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DM of the Rings CXVI:
But They Don’t Fit in My Backpack!

By Shamus
on Friday Jun 22, 2007
Filed under:
DM of the Rings


Aragorn orders the boats destroyed.
What could he possibly use boats for?

What can you do when your players are about to do something astoundingly dumb because they aren’t thinking things through? There are many possible solutions.

  1. Use an NPC to nudge the players in the right direction.
  2. Give the players hints out-of-character.
  3. Allow them to do the stupid thing, then laugh at them later.
  4. Find smarter players.

#4 is obviously the wrong answer. Having players smart enough to outwit you is a tremendous pain in the backside. Don’t make that mistake.

Comments (127)

1 2

  1. Parzival says:

    Find smarter players.
    #4 is obviously the wrong answer. Having players smart enough to outwit you is a tremendous pain in the backside. Don't make that mistake.

    But in this case, the players have outwitted the DM by being dumb. And that’s a lot more embarrassing. :-)

  2. suzene says:

    The cure for smart players is to put a lever in the middle of an otherwise empty room. Attach it to any horrible insta-death trap you can dream up. They will ALWAYS pull the lever, because adventurers are teh dumb.

  3. Luke (Thrythlind) says:

    Brother’s Mage-Thief: I check for traps on the door.

    Me: *emphasis* On *close emphasis* the door?

    Brother’s Mage-Thief: Yes.

    Me: *doesn’t bother rolling* You find a trap…on the way to the door.

  4. Luke (Thrythlind) says:

    ooo, better one:

    Me: The robot you’ve just defeated has started making a beeping noise that is getting faster and louder with each moment.

    Player: I’m going to go salvage the robot now.

  5. Zaxares says:

    Heh, I have to admit I’ve pulled the “Are you sure?” card a few times as a DM too. Mostly because I know that if I go ahead and let them do it, the party is either going to die or get SERIOUSLY injured (as in losing limbs/magic items, getting incarcerated AND losing all their magic items etc.) and then they’re going to bitch at me for the next several hours about how I’m “out to get them.”

    Then again, I’ve known some DMs to use “Are you sure?” as a means of getting the players to adhere to his planned adventure. Sooo, it’s kinda hard to tell if the phrase either means the DM’s trying to save your party from a major screwup, or because you’re treading into territory that he’s not prepared to deal with.

  6. Mik says:

    The other thing with ‘are you sure?’ is that sometimes the players are about to do something that wouldn’t really make sense to the characters if the players were standing in their shoes. Sometimes it’s a chance to make sure you have explained everything clearly to the players before they make their decision. Here the players haven’t nessecarily remembered that they are in the middle of nowhere without transport.

  7. Zorrin Cthan says:

    “Yo Captain Cadaver!”
    ABSOLUTE CLASSIC!! Definately my faveourite line after “YO HOBBITS!” from the fangorn strip

  8. Poptart-Mini says:

    I may be mistaken, but didn’t the undead help to take back Osgiliath in the book?

  9. Dan Hemmens says:

    Once again, I find myself firmly on the side of the players. It’s not reasonable to assume that three guys and a bunch of ghosts could sail a fleet of ships: it’s much, much more sensible to find a port and get a boat from there.

    Player “stupidity” is usually evidence of the enormous gulf between the perspectives of player and GM.

    Quite simply, the GM knows what he’ll let the players get away with, and the players don’t. If you didn’t know in advance that the players were supposed to capture these ships, you could just as easily have argued that trying to sail them by themselves was the “stupid move”.

    A lot of the time, RPGs wind up being a complicated guessing game, in which the players try and work out what the GM expects them to do, and the GM laughs at them for not having worked it out already.

  10. Of course, if you insist that the undead can’t “destroy” the ships, even while they can destroy the living aboard them, then they can’t very well sail the ships either, which leaves the king and queen and jester having to crew several vessels alone. Speaking of which, if the undead din’t crew those ships – who did?

  11. Fickle says:

    I’m waiting for Legolass/Will Turner to come into his own here. C’mon, there has GOT to be some sort of crossover joke coming up!

  12. empty_other says:

    (quoted)The cure for smart players is to put a lever in the middle of an otherwise empty room. Attach it to any horrible insta-death trap you can dream up. They will ALWAYS pull the lever, because adventurers are teh dumb.(/quoted)

    Not really. They are just human. Curious people. If YOU once came over a lever in the middle of an otherwise empty room… And didnt pull it… For how many years would you regret it? Wondering what would have happened HAD you pulled the lever.

