Why a DM should NEVER try to “win” D&D

A story about how a DM tried to "win" D&D against his players and ended up losing anyways.

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I’ve been playing and DMing D&D pretty much my whole life, being raised by a first generation DM and overall having it be part of my life since I was a kid. A lesson I learned as DM is above all else, regardless of the content of the game, to make sure your players are having fun, as that’s the lifeblood of any campaign. But as a fellow DM, I do understand that being in that position can be stressful and sometimes dissatisfying, the players will take interest in things you hadn’t intended on or planned for, or will just steamroll fights you intended on being challenging, ect.

This particular DM was a former friend of mine, we stopped being friends for reasons that will be clear later. He had offered to run a campaign so that I could have a turn at being a player, and being the main DM of our group, I jumped at the chance. It’s nice to take a break and be the player now and then. Out of respect, I allowed him to do his own thing as DM, even though I knew he was new to it, and only offered to help if he asked.

To start off, this campaign was a Modern D20 campaign with a survival zombie horror setting. It was October and the mood was right for such a campaign. Plus a lot of us were pretty big zombie nerds at the time, so we were stoked to play survivors in the zombie apocalypse. It didn’t take very long however, for the campaign to get weird and unbalanced.

Session Zero, we went over the DM’s house and were ready to roll up characters, each of us having a role in mind. Modern D20 basically has a class for each of the six D&D stats, but I’ll give the equivalent class to what each of us played in the normal D&D sense. We had a Health Tank/Barbarian the Tough Hero, a Paramedic/Cleric the Dedicated Hero, a Fighter the Strong Hero, and me, the ex cop Ranger as I played the Fast Hero. This was a group of experienced players who all know how to make characters just fine, but out of courtesy we roll our stats infront of the DM.

We rolled our stats and all of us were pleased to get at least some above average rolls, and allocated our stats accordingly. Once this was done however, the DM stopped us. He took all our papers and started writing our stats on the side, while erasing what we put into the initial stat blocks. We asked what he was doing, but he didn’t say anything while he did it, just had this nasty grin on his face. After, he handed our sheets back to us and we saw that he had taken all of our stats and slashed them in half, rounded down. He had wrote our original stats along the side in the temporary stat column. Confused and a bit annoyed, I asked “What’s the point of this?”

He responded, “I want this game to be challenging. I want you all to actually struggle to survive. You will all get your real stats once you unlock level 1.” The malicious grin didn’t leave his face.

We were dumbfounded. “What do you mean ‘once you unlock level 1’??” the Tough Hero player asked.

DM: “I said I wanted this to be a true challenge, so you all are level 0, and that’s why your stats are this low. When I think you all have earned level 1, I’ll give it to you. Until then you’ll have to play with what you have. Oh, and while I’m at it, you guys will start with only one item and it has to directly relate to your character. Choose wisely.”

That should have been our first warning sign that this game was about to be less than fun, but all of us in the group were sporting and figured we should give it a chance at least. We all wanted to play, so even though we were about to struggle through even the most basic of checks, we were still ready to give it a shot. 

I chose a standard police pistol as my one item, and actually had to fight the DM over it. He was not happy with my choice because he felt it was “Too OP,” even though my character was a former Cop. Former as in, she was a cop when the outbreak happened, so why wouldn’t she have her gun? The rest of the party agreed with me, and I got to keep my weapon. But the DM wasn’t fully satisfied so he “nerfed” it by making my gun slightly damaged, saying I had a 2 in 10 chance the gun would just jam on me. Fantastic, my item was the only item damaged with a percentage to fail from the get-go.

After a fair bit of griping and debate with the DM over the various items in the party that were chosen, we began our adventure. He pulled out a map of the local area where we all lived and said our characters were from around here, so we had home-field advantage. All of us agreed this was probably the coolest aspect of the campaign, being able to look at our own city as a place for resources and action. But even that would be subverted by our DM eventually.

We began in the DM’s house in-game. All of us had managed to get there after surviving the initial breakout and evacuation, and this was a quiet neighborhood where our party figured we’d be somewhat safe, if not for a little bit. At this point, the DM introduced himself as an NPC, inserting his real self into the game as some sort of aloof dude who managed to retain internet access throughout the chaos outside and around his house. Weird, but not unexpected from this guy as he always was kinda self-important. His NPC self gave us a map of the area, told us the best closest place to find food, then asked us to find somewhere else to go once we got a lay of the land. We all agreed not to infringe on his hospitality, and immediately made our way to the spot with food.

Nothing in this campaign was easy, from our lowered stats to just randomly increased difficulty from the outside world. We later learned his greatest influences were the Dark Souls series, Resident Evil, and Bioshock. I won’t spoil those games for you, reader, as this DM spoiled all those games for us, people who had never played any of those games before this campaign. But he heavily borrowed aspects from all of them, including spoiling the entire plotline of one of them by just stealing its story and incorperating it into his own. And let me be clear, I have nothing against DMs who borrow material from other places and sources, I do that myself, but I never take or use anything that would be spoilers for my players. Especially when I know they’re looking to play/read/see the content sometime in the future.

