I recently discovered a community on the social networking site Reddit called /r/dndhorrorstories. It’s a place where DMs come together to trade tales of woe, horror, and disgust based on the actions of their party members. The stories break into several basic categories:
- A player obsessively power leveled and min-maxed above all of the other players
- My incredibly detailed world and complex plot was derailed by my party in five seconds
- My otherwise role play heavy party is constantly thrown off track by one bloodthirsty character who stabs every NPC that dares breath in their presence
- A few really terrible and upsetting stories where parties or players behave in socially inappropriate ways in both the game and in real life
With the exception of category 4 stories, which often read like real life nightmares, most of these horror stories are overstated. While the players definitely should take some blame for these issues, the DM can take blame as well.
These first 3 problematic stories occur when the party doesn’t clearly communicate what they expect and want from the DM’s game. Every player comes into TTRPGs with different expectations and finds joy in different ways (just read Andy’s lovely “What do you love about RPGs?” for some reasons why players may be coming to your table).
When every player and the DM want the same thing from a game, it works flawlessly. The story begins, fun is had, and everyone walks away better off. However, it almost never works this way. Instead, you end up with a table staffed with 2 actors, a builder, and a goofball. Instead of a flawless game and good memories, the table sets on fire, two people hate each other by the end of the night, and no one responds to your attempts at scheduling anymore.
Here comes the controversial statement of the post: given their power over the game, I believe it is the role of the DM to try their best to help everyone have fun. If your session ends up as a category 1, 2, or 3 horror story, you should think about why your expectations for the game differed from your players before blaming them for a wasted night (if it’s a category 4, you should think about removing the offending player from the game, though that is often complicated by friendships). Please note: this sentiment only holds true for longer campaigns amongst friends. For situations like the Adventurer’s League where you need to run an adventure for anyone who appears, I think the DM has much less control over these issues.
Before you start planning your first session, you should be talking to your players about what they want. Ask them directly what they’re expecting to do in the game. Hopefully, they’ll give you a straight answer. If they don’t, probe a bit. Use the archetypes that Andy discussed, or use your own. Try to understand if they’re a wargamer or an role-player. Do they become carried away by the story, or are they just there to hang out with friends and have fun? What level of seriousness do they bring to the game?
When you ask your players for their expectations, take notes. You should end up with a grid with a row dedicated to each of your players, and one row dedicated to yourself. You should know how serious each person is about the game, how competitive they are, what they enjoy about RPGs, and what they dislike about them.
Using this information, you can find the parts of the game that a majority of your players enjoy and those that a majority of your players dislike. Now, when you’re designing sessions, you can keep these two things in mind. You can lean heavily into the things that the party loves, and stray away from the things that the party dislikes. Don’t run a serious campaign when your players said they aren’t that serious about the game. If your players hate puzzles but enjoy combat, you can build a session revolving around combat, such as a tournament in a coliseum where the players’ strengths are put to the test. It won’t make as much sense to put them through a gauntlet of five brainteasers where their stats and spells won’t help the slightest bit.
Additionally, you can communicate to your players that you’ll be designing your sessions around these shared interests and dislikes. By pointing this out to them, players will likely appreciate the work you’re putting in to design a world based on their feedback and ideas and will be encouraged to provide more feedback in the future.
Gathering the likes and dislikes of your players and designing off of them can also help to avoid issues that lead to /r/dndhorrorstories. If most of your party are serious players, but one of your players loves being a goofball, you can talk to the goofball about this contrast. Please, don’t just tell them they aren’t allowed to do the thing they enjoy. Instead, you can try to find a compromise. Maybe you can work out an agreement where they don’t derail the plot, but you feed them a steady stream of minor NPCs they can seduce/beguile/betray/etc. Maybe, you can give them small side plots that keep them happy without bothering the other party members. First and foremost, seek solutions.
If these conversations prove unfruitful, you have to moderate their gameplay and say no (I’ve written about this before in “Saying No”). If the player really isn’t interested in what most other players want to do, you might have to consider asking them to leave the game. If you’re playing with friends, this can be extremely difficult, so I recommend it only as a last resort.
Finally, remember that your players are people, and people can change their minds. I’d recommend trying to keep your list of party interests and dislikes up to date. Every 3-5 sessions or so, reach out to your players and ask them to update you on what they’re looking for next. Keep your ear to the ground so that you can consistently provide the party with sessions and encounters that all of them can enjoy.
Knowing what excites and irritates your party members is a major step to avoiding horror stories and improving the experience for yourself and your players. If you use this information to shape sessions and iron out problems before they manifest, you can have a fun time even with a divergent table. Establish what everyone wants, and you can give it to them.