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Situation

I have a friend who is just starting as a DM. They've run a couple of one-shots that were really hard and ended with TPKs. Both one-shots were miserable slogs, and the encounters were clearly designed to kill characters. All of the players have voiced that they didn't like how those one-shots went. I assumed at first that this was just a result of rookie mistakes, so I tried to offer advice, but the friend simply told me that the players just didn't play well enough and should've picked magical classes.

The problem

I am concerned that the DM is doing this intentionally as some sort of payback. They've previously exhibited problem behaviours as a player, especially using killing to “correct” things they see as a problem: killing characters, taking agency away from other players, killing NPCs he felt were getting too much attention, etc. I fear this might be another attempt to “correct” us.

I really just want everyone to get along and have fun, and this is making the group dynamic very tense.

I want him to stop. How do I do this without the authority I'm used to having as a DM and without burning down the friendship/exiting the game?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How can I suggest the DM stop trying to kill us? \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Oct 24 at 15:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm genuinely shocked somebody would dare say "you should've picked magic classes" \$\endgroup\$ – Medix2 Oct 24 at 15:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ "I am concerned that the DM is doing this intentionally as some sort of payback" -- seems like maybe the question would be more on-topic on interpersonal.stackexchange.com \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Duniho Oct 25 at 5:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterDuniho: We handle questions about RPG-related interpersonal issues as well here - and moreover, such questions often would not benefit from being asked on IPS, because the people there generally lack the RPG expertise that is helpful to answer the question. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 25 at 5:50
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You have two options. Talk to your DM, or Find a new DM.

End of the day, you can't force a person to change and No D&D is better than Bad D&D. So if your DM cannot be persuaded to change their DMing ways, your only other option is to find a new DM.

So, your only non-quitting/non-firing-the-DM approach is to get your DM, preferably alone, somewhere away from the game table and not during game-time—and have a chat. I strongly recommend trying to be non-confrontational—approach this as "we're trying to fix this" not "you are a bad person and you should feel bad." I say this even if you think your DM is being a bad person, simply because accusing someone of that immediately puts them on the defensive. Here are some recommended talking points:

D&D is supposed to be Fun. We are not having fun.

D&D is a social game in which everyone—the players and the DM—are supposed to have fun. The standing rule within D&D is simply that: Have Fun. If memory serves, the DMG even explicitly says that if a rule of the game is getting in the way of you guys having a good time—ignore it!

Express to your DM that you guys are not actually having fun. You put a lot of work into your characters and you want them to have fun adventures. And the fact that he kills your characters and then criticizes you for not being "good enough" makes you not want to keep playing in his games.

Keep in mind that some players like high difficulty games—games where the Players have to be very optimized and very skilled in order to survive and win. Acknowledge this. Then tell him that you (and your friends) aren't actually interested in that sort of game.

D&D is not (usually) adversarial

Maybe he doesn't understand the point of the DM. Maybe he doesn't understand that the DM is not supposed to be the enemy of the players—but the one who gives them challenges along the road of telling a story. It sounds like you've tried to communicate this—but it's a very important point.

The DM should only be seriously trying to kill the PCs if that's the sort of game the players want.

All else fails

Now, you bring the rest of the party in—make sure you're all on the same page, and talk to him about this as a group.

Inform him that as you guys are not having fun—you'd rather not play D&D with him as a DM. D&D is not about players being "Highly skilled, hyper-competent masters of the game," it's about friends getting together to have fun. As none of you are actually having fun with D&D as he is running it, there's not much point in continuing to play. So, if he's going to stick to his "Git Gud" guns as a DM (reminder: you're still trying to be non-inflammatory here--so don't use those words)—then you're all simply not interested in being players under him. He may be able to find some more hardcore players to DM for—but you're not really interested in playing a game the way he runs it.

Tell him that if he's willing to try running the sort of game you all want to play then you'd be happy to give it another go (if, in fact, you are). Otherwise—he's welcome to continue playing with the group as a player... but you'd rather not have him as DM.

I mean... end of the day, you guys showed up expecting to play Skyrim, and he's throwing Dark Souls at you. You're not playing the game you wanted to play.

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Time for a new Session 0.

If all of the players involved are on the same page then I'd do the following with the other players before going to the DM:

  • Write down and agree upon several frustration points: The game doesn't feel like the collaborative heroic story the players expect, your game should consider the DM playing with the PCs and not against them, etc...

  • Suggest a framework with goals the players want to strive towards in their game - perhaps the recommended guidelines for difficulty, CR ratings and a typical adventuring day from the DMG

  • Recommend they use (and stick to) published material instead of creating their own questionably-balanced content. (This might be all you need to do to fix the problem)

  • Explain that there will be a reoccurring review every one or two sessions to go over how they have adapted their playstyle to more of what the group wants.

  • Present these to the DM in the best non-confrontational, collaborative means possible. Let them know that it isn't about friendship - only about what the rest of you find fun.

  • Consider using an example - Popular culture is full of livestreams of live play. Referencing one of those are fine - but it could be even better to find and recommend guides on bettering play: this, this, or this.

  • Have an alternative - start looking someone for else interested in running the game for your group

Let them know that it's difficult to stay engaged in a narrative when TPK's keep happening and that the players are prepared to find a different DM if this style of play continues.

