Behind The Screens – Our Pain, Their Gain

On my trip to Cuba last week, I was stung (by, I’m gonna say, a bee) for the first time in my life. Like any good GM, I immediately began making mental notes of the pain and discomfort I was experiencing for use in future games.

The Experience

On the morning of the second day of my trip, mere minutes into enjoying the luxurious pool for the first time this trip, a pain stabbed through my left ring finger so suddenly I hadn’t even noticed that I was brushing a tickle off my neck when that tickle counter-attacked.

I whipped my left hand, severing the (I’m gonna say) bee from her stinger and launch the insect side of the bisectioning into the pool. I watched with mixed feelings as she thrashed in the water – Had she stung me, or had I button mashed and stumbled across a fatality? The white barb, like a cross between a splinter and a spinal cord, jutting out of my finger added to the Mortal Kombat vibe of what I’d done to her.

My wife Tina just started on her way to an appointment to sign up for excursions when I flagged her over. She didn’t have tweezers on her so she eased the stinger out by hand, then suggested she stick round for a few minutes since we didn’t know if I was allergic.

Oh, right! I was in a foreign country, stung by a foreign insect I couldn’t fully identify, with no idea if my situation was about to get much worse, and no way of knowing other than waiting it out.

So we waited.

It didn’t get worse. Sort of.

When I didn’t have any kind of anaphylactic reaction, Tina went to her appointment and I lounged in the cool water with the girls for a few more hours, confident that the only result of the encounter was the itchiness of ten mosquito bites and one dead (I’m gonna say) bee.

It ends up, the pool was cold enough to have an icing effect on my finger. At lunch, my wedding ring started bothering me. I investigated and saw that my finger was swollen and red. I managed to yank my ring over the flesh lump to allow the finger to do whatever swelling it needed to do. It wasn’t until the last day of my trip that it deflated to its original size and I was able to bend my finger again and put my ring back on.

Using It

My first and last impression of getting stung was the surprise. The sting was over before I realized it was even possible. The surprised was followed by confusion and investigation.

In combat, my pattern when I attack is:

  1. Determine if it hit
  2. Deal damage
  3. Establish riders to the damage
  4. Sum up the mechanics we just went through with a description.

Even if my players aren’t conscious of this pattern, I believe some part of them is aware of it. So if I want to surprise my players, or get them to worry, I can change the pattern. Silently determine if an attack hits, ignoring any questions like “what are you rolling?” Then break the silence with a fragment of a description, something like “Your stomach… hurts?” but wait for them to ask follow up questions before fleshing the description out. Only then do I throw out the mechanical details that lift the vail on what’s happened.

The next lasting impression was fear of the further ramifications of the sting. Not only was I worried about what having an allergic reaction could mean for my health and safety, I was far from the comfortable familiarity of the Canadian healthcare system. Cuba’s health services have a good reputation, but that’s still asking for me to have faith in a reputation. Plus I couldn’t identify what stung in, if that matters.

At the table, this may have turned me around on my feelings about in-game diseases. My GMing style is very much in the moment, so the long term effects of disease are both too dragged out for me to make dramatic and too spread out for me to keep track of. However, the way Crystal handled Xavier’s disease in the latest Adventurous showed me the value of keeping track of disease. She sprung it on me during a transition scene, too, after we made a plan but while we were en route to executing it. Was it the exact onset time of the disease? Who knows! Does it matter? Nope. And that’s something I will try to keep in mind.


PCs aren’t the only ones who get better with experience. We may not be fighting giant bees with stingers the size of our torsos, my fellow GMs, but we can extrapolate from the moments in our lives that most closely relate to the scenes we describe to give an authenticity to the fantasies we roleplay.

Every two weeks, Ryan Costello uses his experience as a Game Master, infused with popular culture references, to share his thoughts on best GMing practices to help his fellow GMs. Often deconstructing conventional wisdom and oft repeated GMing advice, he reminds his fellow GMs that different players play the game in different ways, and for different reasons.

Ryan Costello

What started as one gamer wanting to talk about his love of a game has turned into an empire of gamers talking about their games. Ryan founded what would become the Know Direction Podcast network with Jason "Jay" Dubsky, his friend and fellow 3.5 enthusiast. They and their game group moved on to Pathfinder, and the Know Direction podcast network was born. Now married and a father, Ryan continues to serve the network as a co-host of the flagship podcast, Know Direction. You can find out more about Ryan and the history of the network in this episode of Presenting: