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I've recently started playing D&D with a few friends, most of whom are new-ish to the game. Our GM is running their first world, and while their world building is very impressive, when it comes to the mechanics of gameplay it feels like there's a lot of room for improvement in their knowledge and/or application. Some examples are more subjective than others:

  • They use saving throws and skill checks somewhat interchangeably (and did not know what saving throws were until our last session)
  • In combat, they seldom get us to roll for initiative/have a set turn order, which sometimes results in some players doing stuff twice before another has their turn
  • In their last campaign in this world, they felt like there was too much narrative and not enough dice-rolling, and it feels like they have overcompensated for this; during our last session most of us were sitting twiddling our thumbs for half an hour while the bard bluffing his way past the king's advisors in a lengthy conversation was rolling for Charisma every second sentence
  • They can sometimes let the players dictate which skill they roll a check for when performing an action, eg a player will say "I want to roll an Arcana check on this amulet to check for magic"

Not only am I fairly new to DnD myself, I don't want to be 'that guy' or a rules lawyer (particularly as I tend to be quite mechanics-focused in games), so how much, if anything, should I say to the GM? We never really had a session 0, and there isn't a lot of talk about the game outside gameplay. I don't believe they're being willfully ignorant/difficult about any of these points.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How much dnd experience do they have? You said this is the DM's first world but also "In their last campaign in this world" which would suggest a period of time spent playing that is at least in the months? I ask because a level of confusion around things is expected in the early weeks but if they have any intention of improving they should be showing signs by now. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Apr 27 at 1:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe they have run 1 campaign previously, their first, in this world. I'm not sure how long it was, but they only started playing the game last year \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Middlemiss Apr 27 at 1:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @3C273 we've been averaging once a month for this campaign, not sure how often they would have met for their previous/first one. \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Middlemiss Apr 27 at 2:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterDuniho this SE seems to blur the line between rules and opinions more than others, and while there may be no explicit written rules, it seems plausible that among established players there may be unspoken rules or things taken for granted that, being new, I don't know. I've frequently seen similar highly rated questions to this one asked, where someone is asking for help addressing a particular problem precisely because there are no explicit rules anywhere \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Middlemiss Apr 27 at 2:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterDuniho There is no rule. But there is collective wisdom from a group of expects who should be able to support their answer with experience they have had and examples of how it worked out. This question is subjective yes and answerers should keep that in mind. It is not, however, off-topic or unsuitable for our site. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Apr 27 at 6:45
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If something is causing you to not have fun, you can tell the DM: "Hey, this thing is causing me to not have fun, can we do it differently?"

If I were playing at your table, I can tell you that two of the things you describe would cause me to not have fun, and the rest would seem sort of eccentric but irrelevant. I would say:

"Hey, in that last scene, we all kind of sat there for half an hour with nothing to do, and I felt sort of bored. Could we try to make sure that more of us are involved in future scenes?"

And: "Hey, in that last combat we did, we didn't roll initiative, and I feel like my turn was skipped. Could we roll initiative in future?"

I am a DM, and I listen to this sort of thing, and I would expect other DMs to listen to this as well.


For the other issues you describe, like deciding when to call for a skill check or a save, I recommend that you not worry about it.

In particular, for that Arcana check you describe, you're technically correct that it's the DM's job to name the skill check, and not the player's. But, once the player has decided to look at the amulet, everyone at the table knows what check is going to happen, and it doesn't seem like it's worth arguing over who should be allowed to speak the words "arcana check" first.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In the instance of the amulet, once they had done that the player was unhappy with the result and said "OK now I want to do an Investigation check", followed by a Nature check, trying to get all their top skills in. I get what you're saying though. \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Middlemiss Apr 27 at 3:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @IsaacMiddlemiss depending on the type of DM, the player specifying arcana might actually be a disadvantage. If the DM decided an investigation check could be used to discover the dagger was coated in something, followed by nature to deduce that it was poisoned but the player had chosen to ask specifically for an arcana check, they'd miss on this important fact, if thay had simply said they wished to inspect the dagger, the DM could have had them roll investigation. \$\endgroup\$ – Martin - Reinstate Monica Apr 27 at 16:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer - like criticizing anyone for anything: Don't stress too many points at once, don't "collect" everything you don't like and never generalize. Always focus on a specific thing you didn't like in a specific instance and present it politely not too long after it happened. \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Apr 28 at 15:08
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Engage with your DM about Feedback

Personally I believe that all DM's should be open to feedback. Ultimately how much our players are enjoying the game is the only metric that measures how 'good' we are as a DM. If the players can't communicate what they are enjoying/not enjoying with the DM how can they improve?

