There you are, sitting at the table with the other players, eager to roll some dice and kick some ass. Maybe you’ve popped open your favorite tasty beverage and sampled some tasty salty snacks as you wait for the other players to arrange themselves and the game to start. What you didn’t realize is you are ruining your DM’s campaign.
Don’t worry, you aren’t alone and you most likely aren’t doing this on purpose, but I wanted to take a moment and discuss the ways you might be screwing up your DM’s campaign in case you would like to stop.
Before digging into the various ways in which the campaign is being ruined, I want to acknowledge that some DMs are better than others. Some DMs have more experience with dealing with your kind of ruination. Some DMs have a whole bag of tricks to deal with campaign sabotage. The truth is, a lot of DMs have less than 50 games under their belt and have played with friends, families, and acquaintances. These DMs aren’t ready for the likes of you. This is to say, in a simple way, to everyone who wants to respond to this by saying the DM should be better — we don’t play D&D with the DM we want, we play D&D with the DM we have.
Let’s get into the thick of it and start outlining how you are messing up your DMs campaign.
Your Character is Happy and Content
We’ve all heard the stories about players creating really edgy characters. Orphans whose parents were killed by orcs. They grew up in the shadows and the streets where they learned to trust no one, ever. We already know these characters are difficult to integrate into an adventuring party. Sometimes it works if the player has built the character with a good hook as to why the character would join an adventuring party.
There is a flipside to this character that is equally as problematic. A character who is happy, healthy, and content in life has little reason to risk all that and go on wild adventures. Not every character can be Bilbo Baggins and have the entire party and a power NPC show up at their door and literally beg the character to join their adventure. Some characters can be a Frodo Baggins and have a quest thrust upon them. Most characters need to be like Merry and Pippen who are restless souls with a penchant for trouble.
When you create a character and you make her happy and content, you are requiring the DM to take more drastic action to motivate her to go on an adventure. You are asking the DM to start the campaign by destroying the happiness. Loved ones will be kidnapped. Houses will be burned. Family heirlooms will be stolen. These motivators tend to force the character to be hyper focused on the goal, which makes sidequests a challenge.
Why would a character seeking revenge against the demons who killed her dog help a merchant trader convoy his goods to market for a handful of gold coins? Instead of building adventures for the entire party, each adventure needs to have a unique motivating factor for this character.
I’ve had these kind of characters in my campaigns. The “why exactly are you risking your life when you could just be at home in comfort” characters usually come from players who aren’t directly engaged in the idea of an epic story. They are waiting for the Call To Action and I admit it usually stems from a failure on my part. I then spend a lot of time trying to find hooks to motivate the player to get the character engaged with some element of the campaign without making the entire campaign about that character.
Dropping an epic quest into a player’s lap as a way to get their character actively involved can be great in some groups, but for the most part it turns the rest of the party into that character’s entourage. No one wants to be the extra in someone else’s story.
How can you help?
Your character doesn’t need to be a brooding knight who lost all honor and now just wants nothing more than to die on the field of combat. Your character doesn’t need to be a disgraced cleric seeking redemption. Your character doesn’t need to be a rogue abused by society to the point she wants to burn down every town she visits.
Simply make the character not content. One of the more interesting characters I came across was a widowed farmer whose children were all grown and married. He was tired of farming and had a real sense of regret at not doing more in his youth. He was handy enough with a sword since he had trained to be part of the town’s emergency militia, but there were no battles, no glory, no stories to share with friends at the tavern. Which meant that one day when the very mild call to action came to him, he had a motivation. He didn’t need a ring of power dropped in his lap. He didn’t need his farm and livelihood destroyed. All he needed was an opportunity to see something different. To do something different.
Small openings like this allows the DM to focus on the bigger story and not exactly how your character will be motivated to join the story. The DM doesn’t have to craft massive evil just to get your character to get up off the rocking chair and take up arms. A few dire wolves in the forest will be enough.
Consider these minor motivators to add to your characters;
- Crushing debt. Not greed, but a need to pay off a debt is a great motivator to explain taking risks. Even better if it isn’t personal debt but maybe family debt. It isn’t your character’s honor and home at stake, but a family member or some other loved one.
