DM vs Player Mentality — Negating The Character

This is the second post in a two-part series where I talk about a mindset often referred to as “DM vs Player”. This mentality is a false idea that a DM needs to oppose and compete with their party in order for the game to work. In this second part, I want to discuss a subset of the DM vs Player mindset I like to call “negating the character”. In part one I talked about another subset, “Punishing the Player“.

Because so many players and groups seek different parts of enjoyment from D&D, most advice depends on the play style to be effective. I don’t think that is the case with “negating the character”. Avoid this mentality at all costs. I have never seen a game where a “DM vs Player” mentality added benefits . This mindset won’t automatically transform a game into being bad, but its inclusion will hold the game back from being a better one.

Defining DM vs Player.

DM vs Player is described as any situation where the DM competes against the players. This may sound strange to newer players and DMs, “isn’t that the DM’s job”? The answer is yes … but not really. The DM’s job is to set up challenges for the player, whether they are narrative or combat. However, the DM should well and truly be on the same side as the players. When the players succeed, the DM should want to cheer! If the DM feels happier when monsters beat the PCs, even if only for one battle, it’s a good indicator this mindset is in play.

There are two broad patterns that fall into a DM vs Player mentality, as mentioned at the start. For now, let’s focus on “negating the character” and see some common examples.

Negating The Character

Negating the character is a concept where the DM neutralizes or otherwise takes away a character’s strengths. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but the frequency and severity of this pattern matters in determining if it’s a DM vs Player mentality, as does the “how” and “why” of the negation.

Another way of “negating the character” is taking away player agency. Player agency is the ability for a player to decide and attempt to control what happens with their their character. Taking this away is essentially a DM railroading a character’s decisions.

Examples of Negating The Character.

Having NPCs and monsters be effectively immune to a character’s strengths.
Jasmine the bard has an incredibly silver tongue, able to persuade and deceive with ease. After using this to the party’s advantage a few times, suddenly no NPCs are willing to believe Jasmine’s lies anymore, even when she rolls high skill checks. The DM thought Jasmine made too much of an impact, and so he neutralized her strengths.

When Ender the Fighter gets a helm of telepathy, he’s able to detect the undercover guards in the city quite easily. But after using this a few times to great effect, and making a few plots too easy, suddenly none of the guards are thinking about being undercover anymore. No matter how often Ender tries, he just can’t glean any useful intel. Again, the DM thought Ender made too much of an impact with his new wondrous item, and so he neutralized its strengths.

Seeking the characters’ failures.
A DM who jokingly complains the characters keep successfully saving against monster effects probably falls into this camp. That same DM may not even realize they are doing so. This pattern is very easy to fall into, especially when it happens infrequently or when the failure sought after is small (such as a single failed saving throw).

A more extreme version of this is the DM seeking character death. This DM might even brag about a TPK as a successful notch in their DMing career.

This pattern arises because the DM sees the monsters and NPCs as their equivalent to the player. Therefore, the DM’s proxies need to succeed for the DM to succeed. The fallacy is that the DM has near ultimate power. They shouldn’t feel the need to flex their muscles, so to speak.

Adversaries know the characters weakness for no reason.
Two players are talking tactics at the table, and one says he’ll cast fireball at the pack of animals attacking them in a large cluster. Before that player can go, the animals disperse, almost as if they knew what the player intended. Here, the DM “metagamed” — that is, they used knowledge the monsters couldn’t have had to affect their course of action. Metagaming is not bad in and of itself (more on that in a future article), but in this context it was done in poor taste.

Removing Player Agency.
The DM, Susan, is laying out a scenario in which the party has walked into an ambush of goblins. The goblins attack and start hurting the players, but only after initiative is rolled. This example has two instances of negating player agency. The first was not allowing any characters who are good at perception a chance to spot the goblins. Let’s give Susan the benefit of the doubt and say she made use of passive perception; there’s still a second instance of agency being removed. The players should have rolled initiative, and then been told there was a surprise round. The difference is subtle, but still present. It’s the difference between players being unable to act to clear in-game defined effects, or because of DM purview.

These examples are not an exhaustive list. What they do accomplish is start to lay out the pattern and themes of negating the characters. So, what’re the solutions?

