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RPT Newsletter #024 | Unlucky GM Syndrome: What To Do When You’re Rolling Horribly

Stephan Hornick

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Unlucky GM Syndrome: What To Do When You’re Rolling Horribly
From JohnnFour | Updated May 20, 2021

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #024


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! Thanks.


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



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 :D ]
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?”

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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Stephan Hornick

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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!”

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.”


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.”



Have you had your own bad-luck streaks while GMing? What did you do? Let me know here.

Have more fun at every game!

Johnn Four

Please forward this issue to a friend who would enjoy it and find the information useful. Just hit your Forward button. Thanks!
 

Stephan Hornick

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I usually have rather the opposite!
Sometimes, I fudge to make a situation more intense or less intense, depending on the mood. Sometimes, I just decide on the event and don't let players roll - e.g. in case of a setting up of a situation as described above. But most often, I let the situation roll out and spontaneously react on its outcome.
As Emperor Mad Max described, even if the PCs defeat their opponents, there are results that could come back at them like a boomerang.
Either changing the world, shifting to other topics, or even having the opponents develop are interesting. Also, those hobgoblins could try to flee and try to achieve a combat mission instead. They could try to get back at the PCs by stealing from them when they are exhausted and sleepy (having been kept awake by several near ambushes at night e.g.) and thus, the hobgoblins, may have succeeded in acquiring a wand of magic boom or whatever the PCs carry. Or they could try to intimidate the PCs by calling for help and suggesting the PCs flee. First, it makes for a nice change of pacing when the combat shifts into a roleplaying scene, and if the PCs don't flee, yes then I may really have two ogres lumber out of the forest / cave / whereever to attack the PCs that harrass the ogre's friends. I make it personal and the opponents motivations understandable. If the PCs are just 1st level, two ogres will be a real challenge. If I want to scare them, it is trolls. Regeneration is a trememendous bonus. Especially if I go about it cruelly and have it rain, no fire possible, the ground slippery and hard to escape their long reach...
 

JonGraHar

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Good feed!

when I ask the players for a dice check, I rely on the system of the game to determine the outcome
when I ask the players "how do you respond" I rely on the storytelling of the game to determine the outcome
when I ask the world "what happens," I rely on the setting of the game to determine the outcome.

I will usually start with a setting: an earthquake happens, the guards arrive, the warlord commands you to report. This part of the game happens because of the setting. My next step is to beg a story from the players by asking "how does your character respond, where do they pay their attention, when do they wake up?" This gives narrative license to further expand the campaign and tell us how the characters influence the story. Finally, upon declaring an action that will ultimately alter the setting in a consequential way, I will then ask for a dice roll (or two!) to honor the system.

I feel that if I am unlucky, it will be in the category of dice rolls. Besides that, the other two categories are up to my creativity (which has no limits, unless I am suffering from under or over caffeination). When the dice aren't behaving, my thought is to lean back into the setting and story.

Example: the earthquake shakes the city, terrain is compromised, danger of falling debris, cries of victims. the setting is established. The players speak up: "we all take cover underneath the safest possible location and wait this out!" That's the story. Now, consult the systmem with a dice check: score! 29 safety check!

Great...

This wonderful earthquake encounter is over before it started. I will honor the player's story, but how can I keep this game going for their enjoyment?

I see now that the system I relied upon with a dice check says safety is successful. I will then listen to the players by asking them for further story in this safe building. "what do you pay attention to?" "what do you do?" "how do you appear?" "what do we see you doing." If the players want to dive into backstory sharing hour waiting out the earthquake, then great! I sit back and provided descriptive prompts to keep the story flowing in their favor. However, if I notice their blank expressions as if to say, "wait, I thought something was going to happen?" That is now my cue to go back to the Setting for reference.

Let's alter the setting. The earthquake maintains neutrality and doesn't destroy this building. Falling debris also respects the structure of the building. however the cries of victims begin to increase so much so that someone wanders the street looking for help and this NPC is recognized by one of the player's. So, yes, the players succeeded in the safety check, but now I altered the setting which begs for a continuation of the story. "How do you respond?" The players then tell the story though what they see, hear, and say and do.

No dice check required. They jump into action to find a poor soul trapped in a dangerous building with falling rocks, risk of collapse and crazed earth elementals running amuck. Now they take the encounter as a rescue mission rather than a safety mission.

Let's now hope the dice remain as lucky in rescue as it was in safety.
 

Stephan Hornick

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That's a great analysis and approach and description! Thank you for sharing.
 

Stephan Hornick

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Readers’ Feedback
Here are some great tips from readers about “GM Bad Luck Syndrome”:

Tactics
From Pit Fiend

Johnn,

Liked the “I’m having trouble with my dice” article.

One more solution:

Make the ‘monsters’ behave more realistically – that is use tactics and strategy to overcome their single combat limitations. If individually they hit poorly, then when the odds are 5 to 1 then they should hit 5 times better (this way you don’t actually roll 5 times more dice just improve the odds for 1 hit). Or have them use strategy to ‘trap’ the players in a ‘no win’ situation.

The players may pursue weak opponents into a dead end space with really tough new fresh opponents between them and freedom. This sort of ‘dead’ end situation is a great spot for a trap to be sprung (didn’t the VC use traps and mines like this against the much stronger (individually) US troops?)
 

Stephan Hornick

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Checkmarks for Balancing Fudging
From D.

Hi,

I ran across a good rule to handle this sort of thing somewhere.

If you fudge the dice for the player’s benefit or let a player off easy, then you make a checkmark next to their name (on your cheat-sheet.)

If you fudge the dice for an NPC because of things like consistent bad rolls or even railroading, then you erase a checkmark next to that player’s name.

This keeps things balanced in that whomever benefits from breaking the rules will later get a penalty. Keeps GMs honest and puts a rein on player abuse of the GM’s kindness.

Nice issue, too.
 

Stephan Hornick

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Inversing Die Rolls
From Arkmyr

Hi!

I once had a problem with bad luck. As a GM, there is plenty of solutions to fix that. The problem I had was an unlucky PLAYER!!! I’ve never seen anything like that! He never rolls higher than 12 on a D20, and usually, he gets between 1 and 6.

An unlucky player is less likely to try things out, he knows it will turn against him. So he gets bored with the game when it involves some dice roll.

I can’t change the die of the player! I can’t change the strength of the encounter, because the other players are still rolling “normal” score on their dice.

The solution I found was to “inverse” the die for that player. Every roll under 11, we add 10 and every roll over 10, we subtract 10. It helps a lot. I could have used a 1 as a 20, a 2 as a 19, and so on, but it is much more complicated than adding (or subtracting) 10 on the roll.

I would suggest to any unlucky player to use this technique. And sometimes, it makes the game funnier, when the high scores start appearing and the player still “inverses” his die roll…
 
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