Tag: advice for DMs

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.

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.

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