I didn’t ask to be a Dungeon Master (DM); the role was thrust upon me halfway through grad school. To be fair, I do exude an aura of je ne sais quoi that can be misread as "I can totally handle learning an entire TTRPG and planning and running sessions while in my last year of grad school and putting together my thesis." In hindsight, my thesis should have been on Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).
Learning to DM at this time in life was stressful, and my players derailing my plans for any given session made me feel even worse. Slowly, though, I learned that the moments I don’t plan for end up being the most hilarious, rewarding, and memorable of the entire game. Here are a few of those moments from my all-queer group during our Curse of Strahd campaign (I’ll refer to players by their character names).
Perhaps the most well known D&D module, Curse of Strahd, according to my players, is about an incel vampire who was so mad he couldn’t have his brother’s wife that he turned into a vampire, put his whole country in a pocket dimension, and now hunts for her reincarnation until the day she agrees to marry him. Over the years, Strahd has created many vampire stooges. Right now, my players are losing to one such stooge.
"I use stunning strike," Kvēl says during his turn in combat. It's a Monk ability, and at Kvēl’s low level, I assume it’ll be an easy enough save for the vampire to make. The vampire fails. It’s paralyzed, leaving it a sitting duck for the rest of the group. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not DM versus the players. I want the players to succeed, so I’m both surprised and glad that this Hail Mary is working out for them.
Up next is the druid, Edel. "Can I shove an acorn in his mouth and make him swallow it?" Edel asks. Huh, I think. That’s right, Edel found some acorns a few sessions ago. Normally, players forget boring items like that, but leave it to the druid to remember anything plant related that they have. I say, "Sure." Where is Edel going with this and what is their plan? Wait. It clicks in my head that Druids can learn a spell called Plant Growth. Edel casts it.
"A tree grows out of the vampire, killing it instantly." Damn, I think. That was hella weird. That was hella disgusting. That was hella clever.
A gelatinous cube containing exactly one trapped monk is engulfing the room at a horrifying speed. "Kvēl!" Avo C’Ato, the group cleric, cries out. She literally worships friendship, so this is especially traumatizing for her. Yikes.
The paladin, Elena, gloriously dives into the gelatinous cube like a true hero, using her momentum to toss out Kvēl. Truly a brave move inspired by the power of friendship, but now Elena is the one trapped and about to be digested and the rest of the group continues to freak out. Her hit points are going fast. The acid is eating away at her armor, her flesh. And when death is about to set in, the group wakes up. It turns out that the whole thing was a dream sequence. Famously, vampires like Strahd can mess with people in their dreams.
"That’s the session!" I say, looking around at the players, expecting compliments for a thrilling session I had put a lot of thought into. Instead, I am greeted by everyone crying. "What’s up?" I hesitantly ask.
Through messy tears, Avo says, "Mika. You almost killed all of us." I know almost losing a character is depressing, but I didn’t expect this level of attachment they all had to each other’s alter egos. The power of friendship indeed! I now know I can use this against them in the future.
In the town of Vallaki in Barovia, there are two major factions. One is the mayor, who holds mandatory weekly festivals claiming that it keeps Strahd from visiting the town and wreaking havoc (this week's is the Festival of the Blazing Sun). The other is Lady Wachter's Strahd worshiping cult that's planning to overthrow the mayor. The player party has split up to deal with each faction. Kaz, Avo, Edel, and Ransom go to deal with Lady Wachter while Kvēl and Elena go for the mayor.
"I'm gonna go do my thing," Kaz says.
"Kaz, no," Avo says. She knows Kaz has a habit of dealing with things in… stabby ways.
"It'll be fine," Kaz half-assedly insists. They walk up to Lady Wachter. "I intimidate her." Fine, I think. I tell them to roll. They get a natural 1. In D&D, there are two big numbers. The first is the natural 1, an automatic failure. The second is the natural 20, an automatic success in most cases.
"I'm probably going to regret this," I laugh. "But your plan goes awry and you scare her to death." There's a gasp and some laughs. Surely they'll try to revive her, I think. But nobody tries to revive her, assuming she's gone for good. Oh. I definitely regret this. Maybe Kvēl and Elena will fare better.
Elena is on stage in the town square, having convinced the fed-up crowd to capture the mayor. It turns out that nobody likes those mandatory festivals. Elena gives a riveting speech. "Are you going to stop Elena?" I ask Kvēl, a little worried.
"Nope," Kvēl says. Oh. Oh, no. Somehow the two anti-government players have ended up together. How did I not know Kvēl's player is anti-government? He shouts encouraging words from the back, riling up the townsfolk even more until they behead the mayor.
My players created a power vacuum. Somehow the town catches fire. I panic; this isn't how it was supposed to go. One of the powers is supposed to seize control of the town. The rogue utters her catchphrase, "I hate this." As they all escape, I tell them, "Never again. You will never go back to Vallaki. I don't want to deal with your mess. It doesn't exist to you anymore."
It's a challenge being put on the spot and having to "yes and" or "no but" everything my players do. However, I genuinely love them and their shenanigans. I look forward to every session and every new surprise. DMing isn't for everybody, and that's fine. It's intimidating. Somebody has to do it, and, for this group, I'm glad it's me. Ew, that's cheesy. Whatever. If you've been on the fence about joining a game of D&D, I hope these stories have at least piqued your interest in the game. Go on. Give it a shot. Maybe you, too, will create a power vacuum.