DM with the Players, Not Against Them.

Being logical and consistent will go a long way in creating balancing. As a DM, your NPCs and monsters have chances to affect the world. Don’t take those same chances away from the players’ characters. Pretend you were a character; how would you feel in any given scenario?

A lot of this happens when a DM has a set goal in mind that he or she wants to happen. As a DM, I might think “I want the undercover guards to catch the PCs” or “I want this encounter to be hard”.  But the DM should honestly be on the player’s side! We want to revel in their triumphs and cheer along with them. As tempting as could be to be frustrated when the players make an encounter easy, we should let them and cheer along with them as they do so.

Wanting to challenge the players, but yet still wanting them to achieve success is a bit of a contradiction. This method of thinking is often hard to achieve for newcomers.  As they say, it’s more of an art and less of a science.

DM vs Player Mentality — Punishing The Player

I’m part of a Facebook group called Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. It’s a big group with well over one hundred thousand members. A common theme I see on the group is a mindset of what is often referred to as “DM vs Player”, a false idea that the DM needs to oppose and compete with their party for the game to work. I’d like to discuss this mentality and why I feel it’s one of the more toxic mindsets, toxic enough to ruin games and groups. Specifically for this post, I want to discuss a subset of the DM vs Player mindset I like to call “Punishing the Player”. In part two I’ll talk about another subset, “Negating the Character“.

Because so many players and groups seek different parts of enjoyment from D&D, most advice depends on the play style to be effective. I don’t think that is the case with “punishing the player”. Avoid this mentality at all costs. I have never seen a game where a “DM vs Player” mentality added benefits . This mindset won’t automatically transform a game into being bad, but its inclusion will hold the game back from being a better one.

Defining DM vs Player.

DM vs Player is described as any situation where the DM competes against the players. This may sound strange to newer players and DMs; isn’t that the DM’s job? The answer is yes…but not really. The DM’s job is to set up challenges for the player, whether they are narrative or combat. However, the DM should well and truly be on the same side as the players. When the players succeed, the DM should want to cheer! If the DM feels happier when monsters beat the PCs, even if only for one battle, it’s a good indicator this mindset is in play.

There are two broad patterns that fall into a DM vs Player mentality, as mentioned at the start. For now, let’s focus on “punishing the player” and see some common examples.

Defining Punishing the Player.

If competing with the characters is one bad pattern, then it follows being an adversary to the players is the other. An easy way to spot this pattern is to notice when players are judged for their characters actions. The DM is failing to respect the boundaries between the two.

Reacting against the player.
John, a player, wants heavy combat from games. Neither the other players nor the DM have the same interests. The DM does his best to make John’s character fail often. More enemies target John’s character, NPCs insult him, and prices for goods cost more for him. The DM is hoping John will have too little fun to keep coming back to the games. The DM is punishing the player in hopes that they will leave the game.

Punishing out-of-game actions in-game.
Amy, a DM, has a house rule asking that players not pass notes around the table to each other. She wants to hear the player’s strategy, that is the part of play she enjoys most. One player gets caught passing notes anyways. That player’s character starts having bad things happen to them on purpose because the DM is upset. Amy took her annoyance out on the player’s character as a means of punishing the player for passing notes.

Making up for in-game changes with out-of-game punishments.
Samantha, a player, is not having fun with her character. Samantha asks the DM if she can change to a new character, and the DM grudgingly allows it. But because the DM didn’t really want this new character, he always singles Samantha out when monsters attack or NPCs are looking for someone to blame. It might even be unconscious, but the end result is the DM punishing the player for an in-game change.

These examples are not an exhaustive list. What they do accomplish is start to lay out the pattern and themes of punishing the players. So, what’re the solutions?

DM with the Players, Not Against Them.

So, what should you do when you feel tempted to punish a player? The solution are often simple, if not always easy. You need to have an adult conversation between you and the player, possibly between you and the group.

Is everyone having fun? If not, can compromises be reached? If compromises seem unattainable, someone will either need to accept that the game won’t be as fun for them, or someone will need to walk away from (or be asked to leave) the game.

