DM Advice: Contention At The Table

by Mike Shea on 14 June 2010

We're going to try something a little different with this article today. I received a note from Youseph Tanha, a writer for Stargazer's World that I thought would be of interest to a lot of Dungeon Masters out there. Below you will find my edited version of his note and my response to it.

In summary, we are discussing how to handle hot emotional situations at the table, how to deal with players who worry more about game balance than the situation they're in, and when the right time arises to change your game around your players. If you enjoy this article and have your own DM questions, send me an email to mike@mikeshea.net and be sure to include your permission to repost the note.

Let us begin with Youseph'semail:

I setup a trap this last weekend. If a particular book was pulled from the library shelf and opened a flash of brilliant white light would engulf the player and cause this person to go blind. Permanently. In my game thats what happened. The player was so upset that she could not roll some kind of check or save to get her eye sight back. She made the rest of the game difficult to play. Eventually team work with other players helped her through the level and pointed her to bad guys so she could still fight.

Now I am not a total jerk. She will find away through magic or some such to regain her sight and it will be better eye sight then she had before.

Another issue I had with this last game was one player close to death (by close I mean getting down to zero hit points for the firs time) started complaining that the battle was unfair and unbalanced, and started arguing with me on ever move and attack I was making. So much so I started second guessing myself and was changing things around to make this player happy. At one point It got so annoying and ugly I almost called it a night early. His attitude made everyone uncomfortable. Not just me. Which is the weird thing because everyone likes this guy outside of the game. He is the cool kid to hangout with.

It seems like anytime he has come close to death in the past he just gets pissy about it. I have even pulled him aside and we came up with a new character and how he would be introduced should his first character die in glorious battle.

I love Dungeons & Dragons. I put a lot of my own personal time, energy and money in to each game to try and make it fun and exciting for my players. (as I am sure you do too) But man, when stuff like that happens It sucks the life right out of me. I dont know if its my fault or its my players or is this just how it is?

And my response:

I think there are a few things to keep in mind from your note. First, sometimes there are bad nights. Sometimes things just don't work out, tensions are high and situations don't work out that well. Sometimes people just lose their temper. I know I have when the bickering gets high and the game drags on. The key is to firewall off these bad nights and just worry about making the next one a good one.

Second, you will want to watch out on the instant death and dismemberment traps. These can be pretty frustrating. There's a reason that 4th edition has done away with the instant death saving throws. Now with progressively worsening conditions like the petrification or death rays we see at higher levels, players get more than one chance to get around something. Mix this with other character's abilities to trigger a save and they have lots of options.

Players don't want to feel like they didn't have a chance. The hardest thing about running a D&D game, I think, is finding the balance between the threat of death and dismemberment and actual death and dismemberment. Players should often feel like they are at risk, but they never really are. Watch any good action movie and you'll see lots of times where the main character is hanging on by a thread but manages to pull through. We've seen a thousand action movies but we still get excited when a scene like this occurs.

For the trap that blinded the player, I'd say that was a bit too harsh. Better might have been a disease that is slowly stealing her sight if she doesn't complete a certain quest or ritual. This could be built into the rest of the story. She might start off fine but as the players move forward, she starts to have a harder and harder time seeing. These penalties should be low. Maybe a -1 to skills that require sight to start, then -1 to attacks, then -2, etc. This is the THREAT of blindness without actual blindness.

Players absolutely hate losing things, whether its penalties to their character, lost magic items, or even lost actions in a battle. Be very careful taking things away from people. Even if you give back more than they had, it doesn't often make up for the loss in the first place. It may also seem that you're making up for a mistake rather than having a plan in the story even if it was a plan you had to begin with.

For the player who complains when he drops to 0, this is another touchy subject. I've certainly had it where my players think that a battle is overbalanced, but it's rare. My group is powerful enough that they more often think battles were too easy. Still, I've had NPCs hit folks so hard they just stare at me in wonder. When they start to complain about the mechanics, I try to bring them back into the story. Consider the following:

Player: "How can an Ice Lich hit for 80 damage with only two shots? How is that even possible? That sounds way higher than any monster should generally hit."

Me: "Xervius the Ice Lich has practiced magics for centuries. He spent a year learning your strengths and capabilities. His power rips into you harder than any beast you have ever fought. It will take all of your skills and not just a little luck to defeat him!"

This is an attempt to bring players back into the story rather than worrying about the mechanics.

Building a story around your players is something worth doing. It sounds like the reactions you had to your player's complaints were done on the fly during the game. That's not always a problem. You don't want to pick on the same person or make the game not fun simply because the rules say X. Keeping the game fun for everyone at the table is your job as a DM. Always keep that in mind.

That said, one should build encounters around ways to keep your players happy. What do they enjoy? What gets them excited? What do they hate doing and what bothers them? Write this stuff down and reference it as you build out adventures. Our job as a DM isn't just to put challenges and difficulties in the way of players. We're there to make sure they have the most fun they can. Often this results in challenges and difficulties.

It is also important for a DM to stay level-headed even when the tensions run high. This is really hard, and I fail at it often, but we have to remember that we're a facilitator for a story, not the player behind the bad guys. D&D isn't competitive, it's cooperative. We have to keep that in mind all the time.

Like you said, we all spend a lot of time, attention, effort, and money into this hobby. We do this because we love it. When a bad game or two comes by, spend some time considering why that game went bad and what you can do about it. Address it with your friends and ask them what they enjoy. They won't always give you the real answer, but getting a view can help. Accept that sometimes there will be a bad night but don't let it drag the other nights down.

Above all, remember the rule of fun. It applies to both you and the players and it's something always worthy of your time and attention.

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