15
\$\begingroup\$

So, after some time I came back to playing live (not online) RPG because a friend of mine, who is used to D&D 3.5, asked me to help him with a 5e table where almost all the players are new to D&D (most have played other systems before though).

The thing is: both sides seem to be confusing what is their role in the game. For example, the very first narration from the DM forced movements on a player character (the DM moved the PC himself, instead of the player describing where she wanted the character to go). Another example is that the DM constantly narrated how the characters felt, e.g., "you are scared", "you trust this person" (when they rolled a bad insight roll against a high deception roll), etc.

Similarly, the players frequently argue whether or not an NPC should behave like it did, which slowed the playing pace considerably. The players also seem to have some problem with suspension of disbelief - or simply trusting the DM - complaining about how something happened. For example, a maid NPC appeared "out of nowhere" and the players wasted minutes complaining about how their characters didn't perceive the NPC passing through them before (which could easily be a teleportation magic, an illusion, the NPC simply having had a really good stealth roll, or an infinite number of other explanations).

By itself I don't think it would be a problem if everyone was having fun, but as I mentioned, my main concern is that these arguments are slowing down the play just too much. Additionally, it's noticeable that everyone is getting a little frustrated over everything.

The DM ended up resorting to (a bad, IMO) in-game solution (which was to knock out the PC of the player slowing down the game for a few in-game hours) so the story could continue, but besides being extremely temporary, it also (rightfully, I guess) frustrated the player more.

For clarification, the DM has no intent of screwing with the players; from what I understand, he does this in order to move the story forward. The players, on the other hand, feel that everything that does not go according to their expectations/plans is the DM trying to screw them, and waste too much time arguing about that.

The Question

In short, how can I gently remind them that the players' role is to describe their character actions and feelings (and the DM should avoid interfering in this part), while the DM's role is to describe the environment, consequences of the actions and the behavior of NPCs (and the players should probably trust that if the DM said something happened, then something happened, and not waste half an hour in an argument about that being impossible, unfair or whatever).

Additional details on background

I feel that this might be related to their previous RPG experiences which involved a little of the old "DM vs. Players" dynamic. That's why sometimes the DM seems to think he should force the PCs to do something (not trusting that the player has the honesty/ability to play accordingly to what makes more sense)1 and the players feel that everything is an evil plan from the DM to kill their characters.2

If it is relevant, the adventure is a homebrew one (based on a book the DM is writing).

The players are all 20–30 years old, except for one woman who is 19 (and possibly the least problematic one - she's very calm, with experience in 5e).


1 More details on an example already mentioned: an NPC lied to the PC. That particular PC didn't have any kind of a priori information to know that it was a lie (although other PCs had, thus the player had) and rolled a really bad Insight check. The DM immediately narrated it as "You trust him!". The player agreed - and he was going to role-play as that anyway, i.e., there was no reason for the DM to force that upon the player/character.

2 The NPC that "appeared out of nowhere", that the players wasted minutes arguing about, was actually an ally. They were worried that the NPC appeared behind them because they thought they were getting assassinated. In the end she was just an ally that was watching them closely to learn if she could trust them and help them if needed, eventually. She decided to leave the shadows when she thought there was enough evidence that the PCs were trustworthy.

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ A few related questions: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/130813/43856 , rpg.stackexchange.com/q/122556/43856 touch the subject of dice (or the DM himself) overriding player autonomy. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 18 at 20:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Similar partial question: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/112360/43856 - but this is from the point of view of a (possibly harmed) player. Mine, besides also asking about the opposite direction of the players taking away "DM agency" (?), is also from a third-person point of view as in I want to help the table. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 18 at 20:22
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Btw, re-reading my question, I am not even sure the problem is about player/DM roles and not about simple trust between the parties. Oh well, I will wait you guys to save me here :P \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 18 at 20:25
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu I don't feel that the social-contract fits too much. Tbh I feel that part of the problem is the lack of a social contract by the parties. Or one that they actually understand, at least. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 18 at 20:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ So I suppose you are trying to find solutions that help you establish a social contract (speak a framework) that helps? \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jun 18 at 20:34
33
\$\begingroup\$

It isn't wrong for the DM to narrate a PC's feelings or actions based on the result of a roll. A failed Insight roll could certainly mean you trust a particular NPC, in the same way that a failed Athletics roll might lead to you tumbling down a cliff, or a failed save means you're now on fire. You made your roll, you failed, here's the result of that failure.

