D&D Culture and the Abusive DM
A recent thread on Twitter suggested that we need to have a conversation about “toxic DM habits” that originated with early D&D. It has produced some strong reactions, and I thought I would say a few words about it here, as Twitter is a poor medium for these conversations.
The first thing I want to be clear about is that I think these conversations are healthy and positive. There is nothing wrong in discussing what we tend to do well and what we do badly, and trying to figure out what’s what.
What I find odd is the assumption that these conversations are new and haven’t been happening for the last 40 years. This is patently false, misleading and just keeps us from getting to the answers. What follows is what I have garnered from my conversations on the topic, informed by my own games, games with others at conventions, and participation in forums and message boards for the game for many years.
While there are other issues, the problem that was identified was that of “power tripping DM’s”, DM’s who use their authority in the game to punish players, to boss them around, to remove their agency, etc.
This is not a new problem, go to any gaming forum for any “old school” game and you will find any number of threads on the subject. Pretty much every gamer I know has had at least one experience with the DM who punishes players for their agency, who views the game as a competition between themselves and the players, and who makes players feel uncomfortable and inferior.
So the problem is real. How widespread it is, that’s a question I can’t answer, and frankly, without more than anecdotal evidence, no one else can either. So arguments that start from the premise that there is a “pervasive toxic DM culture” are assuming too much until they can quantify the situation to a meaningful degree.
Still, it is worthwhile trying to determine where the problem comes from, and what to do about it. Even if the problem is not widespread it could become so with the increasing popularity of the game, and of course it could be more widespread than we realize.
So that’s where we are starting from, there is a problem, specifically what I will call abusive or power-tripping DM’s who use their position to silence criticism, push players around and deny their agency.
Where Does the Problem Come From?
On the surface the problem seems obvious, some people are jerks, and sometimes those jerks become DM’s, and take their crappy attitude out on the players. This is no different than the work world, sometimes you work in a place where your boss is a jerk, and uses their power to push others around.
I think this is true, but it only scratches the surface. What is really needed is a deep dive to determine how the game (either the design or the culture) rewards, replicates and even promotes this sort of behavior.
I think the place to start with this analysis is the origin of D&D in wargames. War games, as should be obvious, are adversarial and competitive. But there is a cooperative element to D&D, so that can’t be the whole story. To get to the root, I need to digress a bit.
D&D is a role playing game and a fantasy genre emulator, it was designed to facilitate a game where you could be like the heroes of fantasy fiction, you could be Conan, Red Sonja or Elric, the Grey Mouser or Gandalf. However, D&D is remarkably ambitious, it doesn’t just emulate hobbits and goblins, it emulates an entire world, a complete environment.
You have time travel in D&D, extraplanar travel, you have rules to allow characters in D&D to play in Gamma World or Boot Hill. The scope of the game is enormous. Not only that, but as ANY DM KNOWS, gaming in an open environment means that there will away be situations that require rulings, as the rules cannot be exhaustive, and must be interpreted.
This is an aspect of the game people often forget, you can’t predict everything, or have a rule for everything, that’s why D&D has a referee, and most games do not. Chess, Monopoly, Risk, Poker, games like these only require that everyone familiarize themselves with the rules, a referee is not generally needed.
D&D needs a referee to run, trying to make all of the gaming decisions by group consensus is far too cumbersome. So this makes the game different than many other games.
The referee in D&D has a lot of power, they create and adjudicate the game world, and in the early days of wargaming, before D&D was around, the need for a referee was apparent. This lead to the concept of free Kriegsspiel. Kriegsspiel was a wargame developed by the Prussian Army, and even before the complicating factors of spells and magic, they realized that the game was too complex to run without a referee that could adjudicate, interpret rules and in some cases waive them entirely.
So the concept of free Kriegsspiel was developed, a form of play where the referee could do whatever they want to ensure that the game flowed smoothly, and that it didn’t get bogged down in rules arguments and such.
Now enter D&D, it was realized early on that these same problems applied to fantasy gaming, that you really do need a referee that can play “god” and change whatever is needed, interpret rules as required, etc, etc, to keep the game moving.
Now enter Gary Gygax. Gygax and many of the early gamers had an adversarial attitude towards the relationship between players and the DM. Gygax saw his role as one of challenging the players, to work against them to make the game rewarding. I assume this comes from his wargaming roots.
Now, just to be absolutely clear, it is possible to run an adversarial game of D&D, where the DM is trying their best to defeat the players, and the players are trying their best to survive and thrive, and to do so fairly and enjoyably. There is nothing inherent to the idea of adversarial gaming that means it has to be abusive or cruel. With the right group and the right DM, it can be exciting and fun, a real challenge to your smarts and your ability to work with others. Making it through these sorts of adventures is an amazing experience, and well worth trying with the right group. I played that way in college, and had a blast.
However, it requires a certain disposition on the part of the DM and the players, and it doesn’t always work.
