I've been running two campaigns as a DM for about 7 or 8 months at this point. I've been running it with 2 different groups.

The problem that I'm facing, currently, is the perception, from some members of my second group, that I'm not receptive to criticism.

To elaborate, some of them believe that whenever they have criticism for me, it's always valid and I should be accepting of it.

For me, the way that I handle any form of criticism in my academic life is that each person criticizes an individual based on information that they know. So, they point out inconsistencies in whatever they're doing based on information that's available to them. That individual is, then, allowed to give them further information so that they can change their criticism or retract it.

I've criticized, say, someone's proof before in Mathematics until they pointed out the underlying thought that they had behind a particular sentence and after that, I've had to retract that particular criticism since it really isn't valid.

I've tried to bring that into my D&D life and, even as a player, I tend not to criticize the DM about story-related material, prefering to work through the tale as a character to its end before analyzing it. My criticisms have always been restricted to the gameplay of the story. Of course, that's just a personal thing and I don't impose that on my players at all.

My first group happens to understand this really well and is receptive to any discussion that we have regarding their criticism after the game. So, the members are entirely ready to retract their criticism if I can convince them that it's not valid (at some times, I just can't argue with what they have to say, though, so I don't argue on every point).

Some members of my second group don't believe that this is how feedback is supposed to work and they believe that I should be changing my style of running the game based on their preferences. The other members disagree with them and have told me that while there are improvements that can be made in the gameplay, the approach I have to taking criticism is just fine.

So, at this point, I'm kind of at a loss on what to really do? How should I approach them? Is my entire approach to D&D wrong?

Also, whenever I have private exchanges with these members over a particular thing that's bothering them, I tend to try and look for a second or third opinion on what they're saying so that I'm not misinterpreting it and unreasonable disagreeing with them for no reason whatsoever.

That is, I will usually show others the messages that were sent between that member & myself regarding that topic and will ask them for their thoughts on the entire issue. I try not to restrict myself to just describing the exchange verbally, because I'm not quite sure that I can give an honest recount of everything that has occurred. I'd rather show them the text directly.

I'd like to thank everyone who gave an answer to this question and the various comments that I made on each of your answers. What I've gathered from reading the answers and the various comments associated with them is the following:

  1. I should make it more apparent that I am accepting their criticism. I should not attempt to argue with the group about what they didn't like.

  2. If there's a bit of criticism that I get about something in my game and it won't exactly help my game or help me have fun as well, then I should do my utmost to bring about the maximal amount of changes such that my players will be happy and I will be happy.

  3. I should not treat criticism in D&D in exactly the same way as I would treat academic criticism since the former is highly opinion-based and the latter is academic in nature.

I guess I should also add that the main trouble that I have is mostly because of my general approach to literary works as well? Like, when I read a book or watch a show, I tend to reserve all negative judgement specifically about the plot until I have reached the end of the show.

So, for example, I will notice things that weren't explained and will discuss them with others, under the assumption that the creator of the work will explain them later. I will form opinions about the characters or lore but I will not say 'this doesn't make sense' until I have reached the end.

In a way, I think it's rather unfair to the author to just make everything in their story seem like it's a plot-hole. The author had the patience to write the story, so the reader should have the patience to work through the story if it interests them.

Obviously, it doesn't have to always interest the reader. Like, just because I find a book uninteresting doesn't mean it has plot holes. But yea, i guess the 3 points I mentioned above are my main takeaways from this entire discussion.


8 Answers 8


You've written:

So, the members are entirely ready to retract their criticism if I can convince them that it's not valid

As a DM, I think about things a bit differently. If someone tells me: "I'm not having fun in your game because you are doing Thing X", that's valuable information for me about their preferences. I don't try to convince them that they're wrong—if they say that they're not having fun, they're the authority on that subject.

I might not necessarily act on the information they give me—if one of my players wants me to do something that wouldn't be fun for me, or wouldn't be fun for the rest of the group, then I might say "thanks but unfortunately I can't change that, I'll understand if you decide you'd rather find a different game". But I'll always consider it valuable for someone to tell me how they perceive my game.

You've also written:

I tend not to criticize the DM about story-related material, prefering to work through the tale as a character to its end before analyzing it.

and I want to note that this isn't going to apply to all groups. If I start playing in a D&D campaign and I'm having a terrible experience, and the DM wants to meet every week for a year, I'm not going to be able to work through the whole story before deciding I don't like it—that's not a good use of my time. Your players might be feeling something similar.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah okay, that's pretty fair. I probably need to re-assess my approach to D&D. Thank you for your response. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mousedorff
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 4:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Most probably won't often say "I'm not having fun". They'll probably only say it in extreme cases, if ever. But it is often implied (to some extent) when someone is raising criticism. On top of that, unless specifically asked in a non-confrontational and unintimidating way, some might not even raise criticism at all and just suffer in silence or leave the group, especially if the other person doesn't seem open to feedback. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 13:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Alright that does make sense. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mousedorff
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 14:53

Other answers have elaborated on good ways to handle this, so I'd like to provide a different lesson from game design:

Players know what they like, but not what they want

What does this mean?

