Gotcha GMs


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What is the worst case of a "Gotcha GM" that you've experienced? Did they ever get better?

(My own go-to Gotcha GM example involves players "not declaring" that they were burying their water in a desert setting. Sudden dehydration for everyone.)


I once had a DM declare we left a pack mule at the bottom of the dungeon because no one *declared* they were leading the mule back up. And it was a long, long, way back up.


That comic has a typographical error. The text under the comic said, "The way Laurel tells it, this DM expected the party to bury their water. You know. So it wouldn’t evaporate through their water skins." The comic itself as a character saying, "We shouldn't have to declare that we're buying water."

Buying water makes some sense: is the party fully stocked? Is water free in the town where they gathered supplies?

Burying water at night makes no sense. Its purpose would be to keep the waterskins out of the heat of sunlight. But night lacks sunlight. At night, a lot of deserts cool off. (I just googled "burying water in the desert" and all I found on that topic was about burying water to cool it for a chilled beverage: How deep will i need to bury water in the desert to keep it cool? Other links point out that dew could be found in the desert in the morning. If dew is condensing, then water isn't evaporating.)

I haven't played under a Gotcha GM, partly because I am usually the GM. I let newbie players retroactively restock for something they missed out of inexperience. And I really don't want to bring up such annoying details anyway, because they mess with the game.

Okay, in Laurel's story, the GM declared that they were out of water in a desert because they failed to take a precaution. Therefore, the party has to turn around and go back to the city. They restock, set out again, and follow the GM's unrealistic precaution. What was the point? It just made the adventure sound futile.

I do perform one Gotcha action. I roll random encounters. That's expected, right? But I have one player who sometimes forgets that danger does not take a break.

In my Iron Gods campaign, in the 2nd module Lords of Rust, the players had to investigate a mystery that they tracked to the shantytown of Scrapwall. They entered Scrapwall under false identities as refugees rather than barging in as adventurers. I had to invent new details about how the Scrapwall residents bought their food, etc. but I also pointed out how their homes were mostly hidden or guarded due to the roaming monsters. One player did not notice this, and his 4th-level fighter decided to walk the half mile to the town center to buy more supplies. Alone, except I sent an NPC with him. Then I rolled for the random encounter and got 00, the most dangerous possible encounter. He ran into Kulgara, barbarian 8 (Pathfinderwiki: Kulgara), a Lords of Rust boss, and her entourage of orc warriors. I used the NPC to flatter Kulgara and save him.

He did not learn his lesson. I set up a deliberate ambush on him on another journey about three weeks later game time, when they were at 7th level and had defeated the Lords of Rust. Ten 2nd-level orc warriors wanting revenge attacked him. The flying strix in the party had been watching over him from the skies, and the two defeated the orcs.

Finally, at 12th level in the 5th module, Palace of Fallen Stars, he went off on his own to scout on a farm that the party was going to investigate the next day. The farm was a side quest I had added because Palace of Fallen Stars is supposed to start at 13th level. I rolled a 00 again on the random encouter. This time he encountered a local menace, a Worm that Walks CR 14 named the Sinister Scientist. Fortunately, he had taken his wizard cohort with him. The Sinister Scientist hit the wizard with a Confusion spell, but the fighter delayed the worm long enough for the wizard to roll an unconfused turn and teleport himself and the fighter out of there.


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In a similar vein to deserts, I have a story. Not sure if this counts as a "Gotcha GM," though.

The party was in a desert trading post and my character had a few drinks. The GM tells me that I blackout and wake up in the back of a caravan. Shocked, I say, "I get out of the caravan."

The GM laughs and goes, "Well now you're alone in the desert. The caravan is moving too quickly for you to catch up with in the sand. It was going to an oasis, but you'll never make it. You're dead."


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That definitely counts, Ruzza.