Now, enter 1st Edition AD&D. When Gygax wrote the book he was doing so from the perspective of a DM who was running an adversarial game, it was designed to challenge the players, to be as lethal as possible, and the players would exploit whatever they could from the rules. As such, Gygax spent a lot of time discussing players who were trying to “game the system” and how to deal with them.
So, for example, Gygax qualifies thief abilities to a significant degree so players cannot abuse them, he introduces rules for monsters detecting invisible characters as invisibility was an issue. He rejects the idea of “monsters as player characters” due to the potential abuses. He suggests that players should only be able to read the player’s handbook. The sense you get from reading the 1st Edition DMG is that the DM and the players are in an adversarial relationship, and as a result the DM must work to control or limit those players, elsewise they will run amok and the game will go off the rails.
The problem in my estimation is that Gygax and his fellow players were already mature wargamers when they developed D&D, and they were playing in an adversarial environment. These were real problems for them, and Gygax was providing good advice for that gaming scene. Apply that same adversarial relationship to a new DM and players, and it isn’t hard to see what could happen. This is the problem, it’s not that Gygax had a toxic approach, or that the game design is fundamentally flawed, it’s that for his group, the adversarial part was assumed, and was healthy in his gaming environment. And since they were a mature gaming group, it was likely none of them were adversarial and abusive in their approach. They knew how to fairly work against the players, and did so well.
DM’s who are arrogant, power tripping types to begin with, however, are given a game where they can do whatever they want, and often feel they have to be punitive to keep the game from spiralling out of control, or from becoming boring as things are too easy on the players. Also, the adversarial aspect of DMing becomes ingrained, and they see the players as their competition, and their role to keep the players from winning.
I think this is the root of the “bad DM” problem, DM’s who have these tendencies find them amplified in the game, and this leads to the sort of wild behaviour that people are concerned about. I don’t think the game makes you this way, or that it’s design necessitates it, I know it doesn’t as myself and millions of others have played it non-adversarially for years. But quite honestly all the parts of the game I don’t like spawn from this, e.g. Gygax’s attitude towards monsters as player characters, the bizarrely complex invisibility rules, etc.
I don’t think this problem is exclusive to D&D BTW, any game where there is a referee will have it. Think about that if you are designing a RPG, as if there is a referee, they will have to decide if they are working against the players or just adjudicating the game world.
What to Do About It
Over the years I have seen many suggestions on how to deal with this, here are a few that have stood out. However, not every one of these will work for you, telling people to leave the game for example is fine, but sometimes that just means you don’t get to game at all, and the people being jerks get to keep being jerks. So keep in mind the list is not prescriptive or exhaustive.
1. Talk to the DM. This isn’t aways a possibility as there may be safety concerns, often jerk DM’s are also jerks in real life, and may be threatening or abusive outside the game too. However, if it does feel safe or you have the support of other players, a conversation can help. I’ve met many DM’s who simply thought this was the way you played the game, that being adversarial meant being a jerk who pushed the players around. Sometimes players don’t speak up so the DM doesn’t even realize they are being this much of a jerk.
2. Leave the Game. This is the simplest and fastest solution to the problem, leave the game and find another, or start your own. I have done this before, almost every gamer I have ever met has walked from some game in the past. It’s not a healthy experience to game with a DM like this, and I would wholeheartedly encourage people to walk when they see it at the table. Again, this isn’t always an option, and it leaves the jerk DM in place. However, if you feel unsafe or bullied, leaving is the fastest way to address the abusive behavior.
3. Developing Tournament Rules. Gygax intended 1e AD&D to be a clearinghouse of sorts to create a standard set of rules for tournaments. He probably didn’t intend it this way, but having an agreed upon and clearly stated rule set stops some of the abusive behavior. Not all of it of course, as rules have to be interpreted and the DM is the one to do it, but if everyone at the table is on the same page it helps.
4. Allowing Player Access to the Rule Books. As a DM I allow players to look at any rule book, including the DMG and monster books, while at the table. I want my players to learn about how the game works, and it also gives them something to do between turns. The only restriction I put on this is that they cannot read the monster entry for the monster they are fighting while they are fighting it. Other than that, go nuts. What this does is helps players to know when their DM is being excessively adversarial, and helps give back some of their agency.
5. Rolling in the Open: For the last 35+ years I have rolled everything in the dice box in front of the players, the only exception is thief ability rolls as the thief can’t know if they have succeeded at certain rolls (e.g. find remove traps, hide in shadows). This allows everyone at the table to see that things are fair, and keeps the DM from manipulating things against the players. It also, quite frankly, is far more exciting for everyone.
6. Embracing Randomness. One of the most tempting abuses in the game is the power to play god. When you get to make almost every major decision in the game, it is easy for the game to become your own personal story that the players are watching happen around them, and to be either intentionally or unintentionally abusive. As a DM I roll for many things that are not specified in the manuals, to keep the game from being completely subject to my whims. Yes, I determine the odds for any rolls that are not specified in the rule books, but I tell the players the odds before they commit to the actions and I roll in the open so they can see the results.