It means that if someone tells you that they find something fun, or enjoy something, you should believe them. Similarly, if they say that something isn't working for them, you should take them seriously.

HOWEVER, if they try to articulate why that is, or what you could do to fix it, they are very often wrong. At best you should tease out the real reason with careful questions. Often you're better off ignoring the reasons than accepting them at face value.

We are emotional creatures. We often feel something emotionally and then only come up with a rationalization after the fact.

A few examples

In a shooting game, players complained that the shotgun was under-powered. The players suggested this could be fixed by increasing shotgun damage. The devs actually fixed this by increasing the reload time on the bolt-action sniper rifle. Suddenly the shotgun was a more viable weapon, and the complaints stopped.

In a Super Mario game, people complained jumps were too difficult. Their suggested fix was to make the jumps smaller / easier. The devs actually fixed this by adding drop shadows under Mario so that it's easier to see over what terrain he is currently.

In a racing game, someone complained that the cars should have shinier chrome. It was late in production and would be difficult to add as the graphics of the console wouldn't support it. The devs asked "why?". The person responded "The cars are too slow, but I know it would be hard for you guys to make them faster at this point. So I thought it would be easier to just make them shinier so they feel faster". The devs fixed this by just making the cars faster.

As all these examples demonstrate, when someone is giving a subjective opinion about a game not working for them, they are RIGHT about the fact that they're not having fun, but they might not know how to fix it. That's your job as game designer.

Now, this may differ depending on the person. If you're talking to an experienced GM and they say "I see you experienced problem X, I fixed that by doing Y" you might very well take their advice at face value.

Furthermore, sometimes something just isn't to someone's taste. Some people like FPS games and others like Candy Crush, and you shouldn't modify the one game to suit the other's taste. Similarly, some people like certain GM styles more than others.

But the core point to take away from this is as follows:

Just because someone can't logically articulate to you why something isn't working for them, doesn't meant they are wrong about the fact that they don't like it.

Take seriously the fact that they say they aren't enjoying themselves, but be more lenient in how you handle the reasons WHY.

  • 2
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    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 14:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Lol, @Someone_Evil, I've been a member longer than you have... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 9:24
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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil Haha, thanks, no worries. And congrats on your recent appointment as a moderator! \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 28, 2020 at 13:47

Not All Criticism Is The Same

I would urge you in the strongest possible terms not to conflate the academic-style criticism of your professional background with the type of criticism you will receive as a GM-- the intent and the form are so drastically different that it is unfortunate that they are referred to by the same word.

Academic criticism is ideally impersonal-- not about you, not about the critic, but solely about the idea-- and formalized almost to the point of ritual. (Ideally; I, too, have been kneecapped by Anonymous Reviewer #2.)

Feedback about your game is not like that. It's not even like academic literary criticism. It cannot help but be personal and to some degree emotional because it is feedback about a jointly produced piece of art. Dan B hits it on the head in his answer: the feedback you receive is almost entirely about the fun and enjoyment that your players are or are not having. If you're really lucky, you'll get questions about what they can do to maximize the fun for others.

Take Criticism Seriously

This is feedback that you basically have to take seriously. First, your goal as a GM is both to have fun running a game and to provide fun for your players. And second, you're not going to convince someone that they're having fun, if they're not.

Does this mean you have to act on every piece of criticism in exactly the way the critics want? No, of course not. Your positions are not symmetric: As the GM, you have more authority, because you have more knowledge, but also because you have more responsibility and are doing more work.

If anything, it is this asymmetry that makes handling criticism so exceptionally challenging: You do have preferences as a GM, and they are valid. You do have a unique, more informed perspective. But what you don't have is a unilateral claim on someone else's fun, which is to say that your players also have preferences that are valid.

Accept Criticism With Empathy

I would really like to be able to deliver a nice, simple method for receiving criticism, and incorporating it into your game in a way that's always fair and always works and always improves everyone's outcomes.

But I can't. It doesn't work that way. It's art, not science.

So instead, my advice is to listen to your players with empathy, and even with compassion, and always with the intent to learn what their preferences are in gaming. Then, try to satisfy as many of those preferences as you can. This is, of course, nowhere close to easy, because those preferences-- yours against the players', one player against another's-- rarely line up perfectly.

