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I recently had a conversation with our DM about us players feeling it was both immersion-breaking and less fun that the DM plays all the monsters with optimized, coordinated tactics, even if the monsters are reckless or stupid, and often leveraging knowledge about our abilities the monsters do not have.

The DM in response complained that it's no fun for them having the monsters be defeated all the time, without posing a real challenge to us, or taking anyone down once in a while. 1

I can empathize. I used to be the DM for our group for about a decade. As a DM, you may be all-powerful and godlike in what you can present to the players, but in the end, the game should be fun and in my experience players rarely feel being overmatched, powerless, or TPKd is much fun.2 Even being bailed out isn't.3

So your job as the DM is to have the guys you run lose, pretty much every time. Because if you don't: end of campaign, or at least major demoralization event. And, with time, this can get to you. You begin to want to make some dent into those player character HPs. Sure, you should be an impartial referee, but it can be hard to remain neutral or a fan of the PCs, when you are the one running the monsters. It can be hard to not start identifying to them as "your" team. At least that was my experience, and I had to consciously remind myself to not fall into that trap. Our current DM seems to struggle with the same things.

What self-talk, or what line of thinking that we might be able to share with our DM has helped you or worked for you to overcome this kind of side-taking or DM fatigue? I am looking for good-subjective, practical experience based advice.


PS: There is the similarly worded question "How do I deal with DM burnout", but that seems to be focused on the DM just in general having too much on their plate and getting tired of associated real-world hassles like scheduling, hosting, cleaning up afterwards etc. Here, I am concerned with dealing the psychological challenges of continued DMing.

I tagged this with D&D 5e, as the mechanics of D&D have some impact here, but a general answer that is not specific to 5e would also be welcome. I think earlier editions had similar issues.

1 D&D 5e unfortunately does not have supportive mechanics for player characters or monsters aborting a losing fight. The movement rules are not much help, attacks of opportunity make it hard to get away and put in enough distance. And while each group of monsters is only in one fight, for the PCs all losing any single one can mean end of the campaign. So it is risky to put on encounters that are deadly in the actual sense of the word too often -- sooner or later one of them will go the other way.

2 Your mileage may vary of course, there are many playstyles. Maybe you have a group that loves old-school hard knocks. Mine expects to be able to make it with good thinking and care, or at least have some kind of warning signs that we are in over our heads.

3 Our DM has begun to increasingly take those risks, with fights that are 5-10 times the XP budget of a "deadly" encounter. One already did, and then the DM had to shore it up with an uber-powerful NPC stepping in to save our hides. But having to be bailed out this way by DM mercy in response to the DM mis-estimating their guns and slaughtering us feels unsatisfying on both ends, because it means your actions cannot really make a difference, you are just a stooge in the DMs narrative of powerful forces clashing.


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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm confused about your problem presentation here, but I don't think this question should be closed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Dec 10, 2022 at 10:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I’ve closed this as a duplicate since it has been asked before (more than once). \$\endgroup\$ Dec 10, 2022 at 10:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov: I am aware of the question you duped (I even explicitly refer to it) and it does not help me with this problem. I will reopen this one. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 10, 2022 at 11:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin After reflection, the problem here seems to be a specifically D&D 5e problem, as explained in my answer. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 10, 2022 at 11:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I made a formatting change to the footnotes, try to use that in the future. For some reason having multiple paragraphs in one <sup> block was doing weird things to the word spacing, and it was reported to me as being somewhat hazardous on the eyes, but giving each footnote its own <sup> seems to have made things nicer. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 11, 2022 at 15:18

5 Answers 5

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Regularly killing stuff is a player-facing activity. That's just how the game works.

Or, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. The ideas you describe your DM struggling with, to me, seem to make it clear that what they want to do is be a player, not a DM. Or at least, they want to engage with killing stuff in a way that is somewhat exclusively reserved for players, not DMs. The introduction to the Dungeon Master's Guide makes quite clear what the role of the DM is:

The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game. That said, your goal isn’t to slaughter the adventurers but to create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, and to keep your players coming back for more! If you’re lucky, the events of your campaign will echo in the memories of your players long after the final game session is concluded.

The DM role is quite literally built upon not having a goal of killing the players. Yes, the game is meant to have stakes, yes the players are meant to be killable, but you shouldn't be trying to kill your players. Instead, you should be presenting a sufficiently challenging narrative so that character death is the consequence of the player's choices, not the DM's.