In your situation I would recommend approaching your DM outside of the game with a question like:

Hey, I have some thoughts about things that could make the game more fun. Are you interested in hearing about them?

In the past when I have asked this, my DMs have usually been pretty open to listening. Though I have heard stories of players being shutdown at this stage. If your DM is open to feedback, discuss the format, style and level of information they would appreciate. You will have to gauge where the line between constructive feedback and complaining lines for your group and your DM.

Using Informal Feedback

In the group I play with the DM prefers a more informal form of feedback. After each session we simply hang out and chat, discussing what we liked or didn't like during the session. Occasionally pointing out areas we felt the DM could have done better.

The thing to keep in mind in this informal setting is to always praise the DM for the things they are doing well. It is normal to want to vent about thing that frustrated you, but it is important to try to be constructive. DM burnout is a very real thing and only hearing complaints from the players makes it far more likely. Always try to highlight the things you enjoyed and (if you can) why you enjoyed them. DMs are far more likely to provide more of thing they know you are enjoying.

Using Structured Feedback

Something I have recently incorporated into my games after some trial and error with variations is a structured list of feedback prompts. I've received mixed levels of engagement from my players, but would welcome responses to any of the prompts. I find this list helps focus the feedback into specific areas for improvement rather than the generic "Everything is good/bad/fine" I was getting before.

My list of feedback prompts, at the end of each session I encourage players to respond to one or more of these prompts:

  • Tell me about a rule/ruling you disagree(d) with/didn't like and would like to discuss how to handle in future.
  • Describe an encounter/scene you didn't like and would prefer to happen less.
  • Describe an encounter/scene you liked and would like to happen more.
  • Describe a storyline/theme that you enjoy and would like to explore further.
  • Describe a storyline/theme that you didn't enjoy and would prefer to avoid in future.
  • Describe a situation where you felt your character had a great opportunity to shine.
  • Describe a situation where you felt your character was sidelined and struggled to contribute.
  • Identify an NPC you thought I portrayed well and what you liked about them.
  • Identify an NPC you thought I could portray better, and how I might improve.
  • Identify a technique, tool, or handout I have used that you liked and added value to the game.
  • Identify a technique, tool, or handout I have used that you didn't enjoy, or didn't feel added anything to the game.
  • Identify a technique, tool, or handout you have heard of/seen that I haven't used that you feel could add something to the game.
  • Describe a plot, encounter, or situation you would like you character to experience.
  • Describe a plot, encounter, or situation you would like they party/someone else's character to experience.
  • Name an item, artefact or ability you would like to appear in game.
  • Name an NPC, monster or enemy you would like to encounter in game.
  • Other feedback that doesn't fit the above prompts.

Consider sharing this list with your DM as a starting point for the kind of feedback that may be useful to them. Each DM/group should adapt this to facilitate the kinds of feedback that is beneficial to them.

Support Your DM

Ultimately everyone's goal at the table it to have fun with a group of friends. Your DM's job is to enable that to happen. Feedback is useful only so long as it supports them in doing that job. Be the best player you can; learn your rules, engage with the story, share the spotlight and encourage the best bits of the people you are playing with.

If/when the DM needs a little help or guidance be willing/ready to provide it. But remember that being DM is a difficult job, and sometimes they just can't accommodate everything. Give feedback in a positive and respectful manner and accept how the DM chooses to use it.

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As somebody who is mostly GM'ing, here's how I'd feel about what kind of feedback:

Positive:

  • "I really enjoyed that specific part because XXX"
  • "I prefer having a bit more roleplay, for example..."
  • "I like strategy in battles, would be nice if we could use maps / strict turn-taking more often"

These are all for before or after the game. During the game, I try to figure out whether the players are having fun or want the current encounter to be done rather sooner than later. If I get clear negative feedback during the game, I have done something wrong. So it's harder to swallow, but if you phrase it well it can work well.

