This past weekend, I decided to show my players that I still had a few surprises in me. I love it when my players, many of whom I’ve gamed with for years, can’t predict my next move and are shocked by the results. The lesson I learned, however, is that sometimes unpredictability comes with a cost. Fortunately, this time, that cost turned out to be more perceived than real.

Several months ago, I ran a scenario involving the defense and siege of a keep guarding the only keep across a raging river. While the heroes were preparing to defend against a human army, a small force of demons attacked the keep and the surrounding encampment instead. One of the heroes, a sorcerer using the Wizards of the Coast Unearthed Arcana “Favored Soul” rules, cast the ice storm spell to take out a large cluster of Manes demons. What the player didn’t realize, and the character definitely didn’t realize, is that the radius of the spell included a single “square” of one of the tents in the encampment… a space containing a normal human conscript.

The Manes were annihilated, but so, unfortunately, was the soldier… who was hit with over double his hit point maximum with a single hit. The favored soul is an elven subrace unique to my game world, essentially a halfling-elf. This race is among the most innocent in the world, and even the elders of the race never truly “grow up.” Needless to say, the collateral damage weighed heavily on the character’s heart, and her guilt hung with her throughout that session and the one that followed.

Fast forward several months, when I decided it would be fun for the soldier (who had been Soldier #7 on my list, so the Players decided his name was “Septimus”) to rise again as a revenant with a mad-on for the death of the favored soul. You see, the PCs had recently angered the goddess of vengeance, and I loved the poetic irony of a revenant hunting the most innocent character in the party… the one person who would never even consider the death of an innocent person.

The surprise attack in the middle of a separate, unrelated combat went off without a hitch. The players were caught completely off guard, and the chaos that ensued was majestic. After the game, the players commented on how memorable the surprise was. It was a comment made during the fight, though, that didn’t really hit me until after the session, on the drive home. The player of the favored soul had off-handedly said “so much anxiety!” during the battle as she role-played her character struggling with renewed guilt and unable to take any actual action in combat (the player’s role-playing decision).

The thing is, I know the player, and she and I share a common characteristic: anxiety attacks. We both suffer from elevated anxiety and struggle with it. On the drive home, I remembered her comment and I began to worry… had I pushed the PLAYER too far. I certainly didn’t want to be the cause of player anxiety. I contacted her after I got home, and she told me not to worry… she was talking about the player’s anxiety, and she loved the role-playing opportunity.

But it got me thinking: the players put a lot of trust in the DM. In return, the DM has the responsibility to be the steward of that trust. As a DM, you need to understand your players’ expectations, and not just what they want out of the game, but also what they don’t want. If a DM wants to run darker storylines, especially hard issues like racism, murder, rape, and torture, the DM has a responsibility to make sure that the players are comfortable with exploring those issues. If they’re not, the DM should either adjust for that or suggest they find another game. Characters are fictional. Players are not.

I probably should have talked to that one player before the game, since her character was at the center of the plot, to make sure that burying her character in guilt was something she’d be comfortable playing… because that kind of thing can go to dark places. Fortunately, it worked out this time. But I will certainly be talking to my players about this in the future and asking them to (PRIVATELY) let me know if there are any subjects that they would prefer not to explore in my game. My enjoyment of the game is based on their enjoyment of it. Their enjoyment is paramount.

As a father, when I run for my 13 and 11 year-old daughters, I avoid these kinds of dark story lines on principal. These are my children… I try to keep things light and “high adventure.” With adults, it’s safer to go to darker places… but never without the consent of the players. I’ve always felt that way, but it took a “close call” to really drive the point home. As always, these posts are my opinion — just how I feel — but I’ve got to say, this just makes sense to me. Sometimes it’s worth giving up a little of the surprise to ensure that you have the consent.