I'm less sanguine about just declaring the players are afraid when they walk into a spooky castle or some such thing, unless the DM is implying that the emotion is an external, supernatural effect being imposed upon the characters -- i.e., they sense something is dreadfully wrong with the place, despite having no sensory evidence to back up the feeling. If the DM is just declaring how you feel (in a mundane sense) about a given situation, it can be troubling. But on the other hand, a lot of the time that's just general flavor text to set the scene and shouldn't be taken as the DM seizing control of anyone's character. It's better if the DM doesn't do that, but I would merely take that as a sign of inexperience. You should feel free to contradict the DM (after they finish setting the scene!) and say, "Well, Sir James isn't afraid; he strides right in like he owns the place!" without getting angry that the DM made you say "no".

I think players sometimes get a little too precious with their characters -- there's no need to slap the DM's metaphorical hands off your PC for daring to narrate how they're responding to a given die roll any more than you should get huffy when the DM says you took an arrow to the chest and fell over, bleeding. If it felt bad, certainly make a note and mention it privately to the DM afterward -- "Hey, at this point in the story you said thus-and-such, and I didn't like that because I don't think it's how my character would feel about that situation."

But all that said, it sounds like there's a lot of mistrust between the people sitting at the table here, and that's probably the core of the problem. It might be time to start next session with the good old "expectations at the table" talk. There are a lot of ways to address it, but they all boil down to one core idea:

As the DM, I'm here to make sure everyone has fun at the table, and that includes me. I'm not going to screw you over, so please trust me enough to let me run the game. If I make a mistake, or forget a rule, or you think I'm doing something badly, make a note and we'll talk about it -- after the game session -- and while I don't promise to do what you want, I will listen and take your comments into account.

(You want to have those discussions after the session or between games, in order to avoid having an extended argument at the table. Even if you really don't like what just happened, it's better to roll with it and work it out later than to stop everyone from having fun while you argue with the DM.)

In my own DMing experience, there have certainly been times when I had to call down my players and say, "Hold on! Let me finish describing the scene, and then you can respond." Sometimes that means they need to shut up long enough for me to mention the alligators in the moat before they go leaping into it. Sometimes that means this is a little cut-scene and they don't really get to try to stop the assassination that's already in progress. Sometimes it means characters appear "out of nowhere" and they need to let me get to the part where the maid starts talking to them before they decide if I'm being unfair.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Me: "You're filled with dread and fright as you enter the castle, it's absolutely horrifying for some reason you can't put your finger on." Player on the table: "I try to gather up my courage and see if I can't beat the fear out of me." Me, smiling: "You're welcome to try." ---- and that's how I think that would've gone in some of my tables. \$\endgroup\$ – John Hamilton Jun 19 at 11:17
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ That's totally fair, and if the emotion has an external, supernatural source, I'd expect that kind of thing, as much as talking about a room being hot or cold. I assume the OP here is referring to the DM declaring mundane emotional responses to things in the environment. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jun 19 at 13:51
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym Yeap. For example, "you feel intimidated by the big orc screaming at you" - I mean, the character could not be intimidated for many reasons, from being too braggy and not understanding that he is going to lose this one-on-one brawl against a big orc, or simply because he's brave, or whatever. Point being: it's up to the player if his character feels that way or not. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 19 at 15:02
8
\$\begingroup\$

Introduction

Questions about group dynamics often come down to talking to your players, explaining your concerns, and finding compromises that work for everyone. How you do that will depend on how well you know the players, how they know each other, etc. - books like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People can help you figure out the best way to approach a specific situation (I highly recommend the book - it's a fast read, and there's useful stuff in the first few chapters).

Now let's look at the specific issues in detail.

