Wednesday, December 4, 2013

One Mean Look

A good fellow, whom I shall leave nameless, unless he wishes to announce himself, tells me that part of my DM's character is that I do not "take a stance against the players."

That's gratifying, but it makes me wonder. I suppose, in my recollection, that DMs often do - if by 'stance' we mean the adoption of a confrontational position that dares a player to step across an imaginary line, with the implied, "Do it and you'll see what happens to you!" sort of threat.

Last night I was writing of my belief that when a player has made trouble for themselves, and gotten themselves into a mess out of which they may not get, that my right action is to be sympathetic. Perhaps the player showed poor judgement. Perhaps the player has a habit of doing repeatedly stupid things in a campaign, out of sense of enthusiasm, a failure to make connections, or just because that seemed like the best tactical action possible. Whatever might be the reason, however, I don't think I should, well, jump on the player.

I have, though. I certainly have, and once lately in the online campaign, I won't say I'm innocent there. I was wrong, but I wasn't innocent. A player's choice took me by surprise and I overreacted. But I did tell the player that it was my responsibility to deal with my own behaviour, and I feel certain he and I share no hard feelings.

But I know there are those who feel it is their given right as a DM to make judgements on bad player decisions; who ride players; who make players feel punished for every action and who overall discourage players from even playing the game. I don't think they MEAN to discourage players; I think on the whole they think they're doing right, implementing negative reinforcement for negative decision-making, tit for tat.

It's not right. It's really not a DM's mandate to pass reviews on player behavior, any more than it's my responsibility to decide if my clients live up to a moral standard I've set. I only want their money, and I should only want their money. My judgement of their behavior extends as far as their manners and no farther. I deserve, I feel, to be spoken to politely. I want that as a DM, too. And I demand that players speak politely to each other.

Intimidating players with my expectations, however, is right out. I may intimidate them with a glowing giant of a skeleton undead lord; I may intimidate them with a growing sense that something is terribly wrong in the peaceful town of Dodge; but I draw the line at saying, "You're a bad player, you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

I have seen DMs do that. Not in those words. Often, not in any words. It is quite possible to convey that whole message with one fixed look.

A look that can easily be delivered without the DM being conscious of it. Human beings are sometimes like that.

It is still wrong.


Maximillian Boii said...

The problem with the term "bad players" is that it fails to distinguish between players who lack skill, and players who are playing in a manner inconsistent with the expectations of the other participants. I believe the two meanings are commonly conflated in the minds of the speakers as well.

There are two classic examples of the two meanings:
The player who needs to be reminded of their thaco and damage dice lacks skill. They can be forgiven up to a point, but at some point that indicates a lack of care and commitment.
The player who believes that because their character is a thief, they must cheat their fellow players at every opportunity may find that their concept of the game is fundamentally at odds the other participants.

The second example will inevitably cause conflict. I believe that everyone at the table owes it to each other to call this out when you see it. What you shouldn't do is label the other person "bad." Remember that in the eyes of the other person, you might be the thief, and see if a common ground can be worked out. If it can't, set expectations, and follow through with them _before_ your table dissolves into something reminiscent of the US house of representatives.

Maximillian Boii said...

A followup to my prev. comment, because I realize I went on a bit of a tangent to the aim of the post.

My point was that _if_ you have expectations, (and truly, who does not?) then I think you owe it to your fellows to communicate your expectations, and work to make them agreeable. When I read that you don't think it's appropriate to label players as bad, I think that this is what you must mean, since I know that you do have standards of play, and won't hesitate to have that aforementioned thief strung up on the third offence.

Or did you mean to take this a different direction?

Alexis Smolensk said...

You do realize, Maximillian, that at no time in the post does it ever state that the players in question are actually "bad" or "good" at gaming - it merely states that it's not a DM's role during the game to make that distinction.

"Bad" players who lack skill and "bad" players who lack social graces (as you say, "playing in a manner inconsistent ...") are different. I think everyone knows this.

There are people who are genuinely bad, for many different reasons. They're rude, they're abusive, they're selfish, they lack empathy, they lack self-restraint, they disrespect the rules, they disrespect the game space ... there is a long list. These things have little to do with the players' comprehension of the game or the choices they make in roleplaying, but a great deal to do with the fact that they are "bad" people.

Regardless of what you say, "bad" people who have plainly "bad" habits and "bad" intentions SHOULD be labeled "bad" at every opportunity.

But I don't think a player who makes a poor choice with regards to their character's survival should be vilified for it. Do you understand the distinction between these two conditional circumstances?

Maximillian Boii said...

I understand the distinction, so am dropping the argument as it relates to social graces or demonstrably poor choices.

What I meant to point out was that I believe there are cases where a DM (or another player) and a player will find that they have reasons they believe are legitimate to say that each other are bad at gaming, because they have different views of what a player (or dm) should be doing. I had thought that the common conflicts over how to play a thief would have been this case incarnate.

I don't actually intend to preach. so let me pose my questions: Do I demonstrate that I have misunderstood the thrust of your post? Do you disagree with that point?

YagamiFire said...

I've regularly taken the stance that a DM should be willing to assist players with making better decisions be that before or after the fact. My logic is fairly simple in that the player, though portraying a character, is not effectively that person. They have not lived in that persons skin for a decade or two. They have not undergone their training.

A player playing a thief certainly has far less frame of reference in regards to thieving than the character themselves. They're a trained electrician...not a trained pick-pocket. Hence, it is unfair for me to assume they can always think in the vein of a thief of their characters level/experience/etc.

Generally this doesn't mean telling a player not to do usually just means giving them a better awareness of risks involved with their situation...the sort of awareness their character would certainly have (even if they don't).

Alexis Smolensk said...


As a DM, even if I have "reason to believe" a player has made bad decisions, that is NOT something that should be discussed at table, during the game. If solicited for an opinion, I'll give it honestly; but I struggle as hard as I can to remain indifferent and silent about player decisions while the game is ongoing. If I must give an opinion, I'll try to do it later on ... and if I make the mistake of mentioning it in the session, I'll apologize for inappropriate behavior.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I agree that the DM should be willing to assist players in the manner you suggest - in fact, I was writing it into my book just yesterday.

BUT ... the DM has to resist giving the players too much, lest the DM cause the player to become dependent upon the DM's help.

To both you and Maximillian, the DM's role is to encourage the players to feel confident and able in the game's play; this means reducing the amount of negative feedback from the DM, and increasing positive; that positive DMing has to be in the form of training wheels, that get the player used to their skills. Therefore, the DM shouldn't "always be willing" to assist players. Sometimes tough love is called for, to give the player a push to ride that bike themselves.

YagamiFire said...

Oh indeed. The "assistance" is in the form of better frame of reference and context. As I said, I avoid telling them whether or not they should do something...or even that something is a bad or good idea. I don't want to undermine their decision making or, as you said, make them dependent on me.