Unlucky GM Syndrome: What To Do When You’re Rolling Horribly

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0024

A Brief Word From Johnn

Last week, on The Art Of Game Mastering discussion list sponsored by Wizards of the Coast [ http://www.wizards.com/lists/ ], an interesting discussion about GM bad-luck streaks popped up. I thought this would be a useful topic to all GMs, regardless of game systems you play. The posts on the list had some great tips about what to do and I’d like to thank Lythurienne, Max, Brad & Eric for allowing me to add their tips in today’s newsletter.

Thanks to everyone who sent me their villain tips. I’ll be putting them in an upcoming issue, soon. I appreciate your time spent in writing and sending them along to me.

And thanks to Kevin Lawrence who suggested I ask you all for newsletter tips and topic requests. So far I’ve just been identifying problems in my own campaigns, finding solutions and writing about them. But I’d much rather receive and answer your requests first.

So, send me your tips and topic requests when you have a moment!

[email protected]

Here’s The Original Question From Lythurienne SunHawk:

“Okay, this is probably a little bit of an odd question to come up, but how would you deal with an unlucky GM?

Basically, here it is. As a player, my luck seems to be perfectly normal. If I have a 75% chance of succeeding at something, then 75% of the time I will succeed. As a GM, however, if I have, say, a 50% chance of succeeding, I will succeed closer to 5% of the time.

Example 1

(AD&D) I had a Level 1 party (average AC: 8) fighting about 6 zombies (THAC0 20) [Johnn: for all the non- AD&D players out there, Lythurienne is saying each Zombie had a 15% chance of a successful attack.] My players still remember how, for 3 rounds straight, every single one of the zombies’ attacks missed.

Example 2

(AD&D) I had a Level 2 party (average AC: 7) fighting 5 hobgoblins (THAC0 19) [Johnn: 25% chance of successfully attacking.] In one round I made 3 critical misses (10% chance each) and 2 normal misses. Next round all the hobgoblins missed again (not critically, though). (These examples are from combat because, out of combat, I don’t find very many situations which can be resolved using AD&D’s system.)

Those were extreme cases of unluckiness, but I’ve also been known to roll…the pattern: 5, 7, 5, 7, 5, 7. None of which were nearly high enough to hit the players [Johnn: hopefully Lythurienne means the players’ characters here 😉 ]. Oh yeah, and this seems to happen no matter what dice I’ve tried, so I don’t think it’s the dice.

So, how would you deal with this? My players’ “assurance” that I’d never kill them in combat was the fact that I continually roll low. I tried disregarding any critical misses on the parts of the opponents, but the PCs would still get by practically unscathed. Combat was no challenge to them. (Okay, I’ll admit that this tendency to roll low is one of the reasons I don’t like combat so much.) Obviously, running a diceless game would solve the problem, but other than that solution, (ie, without completely changing the rules system) what would you do?”

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Here Are Some Great Responses To Lythurienne Predicament

From Emperor Mad Max

“My first solution would be to change the game system, but that is my advice to anyone that wants more out of RPG than combat.If you are set on sticking with AD&D, then the solution is to upgrade the bad guys some. This can be done by either making some of the normal people more exceptional, or just using more powerful foes. The first way is better as it catches the characters by surprise. Imagine having one or two hobgoblins from your example with a Thaco of 12.

Outside of that, the idea that “if the NPCs miss hitting the characters [therefore] it is bad for the GM” is not a good idea, at least not to my opinion. The challenge to me is to create an interesting story full of good things and bad. So in your story, perhaps the heroes always beat the hobgoblins. Either the hobgoblins will get better, or they will be exterminated from the realm. So this removes the challenges from the players? Nope, see, while they were out fighting the baddies, the tavern wench discovers she is pregnant with the child of one of the heroes.

She tells her mother [who] is the servant of the local Baron. He feels that a little bit of settling down would be good for the realm, so he demands the hero marry and take care of the family in addition to being a hero. Now they may be used to swinging swords at the bad guys, but how do they react to the claims of the tavern girl? Maybe she is not telling the truth, but the Baron believes her.Anyway, the chances are that you have just had some bad rolls with your dice.

Chance works that way, and the larger number of rolls you make, the better the chance of getting a better average. In the games I run, I make and require a large number of rolls, with the largest portion of them being Observation. My biggest problem is when the players roll bad when I want them to see or experience something.In the end, don’t worry about the characters coasting through the hardships you create. As a GM, you win when everyone leaves the game with a feeling of having a good time and enjoying the story you have put together.”