DM vs. Players

If the players have a "DM vs. Players" mentality, you might need to spend some time clearing that up first. Aside from talking to them, some ways of showing that you're not out to get them are:

  • Try to match their emotions. Act excited when they hit the enemy and disappointed when they miss. Act worried before hitting them with something big they weren't expecting.
  • Give them some leeway. If you think they're missing something obvious, it's okay to remind them occasionally.
  • Prompt them for rolls like Insight rather than forcing them to say "I make an Insight roll to see if he's lying". You can do this when the NPC is telling the truth to throw them off - the important thing is to avoid the "you didn't ask" problem.
  • If they want to do something you don't understand, ask them what they're trying to accomplish before declaring what happens. (e.g., I've seen a player declare that he wanted to punt a small creature, only to be disappointed when the DM ruled that it was knocked across the room but not damaged.)
  • Have low intelligence enemies make stupid decisions sometimes, like using poor positioning or choosing bad targets for their abilities.

You don't have to keep doing these things forever - just long enough to break the "DM vs. Player" mentality.

Player Expectations

Which RPGs the players have prior experience with could be part of the problem, depending on what those games are. D&D generally considers the GM to be the storyteller and the players only have control over their specific characters, but that's not the case in all games.

For example, Fate has rules that give the players more control over the story as a whole. It allows players to concede in combat and declare certain results that they want to avoid (e.g., "I don't want to be killed or captured, but I'm fine if the bad guy steals some of my gear"). It also encourages players to suggest details of the environment, which they can then use once for free. Players coming from that sort of system may have different expectations about how the game should work that you'll want to account for.

DM Controlling Players

The DM saying "You trust this person" on a failed Insight roll doesn't sound that bad to me (unless it forces other actions like "you immediately give him your wallet", which doesn't seem to be the case here). That said, different word choice might help. I usually try to say "You don't think he's trying to deceive you", to convey:

  1. He might be telling the truth.
  2. He might be lying, and you didn't notice.
  3. He might be mistaken, and is giving you inaccurate information without meaning to.

With regard to player movement, I generally think that players should move themselves, but there are some corner cases. A common source of problems for me is that when things aren't proceeding in turn order, players often move differently than if they were in combat. For example, one player moves their piece many spaces ahead to where a monster notices them, and then the other players all say, "Wait, we wouldn't have let him get that far ahead". Of course, if that player triggers a fireball trap, those same players might be eager to claim that they meant to be spread out this time.

The best way I've found to handle this is to discuss the problem with the group and establish ground rules. My current group has a set movement formation, so if one player moves, I assume everyone moves as a group unless they say otherwise.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ About the "You trust this person", personally I prefer the "You don't notice any sign that the person is lying to you" - it's still up to you to actually trust them or not. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 19 at 15:04
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ As a note, the most immediately apparent case where "You trust this person" would be a bad idea is when the "you" in question is a character that has trust issues; it's entirely likely that they wouldn't trust anyone (possibly including, or possibly excluding, the rest of the party); a more apt description might be "you distruct this person less", but that might be incorrect, too. \$\endgroup\$ – Justin Time 2 Reinstate Monica Jun 19 at 19:29
4
\$\begingroup\$

Disclaimer: this is purely from a player's perspective.

I really prefer it when DMs describe the aura of a place instead of the effects of this aura on my character.

That's saying "this person looks and feels trustworthy" or "an aura of dread surrounds this castle", or "it's a rainy, gloomy day"; instead of saying "you think he is telling the truth", "you feel frightened as you enter the castle", or "you feel mildly unhappy about the rain". Then, let the players describe the emotions of their characters: ask them if you really need to set the mood, or don't if you want some organic RP to happen. Some players won't speak out often, but people can be inexpressive or reserved IRL as well.

In general, I prefer my characters' emotions to be described by me (I mean, nobody knows my character better than I do usually), in RP or even through a wisdom or knowledge check against whatever is supposed to cause the emotion. That's so my character's personality has a bit of an agency and that I don't feel like I'm being railroaded, even though it's mechanically the same as telling me how I feel.