Stick to your guns. If it doesn't seem like they are interested in the players' requests, let the DM know that the players will not return for the next session.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The one addendum I'd add to this is that even if all of the players are on the same page...you should still approach the DM one-on-one at first. If a person feels like they have been hauled before a tribunal (i.e. the entire group is going at them at once), they are likely to get very defensive. I'd try to tackle this privately at first--even if it's just with a chosen representative from the party. Bring the whole party into the discussion together if DM doesn't listen the first time. \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Oct 24 at 20:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Consider using an example" point is on it's place but examples given seam like urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=mercer-effect Mercer effect. I would suggest something that explains and gives good and bad examples like youtube.com/user/Bon3zmann how to be a great GM, youtube.com/… running the game by Mat Colville or youtube.com/channel/UCQs8-UJ7IHsrzhQ-OQOYBmg/playlists Seth Skorkowsky \$\endgroup\$ – Lidza Oct 25 at 10:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ooh! Thanks! Added annnd note to self: watch these later. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshjurg Oct 25 at 13:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @guildsbounty - I would have led with that, but it sounded to me like the OP stated that they and the other players had voiced their opinions - I presumed that was a 1-to-1 chat but that might have been a faulty presumption. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshjurg Oct 25 at 15:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer. You need to get everyone's expectations lined up. If one person expects hard challenges and takes pleasure from overcoming them (and accepts that he will fail often), while another person wants a joyride and a pleasurable roleplaying experience without too much danger, those two people won't be happy in the same gaming group. \$\endgroup\$ – Tom Oct 26 at 18:24
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Listen to your friend first

Speak to your friend out of the game, openly and honestly. Don't complain, do not try to "teach" him DMing, don't give him any advice. Ask questions instead. Try to figure out his true intentions behind this behavior.

You can start with questions, what classes he defines as "magical" (the majority of classes can cast spell in 5e). Ask him, what does it mean to "play well enough" in a tabletop roleplaying game, both as a player and as a DM. Apologize for any inconvenience and admit the fact, that you did not understand, what exactly he wanted to show you in the last one-shot. Ask him a straight question, what did he want to say.

You can't dispute your friend's position before you understand it. You might find out some things you assumed to be true actually are not. It is possible, he wanted to actually show something to your group, but this thing eludes you. Try to understand it in the first place, then make conclusions and discuss a possibility of further games with them.

That doesn't mean killing party in a D&D game is an acceptable method of resolving your personal problems though. But your friend couldn't do better, so maybe it's time for you to help.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not that this is a big deal, but the original suggests that the DM thinks the players should have picked "magical classes". \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 27 at 20:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm my bad. That makes me wonder what classes did players actually pick.. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Oct 28 at 8:49
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Talk and help them to understand

Many new D&D parties suffer from that. It is not that big of an issue at first but it can quickly escalate to a very difficult-to-handle situation.

There is a rule my friends and I have set in order to protect us from hideous fights over silly things such as fighting over a game (In this case, D&D). The issue is that people don't talk. If you are unhappy with your friend being the DM then tell him so, help him understand that if his mindset while making a campaign is "I will make a campaign only playable by magical classes" then drop it. Since he is unable to change his ways as a DM and you do not like how he plays the game then leave.

I know this sounds like a bitch move and it probably is, since he is your friend but you must understand that as a DM he must ensure that everyone is happy, including himself. Someone who is unable to interpret that and change his ways as a DM shouldn't be a DM.

Now, he might be a great DM for another party who enjoy difficult encounters, battling and dungeon crawling but for players who like adventuring and RPing, it can get much more difficult.

TL;DR: Talk to him, help him to understand. Should he not change; make someone else the DM. There is no need for him to no longer be part of your group, he can simply be a player.

Note: You expressed an overall concern about the person, both as a player and as a DM. The best you could do for them is to discuss your issues with the way he plays/DMs. I think that the best way to really get them to understand is by telling them your thoughts raw. It might hurt them, yes, but if at the end of the day they become a better player/DM and everyone is happy then it is worth it one hundred per cent.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a small concern, but I wonder if the wording of "make him understand" may come across as trying to force someone to agree with you? That's how it reads to me, at least, but I don't think that's actually what you're suggesting here (since it sounds like you're advocating open, honest communication, which I approve of). Unless that really is what you're saying, maybe using wording like "help him to understand" or something similar might come across better that "make him understand", but this might just be the way I'm reading it... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Oct 24 at 15:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, "help him understand" is more appropriate. Thanks for the heads-up! \$\endgroup\$ – iaminsensible Oct 24 at 15:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I went ahead and changed the other instances of "make" to "help" (and other minor tweaks); if you disagree with my edit, please feel free to roll it back, or otherwise edit it. I'll stop interfering now :) \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Oct 24 at 15:58
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The DMG and basic rules have a whole section on how to setup challenges for encounters. It would be very easy to reverse-engineer this encounter compared to the party and evaluate the challenge to determine whether it was a hard, very hard, difficult or impossible challenge.

I would ask the DM to provide evidence that this was not an encounter intended to end in a TPK with the creature used as evidence, then reverse the calculation. If it was an impossible challenge, then this was a strange choice from your DM; if it was a hard or very hard challenge (which are ok to have a couple of per long rest), TPKs are possible if not handled properly by the players.

In order to see where you stand, obtain the CR for the encounter and use it to determine the challenge.

Personally, that is what I would do. When I have an argument, I bring supporting evidence for my claims. The CR and challenge rating is what you need in that case.

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