    I know what my choice would have been. :)

  13. Lynx says:

    suzene Says:
    June 23rd, 2007 at 2:30 am

    The cure for smart players is to put a lever in the middle of an otherwise empty room. Attach it to any horrible insta-death trap you can dream up. They will ALWAYS pull the lever, because adventurers are teh dumb.

    Alternatively, the way to really mess with smart players is to put a lever in the middle of an otherwise empty room. Attach it to absolutely nothing. Sit back and watch as the players try in vain to defuse the totally imaginary death-dealing device….

  14. Jindra34 says:

    LYnx: The lever in said room should at least cause a click…

  15. Zippy Wonderdog says:

    “Are you sure?”
    A good DM shouldn’t have to use this, a good DM would throw something at the players to distract them, a Random Encounter, a NPC rocking up on a horse and imparting some vital information, whatever.
    “Are you sure?” is like marking the page in a choose your own adventure book so you can go back if you get eaten by a grue… or a gazebo for that matter.

  16. Dave says:

    Yup.. me too.. DM’d.. GM’d .. etc so forth.. my first RPG was Metamorphasis Alpha.. did the three booklets.. etc so forth.. (that means the 70s).. DM’s a DM.. it doesn’t really mean Dungeon Master.. it means The DM… I hold to my feelings that GM and it’s spin-offs are just that.. spin-offs.. Referee.. whatever.. it’s a DM. (I duck behind my desk).

  17. CyberGorth says:

    I dunno why everyone’s saying Aragorn’s decision is dumb, he’s just missing info. He doesn’t know about any time limits on them getting to Minas Tirith, the PC’s have walked/ridden to pretty much everywhere else and they’ve still got horses back with their army…Why WOULD he think they need the ships?

  18. Zaghadka says:

    Curious party member pulls the lever. Everyone winds up on the astral plane.


    (I’m reminded of that hole in Tomb of Horrors that was actually some sort of “sphere of annihilation.” Man, that sort of thing is why 3.5 has so many rules. Protection from DM 10′ radius. That’s why.)

  19. Telas says:

    Good memory. It was exactly a Sphere of Annihilation.

    And yeah, the rules have taken a lot of control/power from the GM/DM/etc. Not necessarily with good results, either… Think “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”.


  20. Scarlet Knight says:

    I like the Will Turner /Legolas morph idea! True, I like the Gilbert & Sullivan “Pirate King” idea, too, but I think the characters aren’t smart enough to tell Gibert & Sullivan from John L. Sullivan.

  21. Ed Dunphy says:

    jpetoh Says:
    Captain Cadaver? I thought he was a vampire…

    I hope Bill Willingham doesn't sue you.

    Yay! Somebody else who remembers The Elementals!

  22. damien walder says:

    In my experience, even if you think you’ve outsmarted, are sure that you’re going to outsmart or could possibly _fool_ the DM, you NEVER (jamais!) let on that that’s what you think to the DM. A crude analogy, if I may –

    “Listen, you may be my tour guide AND the local with doctor or god, but I am going in that volcano and that’s that.”

    Now, what could possibly go wrong if you did that for real?

    Ultimately D & D is a attempt at collaboration of interested parties trying to make the story better. Your Level, your story doesn’t mean much outside of the game, despite the industry that’s grown around it, but it’s more than a diversion.

    But the DM will still put a cap in your PC’s ass if you’re going off on them about how smart you are.

    Keeping it funny Shamus, well done again!

  23. damien walder says:

    Reads: WITCH doctor, heh!

  24. brassbaboon says:

    As an “old” DM who has run campaigns from the original “Advanced D&D” days, I can’t say that the current 3.5 rules feel like they remove the DM’s options. I sort of like most of the rule changes, even some that other people rail against. In many cases I feel the new rules help to avoid arguments, especially in terms of movement, placement and melee combat. Every now and then I feel a need to overrule a particular rule just because the situation feels like it needs it (last session, for example, I allowed two players to inhabit the same square for a round during combat because it made sense to do so). But overall put me down as one who appreciates the clarity the new rules provide in many cases.

  25. ChristianTheDane says:

    *snort* Captain Kadaver XD

  26. Den Store Frelser says:

    suzene Says:
    June 23rd, 2007 at 2:30 am

    The cure for smart players is to put a lever in the middle of an otherwise empty room. Attach it to any horrible insta-death trap you can dream up. They will ALWAYS pull the lever, because adventurers are teh dumb.

