Behind the Screen
When Good Times Go Bad
By Jason Nelson

In the last article, we discussed the importance of having a thorough knowledge of the rules and how that can impact how you plan and structure your game as well as the way you actually run the game during play. The rules of the game are important, and your knowledge of them is equally important, but, as has been stated previously, none of that amounts to a hill of beans if you and your players are not happy with the game. Lack of rules knowledge can bog a game down and make it less fun, but strife and dissension at the gaming table is the real game-killer. Interpersonal interactions are complicated, and I don't for a second want to suggest that conflict or disagreement will shirk your gaming table. That is just as ridiculous as saying people never disagree in their regular everyday lives. Even if you are married to one of the other gamers in your group, you are still going to argue at least some of the time. The problem comes when a disagreement leads to "put up or shut up" time between two people, and you as a DM will face a hard decision. I say "you as a DM" not because DMs are the only people that ever start arguments, but because you are ultimately the "manager" of the game, and the buck stops with you.

Sometimes disagreements arise and you don't really have much of a role in them. These matters usually take place in character and then lead to a disagreement or argument between the players of the characters involved. Sometimes these events are predictable, such as when one character betrays another in a campaign situation where the DM and the betraying player presumably built up the betrayal. Disagreements can also occur over more capricious in-character acts, such as when one character steals from another or a character abandons another character in danger. Still other times, problems come up over structural issues of how to handle complex issues such as dividing treasure. The players ultimately must resolve these kinds of issues since their characters are directly affected.

That said, you will invariably become implicated in a dispute of this kind for "letting them get away with it." Even in cases where a plausible in-character reason exists for doing something, the other players may feel that they got the shaft and that you just stood by and let it happen. In cases where the party has made agreements to do things a certain way, you will generally be responsible for reminding them of the commitments that they have made. In cases where the in-character betrayal has been building, you will of course seem complicit in not just letting the player get away with it but as actively aiding and abetting the crime. The issue of characters attacking, robbing, killing, or otherwise harming (or deliberately allowing harm to come to) other party members also creates a problem for you, because the end result of such action over and above hard feelings is that you will be forced to spend game time creating and integrating new characters, and watching out for and managing acts of player-to-player revenge. Most players can take in stride things that happen to their characters, but even the most easygoing player may want to get medieval on another who he or she feels has wronged them. Hence, even if you feel that it should be an entirely player-to-player interaction, you should be ready to step in if it seems like it is about to (or has already started to) cause out-of-character problems.

Lest we think that all such disputes occur between players, as DMs we must be cognizant of our own actions in the game. As has been stated before in this column, roleplaying games are not a contest between you and the players. You hold all the cards in the game and could do anything you want to the characters. The players in turn can choose to tell you to take your game and shove it. While most disgruntlement with a DM's in-game behavior often stops short of causing players to want to quit the game, you should be aware of your own actions in the game and how these actions are perceived by the players.

A common DM trap is playing favorites. You might like certain players or certain characters more than others, so you structure adventures wherein rewards tailored for those characters just happen to pop up a little more often or where things seem to go their way. Some of this is probably unavoidable, but you should remain aware of this factor and guard against it because those players not so favored will not appreciate such behavior. Even if you are even-handed in your treatment of players and their characters, however, playing favorites can take the form of slanting things in favor of the players as a group or in your own favor. Most commonly, this takes the form of fudging die rolls either for or against the party. I will be the first to tell you that there is nothing at all wrong with fudging dice rolls from time to time. At the same time, you must remember that the life of a game depends on uncertainty -- uncertainty about what lies ahead, uncertainty about whether the characters are best prepared to face whatever challenges they may meet, and uncertainty about whether the best odds they can manage will be good enough to win the day. If you routinely fudge die rolls, you can be sure that your players will start to notice -- the bad guy always seems to make his saving throw against the really good spells or to always miss when the hero fighting him has only a few hit points left. Whether you fudge die rolls to favor the monsters so they always thrash the characters (or at least always give them a tough fight) or to favor the players so that they are rarely or never in any legitimate danger of character death is immaterial. When the players believe that you are manipulating the outcome in this way (and belief here is more important than reality), whether in favor of a particular character, all of the party, or yourself, the game ceases to be a cooperative roleplaying game and turns into them playing out your fantasy story. That may be fun for you, and you may not even realize anything is amiss, but it is likely to be pretty unsatisfying to them and may lead to you looking up one day and having no players left who want to play in your game.

WORDS TO THE WISE:

1. You are the manager of your game. However, let players sort out most in-character issues. You can offer advice or suggestions, but leave decisions about how to play out party issues and conflicts to the players.

