This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Questioning the DM's Calls
One of my players asks for constant justification for my actions as DM, specifically with my NPCs. How do I tell him nicely to mind his own business?
--Vladimir, from AskWizards.com
Sounds like you have the right idea right there. Unless his PC has a constant detect thoughts going, he has no way of knowing why NPCs are doing certain things or why they choose one thing and not another. Not only is this not his business, it's not within the purview of his character's abilities.
So the nice way to tell him? When he asks why an NPC is doing something, you can simply answer, "Watch and find out." Or, "I don't know why the NPC did that. Why don't you ask her?" That's how players learn what the DM is doing and why. They don't get advance notice. That kind of takes away the surprise, don't you think? They don't get to know the NPC's motivations beforehand. Your player is just going to have to suck it up and do it the old-fashioned way, by talking to the NPC, using skills like Sense Motive and Spot and Listen, or using divination magic to find out what NPCs are doing and why.
As to your player challenging things you do other than NPC choices, it is fair for players to ask that you be fair. If you seem to always attack one character rather than others, that creates the appearance of some ulterior motive. Maybe the targeted PC is fighting creatures with a special hatred for his race, such as goblins against dwarves or magic-hating barbarians against someone who is obviously a wizard or sorcerer. Then they have a valid, in-game reason for attacking one particular character in preference to attacking others. More intelligent enemies will focus their attacks effectively and tend to concentrate certain kinds of attacks on characters likely to be most vulnerable to them -- poison and grappling attacks against lightly armored or unarmored spellcasters and mind-affecting attacks against fighter types. It helps when you can articulate a reason. If, on the other hand, every creature seems to single out one character, then maybe your player has a legitimate complaint.
The way you phrased your question suggests you don't think you are doing anything wrong, and the player is unfairly questioning your thought processes and your decisions. You may be right, but it is always a good idea to take a look in the mirror and see what you are doing, just to see if the player has a point. Maybe there are some things that you could improve. One idea is to be more transparent about what you do and how you do it. If you determine who is attacked by a monster by random die roll, make sure players know that. You can roll the dice in the open, which leaves your player little room to complain when his number comes up, even if it happens to come up several times in a row.
If the player is always criticizing and questioning everything and generally being a pain in the neck, then to keep the game moving, you might limit the number of times he can complain during a game similar to the way a football coach gets to demand an instant replay only once each half. Or set a strict time limit on complaints. (Use an egg timer -- when the time runs out, you make a call and the game moves forward. Players can fuss about it after the game if they want to.) We've covered some of this ground in previous columns, and you might find it useful to review some of those.
You could also suggest that if players feel certain that they know the right way the game should be run, they should consider starting a campaign of their own and sitting behind the screen themselves. This will give your nettlesome friend the opportunity to see firsthand the many challenges facing the DM in crafting the game through preparation as well as in actually managing the game under live conditions, acting disjointedly and peppering the DM with questions. Having this experience may give him a greater appreciation for what you have to do as the DM and how easy it can be to create the appearance of playing favorites.
Years ago, when I was a student teacher in a high school, one of the things I learned was that there is a natural tendency to want to call on the same students over and over again. Some students give you better answers than others, which reinforces your desire to call on them. Some students make you fight to drag an answer out of them, which makes you less inclined to want to bother dealing with them. But you must talk to everyone and keep giving the hard cases a chance to be involved. Otherwise, you will lose the rest of the class, as they feel that they are just spectators while you deal with your favorites. I developed a system of small name cards that I would hold in my hand as I talked with the class. I cycled through the deck as I asked questions to make sure that I kept everyone engaged, but I had to pay attention and make myself do it.
It can be the same with Dming. Be intentional and systematic if you must in order to make sure you are being fair. Be transparent with players as well. You don't need to go into detail about specific reasons, but you can and should be able to give rationales for how you run things. That doesn't mean you must explain everything you do. As you make clear that you do know what you are doing and that you are being systematic, purposeful, and fair, your players will develop a greater level of trust and respect for your DMing. When that happens, the constant nitpicking should subside.
That's the hope anyway. At the end of the day, you are the DM, and you need to be allowed to run the game without constant second-guessing. Poll the players in general to see if there is a general perception that you are making a lot of mistakes, that your game management is bad, or that you are running things unfairly. If it turns out that only one player thinks that you have a problem, you need to find out what the real issue is. If the player just can't abide by your DMing, then perhaps they should be encouraged to find another game more to their liking.
Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.