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From Johnn Four

“What an unusual situation. Personally, I’ve had many sessions with bizarre luck streaks. However, I know that my rolls will always “wash out” in the end. If I have an unlucky streak, my players know I’ll be rolling critical hits again eventually.If I were DMing and felt I was having a really horrible bad- karma night with the dice, I’d consider the following:

  • Fudge results.
  • Increase power levels of monsters and NPCs. Who cares if you keep rolling 7’s when the bad guys’ THACOs are 3? 🙂 Just watch out when your good luck returns–the PCs will have to learn to flee or they could have very short lives.
  • Give the bad guys attacks that don’t require dice rolls from you. For example, give the hobgoblins a paralyzation wand with 5 charges left. The wand doesn’t require targeting or to-hit rolls from you so now it’s up to the PCs to do the dice rolling and let’s see how their luck runs! Also, if the PCs win, the wand will burn out soon and game balance is maintained.
  • How about rolling your dice differently? I know when I play Risk and my rolls start to really suck I stand up and swing the arms wildly, touch the board, adjust my glasses, touch the board again and roll into the box lid. Remember though, if this technique is to work you’ve got to touch the board, then the glasses, then the board. If you screw up the sequence it won’t work. Oh, did I mention this method starts you on the long road down superstition?
  • Finally–and this method may earn you the enmity of all players within a 5 mile radius–if you really do suffer from on-going bad luck, then to be fair you should roll for your players too!”
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From Brad Robertson

“In this situation, I would say you have a couple of choices. One would be to upgrade your enemies and make them more powerful so that they have a better chance of hitting. The downside of this is that if your dice suddenly start rolling well, then the PC’s will get slaughtered.Your next option would be to start bringing in spellcasters. Your 6 PC’s may [be] insulted getting attacked by 6 orcs, but when 4 of the PC’s suddenly fall asleep, the other two will start worrying.

The last (and what I consider to be the most obvious) option is to *lie*. (gasp! a GM lie??!?). Don’t let them see your rolls, and tell them that they got hit. The PC’s will probably like combat a lot more as well if they feel that they’re getting in danger. This way you can also control combat a bit more easier.”

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From Eric Nolan

“Yup, I agree with the suggestion raised by some of the other posters.One of your jobs as the GM is to provide entertainment for the players. The occasional walk over fight can be good, especially if the players were sweating the result before they engaged. If fights are always too easy the players may get bored and, even more dangerous, they may get complacent and careless.If I was you I would just fudge the dice rolls to make things more interesting.

It is quite unusual to have to fudge the rolls in the NPCs favour but this is a situation where you should. Make the players feel that they were in at least some danger.A key skill to develop as a GM is to know when the dice need to be overruled or not used at all. In a game I was playing the plot demanded that all the characters be shanghai’ed and that we would meet up as prisoners in a mining installation. The referee took three attempts to get my character all of which failed (partly due to his somewhat inept method of going about it and partly due to bad dice rolls).

This resulted in him having a hushed conversation with the resident ‘evil gm’ in the room. The ‘evil gm’ then sat down in the seat of power and asked me what my character was doing. ‘working at his station on the assembly line’ was my answer, ‘you are working away when without warning something hits you hard in the back of the head, there is an intense and painful flash of white light and everything goes dark. You wake up with a painful, throbbing headache and you seem to by lying on a metal floor’.

He didn’t roll dice and he didn’t give me a chance, which was great. This was the scenario set up, the other referee essentially wasted 30 minutes of everyones time in successive attempts to accomplish something he should have gotten done in 3 minutes.”

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Have you had your own bad-luck streaks while GMing? What did you do? Let me know at [email protected]

Have more fun at every game!

Johnn Four

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Top 7 “Unlucky GM Syndrome” Tips

  1. Use a GM screen and fudge your dice rolls
  2. Increase the power level of the bad guys
  3. Create scenarios where die rolling and combat won’t solve the problem
  4. Use spells and magic items against the PCs so you don’t need to roll dice
  5. Go with the flow and don’t worry if the characters cream the monsters sometimes
  6. Have your players do the rolling for you, or do the rolling for the players
  7. Stay away from casinos