A flowchart for having hard conversations

Avoiding Punishing the Player.

Let’s revisit our examples from above, but this time see what potential solutions could be without the use of a DM vs Player mentality.

Reacting against the player.
John, a player, wants heavy combat from games. The GM explains this isn’t really the type of game he wants to run, nor do the other players want to play in that kind of game. Would John prefer to run a different character instead of a barbarian, so he could get more enjoyment from a game less focused on combat? John agrees.

Punishing out-of-game actions in-game.
Amy, a DM, catches a player breaking some house rules by passing notes around. She waits until after the game and talks to the player. It turns out the note was something personal and not related to the game. Amy understands, but asks that the player refrain from discussing matters of a personal nature during the game.

Making up for in-game changes with out-of-game punishments.
Samantha, a player, re-rolls and changes her character. The DM starts to punish her by having bad things happen to the new character, but Samatha asks the DM if he is mad. The DM realizes he is; he then promises to stop punishing the player.

Avoid Competing with the Players

I read a perfect quote (I can’t currently find), but it was basically: “The DM should not compete with the party, even if the NPCs the DM is controlling do compete”. Just because the Big Bad Evil Guy wants to kill the entire party does not mean the DM should be rooting for that same event to happen.

Different groups will want different levels of challenge. Generally, however, the rule of thumb is to set up an event challenging to the players, but not so hard as to prevent them from succeeding. Succeeding after adversity is the hallmark of an adventurer, and what most players strive for.

If, as a DM, your monsters and NPCs overcome their party’s strengths, it should be for good reasons; they’re intelligent masterminds, they got lucky, they studied up on the party, or the players took on monsters too strong for them to reasonably overcome. All of those reasons are fine; the one you want to avoid is using hard encounters to punish players.

Wanting to challenge the players, but yet still wanting them to achieve success is a bit of a contradiction. This method of thinking is often hard to achieve for newcomers.  As they say, it’s more of an art and less of a science.

D&D As Therapy

Want to hear a potentially novel idea? I think that D&D has therapeutic benefits. D&D as therapy actually makes sense to me. It can help deal with both depression and general anxiety. I say this because I have firsthand experience.

It took years for me to finally admit I needed help, but I did so last fall. After seeing a therapist for months, she eventually recommended I also see a psychiatrist. Between the two, I’ve learned I suffer from dysthymia (chronic mild depression), social anxiety, and potentially cyclothymia (a mild form of bipolar disorder). I’m undergoing treatment to help confirm or deny the cyclothymia diagnosis over the coming months.

I have some small authority about D&D helping me as well as helping some friends in similar situations. This isn’t just anecdotal stories like mine and those on Reddit that give credence to D&D as therapy. There’s an article on Geek & Sundry from a couple years ago about a Doctor of Psychology using D&D in therapy sessions to help teenagers. There’s even a popular twitter personality, The Id DM, who is a trained psychologist and often tweets and blogs about the intersection of D&D and psychology.

I would like to caution that D&D is not medicine, so it can’t treat depression. It’s not going to “solve” anxiety. I’m not a counselor. This blog post is well-intentioned but isn’t actual mental health advice. And finally, you should not consider D&D a replacement for proper counseling or treatment.

Backstory

I grew up in rural Kentucky. It’s not a bad place for lots of people, but it was a bad place for me. That part of Kentucky is about half midwestern, half southern. Many of the things you might envision of that kind of environment are true: stereotypical rednecks who like hunting, fishing, farming, nascar, bad American beer, and intolerance. Not everyone was that way, and not everyone who liked those things were bad people, but it was bad for me because that’s not who I am.

I grew up feeling out of place, never belonging. As a kid, I was poor and had no geeky outlets. None of my childhood friends knew what D&D was; I certainly didn’t. I didn’t play video games, read books or have much of any geeky entertainment until my middle school years. Regular access to a computer didn’t happen until my late teens. I was a young geek who was unhappy, trying to live life as a non-geek because I simply didn’t know there was any alternative.

This situation partially explains why, starting in my teenage years, I began to feel depressed. I didn’t know it at the time, of course. There was just enough toxic masculinity in my household that I knew I shouldn’t feel sadness or a sense of lacking for trivial things like ‘not belonging’. Toughen up, keep those emotions in check! RAWR BICEPS FLEX.