Negative:

  • "That ruling was wrong"
    No, that ruling was spontaneous to not break the flow of the game and I will look it up later and clarify next session. OR it was indeed wrong but that was on purpose and there is something about the scenario that you as a player don't know (yet).
  • "I don't like it when.... " but without clear path for improvement

Being "That Guy" is not always problematic

I don't want to be 'that guy' or a rules lawyer (particularly as I tend to be quite mechanics-focused in games)

If you prefer the game to be mechanically correctly played because that makes it more fun for you when the rules are reliable (e.g. for strategic optimization) then by all means, say it! Discussing as a group what is fun and what can be improved is very useful to a DM who would like everybody to have as much fun as possible.
Just keep in mind that compromises will have to be made. It's hard to keep track of everything at once.

Your Specific Examples

They use saving throws and skill checks somewhat interchangeably (and did not know what saving throws were until our last session)

In my personal opinion, everybody playing should have a basic grasp of the rules. If this is not the case, maybe it would be good to summarize the important things to them because apparently they aren't reading the rules on their own. But that is assuming that there actually is a problem due to that. This specific example sounds to me like it's not incredibly relevant unless you have something giving you benefits on saving throws but not skill checks. If it only bothers you because it's wrong, wait a bit - they're learning the game - and just teach them the rules as they come up. If it's bothering you because it makes the game less fun, figure out why that is the case and then discuss it.

In combat, they seldom get us to roll for initiative/have a set turn order, which sometimes results in some players doing stuff twice before another has their turn

That is something that is not hard to fix on their part. So I would advise to mention it at the start of your next session - while everybody else is there to also chime in. Because maybe the rest of the group actually prefers how it is and the freedom that offers. Not having initiative sounds to me like it will make the game less fun for the players that are not the loudest. It is the GM's job to give every player their share of the spotlight. But try not to bring it up as an accusation.

Bad: "You're doing combat wrong."
Good: "Could we please play the combats with a strict initiative order? I find it too chaotic the way it is now"

In their last campaign in this world, they felt like there was too much narrative and not enough dice-rolling, and it feels like they have overcompensated for this; during our last session most of us were sitting twiddling our thumbs for half an hour while the bard bluffing his way past the king's advisors in a lengthy conversation was rolling for Charisma every second sentence

That is something I also did wrong as a new DM, at least a bit. I thought rolling dice would be fun for the players and it was useful to hear from them that in fact they preferred it when there were no dice interrupting the roleplay unless they had a big impact.
Mention it.

They can sometimes let the players dictate which skill they roll a check for when performing an action, eg a player will say "I want to roll an Arcana check on this amulet to check for magic"

That's as much the players' fault as it is the GM's for letting this happen. You are as an other player also in a position to ask "How should I imagine that, you checking it for magic? Are you licking it?" to get more focus on the how than on the mechanical aspect. That's the issue you want to solve here, I think. If they simply chose the wrong mechanics, the DM can, and probably will, say "Uh, no, that'll actually be a history check" when that is important. And if not, you can still interject that you think it should be actually XXX instead. As long as you don't do that too often, taking away the DM's authority, that shouldn't bother.

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An answer of a new GM

This answer is my take on it and you should choose which points are suitable for you.

Make sure the fun continues

The game should be fun for GM but mostly the players.

If the GM creates a lot of situations that only allow 1 player to play while the other are bored you need to point that out and ask for some balance. It can happen that the game takes a turn where your character has little to offer and its totally possible that a player will cause such a situation to go on and on but its the job of the GM to control situations and balance. You should bring that up.

setting expectations before the game but its never to late

Usually session 0 is just for that but when everybody is new things could be misinterpreted or just change. Try to do another open discussion and don't call out things you don't like, ask for less of that and more of what you do like and have examples at the ready. Think about it beforehand and be as clear as you can while not complaining. It's a difficult dance to complain without sounding complaining and it depends on the relationship you have with the GM and other players.

Don't blame the GM, learn the rules yourself

If after the talk your GM does something that is opposed to or too far from the rules you agreed on say something and take the chance to teach the rules and ask your GM if that would be better. He might accept, if he just didn't know them or he might surprise you with a good reason to keep things the way they are.

