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The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

FRIDAY NIGHT. San Diego Comic Con. I’m standing behind a podium, hosting a seminar panel on “The Art of the Dungeon Master” and sharing nuggets of wisdom with a packed house of 350+ people, most of them dedicated Dungeon Masters actively running campaigns. The presentation concludes with three tips that have served me well in my regular Monday and Wednesday night games: (1) show no fear, (2) don’t get bored with your own campaign, and (3) under-prepare, but be ready to improvise.

As my presentation gives way to an open Q&A session, it’s hard to miss the enormous white elephant lurking in the back corner. Every DM in the room is aware of it. It’s called the difficult player, and it tramples and destroys more D&D campaigns each year than we dare admit.

This is a very real problem and a difficult topic to broach with players. It’s also a topic that you and I, as dedicated Dungeon Masters, take very seriously.

During the Q&A part of the panel, one struggling DM bravely stepped forward and announced that his players made a frequent habit of laying waste to his carefully laid plans, transforming what should’ve been an epic campaign into a mindless slaughterfest. Not all DMs have the luxury of choosing their players. Options are limited, and sometimes jettisoning even one player can cause the entire group to crumble.

That leaves two courses of action: restructure the campaign to give the players more of what they want (and less of what you want), or force them to adhere to certain codes of conduct on threat of ending the game.

Fact: People play D&D for different reasons, and players come to the game table with different attitudes, expectations, and play styles. As DMs, we need to accept this fact, account for it in our adventures, and move on. However, every successful campaign I’ve ever run was built on the foundation of a social contract (usually unspoken) that specifies what is acceptable behavior versus unacceptable behavior. Ideally, the DM agrees to adhere to certain rules and to entertain the players while showing favoritism toward none. The players agree to respect each other’s play styles, respect the campaign, and refrain from cheating. That’s how great campaigns and lifelong friendships come to pass.

Depending on your circle of gaming friends, you might encounter one or more players who refuse to be bound by any form of social contract. They willfully or subconsciously set out to undermine your authority, the campaign, the other player’s enjoyment of the tabletop gaming ritual, or potentially all of the above. Maybe they like to challenge your rulings, maybe they like to murder all of your quest-givers, or maybe they keep hogging the limelight and depriving the other players of opportunities to roleplay.

Here’s what I suggest you do when confronted with one or more such players: ask them to read the following letter, or read it to them. Before sharing it, decide whether to remove the phrase “because of you” in the first paragraph; reserve it for players who aren’t likely to fly off the handle when confronted with the truth. If you think the intervention can do without it, cut it.

Dear Player(s) . . .

D&D is a game about heroes working as a team to complete quests, defeat villains and monsters, and interact with the campaign that I’ve created. Right now, because of you, our D&D game isn’t working, and I need your help to fix it.

It’s my job as the Dungeon Master to present a world for your character to explore and fun challenges to overcome. It’s also my job to set the rules of the game, be fair to all players, and keep things exciting. I’m hoping the campaign can last a while, and that your characters have a chance to become more powerful and face new threats at higher level. It’s a lot of work—and frankly, you’re not making it easy on me.

It’s your role as a player to have a good time, but not at the expense of me, the campaign, or the other players. When we sit down to play, there’s an unspoken agreement that must be respected so that everyone has a good time. You can’t have a rock band if one player refuses to take it seriously or doesn’t allow everyone else to enjoy the experience. The same holds true for D&D games. That’s not to say you can’t have fun, but we need to agree on what’s fun for everyone.

Here’s what I’d like to do: I want to create the best, most fun campaign—not just for me, and not just for you, but for all of us. In return, I want to hear about the things you like and don’t like about the campaign, as well as ways I can make it more suitable for your style of play so that you’re having fun. I also want you to think about what makes the game fun for me and everyone else. Ultimately, we all want to have a good time, but right now that’s not happening.

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Lessons Learned

I have a degree in rhetoric, so I know a little something about writing persuasively. Whatever you do, keep things short and honest and private. One caveat: For spouses and siblings, do not hand them a letter! Better to memorize as much of the general content as possible, and then deliver it in a back-and-forth conversation. No point turning a dysfunctional game into a family feud!

Your goals should be to call attention to the problem without dwelling on it, and to focus on more desirable behavior, which is working together to find a solution the serves everyone’s best interests. Inviting the player to be part of the solution is key; whether they agree to join your quest to save the campaign depends on how much they really want to be part of the game. Immature or disenfranchised players might refuse your “gracious” invitation; not every intervention works, and sometimes the best (albeit painful) cure for an ailing campaign is to cut loose the disruptive player. It’s not ideal but sometimes necessary.

The intervention is best used as a last recourse when more disarming methods fail. In my Monday and Wednesday night games, I allow a certain amount of rowdiness and give the players license to have bad nights and silly moments. When I perceive that things are getting out of hand, I have no qualms about steering the game back on track through sheer force of will and the occasional “Okay guys, let’s play this game right” remark. I also let the players police each other; more often than not, they’re the ones making sure that their “inner jerks” don’t screw things up and reduce the campaign to rubble.

That said, I met at least one DM at San Diego Comic Con whose players are 100% united in their quest to thoroughly trash his campaign. If that were my gaming group, I’d pack up my books and save my campaign for a worthier band of adventurers. I might also drop by my local gaming store on a Wednesday night, unfold my DM screen, and run a D&D Encounters session. Who knows? I might meet some players who actually respect all that the game has to offer.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 07/21/2011 Results:

When you play the role of NPCs in your game, how do you distinguish them?

  • Any or all of the above, as much as I can: 51.9%
  • I let their plots and actions in the campaign speak for themselves: 17.6%
  • I give them distinctive speech patterns or catchphrases: 12.7%
  • I give them distinctive physical traits or mannerisms: 10.3%
  • I choose not to heavily invest in my NPCs: 4.7%
  • I let their powers and abilities set them apart: 2.8%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 07/28/2011

1. Hey DMs: How many disruptive players do you currently have in your campaign(s)?

How many disruptive players do you have?
None. My players are pretty awesome.
More than 3, but not all of my players.
They’re all difficult. It’s like playing chess with chimpanzees!

2. Complete non sequitur: If the gang of Acquisitions Incorporated was to reunite for another grand adventure, what should be their next quest?

What should be their next quest?
Free the prisoners trapped in the mines of Slaughterfast (a sequel to last year’s PAX event).
Travel to the Feywild and slap Aeofel’s parents.
Battle the gods for supreme control of the multiverse.
Build an ark and gather two of every monster in the original Fiend Folio.
Explore the Darkmagic estate in New Hampshire.
Discover a way to merge into one Voltron-like super-character.
Find a beardless lass to woo the fair Binwin Bronzebottom (yes folks, it’s true, he’s a virgin).
With the help of 7-Zark-7, stop Zoltar and the planet Spectra from conquering Earth.
Travel to the Forgotten Realms and kick Drizzt Do’Urden’s ass.
Actually acquire something . . . anything!

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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