- Proving oneself. A provision in a will requires you to make a name for yourself before inheriting an estate, wealth, or an heirloom weapon.
- Repairing your town’s reputation. A great battle was fought and two people from your town fled in cowardice. They were caught and hung. Now everyone from your village carries the reputation of cowardice and you want change that.
- Love’s labour lost. The character courted and subsequently was rejected by someone in the village and will now do anything to not be there. Lost love has been the driving force behind many people’s life changes.
- Curiosity in overdrive. This is an easy one, as the character just has a driving need to know what else is out there. It doesn’t have to stem from a discontent, but just a sense of needing to know.
- Ugly Duckling. A character who just doesn’t fit in with the people around her. Maybe she loves to read and everyone makes fun of her for it since only a few people need to actually know how to read. It isn’t a practical skill for the village life in which she has grown up. This isn’t about being abused and bullied, but creating a desire of “are there other people like me” in the character. One of the many reasons why people leave small town USA to go to the big city isn’t for fame or fortune but to find acceptance they didn’t find at home.
- Fame and acclaim. Sure everyone in the village knows the character as an amazing fighter, healer, performer, etc. but that fame doesn’t extend very far. The desire to be known has been a huge driving force for many people to uproot their lives and take risks.
You Think This Scene is About You, Don’t You?
Without a doubt, DMs everywhere love an eager player. DMs spend countless hours building out the world in which the players’ characters explore. The player who responds to this work is the applause DMs seek to stay motivated. We already know about the problem player type who is nothing more than a seat filler. This player reacts to nothing in the game beyond request for dice rolls. This player can’t remember the names of any NPCs. This player seems to actively ignore the roleplaying being done by others at the table.
There is the flipside to this character though. The overly engaged player seems great at first. DMs react and respond well to these players. Then it happens, the player turns every plot presented into their character’s story even if it belongs to someone else’s character.
There is a delicate line here and a lot DMs won’t realize it has been crossed until it is too late. Sometimes it is really obvious. Like when there is a musical puzzle and the party has a bard. Clearly the puzzle is for the bard to take lead on. Yet, the overly engaged player swoops in with his barbarian who begins improvising a whole story about learning war chants and how this might be of some use in solving this puzzle. The DM won’t do anything in most cases to stop this as it can be seen as good roleplaying. And if the player of the bard’s character has a strong enough personality, it could work out. If the bard’s player doesn’t have a strong personality, the scene is stolen.
Most of the time, a scene is just a scene and it does not matter what the characters do. It is just the few moments when a scene is created to appeal to a specific character, maybe tying into a backstory note not everyone knows about. As an overly engaged player, you may just be jumping at the chance to keep the story going and accidentally usurp someone else’s scene.
These players also tend to interject when their character isn’t “present” in a scene. The party has split up and now some of them are involved in a juicy scene you really wish you could be a part of. You start offering suggestions to the other players. You start to backseat drive the scene for them. It is all in the guise of being helpful and furthering the goals of the adventure, but it is really once again stealing the limelight.
How can you help?
First off, don’t stop being an engaged player. I noted right up front that players who are engaged with the story and the campaign are what gives DMs energy to continue. You are our audience and we will, whether we mean to or not, lean into your energy, giving you more and more moments at the detriment of the other players.
When you are playing, take a moment and think about these things:
- Does this scene align better with another character than yours? If so and that player isn’t engaging, that player may be shy or may not have put the pieces together to realize it. Help that player out. Help shine a spotlight, in a respectful way, on this character for this scene.
- What actions have you taken this session? If you’ve had a lot of moments in the session, rolled a lot of dice, got to monologue a bit, had an intense roleplay with an NPC, maybe it is time to pull back a bit and make sure everyone else is getting an opportunity.
- Do you get frustrated when other players don’t play out a scene well? Take the time they are playing to take copious out-of-character notes for them. As they are trying to roleplay, they may overlook vital information that is being given to them. If you are taking notes you will then be able to have your character ask questions, highlighting the gaps in information so everyone knows what has been missed. This will keep you attentive to the scene but also keep you occupied.