On the other hand, regularly killing stuff is something the players do. A large portion of the relationship between DM and player is running and participating in combat encounters where the players kill a bunch of stuff. This is the whole point of combat encounters: the player characters get to kill stuff, feel powerful, and feel heroic:

your role is to keep the players (and yourself) interested and immersed in the world you’ve created, and to let their characters do awesome things.

Combat is a largely player-facing activity that the DM just facilitates. This is just how the game works. However, the Dungeon Master's Guide does give some general guidance for creating encounters that challenge the players and allow the DM to have a bit of fun with it:

Players who enjoy fantasy combat like kicking the tar out of villains and monsters. They look for any excuse to start a fight, favoring bold action over careful deliberation.

Engage players who like fighting by…

  • springing unexpected combat encounters on them.
  • vividly describing the havoc their characters wreak with their attacks and spells.
  • including combat encounters with large numbers of weak monsters.
  • interrupting social interaction and exploration with combat.

It may just be that your DM is struggling to design encounters that are just as interesting for them as they are for the players, but I can't really tell from the question if this is the case. What it sounds like (based on the details provided in the question) is your DM wants to engage with the combat pillar in the same way the players get to, while maintaining the level of control over the world that the DM gets to. Unfortunately, that's not how D&D 5e works. It just isn't. Your DM is looking for something that this game isn't well built to provide. If the DM wants to engage in combat the way the players do, then they need to quit DMing and be a player. If they want to keep DMing, they need to find a way to realign their desires with the way the role is designed. I don't have a good concrete way to do that, except to just be a player sometimes. Personally, I get a lot of satisfaction out of hearing my players tell me "hell yeah Thomas, that was awesome" at the end of a session where they just rolled over the encounters I had built. But this may be easier for me to deal with because...

I get to be a player regularly.

My group is set up so that every player has a story arc they are telling as the DM, and every player has different characters in the other player's stories. We have four guys, and we rotate out each week who plays the DM. So roughly one out of every four weeks, I am running the game and telling my story as the DM. So for three out of every four weeks, I get to be the player, with different characters each time, engaging in all the killing. There is no player-DM relationship in my group, because we are all the players and we are all the DM. Everyone takes a turn running the game, being the one whose job is "to create a campaign world that revolves around their actions and decisions, and to keep your players coming back for more!".

I really think the solution for your DM is "be a player". Your DM wants to do things that players do, and the game isn't well built to transfer that onto the DM. It's just not. A practical way you might implement this is to give your DM regularly scheduled breaks from DMing. Say, once a month, one of the players runs a one-shot adventure where the DM gets to be the player and do player-facing things. That seems to be the easiest way to do it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I upvoted this. I think taking a break to be a player seems to work for you, and might help them scratch their itch in a way no explanation from the disillusioned players can. It also worked for me to remind me what it feels like, for the players, allowing me to be a much more fun DM in the side campaign I run. And maybe there is no shortcout for it. Even Gygax regularly played as a player, which may have helped to keep the game as fun as it is. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 10, 2022 at 13:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin Yeah, I think 5e is really two entirely different games packaged into a singular play experience, the one played by the players and the one played by the DM. Approaching one with the mindset of the other just doesn’t work most of the time. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 10, 2022 at 13:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ My usual rule for DMing/GMing is that I never kill characters, players kill their own characters by being stupid :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Alan
    Dec 11, 2022 at 3:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, this is spot on. The question basically screams "the DM wants to be a player" \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Dec 12, 2022 at 12:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Exactly. The DM should be the players' biggest fan, not the one trying to slaughter them once in a while. "I want to take one of you down from time to time" is a really weird thing for a DM to say. If he means somebody should hit 0 HP once in a while, that's probably true and if it's not happening, he should raise his expectation of what CR you can handle. But if he means somebody should die from time to time, that guy is not on board with what DM does... (At least in the modern incarnation of the game -- 1e was very much of the opinion that you should die once in a while.) \$\endgroup\$ Dec 13, 2022 at 22:00
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After 4 years of running campaigns I get how your DM's feeling. Although I haven't had a problem with 'my guys' losing all the time, that's part of my job after all - to fight on the losing side - I went through a funk where I felt combat was becoming stale. So I switched it up a bit.

Combats can have a variety of goals:

  • Kill all the enemies
  • Gain control of a macguffin
  • protect an NPC
  • Carry out some semi-complicated task while under attack
  • Be put under time pressure (use a egg timer)

or, alternatively, make the maps more interesting.