The party made its way to the local grocery store down the street. To make a long session short, the whole building and strip mall were boarded up almost completely and were very difficult to get into without any tools. We managed to break into the local Autozone and get a crowbar, which even the Strong Hero had a hard time using with his slashed stats. We got into the grocery store, which was just teeming with zombies. Most of us got bit, including myself. We were playing like a-typical D&D where you just go in and confront the enemy in combat. I was avoiding using my gun, as anyone knows, guns are really loud and I didn’t need all the zombies within a mile collapsing on us.

At this point, the DM stops the game and tells us everyone who was bit is dead. We all look at him incredulously, and Tough Hero goes, “Really? Just like that? That was quick, even in the zombie shows they usually last at least a day after getting bit.” Our DM proceeds to tell us that we can be scratched and beaten, but the instant we take a bite from a zombie we’re as good as dead. Even amputation was off the table as it was way too dangerous to perform without the proper tools and know-how. This was horrific news, as the only person at the table with an AC above 10 was me due to my highest stat being Dex, even after the stat slashing. These zombies were hitting like level 1 challenges, and their only two attacks were to grab you then bite you. We were fucked.

DM saw the looks on our faces and with a sly grin said, “Tell you what guys, I’ll erase what just happened and we’ll begin right before you enter the grocery store. This time don’t be stupid about how you handle this.”

From then on out, we did everything we could to avoid combat. And if combat was forced upon us, which it often was to our huge disadvantage, we did everything we could to get out of it or avoid direct contact with any zombies. Miraculously, none of us got bit again throughout the campaign. We played very smart and planned as much as possible. I’ll admit using all of our creativity like that was a lot of fun and I personally think it’s what kept us going in the game as it steadily got more and more difficult with no reward or increase in level to our characters.

About midway into the game, we came across a boarded up school. We decided to check it out because the DM was very clearly trying to get us to go into the building. The windows were blacked out, which was weird considering even boarded up windows let in some light. It was a trap of course, and a dungeon we were immediately sealed in. Somehow things were happening instantaneously, like we walked into the building and immediately the doors slammed shut and were boarded up within the 30 seconds we spent trying to see inside. Apparently it was hard to hear movement inside that place in addition to seeing anything, because even though we rolled really high, none of us heard or saw what trapped us in. Even a natural 20 wasn’t good enough to get any information at all. We proceed to check out the building. This session took place really late at night, and we were all genuinely spooked because we had no idea what was going on, but something was clearly following us. 

The DM loved this, he loved how frightened and nervous he had made us be, and did his best to prolong the experience as long as possible. He also tried to recreate this atmosphere a few times after but failed each time. Eventually, we figured out that the windows were covered by this giant flesh-eating plant, and there was a psycho living in the vents of the school and he was trying to feed us to the plant. We only broke free from outside help from the DM. And only because we were no longer scared and he was bored with the scenario, things he told us outright. He was both annoyed and disappointed that our terror faded to tiredness, as we had been at this session for well over 12 hours by that point.

All future sessions would carry the same contempt and frustration that he couldn’t recreate how terrified we all were in that school session. And no, we got nothing from that place. The DM told us that because he had to break us out with NPCs, that we didn’t deserve any kind of reward for the ordeal we went through. It solidifed the tone for the rest of the campaign. A month of playing every week, even multiple sessions a week, and we never hit level 1. Experience was never awarded, items were never awarded. Anything we acquired in-game was hard-won and we almost died everytime we gained an inch. We fought hard every session and we all mentally exhausted after every game. It was grueling and punishing, and our DM reveled whenever we got into a tight spot, but would get angry whenever we turned the tide and survived. His anger got increasingly worse as time went on.

After much struggling and many near-death encounters, we got to the final dungeon. We could tell we were nearing the end of the campaign, because the DM was absolutely gleeful. He was only happy like that when he was sure we were about to die. Also, it just seemed like a final area, gave off a real BBEG backdrop vibe all around.

It was a military base set up in the hospital, with the very real possibility of a helicopter pick up. By this point, we had been led to this place by an army guy stuck in the hospital. We had gotten ahold of a long-range radio out of a military bag out in the streets, and were surprised to talk with a survivor on the other end. He told us he was injured at the time his unit went out to deal with the threat, and got trapped inside the hospital. Since he had access to food and water, he figured he’d just stay put rather than trying to fight all the zombies below his floor. He urged us to come to him, because a helicopter was coming to get him, and he could take us with him somewhere safe if we could make it to him.