You Don’t Bother to Learn Anything About the Campaign World
Even if the DM hasn’t homebrewed the campaign world and is using off the shelf adventures, there is a lot of work in reading and developing the adventures. I don’t think I am going too far in saying it is like studying for a massive test where 3 to 6 people will evaluate your performance. It is stressful but worth it when the players leave the session thrilled, excited, and entertained.
When the next session starts, asking “what were we doing? Where are we? Who was that guy?” is like a stake in the DM’s vampiric heart. The DM does not expect you to remember the name of every NPC and every location. There are only so many Stone Talon Mountains, Ice Claw Caves, Lord Ironfists, Lady Evenstars, and Murky Bog Swamps anyone can keep track of without a wiki. A note keeping player will manage all those details, right? Right. The key is learning the big picture stuff.
How you can help?
There is so much information to keep track of and it is hard to determine which is relevant and which is trivial at any given moment. It sometimes just seems easier to let the DM tell you what you need to know when you need to know it.
- At the end of every session, ask for a recap. Not a full retelling, but ask and make note of the following elements.
- Where are you on the map in relation to other significant landmarks?
- Why are you there?
- What will be the party’s next action?
- What are the current immediate goals and the long term goals?
- Who are the key NPCs you are aware of in the immediate area?
- Out of character, when not actively playing, ask the DM for more information regarding the legend and lore of the campaign world. She may not have that information immediately available but sometimes getting this information out of character as an info dump is easier to consume and learn than hearing it told by the cranky prospector with the weird accent. It will also mean you probably will get this information in written form so you don’t have to take notes on it.
- Ask questions in character and out of character. If something doesn’t make sense or you can’t quite understand what is going on, it is perfectly okay to ask. Yes, it may be a dumb question. Get used to it, life is filled with people asking dumb questions, but what is worse, asking a dumb question or not knowing the answer to a dumb question? Who is the ruler of the land? Who captured the royal family? Where are the pirates located? What is the name of the castle? Ask your questions, but please, don’t ask multiple times and not at the start of a session.
You Know Nothing About Your Character
It is possible you sat down at the table and were handed a pre-generated character. Many DMs when running a game for people they don’t know rely on pre-generated characters to limit the amount of weird that shows up in the game. On the other hand, most games are played with characters the players created.
At any given time, there are players in the game who have played under 10 times. I know my latest group has been playing for a year and even trying to get 2 sessions a month in, we are just now hitting 18 sessions. For a majority of the people playing that is the only 18 times they have played. They are still learning a lot about the game, the rules, and their characters.
In spite of this, they still only have to understand the rules that pertain to their characters. They only have to understand the abilities and spells attached to their characters. The DM has to keep all the other rules in mind.
When you are playing, if you find yourself asking the DM “what does this spell do?” a lot, then you are showing you know nothing about your character. If you go an entire session and you don’t tap into some of your character’s powers, you are allowing the encounters to be harder than the DM planned them to be.
How can you help?
You may not have the Player’s Handbook and thus have not been able to truly sit down and read about your character. This is a legitimate issue but there are things you can do to help the DM out and not rely on her to know everything about your character to remind you to use certain abilities at certain times.
- Ask to borrow the Player’s Handbook. Most DMs are accustomed to having to lend out their books. Treat the book with extreme care and return it quickly. If you find that you are really captivated by the book, then take the step and buy a copy for yourself.
- Do some research. There are so many youtube channels out there which give some great advice about the different character races and classes that you can get a huge head start by watching a few of these videos. Some of these videos also offer great strategy guides on building out a character.
- Plan Your Character. Did you just level up and now have to learn a handful of new spells and abilities? Don’t wait until you are leveling up to explore your options. Start planning your next level right now. Start reading those spells and abilities and how they are used so when you do level up, you aren’t floundering to know a bunch of things that have just been dumped on you.
- Just a tip from me: I plan at least two or three levels in advance. I may not stick to it at the time of level up, but I have a vision of what I want my character to look like at Level 3, level 5, Level 10. Using a service like DNDBeyond.com helps in playing around with the different ways a character can be developed.
You Refuse to Fail
Winning is fun. Winning is exciting. Winning all the time isn’t. Most DMs love seeing the characters succeed but most DMs want those characters to succeed in spite of the obstacles that have been arrayed against them. Most DMs want the players to feel challenged.