It happens to me all the time when I GM. One of my players is a veteran D&D 5e player and I'm a total noob. When I make a mistake we talk about it briefly. most of the time I just adopt the rules, sometime I bend them and give the game an element of surprise even to an experienced player. That just adds to the fun.

Its more how you say it

If you have a change you want to make to the game, make sure you understand the benefits and can make a good case that would bring forth a synergy to the game instead of breaking it for everybody.

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Communication is key

It highly depends on how sensitive a particular person reacts to critique, but as a DM (for 20 years) I always hope that my players give me feedback if they have fun or not... or if I get some rules horribly wrong. I know that not all DMs think that way tho. But you know him or her better than me and can maybe estimate a possible reaction.

How it should be

The DM tells the players when to roll, NOT the other way around. As a player you may ASK if you're allowed to do a roll, but you don't give the orders. If your DM apparently doesn't know the rules... like... at all: Just kindly point that out. DnD is not an uncomplicated ruleset, it needs time and some effort to learn it.

A thing that worked out pretty nicely

... at least in my experience...

If you're all new into the game, do a bunch of one-shot-adventures to figure out the rules. Switch DM from time to time and stick to the person that can do it best and (at the same time) has fun in DMing. To start as a so called "Forever DM" is not the best way in my experience. Every DM has their own style of leading a game. Of course, a DM should know the basic rules and it's not rude to demand that. On the other hand: Nobody's perfect. If you know the rules better than your DM, they will be very thankful if you support them with the needed rule information... that counts for the most DMs at least. I was always very thankful, if I DMed a (for me) new system for the first time, but had a living rulebook in my player group who could tell me all the things, I didn't figure out yet. Especially if a group is new to the game.

TL;DR: It's okay to not know the rules, but it's also okay to point that out.

After all: Fun is essential. That counts for the players and the DM alike. So if you have an issue with anything, point that out. You play a game because you wanna have fun and spend some time with friends. If you don't have fun or have a problem with the DM's style of gameplay, communicate that with your party. It's okay to have a problem and it's okay to talk about it. But that aren't DnD-rules, that are the common rules of social interaction.

Something I forgot or a short addition

There are situations in which you don't need to do an Initiative roll. For example:

  • If you already rolled initative for that combat
  • If players/monsters ambushed an opponent and get a surprise round
  • If you sneak upon a single opponent that doesn't know that you're around and you straight up assassinate them before they even know what attacked them.
  • Whenever the DM decides that an Initiative roll isn't needed (but that'd happen very rarely.
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This depends strongly on your DM's personality.

Remember, everyone is playing tabletop games to have fun together, so if something is happening to dampen your fun, it's completely reasonable to bring that up, but keep in mind you don't want to ruin the DM's/everyone else's fun while you're at it. It sounds like you understand this ("I don't want to be that guy"), but I assure you that your experience matters too -- the "everyone" includes you -- so don't feel bad bringing it up, just make sure you do it tactfully.

Sadly, it's hard to advise you how to make your feedback land well. Some people are quite sensitive to feedback and take even gentle constructive criticism personally. Some people are completely aloof to feedback from others and take neither negative nor constructive criticism seriously. Since I don't know your DM personally, I can't recommend a specific tone or amount of criticism and feedback appropriate to your table. You'll have to use your own judgement there. What I can offer is some general advice for tabletop conflict resolution based on what you've written here.


Session Zero and You

We never really had a session 0

You should have.

The best time for Session Zero was before dice ever hit the table. The second-best time is right now. I cannot stress this enough, but I will never stop trying! Approach your DM and party and say something like "Hey guys, I realized we never really talked about house rules and expectations for this game! I know we already started, but we should still do that. When is good for you guys? Maybe before we start up next session?" You can just use the phrase "Session Zero" if your group is familiar. This gives you the opportunity to bring up these things that have been bugging you (as gently as is appropriate for your DM's personality, in your judgement), and hopefully prevent others from cropping up in the future!


Some Specifics

They use saving throws and skill checks somewhat interchangeably (and did not know what saving throws were until our last session)

This will improve naturally over time. You can offer small corrections in the moment quickly without derailing the game. For example, when the DM says "make a charisma save" when a PC is trying to convince someone something, just say "you mean a charisma check, right?"

