by Mike Shea on 31 March 2014
Everyone comes to the D&D game with different expectations and desires. Though divergent, none of these desires are wrong. D&D is a game that brings friends together to have fun. That is the core component of rule zero, the DM has the full authority to veto any other rule in order to do what is fun for the game.
There's a flip side to this as well, though. As a DM, it isn't up to us to define what will be fun for a player. Our job is to try to give them what they want, if we can. Some players might love rich stories. Some might love hack-and-slash combat. Some might like to tweak the hell out of their characters. Some might just like hanging out and rolling dice while reading a Robert Jordan novel on their cell phone. For the most part, that's all fine.
It isn't your job to try to change them or make them like something else. Even if you want to change them, you should try to resist. Your job is to put a whole lot of different things out on the table and see which ones they like the most. Exploration, roleplaying, combat, puzzles, treasure seeking, lore, riddles, sandbox adventures, railroaded adventures; put it all out there and see who resonates with what. Experiment, take notes, get feedback, and experiment some more.
Just like we've learned to let go of the story and let it grow at the table, we must learn to let go of our expectations about what the players will find enjoyable in our game.
This can go too far, though. While you shouldn't try to force your players to like certain aspects of the game, you shouldn't work too hard to ensure you're meeting their most enjoyable aspects to D&D every moment of every game. Most groups are forgiving as long as you relax. Most groups just want to get together, roll some dice, and have a few laughs. You should try all sorts of things to see what resonates, but you should always hang on with a loose grip.
There are certainly times where this idea falls apart, however. The first is when one player's expectations overrides the others. This can be common in a lot of games. One player tends to dominate some portion of the game because that portion is clearly what they enjoy the most. They might be the undiscovered actor who wants to dominate every opportunity to roleplay. They might be the battle commander who wants to tell every other player what their PC should do in a battle. They might be the riddle master who solves every puzzle without giving anyone a chance to try it themselves.
This is a hard problem to solve. Usually, the thing this dominating player is doing is the thing he or she loves to do the most. It's the thing they want to get out of the game. Redirecting them can be tough. Getting them to see that their fun comes at the cost of another doesn't always make it through.
There are no easy answers to this. Dealing with difficult players is probably the hardest thing a DM has to do. Sitting down, away from the game, one on one, and discussing the matter directly is probably the best way to go.
There's another risk when we try to bend the components of the game to fit the desires of the players and that's when doing so sacrifices our fun. It is a commonly held rule that a DM who isn't having fun won't last very long. D&D demands a lot from dungeon masters, no matter how lazy we become. If we do manage to run a game in which we aren't having fun, we're not likely to spread much joy to the players. Having a happy groups starts with a happy DM.
It is therefore ideal that we find the right balance of activities when running our game. Beginning with the system we should choose the components that resonate well with our own desires and those of our group. The mix doesn't need to be perfect, but it should be good enough to give each of the players enough of what they want to have a good time every time they sit at the table.
It's a hard feat to accomplish but it's that challenge that makes running D&D games so rewarding in the first place.
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