Monday, November 19, 2018

5 Dick Moves That Probably Mean You're A Bad DM

Most of us who know what it's like to sit in that big chair at the head of the table have experience one of those moments. Whether it was just after you made a tough call, or while pondering the next arc of your campaign, you've wondered if you're really cut out to be a dungeon master. If you are providing the experience your players want, or if you're making big mistakes and ruining everything.

Well, every table's experiences are going to be different. However, these are the five biggest dick moves I've experienced in my time as both a player and a DM, so if you can avoid these issues, you're probably doing just fine.

#1: That Was Really Powerful... You Can't Do It Again!

It does HOW much damage? Uh-huh... well, we're gonna fix that.
This particular maneuver is commonly used by DMs who either aren't totally familiar with the game's rules, or who don't actually know how the PCs' abilities work. Either way, when they're caught off-guard by something a character can do, their first reaction is to figure out how to take it away from the player. Their rogue deals enough sneak attack damage to take out an important bad guy in a few hits? Clearly sneak attack is broken, and too powerful. The paladin's smite lays waste to an entire encounter? Well, it must be unbalanced if they can cake walk through such a tough fight because of it.

And so on, and so forth.

I'm not going to lie, you're going to get surprised sometimes. You'll forget that the bard can counter your bad guy's main ability, or that your evoker took primarily sonic spells that shatter your crystalline creatures. And you should definitely read the ability description to make sure your players are following the letter of the law when it comes to how their characters' powers work. But if they're following the rules, you don't make your game better by changing the rules so they can't win. Instead, make note of how many times a character can use that ability, and what situations it takes effect in. Then design your encounters appropriately. Because sure, the rogue could sneak attack his way through your hordes... if he could properly see them. Yes, the paladin's smite would destroy a demon, but what about the humans that demon is using as pawns who don't know what their master truly is?

But If You're Going To Do It Anyway...

Like I said, the best thing to do is to let your players have their victories and change up your strategy. Do not, I repeat DO NOT just say, "well, Geoff's favored enemy is demons, so I guess we're not fighting those anymore." But if you want a fight to be a challenge, understand that just tossing a few demons at the party isn't the challenge it would normally be if that's one character's jam. So add in some additional challenges like terrain, multiple enemies, and maybe a ticking clock element to add extra tension. You can still have enemies that the party isn't specialized in fighting, but don't completely negate their abilities just because it's inconvenient for your game.

If they have discovered a serious combo that breaks your game, or that you feel is causing a problem, talk to the player about it. Try to work out an agreement, and give them something different to make up for what you're taking away. And never, ever do it in the middle of the game, because that makes you look like you're just pulling out an everything-proof shield because you don't want to lose.

#2: Either Do What I Said, Or Die!

If this is your motto, you might be in the game for the wrong reasons.
We've all had those players at our tables. Maybe it was a casual friend who just won't take the game seriously. It might be that drop-in player who always plays against genre and tone just to be contrary. Or it might be that one player who acts inappropriately and makes everyone else uncomfortable. Part of you just wants to roll the dice behind your screen, pull a pained expression, and tell them their character is dead. If they want to make a new one, you would suggest making someone more in-line with the game you're actually running.

Don't do that.

No matter how satisfying you think it will be, as I said back in Killing Characters Won't Solve Out-Of-Game Problems, it isn't going to do what you want. All you're going to do is strengthen a player's resolve to make a new character who is just as irritating as the old one, perhaps even worse, just to spite you. And if you kill that one, you're just going to be the passive-aggressive DM who won't tell you no, but who will make sure your characters die if they don't meet the unspoken rules.

But If You're Going To Do It Anyway...

Don't. There is no way to do this without making yourself look like a royal douche nozzle.

Instead, what you should do is talk to the player you aren't seeing eye-to-eye with. Explain where you're coming from, and ask them what they want to get out of your game. Work with them to modify their behavior, and if you really want to save time and energy, put out some ground rules for character creation to nip problems in the bud. Characters who don't meet the stated, Session 0 rules won't be allowed, and that can eliminate as much as 85% of most problems you'd have. And if a player won't work with you, then officially un-invite them from your game; don't just keep bringing down the hammer and hope they'll stop showing up.

#3: Make A New Character... A Level 1 Character!

Exactly how many liters of piss are you taking right now?
When a player creates a character, they get invested in that character. They are the author of their story, they have goals, plans, and arcs they want them to complete. Having all those plans cut short because the gnoll captain scored a lucky critical with their battle ax is bad enough. But most players can soldier on, and bring a new character in to fill the old one's shoes.

Not if you make them do it as a level one PC, though.