In combat, they seldom get us to roll for initiative/have a set turn order, which sometimes results in some players doing stuff twice before another has their turn

Everyone gets a turn (barring conditions etc). This is a fundamental rule of combat. It's not "my guy" syndrome for you to expect to have a turn every round, and this is something you should firmly clarify ASAP. Frankly I'm surprised no one spoke up about this immediately. Unless you fancy an ongoing game where people are skipped over and action economy is totally arbitrary, don't take no for an answer on this one.

If your DM needs convincing, remind them that having high dex feels less useful when you don't get one of the primary benefits of going fast (not to mention the various other ways you may have improved your initiative bonus), and it's extremely unfair to skip someone's turn entirely.

In their last campaign in this world, they felt like there was too much narrative and not enough dice-rolling, and it feels like they have overcompensated for this; during our last session most of us were sitting twiddling our thumbs for half an hour while the bard bluffing his way past the king's advisors in a lengthy conversation was rolling for Charisma every second sentence.

Others have already suggested great choices here. Just matter-of-factly point out that it's not particularly fun to sit and watch one character roll the same check for 20 minutes with nothing to do yourself. You could introduce your DM to the idea of skill challenges a la 4E, or just kindly ask for more inclusion of the rest of the party in future social encounters.

They can sometimes let the players dictate which skill they roll a check for when performing an action, eg a player will say "I want to roll an Arcana check on this amulet to check for magic"

Personally I don't see the issue here. Ultimately, it's up to the DM to decide if a check succeeds or fails, and even what checks a PC should make at all. Allowing players to suggest which skill they would like to use to solve a given problem encourages creative thinking and can make for more interesting solutions than the DM may have had in mind. It's hardly a dictation on the player's part, but perhaps your DM needs a reminder of that? If instead it is coming from a place of power-gaming from the other players, this is yet another reason to host a Session Zero ASAP.


In Conclusion, or, TL;DR

Have an open, honest conversation with your DM and fellow players about the things that are bothering you (especially the initiative thing). Game knowledge will come with time, and you can help along the way. Remember: the goal is for everyone, you included, to have fun together!

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Official rules lawyer here. From my experience, as long as you're respectful and acknowledge that the GM has final say, no one really gets mad when you try to help with rules clarifications. Before you attack, you might say "Alright, I'll roll for initiative." It's a leading statement, but the table should get the hint.

Be kind, be respectful, but if you're the one that knows the rules more than everyone else, and they simply don't, it's effectively up to you to help get things on track, if they are unwilling to research themselves. Not everyone has the time, and that's understandable. But sometimes, playing by the rules helps speed up effective play. Especially for combat.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A statement like ""Alright, I'll roll for initiative." would not be well received at my table. If I haven't asked for initiative there may well be a reason outside of the players knowledge and players assuming the DM made a mistake is bordering on rude. A more respectful version that still gets the point across would be "Should I/we be rolling initiative?" It reminds the DM that you would usually roll initiative here in case they did forget, but also gives them the opportunity to say; "No" or "Not yet, it depends how X works out." \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Apr 27 at 6:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ The useful advice here, which I don't think anyone else has written, is to give feedback during the game. If it's obvious that actions are skipped and the GM has forgotten about initiative then one way or another remind them / designate a player to keep track of it, whatever. \$\endgroup\$ – Owen Reynolds Apr 27 at 22:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, asking to make a roll would be a better solution than implying you are going to make one. For instance what if the DM didn't want initiative because there wasn't going to be a fight and the character was non hostile. Asking would be a better solution. \$\endgroup\$ – Mike Z. Apr 30 at 16:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're all assuming the DM actually knows to call for initiative when it should be, but as the question pointed out, they are not. Players are missing turns, and there is no set turn order. If the DM isn't willing to accept help, the only option moving forward would be to find a new DM. I was also just giving an example, and my Autism(literal) makes it difficult for me to speak in any way but matter-of-fact. When you're 5 rounds into combat and no one has rolled initiative, yes, someone should take the initiative and call for the roll, if the DM can't. Ideally, you'd do it on the first turn. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Pain VanZant Apr 30 at 19:43

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