That's where the hard work of trade-offs begins.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 9:55

Interesting point of view

Let me offer you two statements for your consideration:

  1. There are a finite number of prime numbers;
  2. Hamlet is a weak, insipid character with no redeeming features.

Similarly, consider these statements:

  1. A Fighter in D&D 5e gets d12 + Charisma score hit points at first level;
  2. Orcs make really interesting opponents at all levels of play.

In both cases, the first statement is falsifiable (and indeed, false for both); the second statement isn't falsifiable (although I'm open that there may be arguments for and against both).

In essence, we are talking about the difference between statements of fact and statements of opinion. We can (in theory) prove a statement of fact; all we can do for a statement of opinion is make a case for it.

It appears that your "academic life" is in Mathematics; I doubt you would adopt such a position if it was in the humanities, the social sciences or even the "hard" sciences - even in physics, "proof" is merely the accumulation of evidence.

Having said that, this is not academia, it's a hobby that people do for fun. Some people like opera, some people like football, some like both and some like neither - all of these people are 100% right: they like what they like. Your reasons for what you like are not relevant to them.

So, if I find a particular NPC boring (as a player - NPCs that bore the PC can be quite fun) then your reasons for playing that NPC in a way that bores me, brilliant though they are, don't change the fact that I'm bored. I might be able to appreciate the artistry in the acting and storytelling skills that you display - I'm still bored. Or, I might be bored on different levels simultaneously. The same goes for any element of the play - my feelings are indifferent to your reasons.

Think about this and maybe you will understand why your second group thinks you are not receptive to criticism. And why they might be right.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your response. So, would you say that I should accept every bit of criticism and not offer any form of justification as to why I did something that I did in the game? That is, should I just accept their criticism and try to change my game to fit that? What if I'm getting two conflicting bits of criticism for the game? What should I do then? ^These are genuine questions, by the way. I'm seriously unsure of what to do, mostly because the answer is clear in academic work but not so much in this sort of thing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mousedorff
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 4:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ For example, in academic work, it's clear that if one provides criticism for, say, a proof, their argument has to be valid. Similarly, in other academic work, your criticism for a particular piece of work has to be predicated upon clear arguments that have been represented in various forms. I've tried to bring that into D&D and it has, as I said, worked with the first group. Not so much with some members in the second group and that's where I'm sort of stuck. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mousedorff
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 4:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AbhijeetVats those are good questions- please ask them with a link to this question for context. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 4:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AbhijeetVats An individual's criticism is based on their point of view. They don't collaborate on a single criticism thesis to present and dispute, rather they have conveyed their subjective viewpoints in hopes you will listen. If you are unsure how to accept different viewpoints from others, then maybe Interpersonal.SE could provide some insight. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeQ
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 15:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AbhijeetVats When someone says "I feel ABC about this thing that happened in your game" or "I disliked when you did XYZ", those statements are not disputable. You can explain why you did something the players disliked, but ultimately you cannot disprove their experiences. However, you and the players can discuss what to do about these conflicting expectations and how to move forward. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeQ
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 15:47

D&D is a Collaberative Effort

As a DM, you do a lot to direct and guide a game session. You do tons of work to create environments or even worlds for your players. That makes it really easy to think of being a DM as being the creator of the whole experience, like an author.

But you aren't. You're curating, guiding, and arbitrating an interactive experience. Your players and their interactions and choices are precisely as important as all of the work you do. They fuel and direct how the session runs exactly as much as you do, just by flexing different levers.

You should not treat your players as if they peers reviewing your completed paper - You should treat them as if they are co-authors helping you write the paper. Their stake in and contributions to the game are equal to your own, and your interests and goals should be shared.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for co-author metaphor. I really wish I'd said that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 19:57

I believe that most of the answers so far are a bit hand-wavy and do not answer OP's question in a clear and concise manner, so I will attempt to do it.

Before I answer, I would like to offer some insight:

There are rarely objective truths in role-playing games, most of the times it's just taste

For me, the way that I handle any form of criticism in my academic life is that each person criticizes an individual based on information that they know.

On the one hand, it is good that you try to apply the academic way of taking criticism in your games, however, you should keep in mind that academia deals with the objective truth. Roleplaying games and story-telling on the other hand deal with the imaginary. Therefore, there is no objective truth when it comes to your playstyle. Indeed, you can argue for or against a technique/mechanism but that's about it. Whether a player likes what you're doing is a matter of taste and compatibility.

Receiving criticism is hard

By all means, take that criticism into consideration but don't beat yourself too hard on it. Remember that you have a group of players who enjoy your style and that means a lot.

Now to the actual question:

How should I approach them? Is my entire approach to D&D wrong?

I feel that no matter how many times this is written people don't take it seriously enough:

Role-playing games are group games and their purpose is for everyone to have to fun

Notice the "everyone" part. This includes the players and the GM. The question you should ask yourself is this:

Can I adjust my gameplay so that both my players and I have fun?