    Really? I would’ve tried to get everyone out of the room and have the most gullible PC pull the lever. Failing that, summoning a wimpy creature should do the trick. Levers in empty rooms are NEVER good (Helpful, maybe, but not good.). Normally they will cause great harm by opening sikrit døørz with monstarz, or opening sikrit træpdøørs with böiling lavaz. Leaving the room might not be enough to save your characters (unmarked blakc hole/detth wawe genretator ofc lolz !!), but at least they’ll die knowing they at least tried to sacrifice someone else for their own safety.

  27. andy says:

    That was awesome. What more can I say?

  28. brad_nm says:

    Are you going to include flashes of the hobbits in their side quest? As if they’re rolelplaying on a different day to the main group?

  29. inq101 says:

    In a situation like this ask the player wether HE would prefer to walk the 100 or so miles to the city, or relax on a ship, enjoying the sun while other people do all the work.

    Or you can train your players. Mine can now tell the difference between my ‘I have an evil plan that you have just fallen into’ grin and my ‘you are just about to do something stupid so I have just come up with a new evil plan to punish you’ grin and also pay for the pizza.

  30. Paul says:

    I was having a flick through the Book of Vile Darkness yesterday, and I realised these guys arent stupid, the are Evil. Look it up some time, and you will see they are motivated by the Clasic Evil discriptions (Greed, lust etc. No thought of “Is this the right thing?”)

  31. roxysteve says:

    Lee Says:
    Come to think of it, why would an army of incorporeal undead need ships to cross the sea anyway? They can float through mountains, but not above water? Aragorn is totally right about why would the three of them need a whole fleet, hehe…

    The problem lies not in the getting rid of the ships, but the totally out-of-character order to destroy them before they had been searched thouroughly for numbers 1 through 19. Aragormless might be dimmer than a 7-watt light bulb in a brownout but he would never in a bajillion years forget he primary goal of the campaign: Ye Dyscoverie And Lyberation of Ye Loot.

    Whoops. That was Worm Ouroborousspeek, not Tolkientork. My bad.

    Shamus seems to be operating with a -2 circumstance penalty against his “remember plot” skill.


  32. Jindra34 says:

    Steve: Utterly Comical statement…

  33. brassbaboon says:

    FWIW, as a player my standard practice for levers found in the middle of the room is to rig up some sort of remote, time-delay, or both system to pull the lever without any player needing to be in the room. This has been known to backfire when the DM has inexplicably set this up to be some sort of beneficial effect, but in general my characters don’t believe in standing on a spot marked “X” and pulling a lever to see what happens. A typical time-delay technique is to tie a rope to the lever, pound a piton in a wall, run the rope around the piton to a heavy weight, then tie the weight to another piton and put a candle under it to burn the second rope through. When it burns through the weight falls and trips the lever. This usually gives the characters enough time to move to a sufficiently remote location to see what happens, and doesn’t leave a tell-tale rope behind to lead the lever-summoned pit fiend to the surprised party.

  34. Luke (Thrythlind) says:

    Poptart mini: Since no one answered you:

    No, the undead army was seen by a few peasants as it followed Aragorn to a specific hill where you bound them by their oath. (The implication was that he and his band of followers had to get there within a certain time frame without spending to much effort watching the ghost army…which would have driven them insane, I think)

    Once he bound them by the ancient oath, he took them to attack the black ships and obliterated the corsairs.

    At this point he called the oath fulfilled (though earlier he’d said that the oath would be fulfilled when the entire region was emptied of Sauron’s following…he was being nice, I guess, or just felt uncomfortable about using such power more than once).

    He filled the black ships with the Grey Company (100 Dunedain rangers + Elrond’s sons + Legolas + Gimli) and men from one of the southern regions of Gondor. There may or may not have been elves since there WAS an elf haven on the coastline in the area.

    Back at Gondor, at this time, the army of Sauron had just managed to destroy the gate, and the Witch-Lord had just started into the city to lead the attack when he was confronted by Gandalf.

    The battle of magic and power fizzles before it can begin, however. Both wizard and nazghul make their boasts and then are individually distracted.

    The nazghul turns aside when a cock crows, announcing that dawn was coming despite his master’s efforts to drive away the day, and because a Rohirrim horn is heard so after.

