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.