7. Minimize “Fudging” at All Levels. This one needs some nuance. Fudging dice rolls isn’t entirely wrong, there are occasions where you don’t realize there was a problem until the dice result lands and you think it through. However, once you fudge the dice, the temptation arrives to do it over and over again. So this is not a “never”, but a “as little as possible” injunction. There are quite literally thousands of ways you can control what happens in the game, leaving the dice to land where they land shouldn't make things too challenging. A corollary of this is that DM’s should be encouraged not to fudge things positively any more than necessary either. The root problem is that it is hard to avoid getting a god complex when you have this much power, it is restraint in the exercise of power that must be taught, and this includes “beneficent” exercises of power as well.
8. Embrace DM Fallibility. Allow your DM to make mistakes, don’t become adversarial with them when they do so, and don’t spend your time being a “rules lawyer”, trying to trip them up at every juncture. There is no “one best way” to resolve every situation, so accept that the DM may rule other than you would, but that’s OK. Why is this important to reduce DM abuse? Well, when both the DM and players expect there to be mistakes and don’t get hostile about them, there is less of a tendency to try to control everything. If I had a dime for every DM that doubled down on their bad decisions because they were terrified of being seen as fallible, I wouldn’t need to work anymore. At it’s root this terror comes from seeing the game as adversarial between the DM and players.
9. Point out Patterns in DM Behavior. I’ll give an example for this one, BITD I had a DM who liked to “let every player shine”, so he would put in situations and things that fit with various character’s classes or abilities. However, he did not do so proportionately, he made sure there was something for everyone on a regular basis, but it was far more often for some than others. It became pretty clear to me and to a few of the other players, so we spoke to the DM about it (we were all good friends) and he had absolutely no idea he was favoring anyone. DMing is a big, complex THING, it is very easy to be doing things you aren’t aware of, so some player feedback is important.
9. Discuss Rules and Rulings. My players get a “debrief’ after most sessions (this is something that Gygax did as well), and it is an opportunity for them to see why decisions are being made by me, how they could have played it differently, and to understand how the game is put together. It also helps them to improve their play, any DM who is invested in helping the players to learn how to play well will not be acting in an abusive manner to them in the game.
10. This is the most important part, and one that I think is the most central to the DM culture argument. It’s going to sound elitist and “gatekeepy”, but I stand by it. Certain kinds of game-play are best reserved for experienced players who have consented to that sort of play.
So for example, PVP play, where players are openly and actively competitive with each other, to the point of characters slaying each other, “evil” party play, where the players are running evil characters that do evil things, these sorts of games, in the hands of less experienced players, or a group that has not agreed ahead of time to that sort of play, are disastrous. Ask almost any gamer who has been at this for long enough and they will tell you a story about the time they played an “all evil” party and how it all came apart. Some will have success stories.
RPG’s are ROLE PLAYING, role playing has deep psychological impacts, psychiatrists use it, fiction is familiar with the trope of people in masks behaving very differently than they normally would, online anonymity breeds all sorts of horrible roles in people. In short, RPG’s have deep personal connections, so you have to be careful how you run things.
I would argue that running an adversarial style of D&D, where the DM is actively out to get the players, to challenge them as much as possible, is the style of D&D that requires experienced players who are all on the same page. Experience and consent. Otherwise, it has the potential for abuse.
I think this is the way in which “old-school’ gaming culture contributes to “toxic DM’ing” , abuse of power and bizarre, overly restrictive gaming practices. In short, the adversarial gaming style, applied by inexperienced DM’s, leads to abusive DM’s, then, as the years go by, those abusive practices become habit. Or, conversely, someone with abusive tendencies runs the game, and it rewards those tendencies.
My suggestion then is to say that playing D&D adversarially should not be the default, I would say that it should be actively discouraged, with the caveat that a more experienced group who consents to this sort of play is different. I think that we should be stressing this, and telling players this too, so when they see a DM who acts adversarially with their players, they can beg off early before it gets ugly.
These are my top ten suggestions of how to deal with abusive, power-tripping DMs, I’m sure there are many more, but these have helped me to not be that guy, and for me to recognize that guy before I become too invested in the game.
I think all of this is necessary because:
- I think D&D needs a referee, it is too complex to be run on consensus and consultation
- This creates an imbalance of power, and any imbalance of power can be abused.
This is oddly one of the topics that was completely uncontentious on my First Edition D&D forums, every time someone would describe the sort of behavior mentioned (power tripping DM’s) everyone derided it. However, most recommended walking away, but noted that it was often years between games for them because of it. So in addition to “walking away”, I want other solutions to help players, and suggestions to help DM’s avoid being this way unintentionally. I’ve dropped 10, let’s see some more.