2. If a player disagreement occurs over something that they had already agreed on, remind them of the former agreement. If a disagreement arises over something like a character betraying the party in some manner, be ready to step in and help address the negative emotions.

3. Be aware of your own actions in the game and how those actions are perceived by the players.

4. Be very careful about manipulating the outcome of the game by playing favorites, fudging die rolls, railroading players during adventures, and the like. It can steal the uncertainty and the sense of control and investment players have in their characters if they feel that you are ultimately the one controlling things.

5. Show class, courtesy, and respect to one another during games. You can always tease and tell jokes and be silly, but don't snipe, gloat, or ridicule. Make sure that you're not the only one laughing.

6. If you are having a problem with the people playing the game or the way it is being played, don't be ashamed to say something about it. Try to talk out the issue and resolve the problem before it festers and becomes unbearable. Make sure that everyone involved with the problem is aware that there is a problem and include them in the resolution process.

7. If a problem gets to the point that you cannot just ignore it or let it go, then be willing to step forward and take a stand and to accept any consequences that come along with it. Be ready to stand on principle, but be aware that there may be a cost.

Presenting the game is more than just letting the dice fall where they may, of course, and you can find an example in a Gamestoppers article on this website in which the DM taunted the players about how ineffectual their characters were against "his monster." While the fictional DM probably played the encounter by the numbers, he had taken the position of running "his" monsters against "their" characters and seemed to gloat over the fact that he was "winning." It's perfectly fine for a DM to joke about characters and their actions in the game, but you need to make sure that you are not the only one laughing. We should all learn to try not to take things personally when they aren't meant as such, but the onus is on the DM to make sure that sarcasm, teasing, and other gaming table humor, especially that originating from behind the screen, is given and taken with good humor and to be ready to step in if it is not. You shouldn't have to play a humorless game (the ones I play and DM in certainly have laughs to spare), but take care that everyone is in on the joke, especially the character (and his or her player) who is the butt of it.

All of the concerns raised above are legitimate and valid, but ultimately they are concerned with things that happen within the game. Above and beyond strife that may arise within the game, however, are those disagreements that are purely person-to-person and have nothing to do with fantasy. All players of the game (DM included) must get along on a very basic interpersonal level, and when a problem arises in this realm, then everyone involved needs to make a decision about how to address the issue. Lest this seem too abstract, I will provide an example from my own experience.

As noted at the bottom of the column, I am not only a gamer who has been in the hobby for over two decades, but also a Christian. About a year ago, I sent around an email asking the players in my campaign to try to refrain from using God/Jesus-related profanity at the table because I found it offensive and disrespectful to a faith I hold dear. Most of the players said that was fine, that they were sorry if they had offended me, and that they would try to avoid doing it in the future. Most of my players are not Christian (or even hold religious beliefs at all), but they took it as a reasonable request out of consideration for one of the other participants in the game. I have not made a general habit of imposing my faith or values on the players -- I don't drink, but I also don't make a fuss if someone brings an alcoholic beverage; I rarely use profanity, but I don't make a fuss about others doing it (as long as my kids are not around at the time) -- and I had not even raised this issue until it had begun to nag at me over the course of weeks and months and I decided to say something about it.

One player did not agree with the others, however, feeling that my request was tantamount to censorship and that he had heard things at the table that had bothered him (though he did not provide any specific examples) and had said nothing; hence, I should be willing to do the same. At this point, we each had to make a choice of principle vs. people: Was the principle on which we took a stand worth the potential sacrifice of the relationship with the others? In the end, we each chose to stand on principle, and he left the gaming group. I haven't seen him since then other than via online discussion groups now and then.

It was a disappointment to lose a regular member of the group, and this is the risk that you take when you choose to make a stand on principle. It is not only your risk, however, as other players will also be affected by the potential loss of one of the gaming group (especially if your group is small), and, as the DM, you are at least partly responsible for what happens to the group as a whole. You obviously don't want to run off your players on a whim, so if you're going to take a stand, make sure that it is something that you feel strongly enough about that you are willing to accept that risk. If you find yourself confronting another member of the group when voicing an issue, you have to decide if your objection to it is strong enough that you would rather quit the game entirely than continue to play in that environment. Everyone has a different threshold of tolerance for what they can put up with and what they can't, and you are ultimately the only person who can make that call. It's a tough situation to face, but if the issue is important enough to you and you want to clear the air in a group of full of simmering resentments, then say what you have to say and let the dice fall where they may.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 7-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He began playing D&D in 1981, and he also plays in a biweekly campaign with a D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago!


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