The Halloween Session from Hell
Back in my days of DMing 5e in the back room of a church at midnight when I was supposed to be cleaning bathrooms or whatever, I thought I had a pretty clear grasp on what was appropriate and inappropriate to include in my games. I figured my 17 years of life had taught me where the lines were and how to avoid hurting people’s feelings. Unfortunately, I had quite a lot to learn.
For Halloween, I wanted to give my players a special spooky session that they would never forget. I had been watching a whole lot of Critical Role back in these days, and I thought that in order for something to be effective and memorable, it had to have a big shocking twist.
I prepped a very Trad session centered around an orphanage. There was a mean headmistress and a whole bunch of innocent young kids. As the session went on, the players would start to realize things weren’t all peaches and cream at the orphanage, but kids were disappearing at night and never returning. Kids who stuck around started acting weirder and weirder, and it was heavily implied that the headmistress was abusing them somehow.
That night, they hid in a closet or something and waited until midnight, when the disappearances were occurring. They popped out and saw a secret underground tunnel beneath the leader kid’s bed. They followed it deep into an underground cave, where they found the leader, Jack, stitching the sacrificed corpses of the orphan children Human-Centipede body horror style to massive spiders, then reanimating them to make creepy minions. The players were shocked by the sight, as I went kind of over the top describing the scene. I railroaded them into a situation where they had to kill Jack (despite the players wanting to use magic to make him change his ways), and his death was brutal.
Later that night, after the session was over, I saw one of the players (I was 17 at the time, most of my players were in their mid- to late-20s) crying in his car. Never brought it up to him but I wondered about that for months. The next week he told us he would not be continuing to play DnD with us and chose not to really get into why. A few months later, he told us that his wife had actually miscarried only a few days before the Halloween session, and the content in that session was way too much for him.
I felt absolutely horrible about the whole thing, and I still regret it to this day. Some have told me that it wasn’t my fault and it was on the player for not saying anything to me during or after the session. I completely disagree. He was well within his rights to keep something so personal and tragic to himself, and I absolutely should have had the self awareness to recognize that my session was over the top. I don’t hold it against myself too much, as the player has told me since that he forgives me and doesn’t really think it was my fault.
These days, my games tend to be very lighthearted and cute. Cartoony characters are everywhere in my worlds and while dark themes and content may arise, I always work hard to present it in a tasteful way that is thematically predictable. I would never create scenarios in which PCs would be rewarded for outright killing innocents (although they tend to do it anyway), and I don’t really put content like slavery or prostitution in my games. While these subjects are definitely “historically accurate” (whatever that means for a fantasy world) and important, I don’t like to include them frivolously, without thought and research, or alongside gonzo wacky goofball stuff. I think they probably have come up from time to time, but I try very hard to keep it tasteful and reserved when I do.
My current “home group” and I are on the same page about most content stuff, we’re not really into sex being a part of our games (I’m not about to RP with my homies), we all can handle tasteful explorations of more mature themes from time to time, and I’ve learned their boundaries in terms of horror. We all enjoy splatstick combat descriptions where a basic goblin gets a Mortal Kombat X-Ray vision-esque description when they are brutally crushed by a hammer or whatever. My player characters have been known to consume some “questionable substances” when meeting up with dodgy apothecaries and the like.
DMing for DnD Club at school presents its own set of issues for content. For the most part, I just run OSE adventures and keep it goofy and lighthearted. The kids push it way more than they should, but I keep my dungeons pretty sanitized for them. This year, we’re playing Through Ultan’s Door, which is a bit more gritty than they got last year, but I think they can handle it.
When playing with anyone you haven’t played with before, I think best practice is to keep it pretty light and keep open lines of communication for players to let you know when they are uncomfortable. Discussions of Veils and Lines are always good, and the more you learn your players, the less formal they will be and the less time those discussions will take. As you get a feel for the vibe of the group, you can adjust accordingly.
DMs have their own Veils and Lines
I have not often seen much discussion about players crossing lines that DMs had, and I think it does warrant some discussion. I have had players who have pushed things in a more sexual direction than I have been comfortable with, wanting me to RP a prostitute for them, or players getting a bit too into their revenge. DMs should see themselves as a player just like all the others, and as such the DM has the right to say when they are uncomfortable as well. All too often I have seen DMs denying themselves, thinking themselves to be subservient to the Players. I have forced myself to stay up until ungodly hours working on maps and prep for players to the detriment of my own enjoyment of the game. It is absolutely essential that DMs see themselves not as above the players, nor as below them, but alongside them as a co-participant in the enjoyment of the game.