As does the time that a DM invited a few of my friends and me over to start up a new campaign, we spent like 2 or 3 hours building characters, and then the campaign started with the premise he gave us being baited and switched so that rather than being mercenary monsters fighting a war, we were prisoners in wooden cage in a cave full of hobgoblins that, for some reason, were very clearly preparing to cook and eat us and a number of NPC prisoners.

The real "gotcha" here though was that attempting to escape got the whole party killed - and after the fact the DM wouldn't tell us what other course of action he was hoping we'd take.

And as far as I know, he never got past doing stuff like that, but I haven't played with him in like 8 years now so who knows.


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Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

I once had a player ruin a magical tome because they didnt say they turned off their flaming hands magic after the fight. I was 11 at the time though and the player in question just ate the first npc I tried to introduce.


Ruzza wrote:

In a similar vein to deserts, I have a story. Not sure if this counts as a "Gotcha GM," though.

The party was in a desert trading post and my character had a few drinks. The GM tells me that I blackout and wake up in the back of a caravan. Shocked, I say, "I get out of the caravan."

The GM laughs and goes, "Well now you're alone in the desert. The caravan is moving too quickly for you to catch up with in the sand. It was going to an oasis, but you'll never make it. You're dead."

I'm going to assume this GM has never had to walk through desert sands before.

Or ever been on, near, or seen an actual caravan before, either.


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Perpdepog wrote:
Ruzza wrote:

In a similar vein to deserts, I have a story. Not sure if this counts as a "Gotcha GM," though.

The party was in a desert trading post and my character had a few drinks. The GM tells me that I blackout and wake up in the back of a caravan. Shocked, I say, "I get out of the caravan."

The GM laughs and goes, "Well now you're alone in the desert. The caravan is moving too quickly for you to catch up with in the sand. It was going to an oasis, but you'll never make it. You're dead."

I'm going to assume this GM has never had to walk through desert sands before.

Or ever been on, near, or seen an actual caravan before, either.

Hey, I haven't done either of those and I still know that I could have made it back in the caravan.


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Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path Subscriber
Ruzza wrote:
Perpdepog wrote:
Ruzza wrote:

In a similar vein to deserts, I have a story. Not sure if this counts as a "Gotcha GM," though.

The party was in a desert trading post and my character had a few drinks. The GM tells me that I blackout and wake up in the back of a caravan. Shocked, I say, "I get out of the caravan."

The GM laughs and goes, "Well now you're alone in the desert. The caravan is moving too quickly for you to catch up with in the sand. It was going to an oasis, but you'll never make it. You're dead."

I'm going to assume this GM has never had to walk through desert sands before.

Or ever been on, near, or seen an actual caravan before, either.

Hey, I haven't done either of those and I still know that I could have made it back in the caravan.

If you can't safely get back on the caravan, you can't safely get off the caravan in the first place, and further... you'd recognize that before doing so. It's the GM's job to feed observational data to the player. Not mentioning the caravan is moving at a high speed or that the surrounding area is utterly empty desert is the GM not doing their job.


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When I was much younger (maybe 10? 11?) I wanted to play with my older brother and his friend who was a GM. I think it was 2e D&D. My older brother and his friend reluctantly agreed after I begged them, and gave me some pre-made wizard character. I didn't care, I was just happy to be playing.

I don't recall much, but while my older brother was flying on top of some red dragon burning a town, I fled into the woods to try and survive. I became lost, and was on the verge of starving and dying of thirst. I found a river and saw some fish swimming in it, so I tried to dive in and catch the fish. The GM rolled some dice and told me I was drowning because I didn't say I was holding my breath. I failed whatever save I had to make and died, much to the relief of my older brother and his friend.

Funnily enough, I loved that experience. I didn't know any better at the time and thought it was so exhilarating. I begged to play more but they wouldn't let me. It did, however, spur my interest in table top roleplaying games, and I've now been a GM for almost two decades. I don't require my players to state they are holding their breath before diving into water. :)


I'm not sure if this counts. I was the GM in question. Was running an old 3.5 Eberron home campaign for about a year. Players were around level 16 or 17 at that point, having leveled up from 3rd through their adventures.