Teenage hormones probably made the problem worse. I didn’t have many friends in high school; even the kids who were bullied weren’t really geeky (or they hid it from everyone well), because being a geek just wasn’t a thing people did in the late late 90s in Kentucky.

Depression Lies

Just as with so many others, my depression was (and is) a sinister thing. It lies. It tell you that it’s not really depression. Thoughts like “you just can’t cope as well as others”, “other people don’t need help, why do you?”, “if you need help, you’re a failure” are always there. Needling. Nagging. Nettling. These persistent thoughts run renegade over the small part of you that maybe, just maybe, wants to seek help and feel better and be healthier.

If you feel like this, you are not alone.

And if playing D&D makes mute those thoughts — even if only temporarily — then you most certainly are not alone in that, either.

Depression Sucks

As I said, I’ve had depression since my teenage years. My mood swings go upward into frustration, anger, and resentment as much as they go lower in the more typical sadness, sullenness, and despondence. I’ll have days where everything seemed to just suck. One thing would go wrong; it could be a tiny random thing or a something with real but moderate impact. I’d have some reaction to the event that was out of proportion. A friend would cancel last minute instead of hanging out with me. I’d realize I forgot to buy more milk at the store after getting home. Priorities at work would shift unexpectedly. The point is, the trigger wasn’t the real reason I’d start feeling miserable for hours or days, they were literally just a trigger.

During these times, I felt hopelessly unhappy, obsessing with my thoughts. I’d relive conversations, play scenarios over in my head. Usually I’d be analyzing actions looking for what I’d done wrong. Let that sink in. I’m such a harsh critic of myself that I blame myself for being depressed. And this would persist until I was able to forget about it. Enter D&D.

D&D Has Helped With My Depression.

I was in my younger 20s when I first found friends who played D&D. In a number of ways, these friends and D&D changed my life. I finally had found people I connected with. There was a small group of people to which I finally found belonging.

I had a core group of 3 friends, and we spent the better part of a decade being inseparable and playing D&D together. The four of us would play games, adding in a secondary roster from a group of another 7 or so friends who’s availability shifted. Three player D&D parties, 8 player parties, games with co-DMs, outlandishly powerful games (hello 3.5 Gestalt alternate rules), games with lots of story, and games that mimicked Diablo’s mindless hack’n’slash.

We played it all, we grew close together as friends, and we learned a hell of a lot about each other. And this whole time I suffered with depression, but I just wasn’t willing to admit it or label it that way. I never referred to it as such even when I admitted I was unhappy. But looking back, something truly astounding becomes clear — my depression was muted while playing D&D. I had found my escape.

D&D was my therapy I didn’t know I needed.

I didn’t go to therapy. I didn’t seek help. I wouldn’t — couldn’t — even admit I needed it. But without knowing it, I used D&D as therapy all the same.

D&D As Therapy Helped With My Depression.

Just like how D&D advice depends on your play style, using D&D as therapy will depend on your personality and mood. But I bet for a lot of people, D&D may be able to help if you’re suffering from depression or anxiety.

I truly, honestly believe D&D as therapy is an amazing outlet. It’s literally the perfect escape from all of life’s shitty little problems. You get to pretend to be someone else, living somewhere else, and doing something else. In D&D there’s no jobs or commutes or stressors like there are in real life. For the things in game that might bother you, you get to set them on fire or hit them with an axe, so that’s cathartic as well.

D&D Also Helped With My Social Anxiety And Social Skills.

In my case, I primarily played with friends. In this situation, I was hanging out entirely with people I wanted to see, playing a game I wanted to play, and having some of the best fun of my life. But due to so many of our friends having wildly unpredictable schedules, we’d need to reach out for another player. Since I have mild social anxiety, talking to new people isn’t normally my thing.

But I loved talking to new people in a controlled manner and about things I was passionate about. Such as, you might correctly deduce, adding one player to a controlled group of friends about D&D, which I just so happen to be passionate about. D&D let me talk to people, and when I started DMing I really got to work on intra-personal skills.