The goal for me became to make the fights interesting in other ways. I would either incorporate the differing goals above or simply make the conditions under which the combat takes place be more interesting.

One of the best fights I ever ran was a party of 5 level 9 players against a group of goblins that used hit and run tactics around a map with plenty of cover. It kept the PCs on their toes, trying to maneuver and strategize in a constantly changing environment.

The DM's job is not to 'lose' each time but to provide encounters that the players enjoy. Often, I focus less on doing straight out damage but forcing the players to solve a problem while in the midst of a fight. Give the players something else to do than just hit stuff till it is dead. Make them have a good reason to move during the fight and incur those opportunity attacks.

This advice can vary depending on your players of course, but mine love being given serious choices to make during combat; do they have to use an action to dash to get into the right position, climb that ladder, unlock that cage?

An interesting fight, for the players and the DM, doesn't have to be a deadly encounter, often the best ones aren't. Find ways to spice up the encounters and you'll find a new leash of life and feel more creative.

Of course, you need to have a discussion with your DM and that can be difficult, especially if they take the suggestions as criticism. You could be cunning and have a conversation about cool combats and encounters from live streams like Critical Role, mentioning how differing goals made them sound exciting. Resources such as how to be a great GM, Dungeon Masterpiece, Treatmonk or Matthew Colville (all on YouTube) could be suggested - all of them have advice on creating and running interesting encounters.

But a frank conversation is at least honest and more open. Maybe another player could run a one shot and show how differing combat goals can make the difference. If your DM is at all interested in upping their game, they should be open to suggestions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How does this help them talking to their DM? \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Dec 10, 2022 at 10:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu "What self-talk, or what line of thinking that we might be able to share with our DM has helped you or worked for you to overcome this kind of side-taking or DM fatigue?" This seems to directly address that, exactly as asked. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Dec 10, 2022 at 13:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't have to have a conversation with myself but these were the solutions I used when I had a similar problem. If I included ways on how to bring this up to their DM would you think it is a better answer? \$\endgroup\$
    – Steve
    Dec 10, 2022 at 17:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Like the other Answer, it answers the question that was actually asked just fine. "How to handle this with [their] DM" was not the question asked. They asked for ideas that they could discuss with their DM. How to bring up criticism to your DM is a separate question, and one the OP does not seem to have problems with, seeing as they've already talked with their DM about this already. \$\endgroup\$
    – trlkly
    Dec 10, 2022 at 19:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 the egg timer, or a mini hourglass in my case, have always worked wonders :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Dec 12, 2022 at 9:49
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There are plenty of ways for the DM to win without killing the PCs

While I agree that killing the PCs should not be a primary goal of a DM, I will state that not all groups have problems with PC deaths or even TPKs. When we played through Tomb of Annihilation recently, only 2 of 6 players finished the campaign with the same characters they started with and 2 of those were on their 3rd or 4th PC.

It seems that your DM seems locked into a kill or be killed mentality but that’s not how things have to go. The bad guys can win even if they all die.

For example, the players are faced with a cult who will summon a demon lord that will be completed at midnight under the blood moon. The cult doesn’t have to kill them to win - they just have to delay them long enough for the ritual to complete. Having overcome the last of the cultists the rogue drives his short sword to the hilt into the guts of the high priest who smiles and says “too late” as the demon lord appears in a pillar of fire and brimstone before flying off to wreak havoc on the world.

Or, the PCs fight off a goblin raid on the village and are rendering first aid to bloody and dying villages when its revealed that the goblins have taken a dozen children with them. If they stay and help the villages, they may never see the children again but if they leave immediately some of the villagers will surely die. What do you do?

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As a GM, I want to hear…

That fight was just right! Challenging and fun!

as well as

That fight was too easy, hey GM, go a bit harder on us next time please.

not just

That fight was too hard, it's not fair, it sucks to always lose, the GM is not playing fair, we need more magic weapons, etc.

It seems the only feedback I ever get is "fight too hard, us not having fun, whine, complain". It would be much nicer to get some (any, please, pleeeaaaassse) positive feedback.

In summary

Tell the GM what you are enjoying. Do this much more often than telling them when you are not enjoying.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 100% this, but also tell them: I want more of this and that cool stuff that you did too. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Dec 15, 2022 at 10:39
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You should take some advice from Dungeon World and be a fan of the PCs. They're the protagonists and as a GM you should want to see them succeed, but also to overcome challenges. That helps you find both the fun and the balance.

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