This is a bad habit left over from the old days, and it makes your life hell as both a player and a DM. It's hard enough to present a fair challenge for a party when everyone is the same level, but if you have three members of the Avengers, and then Steve the farm kid with 11 hit points, anything that could remotely pose a threat to everyone else is going to splatter the new character against a wall. While that might not be the case if you allowed them to bring in a 4th or a 5th level character with a 6th-level party, there is no reason to make someone play at a handicap. You already killed them, what does making them play at a lower level accomplish other than adding insult to injury?

But If You're Going To Do It Anyway...

There are really only two circumstances I can think of this mechanic being used in, and it's if you're either going for a hardcore run, or if you're doing a kind of Dark Souls thing where the PC has to recover their lost spirit from where they died to get back their full level and powers.

Other than that, no. All you're doing is making it more likely that this one player is going to die again, making them feel singled out, and frustrating everyone else that they now have to contend with losing their bruiser, their stealth, or their nuclear power house, and have nothing to replace it with but a kid sidekick.

#4: No, I Promise, Sir Pendleton is Here To HELP You!

Isn't he just peachy? Good thing he was there!
DM player characters have a bad rep, and they have it for a good reason. Because when you're a player, the only means you have to interact with the world is your PC. You only have your wits, your stats, and your dice to accomplish great things. If the dungeon master puts a personal character into the campaign, though, that's like trusting the fox to keep the hen house safe. It's entirely possible that the fox will follow all the rules you've set out, and play fair. But you're probably going to keep a sharp eye on the chickens all the same.

Put another way, it's tough to trust that the referee can remain impartial when he has a personal stake in a particular character.

But If You're Going To Do It Anyway...

A DM PC is one of those things that should be offered, but never forced on the party. If they don't have a healer, then make a healer they can choose to take with them. If they need a bodyguard because everyone is playing wizards, then draw up a hireling mercenary they can bring with them (perhaps someone from the 100 Random Mercenary Companies written by yours truly?). Hell, give them a few options to choose from so the players don't feel you're trying to get them to take any particular character with them.

Secondly, the best thing you can do to make your DM PC work is to play support. If your paladin is always dealing the death blow, or your barbarian's armor class mysteriously fluctuates, players are going to feel like you're purposefully stealing their thunder. On the other hand, if your DM PC is a bard providing a handy background bonus, a healer keeping everyone on their feet, or a one-man shield wall giving the rest of the party space to cast and shoot, that lets you contribute without overshadowing the players.

#5: Who's The DM Here, Me Or You?

Hard to be a DM without any players. Just saying.
There is this common refrain among lots of people that the DM is god. It's a cute thing to say, like telling people the cat owns the house, but fluffy's name isn't on the mortgage. While the DM runs the world, provides the plot, and technically does portray the deities of the setting, they are not a dictator.

Or, at least, they shouldn't be.

Running a game is a cooperative experience. The DM sets up the scenes, and then the players take over, interacting with the scene and world through their characters. While the DM should feel free to make rules calls, and present results in accordance with the natural flow of actions and reactions, it's important to make sure they understand that they are just as much a player as everyone else at the table. It's just that their role is very different.

Regular ego checks are what keep DMs running smoothly.

But If You-

No. Just no.

Just as anyone who must declare himself the king is no true king, so a DM who abuses their authority will seem less deserving of that authority in the eyes of the rest of the table. So while it is tempting to pull this trump card out and throw it on the table, it's never going to work the way you want it to. If you need to declare a ruling, but players have objections, don't just write that off as, "I'm the DM, and what I say goes." You have to address your players' concerns, and make sure they feel you're treating them fairly. You don't have to do it at that exact moment, but when the session is over, or when the scene has wrapped, you need to talk it out and be sure everyone can reach a point of agreement. Otherwise you'll find yourself in the same position as France's nobility when the common folk started building guillotines.

Or they'll just leave and find another table. Real talk; DMs who abuse their authority are likely the #1 reason players who don't want to be dungeon masters end up taking on the mantle.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment! If you have DM dick moves that didn't make the list, leave them in the comments below! And if you'd like to see more of my work head over to my Vocal archive, or stop in to take a look at my Gamers page if you just want to see my tabletop stuff. Also, head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other gamers to make videos for players and DMs alike!

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  1. Great article. At one point in my nearly 35 years of gaming I have been all these GMs. But I've long since outgrown these bad habits, at least I hope I have. Thanks again for the article!

  2. This is really awesome. Great advice. I've played some form of RPG for 40 years now, and seen this many times. A big head needs to go play Yahtzee or Backgammon.