I forget that I’m depressed while playing D&D, even for those really bad days. Future sessions become a time to anticipate, with my excitement sometimes literally feeling like it’s unable to be contained. Hell, I clearly even enjoy writing blogs about D&D. And lately I’ve been digging into the online D&D community, checking out indie creators, and feeling how much joy it can bring people.

Maybe D&D Can Help You Too

If you need it, I hope that D&D as therapy can bring you the same relief.

As always, if you want to talk about the article hit me up on twitter. And a special consideration for this article: if you are feeling depressed and want someone to talk to, my twitter DMs are open. I at least know what it’s like, I won’t judge, and I firmly believe no one should have to suffer depression alone.

If you’re mentally hurting, please seek help. Find a therapist or confidant. Go to a priest if that’s your thing. If you’re seriously hurting and need emergency mental care, consider going to the Emergency Room or calling the Suicide Hotline (in the US) at 1-800-273-8255.

It Depends — The Best D&D Advice

People love to hold strong opinions, and perhaps even more so share them. We all want to validate the choices we make. If you go looking for advice about D&D, you’re sure to find it. Some of it will work, some of it won’t. There is one universal piece of advice, however, that will always work for all players and all DMs: “It Depends”. It’s the truest, best advice you’ll ever receive.

Arguments and opinions can be philosophical or practical, pro or con, but at the end of the day what works in one situation may not work in another. Different groups need different advice, as do different players. That’s why “It Depends” is so universal. Even Star Wars tells us dealing in absolutes is bad. The problem exists because recommending absolutes is much easier than giving generic, vague advice, no matter how sound.

It Depends - Socrates

It was on the Internet, it has to be true – also Socrates.

How does “It Depends” apply to D&D?

If you’ve got some experience under your belt, chances are you have had both good and bad sessions (or perhaps even entire games) of D&D. Why is that? What made the good sessions good, and the bad sessions bad? Some of those bad times, if not all, are going to be grounded in a simple truth: players gain enjoyment from D&D for different reasons.

What might players look for in D&D?

  • Some players might yearn for mechanics of previous editions or hybrid house rules from other game systems.
  • Others might prefer ultra tactical fights with optional rules like flanking, miniatures, grids, battle maps, and terrain.
  • Some players might prefer more political intrigue.
  • Others may want dungeon crawls with very little in the way of narrative.
  • Some players want to stay totally in character.
  • Others players want a very casual game, where it’s more about hanging out with friends than actually playing D&D.
  • Some players only want to play powerful characters in high fantasy with epic magic.
  • Others players want to play strictly by the rules (e.g., RAW).

Wanting to play differently than others is certainly not wrong; coercing others into playing a style of game they do not enjoy might be, however.

So why does this matter?

Giving heavy combat focused advice to a heavy political intrigue game probably doesn’t make much sense. It really depends, honestly, on the style of game being played as well as the preferences of players. And this brings us to the crux of the issue. How could I say with certainty that giving advice to any given player, group, or game will improve their experience if I’m unaware of what brings them joy while playing D&D?

I can’t. Even when I try to be generic, such as suggesting players might have more fun in finding the yes.

So, what’s the answer?

There’s a few things to consider when giving advice.

  1. Don’t speak in absolutes. Try to make suggestions, not mandates.
  2. If possible, have a dialogue to tailor your advice. Learn what the player or group to whom you are giving advice desires from their games.
  3. If all else fails, give your advice as you would normally, but make sure to mention this advice may not work for them. This is probably more true of a blog post than a one-on-one.

So, what improvements could you use in your next D&D game? It Depends. But I’m happy to share my thoughts or listen to yours, hit me up on Twitter.

Finding The Yes As A Player

A few days ago Ryan tweeted the DM’s job is to set up “scenarios players make a story of” to which the players “need to find the yes”. Finding the yes is a powerful method of framing DM/player interactions. It’s also a tool that empowers players to influence and affect the narrative of the campaign in unexpected ways. While I think the word “need” is too strong in Ryan’s tweet, I still wanted to pump my fists in the air in joy while reading it. Find the yes! That’s the attitude that has the power to transform a D&D session from average or good to unforgettable.