    Gandalf is unable to chase the nazghul, because Pippin brings word of Denethor’s madness and he has to attend that.

    The biggest opportunity in the entire story for a duel of magical power puffs out like smoke.

    Anyway, the Rohirrim, despite having much fewer men than they wanted, have come through the surrounding countryside without being noticed by the other Mordor forces in the area and proceeds to wreak havoc on the much larger, predominantly infantry, forces.

    King Theoden himself destroys the captain of the Southerlings after cutting through a multitude of that guy’s bodyguard.

    Soon after the nazghul attacks Theoden and Merry and Eowen together destroy it. Eomer sees the dead body of his uncle and the senseless body of his sister and then enters what is called a “fey” mood. In this case, fey implies “dangerous” or “obsessed with death”.

    Eomer begins what is essentially a one-man assault on the forces of mordor. His followers trail behind him but have trouble keeping up.

    The forces of mordor are reeling in confusion with their assault of the city stymied by the fact that the Black Captain left the gate and then was killed, of all things. They receive a momentary reprieve of hope and relief when they see the black ships.

    But then the black ships start pouring out Dundedain rangers each with 50 to 60 years of more or less war experience, two half-elves with centuries of age on them (Elrond’s sons) and loads upon loads of Dol Amroth men and elves. All with Aragorn at the point.

    Aragorn begins his own killing spree and starts heading straight through. As look would have it, he meets Eomer in the middle and the two then combine forces, Aragorn managing to calm Eomer’s recklessness down slightly, and proceed to remove the remaining forces from the areas about Minas Tirith.

  35. Luke (Thrythlind) says:

    and yes, the mordor army broke Minas Tirith’s gates…but never put significant forces through the gap since they had to deal with the Rohirrim at the same time…

    Also, I forgot that several of the Minas Tirith guards, though no captain of name or note led them, forayed OUT of the city to join the general massacre of orcs and southerlings out in the open field.

  36. Lynx says:

    Ah, for the heck of it… 100th!

  37. Jindra34 says:

    W00T! we are over 100… again… shows how much debating this comic causes.

  38. Scarlet Knight says:

    I keep waiting for Gimli to say, “Wait, lad! In the old books , these ship are worth 5- 25 THOUSAND gp each!”

  39. capitain says:

    Nice one! “…look, are you undead or retarded?”

    By the way this “lever”-thing is probably worth its own discussion…
    Just like the “Are you sure?”. Add different kinds of grinning and you´re entertained for the rest of the evening.

    Any player worth his salt will set up his own little subquest in pulling the lever in a safe way. And the safety measures will expand with every widening of the GM/DM´s grin. If the DM/GM won´t stop the players they will try for the rest of the short night from friday to sunday.

  40. Carl the Bold says:

    Sorry to be a stickler, but this is the first episode with a title written in Sentence case, rather than Title Case.

    If you care. . .

  41. Paulus says:

    “Luke (Thrythlind) Says:

    June 23rd, 2007 at 3:47 am
    Brother's Mage-Thief: I check for traps on the door.

    Me: *emphasis* On *close emphasis* the door?

    Brother's Mage-Thief: Yes.

    Me: *doesn't bother rolling* You find a trap…on the way to the door.”

    Urm… Doors are often traped. Door handles or the Door itself coverd in a contact poisen are two of my favorits. Works well with PC’s who go jumping in feet first.

  42. Telas says:

    Luke: Awesome post. I forgot how good the plotting actually was in the books.

    There’s a reason Gandalf and the Black Captain didn’t go mano a mano. One of the points of the story is that common men (and uncommon men, and not-quite men both common and uncommon) can overcome great evil, if they will find the courage to act.


  43. Zack says:

    I was not able to see the comic until I opened a new browser and manually navigated to the image links.


    For some reason refreshing the image and page did not work. I had the issue on a couple pages here today. Never had an issue before though.

  44. brassbaboon says:


    I guess my much more concise telling of the events surrounding Aragorn’s trip to Minas Tirith were less awesome… Although pretty much the same in essence. And I too left out the sortie from Minas Tirith, but did so purposefully feeling that there was already too much going on and that would just confuse things. Besides, I couldn’t remember who led the sortie since Faramir was on a funeral pyre at the time.

    I do admit though that Luke’s retelling is much more poetic. Although he left out the foreshadowing of the event of Aragorn and Eomer meeting after fighting through the forces of Mordor…

  45. Thenodrin says:

    I’ve always considered the DM advice of “are you sure” as being that voice in your head that warns you just before you do something dumb.

