by Mike Shea on 18 July 2016
Take note that this article has been updated since the original dated March 2012. In particular, you'll notice the topic of combat length coming up more than once in the article. This original article and conversation took place in the middle of the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons run, before Dungeons & Dragons 5e had ever come out.
In my opinion, 5e D&D has done away with the issues surrounding combat length, thought it still brings up potential situations that can still try a DM's patience such as save-or-suck spells, swingy combat, deep tactical discussions that break away from high fantasy, or abilities that circumvent the stories we're trying to tell. Many of Michael Mallen's ideas continue to be useful as we've transitioned from 4th edition to 5th edition of D&D.
Let us continue.
A twitter conversation some time back focused the top virtues of good dungeon masters. One particular trait continued to come up and it was one that struck a particular chord with me.
We DMs can get frustrated at our game table, sniping at players who take too long for their turn or spend too much time pontificating the strategy of their move. We might lose patience when players use abilities that circumvent, neutralize, or outright kill monsters we thought would be a big threat. These mini-tantrums don't serve anyone. They don't make our game more fun. They don't ease our stress levels. They alienate members of our group. They can hurt our relationships with our friends.
To dig into this question a bit more, I contacted Michael Mallen of the Id DM, a professional psychologist and fellow D&D enthusiast. Back in 2012, Michael and I had recorded a podcast on the psychology of D&D and I thought he would be the perfect guy to talk about patience.
Here are the responses he gave me to the three questions I asked. Note, the emphasis of certain phrases below is my own as these concepts in particular resonated with me.
1. What are three things willing DMs can do to improve their patience?
The primary goal should be to identify the things that are causing you to be frustrated and annoyed. That may sound like a silly place to start, but we often find ourselves irritated without knowing exactly why we're feeling that way. As a DM, think about the moments that cause your pulse to speed up and increase your desire to scream. Perhaps it's the length of player actions during combat or players interrupting the flow of the game with distractions (e.g., side conversations, cell phone use). Whatever the cause may be for the irritation, gain a clear understanding and awareness of the situation. That is the first step.
The second thing DMs can do to improve patience is to determine how much control exists in the situation. To take one of the examples above, the DM might get quite frustrated with over-analysis in combat. The DM has to determine how much control they have to change this dynamic during the game. If the DM feels empowered to make changes to speed up player actions, then set up a plan to do so. Our groups actually have a small service bell for when the group needs to get back on track; it's rarely used, but everyone knows that when it's rung, the DM needs everyone to focus on the game. If the situation can be changed, then take action.
However, if the DM does not feel empowered - the options are pretty clear. Either accept that player over-analysis is going to happen in combat (increase patience) or continue to get annoyed by it (beat your head against the wall!). As with all things that are beyond our control, we can either change our expectations and accept the outcome or continue to maintain the same unrealistic expectations. It relates to the saying by Einstein labeling insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
A final piece is to lower our stress level overall. I can only speak for myself, but I'm a bundle of nerves when preparing for my time as a DM. Plus, our group meets on Friday nights so I've just finished a (usually) long week at work and now I have to turn around and run a game. Walking into the game, my stress is already high so of course my patience is going to be affected by that. Before sessions, I now strive for a calmness so I'm not feeling stressed out. I use the drive to our game, which takes about 20 minutes, to listen to music or just take a series of long, deep breaths in silence. Walking into a session already feeling somewhat surly and angry is not a good idea if you want to increase your ability to let irritations at the table "roll off" your shoulders. Work to head off the problem before it starts!
2. What can DMs do to build an environment at their table that promotes patience?
I am a strong advocate for communication around the table. The DM has a good deal of authority to model behavior for the table. If the DM shows signs of irritation at small things, then players will learn that it is acceptable behavior to show frustration toward others. The DM has a unique role to not only model but shape behavior. I think the host also has a strong role to play in this area. The host (who may not be the DM in many groups) can assert herself or himself by saying, "This is my home, and I really don't want any ___ here. Can we please avoid that from happening?"
Returning to the example above once again, a DM who is frustrated by the length of combat should speak openly about it with the players in and out of the gaming sessions. Inquire if others in the group are feeling the same way. Find out the players' expectations for the game. Perhaps speak with players as a group and also individually to see if there is a difference in the type of feedback you receive. And I cannot stress this enough - be open to feedback yourself. If you are unwilling to hear feedback or quickly shutdown player suggestions, then you are modeling impatience for your players.
3. What is the REAL cause of impatient DMs?
I think that gets back to my first point earlier, each DM has to figure out what is causing them to be annoyed. Perhaps they really don't want to DM in the first place, but it's the only way they can play because no one else wants to perform those duties. I cannot imagine a resentful DM is a happy DM.
Another possible factor is personal issues between players. One or more players may rub the DM the wrong way, especially if the group is comprised of people that don't know each other all that well. If the DM and Player X don't seem to get along in real life, then it's not a mystery why those people would get on each other's nerves during gameplay.
Last, a DM should think about what they are bringing into the session. Work-related stress? Stress from raising children? Relationship issues in their own life? That stress doesn't magically disappear because dice are being rolled! (If only we were so lucky)
My thanks to Michael Mallen for his detailed and insightful advice on the topic. You can see all of Michael's excellent D&D related articles at his site, the Id DM, follow him on Twitter, or listen to he and I discussing the psychology of D&D at Critical Hits.