D20 Oh Yeahart by offworlddesigns

Let’s set up an example.

We’ll make up a party of an elven bard, a dwarven barbarian, a halfling cleric, and a human wizard. For the notable NPCs, there’s a human Duke and a dwarven Captain of the Guard. The local Queen sent the party to the Duke’s court to search for a spy. The Queen doesn’t trust the Duke to find the spy on his own, so he is unaware of the party’s mission.

The DM tells the players there are about a dozen diplomats, dignitaries, and others. These hangers-on and flunkies hover around the courts all day. The Duke is known to be gullible if one is willing to flatter him appropriately — which is exactly what all the hangers-on have been doing for months and years. There is also a handful of guards led by the dwarven Captain. When the Captain sees the elf in the party, she scrunches her face in distaste. She waves over another guard and talks to him for a minute before turning her dour gaze on the rest of the party. Finally, the Queen suspects one of the people in this room is the spy.

How much conflict is too much?

At first glance, this might look like the DM is setting the players up with too much conflict. The deck is partially stacked against them, isn’t it? The Captain seems predisposed to dislike them. She can easily influence the other guards and possibly the Duke, so there’s a chance many people could quickly turn against the party. If the Queen’s suspicions are correct, the spy already has the ear of the Duke. The elven bard, who was perfectly suited to be the party face, was the first character singled out by the Captain, so that may also seem like a handicap.

One thought — perhaps even a player’s first instinct — might be “this isn’t fair”. The bard’s player could feel this scenario was designed to thwart her character. But what if the player instead embraces the scenario, and “finds the yes” with the rest of the party?

Let’s help these characters in finding the yes.

What does this mean? Let’s take a situation where a player would normally ‘say no’ and try to change it. The tricky part here is that often, neither characters nor players are actually saying no; instead they are reacting to some scenario or change with a negative outlook. Instead of feeling like a character is being denied an action, a player could use this as a chance to do something out of the ordinary. Because that’s what characters are, beyond the norm of the every day commoner.

Revisiting the party described above, an example course of action that sees the characters finding the yes might be:

The elven bard realizes that trying to convince the Duke or Guard of any spying is an uphill battle. She changes tactics and regales the dignitaries with a heroic tale of the party’s adventure. She sings of how they saved a similar land some distance away. This impresses a few of the diplomats, who file this information away in case their own lands need saving. It also serves the purpose of distracting all of them, and taking their attention off of the Duke.

Meanwhile, the dwarf barbarian leaves his comfort zone to talk sociably with the Duke. The barbarian tells a crude but serviceable story about how much safer the Duke’s lands are than the barbarian’s wilderness home. He speaks softly, using a low voice to avoid being overheard by the diplomats. The rest of the party approach the Captain and seek to learn why the Captain is wary of them.

Finding the yes can lead to unexpected results.

It turns out the Captain naturally distrusts elves, so there’s not much they can do about that. But they learn their previous adventure, where they saved a merchant’s wares from some goblins, had an impact on the Captain’s family. The Captain’s husband is a merchant with fierce competition; his competition owned the wares the party the party saved. The Captain had misunderstood the situation after talking with a fellow guard and thought the party was supplying the competition, not merely doing a good dead.

The party apologies for the confusion, to which the Captain denies them and says it’s her apology to make. After that, the party’s watchful cleric, notices one diplomat acting strangely. The cleric spots this particular diplomat glancing nervously back at the barbarian, clearly worried about what is being discussed. Aha, a clue! Maybe that’s the spy…

Sometimes, extra conflict is a good thing.

Imagine this scenario had been more straightforward. The bard would have rolled a couple of Persuasion and Insight rolls, they would have deduced who the spy was, and then they would have been on to the next thing.

Instead, it became a tale of awesome intrigue even within the confines of a single ballroom in the Duke’s court. Taking something small and making it impactful is one of the things I love about D&D. Overcoming conflict is another. By finding the yes, the players in this fictitious example managed to do both while having fun, which is certainly the heart of D&D. No advice works well for every player or group, but it’s certainly worth giving a shot.

Have something to say about this article? Hit me up on Twitter.

Navigation