Save My Game
Player Thrills, DM Disappointments
When Players Ignore Your Hard Work
By Jason Nelson-Brown

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: Unappreciative Players?

A few days ago, I spent hours upon hours working on a dungeon, which my players just entered. I fine-tuned a series of items for them to receive until the items were perfect. They received the first of those items, a staff, yesterday.

When I described to those who were listening (two people) what the staff looked like, the warlock immediately started shouting, "I want it! I want it! I want it!" This was before any Knowledge (arcana) checks had been made to see what powers the staff possessed. For all the warlock knew, the staff would instantly kill him upon touch. So, when someone finally made the DC 15 Knowledge (arcana) check, I described what the staff did. The night before, I had meticulously prepared a long paragraph on the history of the staff, where it came from, who made it, etc. I also made sure the staff was good for their level. Yet all the warmage, who took the staff, cared about was what powers it had.

This kind of thing happens too much. I feel that there is an art to DMing: an art to building dungeons and creating items. Yet, my art is being ignored. I also feel that there is an art to being a player, and that this group has not, and may never, paint the portrait of their character.

Is this normal behavior for a group? Are my expectations too high? Am I just over-sensitive? My group and I are all middle-schoolers.

-- Noah, from AskWizards.com

To follow up on the rest of your question, Noah, the truth is that yes, you are being over-sensitive, but it isn't from your expectations being too high. That presupposes that your standards are high and that those of your players are not. It is because your expectations are too wholly yours. "My art is being ignored?" Please. Understand this -- Your players will never, Never, EVER be as interested in the fine details of your world and your campaign as you are. They might be interested to a certain point, as long as it doesn't get in the way of the flow of the game, as long as it is window dressing or attractive decoration.

I can also tell you that the more you throw at them, the less interested they will become. Players, you see, have the great disadvantage of not knowing all the behind-the-scenes details that make the adventure the perfect extension of your campaign world and help hold all the individual pieces of information together. What seems to you like interesting history that ties together your detailed world-system seems like a bunch of random names, places, and figures to them. Our minds work by linking data. Needing to hold too much information on the front end, when the organizing systems that hold it together don't come until the back end, is a bad strategy. My other field is education, and that approach is pretty much the opposite of what you want to do if you want people to learn, absorb, retain, and be able to use information. Because D&D is set up as a sort of mystery/exploration game where you gradually pick up information and put it together as you go, you can't dump everything on the players up front without spoiling the dramatic tension you're trying to build.

Read again what you wrote. You talk about all of your hard work, how much care and effort went into it, how artistic your creation is. You said you worked and worked to make the items perfect -- but perfect for whom? You have a certain idea of what the characters are and what the campaign should be, but evidently the players have a different view. You crafted an item that exactly fits what you think they want and need, and yet when they find it, they neither want nor need it, or even if they do, they aren't interested in it for the reasons you think they should be.

You know the whole story, so you want to know how it fits. That's the relevant information to the DM. Players want to know what the item does and how it fits what they are doing with their characters -- that's the relevant information to them. You say the warlock wants the item before he knows what it does -- so what? You say it might kill him -- it might also give him great power. Why wouldn't he want it? Trust me, old-time D&Ders would often never touch anything until it had been identified, because cursed items were pretty common back then. Even in modern D&D where cursed items are rare, long-time players have that idea burned into their minds by painful experience. You should be happy that your players are still excited when they find something and at least willing to experiment a little!

So what if the warmage wants to know what it does? That's the part that's important to him! He's playing the game, too! It's not just you. Let him have fun on his own terms. You can make the item's history important, and if the player chooses to ignore it, then some consequences may come along (for example, if the item once belonged to a powerful wizard whose minions will try to reclaim it if it is seen in public, or if it is marked with runes of the Evil Empire of Kariva and anyone carrying it is suspected of being a devil-worshiper). But that can happen later. By delaying the information delivery, you don't overload the players with info they don't care about in the moment when treasure falls into their hands. The point is that the powers are what is important to the player. It can be interesting to know where your item comes from and all of that, but from a player's perspective that's just packaging. It's what's inside that counts.

A good idea to bridge the gap is to look at Weapons of Legacy and think about creating items using that model, where the history and the items' powers go together integrally. To learn how to fully use the item, you must learn about its history and the rituals required to activate it. The players get the powers, you get to design a detailed history, and the two actually get to work together instead of against each other. This also allows magic items to scale up in power with characters (as the characters uncover more of the history, which reveals ever more powers), instead of characters constantly 'trading in' their items as they move up, selling off lower-power items and buying or creating newer, fancier models.

The 'legacy item' route is a lot of work, but it seems as if you don't mind doing the work. It also gives a tangible way to make your work relevant, to give the players a reason to listen to your detailed backstory other than just to humor you.

I don't mean to depress you or crush your spirit, but it's a hard fact of DMing. Learn it now and you'll be spared a lot of disappointment down the road. Creating things as a DM is kind of like giving a present. Say you spend lots of time choosing and buying or even making a present, one with great sentimental value to you that reminds you of some special time you spent with the person receiving it. They open it and you get nearly as excited as them because they're going to share the same warm, fuzzy memory you have, and then … nothing. They don't have the same automatic association with it that makes it magical to you. Even if you explain it, they can only come around to it second-hand. They will never feel about it what you feel. Their excitement is over tearing open the package and the thrill of discovering what's inside. Sometimes you'll get lucky, and the person will sense the meaning of the gift right off so you can share that magic moment you hoped for, but that that will be rare. Even when you get something that the recipient honestly likes, you are hoping for a reaction that you're just not going to get very often.

As I stated in an earlier column, DMs sometimes assume that the effort they put into a world or a setting or a character or an encounter or an item somehow earns them the right to validation by the players. Ask any comedian -- you can work on a joke all week, but if the audience doesn't laugh, then it wasn't funny, no matter how much effort you poured into it. You can't be funny because you want to be, and you can't be funny by trying really hard. Comedy does take work, and effort and desire certainly improve your chances of being funny, but sometimes it flies and sometimes it dies. The amount of work you did has nothing to do with it. A totally off-the-cuff remark might make your friends die laughing, where the jokes you've been rehearsing in your mind all week get nothing but a polite chuckle or a groan.

The heart of the matter is that you want control. As a DM, you already have plenty of control. You determine what they find (people, places, or things) as they travel around the campaign world. What you can't control is their response, and you shouldn't. If all the characters act the way you dictate, then you are writing a novel, and the other players are just sitting around and watching. D&D is a team game, not "The Noah Show." Dial back a little on the creating and spend more time listening to what players want. Then, when you do create things, you can do it with a good sense of what will interest them instead of what you think will interest them. When you dive into history and backstory in the campaign, don't overdo it. Make it relevant to the characters and their interests, and make it relevant to the mechanics of the game. Those are the best ways to make sure your ideas and your work will not go to waste.

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.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.


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