Friday, December 29, 2017

"The Tale of Old Man Henderson" is a Lesson For DMs, Not Players

If you've never read The Tale of Old Man Henderson, you should take a moment to peruse it. Or, if you'd rather, you could listen to Stephanos Rex read it for you. If you want the too long, didn't read version, it's a story about a player in a Call of Cthulhu game who jumped the shark, while skiing on two sharks, and being pulled by a motorboat in the shape of a shark. Put another way, the player built a character who was meant to manipulate the setting, and who took actions that had internal logic, but which were specifically meant to screw with the DM and derail the game.

This DM was, by all accounts, a major tool. The sort of guy who would purposefully make a game strewn with things like a six-sided die that only had 5 sides, dealing 10 sanity damage to anyone who saw it. No save, no story, no explanation, not part of the ongoing story, just screw you, that's why.

And unto this fuckery came a crazy old man, with a gleam in his eye, and a blunt in his hand.
There is something compelling about this story. We've all had those DMs who were adversarial (or downright petty), and who used their position as the head storyteller to punish players for... playing the game, I guess? And there is something satisfying about hearing how one of these people, who made game a slog for his players, got his comeuppance from a character he allowed into the game in the first place.

But a lot of folks miss the point of this story. It's not a tale about how a player stuck it to a bad DM. It's a story about how bad DMs will allow players to ride roughshod over them, and create an avalanche of ridiculousness that completely derails anything you were actually trying to do. And that, if you want to retain control of your game, you need to learn when you say yes, and when to say no, not today.

Henderson Never Should Have Passed Muster

A good DM should work with their players to bring a character that fits the game, and that the player actually wants to pilot for the game. However, out of the gate, Henderson should have been rejected. The detailed backstory is great, but the fact that it was used as a lever to justify things that didn't fit the game or setting is a big red flag that a competent DM would have said no to, and negotiated with the player to find some sort of middle ground.

Even if the wooge that Henderson had out of the gate was justified, the character's behavior should have been enough to get him killed. As a good example, there was a particular scene where Henderson was driving a truck, with a blunt in his hand. Two underaged characters were having sex in the back seat of his truck. Two cops, who'd pulled him over, were on the scene. Henderson, rather than being persuasive and logical, smarted off to the cops.

The proper reaction to this scene is not for the NPCs to fuck off because Henderson's character rolled well. The proper reaction is for the cops to, at the very least, demand to see everyone's ID, and to radio it back into the station. With the attitude Henderson had taken, and the in-plain-sight breaches of the legal code in a world as dark and awful as the setting for Call of Cthulhu, what should have happened is the cops arrested him, or called in back-up to arrest him. And if Henderson escalated? Well, that's how your PC ends up getting shot and killed, or becoming an incarcerated felon in a three-strikes state. The player now has to come up with a new investigator to play.

A good DM would have known that. Because every game makes it clear that you can't accomplish certain tasks, no matter what you roll. You can't bluff someone to believe the sky is acid green when they can look up and clearly see that it's blue. You can't jump to the moon, whether or not you roll a natural 20 on the check. And when you're playing in a dark, modern setting full of cosmic horror, you are not some big-dick adventurer who slaps people aside with a single swing of their hips. You're just a guy, same as any other guy. A bullet is just as fatal to a new PC as it is to one who's been around since the campaign got started in CoC.

Keep The Tone, And Apply The Consequences

I said this way back in Let Them Reap What They Sow (Actions and Consequences For PCs in RPGs), but one of the most important things to remember when you are a DM is that you are not obligated to save the PCs from the consequences of their own actions. If they want to threaten a cop while smoking marijuana after they got pulled over, that's their business. If they want to go around shooting people, and then don't bother to get rid of a gun that's got a body count on it, that's not your problem. All you have to do is take notes, and allow the pendulum to swing back in their direction.

Sometimes the PC will dodge, and sometimes they won't. Either way, the important thing to remember is that it was the player's hand that put so much momentum into that backlash, not you.

Of course, you need to also not be a dick to your players. That helps.
The most important lesson to take away from The Tale of Old Man Henderson, though, is that you need to be fair as a DM. You need to make a game that's challenging, rather than spiteful, and you need to make sure everyone is genuinely having a good time. Because if the DM in question hadn't turned every session into a grueling slog, the player behind Henderson would never have felt the need to create the derailing plot device that was his character in the first place.

That's all for this week's installment of Table Talk. Anyone out there have stories of PCs like Old Man Henderson? If you've got a story you want to share (especially one that teaches a lesson to players or DMs), feel free to send it in so I can feature it! If you enjoyed this installment, and would like more content from me, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio where I and fellow gamers offer advice and world building for players and DMs alike! If you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a big difference, and to get some sweet gaming swag as a thank you.


  1. I return, and while my story doesn't have a spiteful DM, or a player screwing the system to put said spiteful DM into thumbsrews, it does feature one thing.

    If you're going to run a horror campaign, make sure your players are invested in solving it.

    My goup was lacking two members one week, who sent their absentee notice in at the 11th hour and we couldn't reschedule so one of the players had us role up stats, pick certain relevent skills, and put down a quick character concept for members of a victorian masquerade ball.

    I rolled up with a Egyptian antiquities dealer (actually a graverobber/smuggler) who was hobnobbign with some of the people because he was interested in making a sale to previous customers.

    We go on for about 30 minutes, the PC's meet each other and the host of the ball invites us to his private study to talk, and then things start to get weird.

    Hallways repeat on themselves, windows show the gardens at radically different times of the day, or different gardens, rooms reset after we leave them, strawberry jam starts dripping out of the walls, and my character, in his ratty, weaselly wisdom decides, "Fuck it, money ain't worth actual curses, and my rent's already paid." makes his way back to the front gates, tests it, finds it unlocked, pushes it open and walks away into the chilly night air.

    Table stops, other players and the DM look at me, I look back at the DM.

    "You didn't lock the gate."

    Table devolves into laughter, the DM joining in, for a good 5 minutes, before I head off and make cups of tea/coffee for everyone.

    Eventually the DM retconned that decision and had the gates locked, and strangely unclimbable, to push me back in, but the session ended maybe 30/45 minutes later, and the campaign went on as normal the next week, but I learned the lesson of keeping the players focused on an end goal that directly coincides with what their character would want, and don't punish them for your own oversights.

    Just make a note of it for the future as you said above.

  2. A friend of mine was in a D&D game where, at about 2nd Level, the agents of the Drow Asssassin's League (or whatever) materialized in their inn room in the middle of the night, held blades to all of their throats, and said "You will cease your investigations IMMEDIATELY or be destroyed! Comply and receive 500 gold!"

    One of the Players did some quick calculations, and said, " I accept. My character takes the money, grabs his pack, stops by to scoop up the barmaid he was hanging around with if shes willing to go, and leaves town with the 500 gold pieces. He will travel for three weeks to another major city, and use the money to buy a farm and some livestock, and retire with the barmaid and live a happy life".

    And thats just what he did.