They were chasing a lead on the Lord of Blades to the The Demon Wastes. I added a city of devils deep underground in that area, where the clues were leading. They decided to try sneaking in without being noticed by the devil authorities while they tried to gather information. They were hiding in a barn or storage building or other unlocked building - don't remember exactly at this point. They were there trying to hide and decide on their next course of action.

A devil came to the building after a few minutes. I said something to the effect, "There's a devil opening the door, and he looks pretty angry and a bit surprised. Roll initiative." I think I described the devil as a much lower then them (something like CR 10 compared to their level 16 or so).

Bard wins initiative and the players confers briefly and suggest the bard's player cast Charm Monster. She does so. Then the Devil's turn comes up, and in a very exasperated voice says, "Did you just cast magic on me? This day just went from bad to worse." It then takes it standard action to send out a telepathic broadband request: "Constable!". At this point another devil teleports in. Free action to talk, "You're under arrest for unauthorized hostile magic use within city limits." Just for emphasis, a few more constable devils greater teleport into the area.

The players realized they had gone from maybe simple trespassing to unprovoked magical mind assault, in a city of teleporting telepaths, just because I'd called for initiative and they had won the initiative roll.

I like to remind people, just because you won initiative doesn't necessarily mean you want to attack first in a civilized area.


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Hiruma Kai wrote:


I like to remind people, just because you won initiative doesn't necessarily mean you want to attack first in a civilized area.

To be fair, if you call for initiative at all, many players will assume they are already under attack. You might tell players to trust you or to play the game differently but I think it has become a default response, especially because going first in 3.5/PF counted for a lot.

Generally, if I want players to respond peacefully to a monster or odd scenario (or have the option to do so) I don't call for initiative, and it's a handy clue that they aren't under immediate attack and have the time to consider options.

Silver Crusade

Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path, Companion, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Yeah, Initiative nearly always means "Fight!" not "Quick, how do you react?"


Init only should be rolled when one side has decided to trigger combat. If that hasn't happened then there is no rationale why "hostile yet sub-combative NPC" shouldn't play out with diplomacy/intimidate etc checks until somebody decides to start combat.

I might say the fact of the NPC's telepathy could play strong role, in that allowing NPC to freely use it before Init could be seen as reducing PC agency. PCs (who know of Demon telepathy) could want to attack NPC before he can issue psychic alert... if that works they probably would like it. It didn't work here.

But even in that case, it would be up to PCs choosing to trigger Init. So this definitely is case of Gotcha GM, IMHO. Although it's also example of one of artifacts of Init system, where somebody can win Init without having themselves decided to start combat, or even fully aware of their enemies. Still, bad GM move.


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Depends on the GM I would think. I tend to use initiative any time reaction time, order of action, and speed is important.

I'll note acting first was important in this case. If the devil had failed the save against charm monster, it wouldn't have acted the way it did. Of course, if it was given a second to think, it would have used telepathy to report the presence of the characters and probably taken a punch at one of them, perhaps dealing some non-lethal damage if the punch connected. They were trespassing and it was having a bad day after all.

Of course, the characters would likely would have been charged with a much lesser crime in that case. The devil might have been charged as well. It changed its mind on what it was going to do after the bard had taken their action, displaying fair strong magical skill.

From an in world legal perspective, if you win initiative and take a swing at an opponent before they even have a chance to draw their weapon, are you technically the aggressor and the target merely a victim? What if that target would have draw their weapon if they had gone first, but then decides not to draw their sword but call for help instead after realizing they are in way over their head?

In any case, I'll note even the PF2 rules have evolved to acknowledge that combat isn't the only situation you might call for initiative:

Page 468 for the encounter mode rules:
The rules in this section assume a combat encounter—a battle—but the general structure can apply to any kind of encounter.


