The Fall and Fall of a DM

By Brian Moakley Jun 13, 2020
A piece of artwork showing a wizened man in a green cloak, opening two gigantic doors. Beyond the doors are mounds of treasure.

Adam made a mistake.

Having been a dungeon master for hundreds of sessions – Adam was quite confident in his own abilities. He streamed multiple games a week to crowds of hundreds of people. When not running an adventure, he’d teach people the tools of the trade.

But even the best tradesman can make a critical blunder to the detriment of their own careers. Adam made such a mistake. He roleplayed a sexual assault of a player without the player’s consent.

Note: I’m leaving out details such as the name of the video, the names of the people involved and so on. Google search has a way of remembering events when people would rather forget them.

The whole episode took only a few minutes to play out but at the end of that time, the players were left flabbergasted. The men assumed classic facepalm positions. Both women were stunned and speechless.

A soccer player with four sets of arms clasping his face. The caption reads, "Quadruple Facepalm: I had to grow extra arms to show you how much you failed."

Had this occurred during a normal gaming session, the damage would have been limited to just the members at the table. But this was live-streamed to hundreds of people who watched in horror.

At the end of the episode, Adam realized what he did. His face was a snapshot of confused horror.

Adam made a mistake.

Cue the Cock-Up Cascade

Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw described the “Cock-Up Cascade” as a series of unbroken bad decisions that are bad in theory and only worse in practice.

Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone makes them in front of hundreds of people. Yes, Adam made a bad mistake. A really bad mistake. A career-ending type of mistake. But all was not lost. There was still time to fix it. He needed to do it right.

Adam Savage from Mythbusters once said, “Calm people live. Tense people die.

“Calm people live. Tense people die” – probably the best life advice by Adam Savage.

Well, this Adam got really tense. He panicked. Badly.

Being a dungeon master, Adam was used to controlling the situation. So Adam tried to control it. He did an interview with a well-known YouTuber, JP. JP sponsored Adam’s content. JP also posted it on his channel.

It should have been a “Come to Jesus” meeting. For those outside the know, a “Come to Jesus” meeting is described as “a meeting or moment where one undergoes a difficult but positive and powerful realization or change in character or behavior.” Instead, it was a “Come to PR Spin” meeting.

A picture of the Office Space boss saying, "If we can have a 'come to jesus' meeting, that'll be great."

It was bad but the damage was limited.

In response, Adam wrote a long-winded Twitter apology. It ran circles around itself and came off as insincere at best.

He got dunked on by everyone.

So, Adam channeled the fighting spirit of the Jedi and did what every Jedi does when things get tough. He ran away to hide.

A still from Monty Python and the Holy Grain with Knights running away.
Running away isn’t so much an art, as it is a science

After almost two months of silence, he reappeared during the riots of 2020. Another terrible choice. Every day there were images of protest and violence and so he showed up to support the cause.

It was thirsty.

Please, folks. Do not use a national tragedy as a way to marginalize your own scandal. It either shows an extreme lack of judgment or it appears you are taking advantage of the situation.

After the sudden emergence, Adam posted a blog message informing his intentions of leaving it all behind.

Cock-up cascade complete. Well done Adam. Your parting gift: not having to tell people you were actually sorry and regretful. Thanks for playing!

A dolphin in  a big circle, smiling and waving towards the camera. The text reads, "So long and thanks for all the fish".
A visual depiction of Adam’s career

The stupid thing is he didn’t need to quit. He just needed to turn on his Twitch stream, face the camera and say, “I’m sorry. I fucked up. How can I fix this?”

Then he’d listen, get dunked on, listen some more and continue the process. He’d need to take positive action and be sincere, but in time, he’d be back DM’ing games and continuing his Twitch streams.

Some folks decry this as “cancel culture” but truth be told, Adam canceled himself.

Safety Tools

In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded in flight. The fault of the explosion was determined to be a faulty O-Ring. It would be easy to categorize it as a manufacturing defect, but there was actually a much deeper cause.

Twitter user @foone has an amazing thread on the subject. He believes NASA’s culture was the ultimate cause of the explosion. He calls it the “Normalization of Deviance”. He describes it like thus:

Normalization of deviance is the idea that things are designed and limits are calculated. We can go this fast, this hard, this hot, this cold, this heavy. But we always want to optimize. We want to do things cheaper, quicker, more at once.You’ve been going 110% all the time. It’s worked out just fine. You’re doing great, no problems. You start to think of 110% as the new normal, and you think of it as just 100%.

I think you can see where this is going. You get used to pushing thresholds and then one day, you have no margin of error. Things go boom.

A screenshot of the Twitter reviewing the concept of "deviance normalization" and the dangers of it in engineering terms.
Probably the best Twitter thread that I have ever read.

Safety tools in role-playing games allow you to avoid bad situations. They allow players to skip content that may trouble them. Safety tools have all sorts of protocols. Players must all be on the same page for these protocols to work.

Adam knew about safety tools. He advocated for them in spirit, but in practice, he ignored them. After all, he ran successful games without needing them. He didn’t need them because he’d never needed them in the past.

But, the economies of scale can be a bitch. Imagine you were cursed. You can play Dungeons & Dragons, but each game you played, there was a one percent chance that you would spontaneously combust.

Sure, play a few games and the odds are in your favor. But what happens if you play one hundred games? What about a thousand? As an experiment, I went to random.org and generated a sequence of numbers between 1 and 100. The number 1 showed up after fourteen iterations. Boom!

A screenshot of a video that reads "Safety Toolkit: How to use and setup"
Safety tools don’t just save D&D games, they save relationships.

My point is that Adam needed to use safety tools. It wasn’t a matter of “if” he would cock-up, but a matter of “when”. He was flying without a chute and inevitably, his plane blew up. (And note, if you’re a dungeon master, this applies to you, too)

He admits this in one of his apologies. “I didn’t use safety protocols”. But was that the actual problem? The lack of safety protocols was his initial mistake. It’s what got him in trouble. The root problem for his “cancellation” was the lack of listening.

Adam needed to listen to his players, especially his women players who he made feel uncomfortable. He needed to listen to his audience. And most importantly, he needed to listen to the people whom he hurt.

Adam made a mistake …

… but he couldn’t stop talking when he should have been listening. He literally talked himself out of a career and now will assume victimhood.

As a DM, it is our obligation to listen. The moment we stop listening, all we are doing is talking to ourselves. There are easier ways to do that and in the case of Adam, less painful ones.

Listen to your players and let them know they have been heard. Your players and audience will appreciate you for it.

Note: Since I wrote this article, Adam has deleted his Twitter feed and removed all traces of himself online.

By Brian Moakley

Brian Moakley is a writer and technologist who lives amongst the quiet hills in New England. When not reading tales of high adventure, he is often telling such stories to all who will listen.

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