriately) from the character belonging to the offender. If these have to be enacted regularly, then they are not effective and stronger measures must be taken. Again, the ultimate answer to such a problem is simply to exclude the disruptive person from further gatherings.

This seems to be very much in the vein of "exceedingly implausible" (an ethereal mummy?) and "humiliating" (loss of charisma — the very mean-spiritedness of the tactics imply to me that long-running jokes will be born of this) events. As recently as 2006, Gygax was appearing in forums still hewing that line.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Well. That's pretty much the beginning, there. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 1:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for chatting. This question was marginal in the first place and if it just turns into a discussion forum we'll close it again. Contribute your own fact-based answers as you see fit. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 2:21

I honestly think it's just human nature. I've played in groups full of new players before, DMed by people new to the game, and they still weren't immune to doing this if they were angry at a player despite never having heard of doing this. The people who do this are also very often the same people who are vindictive in other areas of life as well, in my own personal experience.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You say DM; is experience of this limited to D&D players? (It's fine if it is, but it's interesting if this shows up outside D&D with players who have never played D&D.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 20, 2017 at 15:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I haven't really played many non-D&D systems. I've once played a WH40K RPG system run by a friend but he didn't do this stuff (but he doesn't do this when playing D&D either). I've also just become accustomed to, in general conversation, using DM and GM as perfectly interchangeable synonyms even though technically DM is only for D&D. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tom Dacre
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 20:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, to whoever downvoted, could you please explain why so that I may improve my answer? \$\endgroup\$
    – Tom Dacre
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 20:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the downvoting is because your answer is 1) very short and 2) entirely speculation. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 19:46

I'd say it's better thought of as an emergent property of the social dynamic between GMs and their players rather than an idea that people copy from some original instance. No GM needs to be told they can use their power to punish players, they might need to be told not to do so, or rather they need to be told when and how it's appropriate ("Because you tried to steal the dragon-emperor's divine underpants, which he was wearing at the time, in broad daylight, in front of his legion of super deathknights, while he was in the middle of thanking you for stopping the evil dire-badger plot, said legion of super deathknights dog pile you and haul you off to prison.") and inappropriate ("Because you won't date me (or my GMPC) you now have a penalty to all rolls until you change your mind.")


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