This deal was too good to pass up, even if the hospital was the most dangerous place we had ever gone into. We could even see from the parking lot, there were zombies in full riot gear. Totally a fair encounter for underpowered characters, right? But we were pushed in that direction with little other choice. I was to be the distraction, as I was the fastest person with the loudest object, my gun. So I did just that, I ran and shot my gun at the first zombie in SWAT gear, my bullet hit but bounced off the gear. Didn’t actually matter if I really hit or not, it was just supposed to be a loud distraction to lure out all the hidden zombies. I’m just happy I didn’t roll a misfire due to my gun being funky from the get-go. Our plan worked really well, and the DM was getting annoyed that I kept slipping past all the zombies coming out of the woodwork. So much so, that he increased the difficulty further by stating I hadn’t been looking where I was going and I was now trapped in by zombies at all angles.

Bullshit, I said. We had planned out a route for me to come back the way I came, even drawn it on the map. But he really wanted me to be trapped and have to fight these zombies in full SWAT gear. So I fought them, and my party joined the fight to save me. The Strong Hero rolls extremely well no matter what he does or what campaign he’s in. He doesn’t cheat, I know because I’ve handed him my own dice before and he still rolls insanely well. That being said, his luck sure didn’t change that session, it was because of him I survived that parking lot encounter. We managed to duck inside the hospital and cut off the entrance so no one could get in or out.

By this point, the DM was quietly fuming and we could see his face getting redder the angrier he got. Then he suddenly took a deep breath to calm down, and started to smile a really creepy smile. He had the Army dude radio us about what floor he was on and how to get up to him. I honestly don’t remember how we made our way up, but I know we had to fight more than a few more of those military/police zombies. On our way up, we found weapons and supplies, things we hadn’t had this entire game. We knew for sure this was it then, because the DM hadn’t given us anything that entire time, but now we get cool weapons and armor? That’s just plain odd, especially how he’d been reacting to anything that would help us this whole game.

Finally, we make it to the upper level of the hospital. We were then tasked with opening the safety locks of the area to get to the helipad. Of course, Army guy couldn’t access it from where he was at, so we’d have to find a way to open it. Once we did, he’d open his area so we could all go up and get rescued. Sounds too good to be true? Yeah, we thought so as well. We tried to sense motive this guy and figure out if he was telling the truth, but none of us had a good Wis score and all our rolls were low. In-game, our characters believed him and proceeded as if he was a trustworthy person. We managed to unlock the doors to the helipad for him, and surprise surprise, Army guy wasn’t on the up and up.

The DM described with absolute glee that the Army guy duped us and was laughing at us through the radio, telling us how idiodic we all were and that he thanks us for the free ride. He says he’ll give us a last gift though with a quick death, as he planned on detonating all the bombs set up through the hospital from the safety of the helicopter.

Obviously, we were pissed. But instead of giving up, we persisted and I’m glad we did. The Strong Hero and the Tough Hero managed to break open the barricade seperating us from the upper floor that lead to the helipad. We made our way up as fast as we could. And the Army guy was up there about to board the helicopter. We fought him, and he was basically a level 3 character. He took almost all of us down, except the Strong Hero. The Strong Hero had those godly dice roles he beat this insanely strong villain we were forced to contend with, relative to our “level zero” status. He actually won against all the odds and we were estatic and cheering him. Except our DM.

Our DM was just stone-faced as we beat his final obstacle. He just stared down at the map for about a minute or two. Finally he said, “I just can’t win, can I?” He moved his head so that he was facing all of us, and there was so much hatred and rage in his face as he glared daggers at Strong Hero’s player. “Nothing I did worked. Every single thing that was supposed to kill you all didn’t work. You managed to escape everything, even my impossible scenario. You guys were never going to reach level 1, I was planning on killing you all the whole time. But you managed to beat that too. So I can’t win here. Congrats, you’re all level 1 now and the campaign is over. I hope you’re happy with yourselves.”

We all looked at each other, and then at him. I couldn’t restrain myself anymore.

Me: “D&D isn’t about winning and losing, it’s about having fun with friends. Being a DM, it’s your responsibility to ensure the players are having a good time, not trying to ‘win’ a game that isn’t designed for that.”

DM: “Where’s my fun then? This all sucked and I didn’t get to feel good at all.”

At this point, I was just done. He soured the mood of the hard-won victory and just kinda made it feel like we wasted our time playing with this dude. He clearly just wanted to kill us/torture our characters. It made me genuinely sad and upset that someone only wanted to DM to hurt the players and watch them suffer.

A message to any would-be DMs, don’t try to win an un-winnable game. It’s not about that, it’s never been about that. D&D is, like I said to that DM, about having fun with friends, or at the very least making new friends as you RP together. If you’re only running a game to try and punish your players for no real reason, just don’t. It’s not fun for anyone involved, including yourself I guarantee it.


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