That's true, and could also apply to something like a bar fight - maybe NPCs would have used nonlethal attacks until they are attacked with lethal weapons.

I do think it was legit to roll Init if the NPC was going to use Telepathy anyways, i.e. was going to take some hostile action if they won Init. And the Telepathy/Teleport isn't really different than a Human guard who could yell out "Intruders!" and more guards show up in a round or 2 or 3. I think their response was "led" by not forseeing multiple elements which amounts to being short-sighted and overconfident. Even had they succeeded Charming first Demon, it's reasonable to expect consequences eventually catching up to them (when Demon reports what happened later, or if they kill him and his superiors figure it out). So it's mostly a case of being distracted by what's in front of their nose and losing bigger perspective.

Quote:
if you win initiative and take a swing at an opponent before they even have a chance to draw their weapon, are you technically the aggressor

I can't remember the term but I think there is concept of provocation to distinguish naked aggression from attack that was already precipated by something. So it might be slightly less serious a crime, and the provoking opponent (who lost init, but whose hostility triggered combat Init) could also still be liable for a crime (but maybe less than if they won Init). Although in a case where NPC has legal authority and PCs don't, that benefit wouldn't likely apply. But in general, if one side triggered Init, the other has something to recognize as initiating conflict even without fact of specific means (sword, spell, etc). There's also such a thing as taking Init mechanics too seriously as correlating 1:1 to real time, who happens to win Init just shouldn't universally dictate larger picture IMHO, although that's not to say it's never legit to use. It would kind of be silly for an Assassin to always get off scot-free just because he always loses Init whenever he ambushes his target.


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DRD1812 wrote:

What is the worst case of a "Gotcha GM" that you've experienced? Did they ever get better?

(My own go-to Gotcha GM example involves players "not declaring" that they were burying their water in a desert setting. Sudden dehydration for everyone.)

We were ambushed by a few large creatures. Druid turns into giant spider and webs one.

3 of us are just beating on this thing and we are going why won't it die? Meanwhile the other creatures are beating or other members senseless.

We never caught the fact that he stopped caring what we rolled to hit or how much damage we were doing. The creature had died but was being held up by the webbing...

He laughed for a while on that one


Long time ago, my party encountered an iron golem.
Before I even finished the description, the cleric shouted out “I got a nat20! I got a nat20 for knowledge! What do I know? How do we beat it?”

Now, he only had knowledge (religions), and while there were gods of constructs or mechanics, he had nothing to do with them. This was back when it was a free action, so you had to use the right one. I tried telling him that, but “I got a nat20”, and so... “you remember some old passage from a holy text depicting a temple guardian made of living metal and it being engulfed in flames. It’s not too clear, but it’s something.”

They proceeded to heal the golem to full each turn thanks to the insistence of his “well I got a nat20, it can’t be wrong”. That was pretty fun.


Pathfinder Lost Omens Subscriber

hell, i use initiative to figure out who goes when people start going on a shopping spree. i've decensitized my players to not assume it means combat with a few key encounters where even after combat started an NPC will try to cool things down.


One of my players was obsessed with fighting pits for his fighter to prove himself in.

I setup a location where the guards usually fight the soldiers in a “friendly” rivalry, agreed upon by the head of the guard and the Lord general. I had him pick a side, and then work his way through fights. Each fight meant you could challenge the next rank.

I made it clear it was a perpetual world, and that you could only fight who was healthy. If someone was too injured, Ill or busy, you automatically got put against the next nearest rank. I also made it clear the people that run this town in the highest positions are around Level 15. Players at this point at lvl5.

So this fighter rocks up the day after a literal war ended in a bloody battle, and decides to challenge the fighters pit. I bloody knew he would do this, and had written down exactly who got injured during the war, so I could pull the piece of paper and slap it down in a gotcha moment.

The Lord general was the only healthy officer left, and that fighter got the beat down of his life. He was left bleeding in a pit, left realising that the world and role playing as if a part of it has an effect on encounters.