Sit down with the group you have a problem with. In a friendly manner, make a list of the things they'd like you to change. (Optional: You can also let them know of the things you'd like of them to change). Read this list and think: Would it be possible for you to make these things happen and have fun with them? If yes, great. If not, then you're not very compatible with this group. This is not the end of the world. You can find another group and they can find another GM. But the important thing is, no matter what, everyone should have fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Love this, saying they are not supposed to alter their style to fit what the players want is such a crazy thought to me! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 15:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @J.Wagner To be fair, I'm saying that the OP should change their style but only if they have fun doing so. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aventinus
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 16:12

Aftercare aka Post Game Check-in

I've been doing this (or trying to, sometimes we gloss over it a bit if the session runs late) after every session, I ask my players 3 questions (and I try and answer them myself, though I often forget) I usually get everyone's answer to the first question, and often several folks will chime in that thing X was also their favorite bit:

  • What was your favorite part of the session.
  • What was your favorite thing that your character did.
  • What was something in the session they you felt I could have handled better (if you're uncomfortable answering this right now feel free to tell me one on one.) or that you didn't like.

First off, this focuses primarily on the good stuff. It lets you see what happened that people liked, and makes it easier for you to do more of that in the future. Often no one really has any complaints to the third question, but sometimes just explaining why Out Of Character can help, or acknowledging that you were hoping that the technique you tried would go better than it did and you're not planning on doing it again is enough to make everyone happy. Sometimes I've screwed up, I knew it in the moment, but I didn't see a better way to do it. Acknowledging that and apologizing can go a long way.

Some examples:

I converted a 4th edition adventure to 5th. I gave the players a short rest when narratively they probably shouldn't have had one, and it made the boss fight feel a little cheapened for one of the players. I was on the fence about it, but I was also unsure about how my conversion to 5e would go (4e assumes more HP, higher AC and hit bonii so could easily have been much more lethal). I explained this to her (also that it probably wouldn't happen again).

The party got ambushed by 4 goblins. It was supposed to be an easy encounter, but Sleep spell made it trivial. It probably could have been handled narratively or maybe I should have beefed up their defenses or had a second wave of goblins. We talked about this after the fact and moved on.


Something to consider that I haven't seen mentioned above, is that you say you're running two different groups - it might be obvious but I've found that some groups you have to radically alter your playstyle to suit them.

For example, a game I am running now, the first session we followed a premade adventure, it was mostly open door, go into room, kill monster, get treasure, rinse repeat. They didn't enjoy it much, and neither did I.

So I switched it to the opposite, built a very complex storyline of characters and intrigue, and they enjoyed bits of it, but they had real trouble figuring out what to do. They were super reluctant to experiment with things. I threw a puzzle in (an NPC monster) that was much stronger than them. There are four different ways to defeat it (get the treasure it guards) without combat. Despite this they became frustrated, so I practically spelled it out, but they decided that because one of them attacked it and got injured badly (even though it is completely non-hostile and communicative provided they don't provoke it and goes back to non-hostile when they stop) that they would leave it alone and wander around.

It's quite frustrating because I am not accustomed to this. But I've realised that even though my style works for other groups, that I can't blame the players. They are clearly looking for more classical sword & sorcery, where the baddies are obvious and the dialogue is clichéd. I really felt like screaming out "Come on it's super obvious how you can beat this!" but it's on me to be accommodating their playstyle, which I've recently come to realise, even though I can justify my difficult puzzles by explaining how I added more methods to defeat it as they were stuck and even spelled out how to solve it.

It could be that your tried & tested methods of DMing, which work impressively well for most groups, just don't quite work for the players of this one. Just a thought.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I can actually empathize with it because this is exactly what's happening with me. Like, with the first group, they sort of have the same approach to D&D as I do so it works well. With the second group, perhaps that's not the case. I mean, I guess the best solution is to run games with groups where members agree with your viewpoint on D&D? Idk, I guess that's why session 0s are very important. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mousedorff
    Commented Feb 27, 2020 at 8:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's tough, because it should be fun for you as well. So if you enjoy a complex story, intrigue, and players being clever then it's not as fun when you get people that don't really care for that, they just want to min/max and kill baddies. This is the first time I've hit this problem so I will have to figure out a way to make it work. I'll keep this adventure short and either rotate DM or find a new group. The players are pretty new to the game though, although one guy has apparently played many adventures before. I fear if I were a player I'd demolish their campaign by being too resourceful. \$\endgroup\$
    – NibblyPig
    Commented Feb 27, 2020 at 9:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do hope that you have some luck with that. My second group has been enjoying the more recent sessions, with some very minor feedback about what checks I made them do etc. Hopefully, it goes that way. Otherwise, this group is clearly not for me. I can't play a game or DM a game where I'm not having fun. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mousedorff
    Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 3:06

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