@The Ettin’s Table – The Best Laid Plans of Mice and DM…

I think every DM has experienced it. The game you have prepared for, with figs printed and painted and plans laid for the quest ahead. You’re feeling pretty good about the work you’ve done that week. After all, the players only play once a week. It’s easy to be the player. But you spent hours pouring over maps and lore during the week, getting ready. In my case, I spent time studying the Elemental Plane of Fire and the City of Brass. I had efreeti printed and painted. I had a gladiatorial battle with a Pit Fiend planned out! A rakshasa manipulator complete with the stereotypical smoking jacket for crying out loud! I was feeling pretty smug. Then game happened.

Plans Gone Awry

That was the Sunday before last. My carefully crafted trip to the City of Brass got hijacked as one of my players got an idea. “Hey, instead of chasing the dragon down to the Plane of Fire where it fled, couldn’t we use Gate to summon it to us?” He asked my NPC. Mentally wincing, “Umm, yeah, actually, but I think you’d need the dragon’s True Name to summon it.” I told him, improvising, though I was wrong and Gate totally doesn’t need that. I later reminded the group that the dragon had already fled from the first attack force sent against it and escaped to the plane of fire via magic. It could do the same in response to a traditional Gate. Using the True Name would make it stick around long enough to “deal with” it’s summoner.

“So, divine intervention could probably get us that name, right? Or a wish spell?” Was the countering reply. Ok, I’m clearly not getting off the hook easily with this one, but fortunately, we’re coming up on the end of the session. I try not to wipe the sweat from my brow as I concede that those are possibilities, and the Cleric fails the check. I mean, it’s only an 18% chance. Except the party makes it clear they’re going to keep trying for the next few days, and then probably use the bard’s Wish spell if that fails. They’re gonna summon the Ancient Red Dragon via Gate from the Plane of Fire and ambush it in ideal circumstances, low-roof, small space, just them and the ancient city-destroying dragon…


This week, the cleric, Zarissa, Chosen of Ilmater the Martyr, succeeded on her 18% chance to summon her God’s attention. Honestly, I’d expected the Wish to get used, so I was still caught a little off guard. However I had come up with a way that the group could find out the dragons True Name. Some quick adaptation had Zarissa’s player (my 9 year old grand-daughter) grinning from ear to ear as she opened a portal … To Cania, in the Nine Hells, to visit the Knower of Names.

Naturally, devil-themed battle soon ensued.

Other Twists that Came Up

When in the area of a Wall of Ice, summoned by a Gelugon (Ice Devil), it says you can leave to the “nearest side”. I had the characters on a 10′ wide double-edged cliff and hit them with two of these Walls. I was trying to force them to fall and try to catch themselves on the way down. Except the guy in front, who was hit by the leading edge of the first wall chose FORWARD as his left or right choice… Since he did it, the rear most gal did the same, thus reducing the number of falling characters from 5 to 3. Sneaky devils… Well.. Actually, sneaky characters.

And then, we discovered that while Shapechange specifies you don’t gain legendary actions or lair actions, it doesn’t mention Legendary Resistance. Yeah, our Moon-Druid is now flying around Cania as an Adult White Dragon. She’s not too worried about Concentration checks with her +11 Con save and 3 Legendary Resists… That twist was doubly painful, since white is the only chromatic I don’t yet have printed.

I guess if there’s a theme to this week’s encounters, it is that as the DM, all the preparation in the world won’t save you from your players actions (or their luck). And that’s ok. It is far more important that the players have the opportunity to follow their cool plans. A certain level of improvisation is a must as a DM, because you can’t predict everything. Sometimes, even the things you do predict, can be hard to be prepared for.

How do you deal with twists and turns in your carefully planned games?


  1. Robert Dunn

    I don’t know if my method is rude, more realistic, or both. Epic fantasy in particular has very few actual limits. So, as the GM, have to set things up as a balanced power vs power system. That means that all the traditional magic spells in the published material are NOT FUNCTIONAL. They are written in verbiage that is too matter of fact.

    So, you change EVERYTHING, the paradigm itself. You have to. Even Passwall as a spell ruins most dungeons. So, of course for every attack there is a defense. I am not saying it negates the use of these spells as intended. But it’s more of a struggle, power v power. You have to have a chart that shows like int and level of spellcaster vs enemy caster. And of course the party is going into the lair or home of the enemy so they always have long standing rituals that are reinforced, ongoing rituals to reinforce, and sacrifices and such to give them more power. The players are forced to use their magic with lower chances.

    That segues nicely into another required limit of epic fantasy. That is attrition. Spells and rituals past 3rd level in most Vancian systems should have components included. And the nature of those components should effectively limit how many times such spells could be cast. It has to introduce the temptation to save such value for later. If the party has to go fetch fresh ice demon eyes or leap year fairy ring mushrooms each time they want to cast that spell, they cannot do the daily wish. Also there are in game limits in actual D&D that you may be omitting. Things like loss of constitution when casting high level game breaker spells like wish have long been a part of the warning to DMs in the guide.

    Finally, this is one reason that epic fantasy is actually quite hard to play. The lower levels are the ones most amenable to fun in any sense, especially if any degree of realism is desired. I find realism given the existence of magic critical to game balance and ultimately even fun itself.

    So, then also spells like wish would have a long list of rather realistic limits. The planar barrier would interfere with the magic. The aligned nature of hell or the plane of fire would affect magic from the prime material in some ways. It would be the same as a standing ritual of disruption or alteration. And of course each new case would be something the smart party members would have to study so the effort to do the normal thing becomes part of the story as well.

    It’s very tricky JUST LETTING epic fantasy work as described. I find that there are, like all divides in life, two types of players and of DMs. The ones that want everything to magically work with no thinking or difficulty, and the type that is immediately dismissive of the ease of such scenarios. Finding that middle ground to satisfy both types is a wonderful dilemma. Good Luck!

    1. Ettins-Table

      As we prepare ourselves for our next campaign, these kinds of questions have definitely been on my mind and coming up at our table (and in our Session 0 text message chat). I agree completely that finding the middle ground between the player’s desires is both a wonderful dilemma and an extreme one! 😀

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