He’s been a much better player ever since, taking into account events and thinking through his actions, instead of just being “me fighter. Me best at hitting”


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Pathfinder Maps, Pawns Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber; Starfinder Charter Superscriber

A friend of mine once told me about an old GM he had who tricked the entire party into destroying themselves with a sentient sphere of annihilation.

Per the quest parameters, they thought it was an artifact that bestowed great powers. In actuality, it simultaneously destroyed those wishing for power while creating an illusion of the would be recipient becoming all powerful, thereby enticing the other members of the party to approach as well.


My GM "gotcha moments" have tended to be story driven over the years.

I once deposited my players in a "Mirror, Mirror"(Star Trek reference) alternative reality of the campaign world after a magical portal mishap.

They were almost immediately attacked by soldiers wearing insignia's they'd never seen but that looked very similar to ones worn by the troops of their current home city. A masked figure comes to their aid and delivers the classic line "Come with me if you want to live"

They spend two sessions working with him before that mask comes off revealing one of the big bads from their world. A few sessions later they defeated their evil dopplegangers and returned home with the aid of the NPC.


Mathmuse wrote:

That comic has a typographical error. The text under the comic said, "The way Laurel tells it, this DM expected the party to bury their water. You know. So it wouldn’t evaporate through their water skins." The comic itself as a character saying, "We shouldn't have to declare that we're buying water."

Buying water makes some sense: is the party fully stocked? Is water free in the town where they gathered supplies?

Naw, that's correct. Like you say, burying water is so freaking weird that we couldn't put it in the comic as-is. The story is the inspiration of the image, not a direct source.

But for what it's worth, I don't think you're doing the "gotcha GM" thing. You gave fair warning with those random encounters, and the player chose to ignore it. If they came back at you with with a, "How was I supposed to know?" then I think you get the right to roll your eyes and feel zero guilt.


Ravingdork wrote:

A friend of mine once told me about an old GM he had who tricked the entire party into destroying themselves with a sentient sphere of annihilation.

Per the quest parameters, they thought it was an artifact that bestowed great powers. In actuality, it simultaneously destroyed those wishing for power while creating an illusion of the would be recipient becoming all powerful, thereby enticing the other members of the party to approach as well.

I think I know the inspiration for that one: https://i.pinimg.com/736x/f3/bb/29/f3bb29da10e919ab5d3b7b79b54684a4--tomb-o f-horrors-dwarf.jpg

Scarab Sages

Used to have a GM who was always throwing random ambushes at us and then telling us we needed to have “better tactics”, like a single tactical plan would work for every situation. We were never sure what he expected us to do. He never provided any suggestions.

I think he wanted us to go out buffed to the max and blow through all our buff spells. He was the kind of GM who liked to force players to roll up a new character, which he approved, then got annoyed when the player used the character’s class abilities.


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Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Most GMs I've had the honor and privilege of playing under haven't been ham-fisted with the Gotchas.

About the worst we had was a GM that loved to constantly send saboteurs, assassins, loan sharks, bounty hunters, armies, etc after our ship in a space opera type game.

It got bad enough that we found and *exceptionally carefully* repurposed an entire robot army to stand as guards for the vessel, and treated our robots *really well* (rather than disposable combat units).

A particular crime lord decided to 'pay us a lesson'. Things were going *swimmingly* (they'd used the 'we're an official courier' cover to get on board ship) until they tried to pull weapons.

Queue the 'shipboard defenses' kicking in.

Then the GM had to quickly figure out 'how to compensate for that'... and did it by sending *even more mooks*.

...which became part of the fortifications as the bodies started piling up.

So due to the fact we had one hot item that said crime lord wanted, said crime lord proceeded to pretty much destroy all his foot soldiers.

Wasn't done, called in some allies... who met the same fate.

What got us off the ship?

When the bodies began to stink and we were getting cited by city authorities for illegal refuse storage...

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