    If there are any wrestling fans here, take a look at the main event at WrestleMania XX for what I mean. Here, Brock Lesnar goes to do a finishing move that he used frequently in development, but hasn’t done since he moved up to TV. Just before he leaps, you can see his eyes go, “Bad Idea” and he crashes and burns.

    I think that was the DM warning him that even though his backstory had the acrobatics to do the move, since becoming a PC he hadn’t invested enough ranks of Tumble to reliably do the move.


  46. Marcus says:

    I think #3 is the best solution…LOL

  47. Phlodur says:

    Congratz Shamus!! Absolutly ingenious work!!
    I lmao about “Yo! Captain Cadaver!”.. great one..
    and btw my players seem to be totally immune against me asking “are you sure?”

  48. Ben says:

    well i pick #4 and # 3 they are good choices and with that comment then they only need one ship anyway for the 3 of them for the undead can walk on water

  49. nitefly says:

    In my experience there are three kind of table-top games being run by various GMs:

    Rollplaying; Focus on game mechanics with lots of statistics, characteristics and dice rolling. D&D is the optimum game for this kind of playing unless you’re masochistic enough to play Rolemaster or something like that.

    Railplaying; GM is focusing on a pre-determined story and is at least modest enough to know that their story isn’t worth putting down on paper. Players are marginalised and their input is largely ignored or changed in such a fashion that they aren’t really needed. No roleplaying game ever was made for this poor Gamemastering but it is a scourge that has ravished the hobby since it started out.

    Roleplaying; Inclusion into world of make-believe populated with reasonably realistic and living people giving the player characters all opportunities to do whatever they want with a strict sense of causality; actions have reactions, also the exclusion of certain actions when a dire situation arises. Game Mechanics support the game instead of taking center stage, NPCs are involving and interesting, GM is interacting in-character instead of via a script or a predetermined outcome. Any game system can accomodate this although I find that game systems that mechanics wise encourage this behaviour works the best (Deadlands, Exalted, Shadowrun, Ars Magica and others come to mind).

  50. Shorgoth says:

    Find smarter players is always the best option in my oppinion. Not that I want to brag or anything but my gaming group is prety much the top in brain. Wits is a warfare and sometime the dm get it in the teeth and sometim the players get it in the ass… dming us is a pain for sure but it make prety nice games with some nice rebounds sometime.

  51. Clinto says:

    No! You let them make the mistake, and let the game go into an unexpected direction! This is what makes it fun!

  52. Maladjester says:

    “Are you sure?”

    “………………………………………………………………..Well, dammit, I *WAS*!”

  53. Robin says:

    In my current game, we have three GMs who take turns, with special rules for the DMPC.

    I hereby commit that the next time I’m tempted to say, “Are you sure?” in the DM’s voice, I will instead use my DMPC’s voice to say, “Conan’s Copper Codpiece! What are you people doing??”

  54. Rose says:

    I play with one gm who you know your in trouble if he gets really excited, you know youre doing something stupid if he says “really, your going to do that, awesome.”

  55. Anonymous n00b says:

    Aragorn: “Destroy those ships!”

    King of the Dead: “The blades of the Dead strike their enemies’ souls, but ships do not have souls.”

    Also, NOT FIRST!

  56. […] enorme. Não cometa esse erro. Traduzido sem fins lucrativos, todos os direitos reservados a Shamus Young. Navegar pela […]

  57. Tachi says:

    My players know that they need to stop and reconsider the entire situation if I raise one eyebrow or if I ask, “Are you sure?” Of course, sometimes I do it just to mess with them, but they don’t know that; they just think they missed something. The one thing they do know, is that I absolutely WILL let them do something stupid enough to kill them. It makes them much more cautious.

    Rereading this whole strip from beginning to end for the fourth time. You’re the man Shamus.

  58. […] enorme. Não cometa esse erro. Traduzido sem fins lucrativos, todos os direitos reservados a Shamus Young. Series NavigationDM dos Anéis #001: A História Copiosa […]

  59. Warwick35 says:

    Are you undead or retarded? Classic!

  60. TheStevest says:

    After a hundred and some pages of reading this on my smartphone I finally realised that there is text hidden if you hold your thumb long enough on the picture.
    Going back to all the other pages and checking for the texts feels like backtracking. I won’t do it right now.
    Compliment from me from the future, present or past for all this.

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