Of course, there are exceptions, if a character's emotion is created by a magical source or if a player is acting completely out-of-character (if my emotions don't match the odds I'm against, my personality, alignment, etc), I see no issue with the DM stepping in. There is no better clue that something is wrong than a fearless barbarian or cocky rogue muttering to himself in a frightened voice, or getting shivers down their spine.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I completely agree with everything you've said, but I'm not sure if this actually answers the question about what the OP should do about the fact that his table isn't working out that way. Could you elaborate on any instances where tables you've played at have not been this way, and what you might have to done influence it (or maybe you simply found a different table to play at)? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 19 at 12:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ See, I feel like this is drawing an unnecessary distinction, in terms of "what happens to this character", between the physical and the non-physical. Why is being informed about a mental/emotional impact forbidden, while describing physical impact is fine? \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jun 19 at 13:59
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym Physical senses, such as feeling cold or hot, are standard across characters, even described in the books. Rarely "does not feel cold" is used to describe a character. On the other hand, "brave" or "coward" are often used as meaningful (sometimes even main) characteristics of the character. For that reason, I feel that telling "Your character is scared!" when the player had a brave character concept in mind is taking away that agency. Especially in the mentioned example, where there is no magic involved in that feeling. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 19 at 15:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS Sorry about not really answering the question... I haven't had to deal with this issue during important parts of my games (the only case I mentioned that I actually experienced was the "you feel mildly unhappy about the rain") so usually just mentioning something like "actually, I'm used to the rain because <backstory reason>, so I'm not that bothered by it" gets the point across. Then, as with all issues, talk it out with your DM during breaks. \$\endgroup\$ – anto418 Jun 20 at 11:54
2
\$\begingroup\$

In short, how can I gently remind them that the players' role is to describe their character actions and feelings (and the DM should avoid interfering in this part), while the DM's role is to describe the environment, consequences of the actions and the behavior of NPCs (and the players should probably trust that if the DM said something happened, then something happened, and not waste half an hour in an argument about that being impossible, unfair or whatever).

Is it?

Where does it say that in the rulebooks exactly?

Certainly, what you describe is one way of playing , it may even be one of the most common ways, but it is far from the only way. I think your problem (and it is your problem) is that you have found yourself in a group that plays a different way - by no means a wrong way, just a different way.

This leaves you with two simple, and one complicated option (respectively):

  1. Leave the group.
  2. Put up with the way the group plays.
  3. Try to change the group to play more like the way you like to play.

Agency

I think that you are concerned that the way the DM describes the way PC's "feel" is limiting their agency.1 I don't quite see that myself - unless and until it actively stifles player actions its just words.

I don't think there's a practical difference between saying "the [tomb/dungeon/hideous demon from beyond the realms of madness] is scary" and "you feel scared" - brave people feel scared, its the fact that they act in spite of their scaredness2 that makes them brave.

Similarly, I don't see a difference between "you trust him" and "he seems trustworthy".

I suggest you go with option 2 on this one. Although, if it really bothers you when the DM says these things to you simply say something like "I'd rather you told me what my character senses and leave it to me to decide how they feel about it."


1 Of course, its perfectly fine to limit agency through the mechanics of the game - the 'frightened' condition limits agency but it should only be imposed through the mechanics of the game.

2 I had to look up the noun form of scared because I don't think I've ever seen it before. Personally, I'd go with variations of terrified because scared just seems a bit childish.


Questioning rulings

If this DM allows player's to question their rulings then that's up to them. However, it is usually a sign of an inexperienced and/or insecure DM.

You can help here by simply saying something like "Hey guys, the DM has made the call and, right or wrong, its his/her call to make, let's move on. I'm happy to chew the fat over the tough calls our team got but after the game, OK?"

In game solutions to out of game problems

Of course, Gary Gygax used these all the time - thunderbolts from the heavens was his solution to player backchat.3

However, there are better ways - like the one I suggested above. A quiet word with the DM explaining this could go a long way.


3 It's actually a rule in the AD&D DMG, I kid you not.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ More a guideline than a rule, but yeah, it's in there. I added the link to the Q&A here and went into some detail on that. Once again, I like this DaleM Productions, Ltd, LLC, etc, answer for its breadth. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 20 at 12:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not sure if you want to add this, but there's an oft quoted movie line that seems to fit your second paragraph under agency. Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 20 at 13:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not sure if that was a rhetorical question, but both the PHB and DMG kind of say exactly that in their "How to play"/"What is your role" sections of the books :P As Korvin said, it's not necessarily a rule (but as is widely reinforced through the books, nothing in the books is actually a rule, just a guideline, and the table can change it however they want). \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 21 at 4:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint Korven was referring to my AD&D callout. WRT your comment, I agree the domain of the DM is the “environment” and the domain of the player’s is their “character” but there are no bright lines separating them - they are in symbiosis \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jun 21 at 4:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.