The problem with real challenges is sometimes the players’ characters won’t succeed. It sucks to fail but it happens. What is even worse is when the DM tries to move the story forward after the point of failure and you keep litigating the failure.
The evil army of the undead have surrounded the party in the inn because everyone in the party failed their perception checks and the DM moves the story forward with the party captured, in chains, being brought forward to the Zombie General. You shake your head and want to fight the battle at the inn. In no way would your character allow herself to be captured. She would have fought to the death!
This is a general problem with all roleplaying games. The players have a level of agency far and above a video game and players have a view of their characters. Being captured happens to be one of those touchy points because it is taking player agency away. You want to know HOW these skeletons captured you. You want to know at one point the character surrendered.
I admit, I am on the fence on this one and I know I hate it when the game turns into a cut scene. I have to trust the DM isn’t just trying to kill the party outright but to allow a cinematic moment where the characters get to have a scene with the big bad guy without the characters immediately attacking the big bad guy.
How can you help?
Failure sucks. Failing an ability check. Missing an attack. It all sucks. It really sucks when it is your moment to shine. Finally you get to swing your magical sword at the big bad guy and you miss. You are in a social encounter where you are trying to determine if you are being lied to and you fail your insight check. Why wouldn’t you try to find another way to determine if the NPC is telling you the truth or not.
When playing take these points under consideration:
- Accept one roll per skill challenge. If you failed the roll, please allow the scene to move on. Maybe someone else will be able to try, but you have failed. At the very least take an action that explains why another chance to succeed makes sense. A failed history check doesn’t mean you get to try to get the same information through a religion check.
- Understand when you are facing the inevitable. It is okay to ask the DM if this is a total party kill situation or if this is just a being taken prisoner situation. If the DM appears to be trying to take the party prisoner, put up the effort you need to until the point the DM says you are captured. Otherwise you will force a long drawn out combat that wastes a lot of time and will result in the same outcome.
- Never lie about the dice. Don’t fudge your rolls. You are cheating the game and cheating yourself from the story that naturally flows from your failure. One of the most memorable moments of gaming I had was as a DM I had a character who wanted to convince the party’s Paladin that he carried a Holy Avenger. I felt it was ludicrous that the Paladin would believe it so I had the Paladin roll to see through the deception. I gave bonuses. I pretty much engineered it so the lie would fail. And the paladin blew the roll. He spent most of the campaign believing this other character carried a sword he believed should belong to him. The failure, while humiliating, created a better story element in the game. Failure is where character growth comes from.
- Lean into the failure. Did you know you can choose to fail saving throws? You can choose to fail many rolls. If you can see the story becomes more interesting if your character fails a roll, go ahead and fail it. Tell the DM you choose to fail it. Some DMs may not allow it, but sometimes the scene just is enhanced by the failure. Either for comedic effect or to heighten the drama of the plot. This might mean that you opt to fail the save vs the charm effect of the NPC who has been flirting and teasing the character for several sessions, even with the NPC turns out to be a vampire.
Are You Really Ruining the DM’s Campaign?
The five traits and actions I discussed above are not a perfectly exhaustive list. They happen to be five traits and actions I have seen (and have done) at the gaming table which can cause more work for the DM. I also follow enough forums to know the immediate criticism is “a good DM yada yada yada”. I reject the “good DM” argument completely because DMs don’t fall into a binary. Some DMs are great at certain aspects of the game and suck at other aspects. Some DMs have more experience and thus have found solutions to these kind of problems while other DMs are just starting out.
And let me address the other non-substantive criticism that will be leveled at this. No. None of these things will cause the downfall of a campaign. I wrote this from the point of view of a frustrated DM who has read lots of player tips guides and saw some gaps that weren’t fully addressed. None of these traits make for a bad player. In fact some of these are good player traits taken just a bit too far. So why use a click-baity headline? Because that is how you get things read. It just works.
Everyone playing the game plays in order to have fun. DMs want to have fun as well. What makes the game fun for DMs is being able to engage the players in a compelling story that excites them beyond the session. The greatest feeling a DM has is overhearing the players discussing the details of the campaign when they aren’t actively playing.
Finding ways to help the DM tell the story, by creating characters the DM doesn’t have to spend a lot of time nudging into action, by sharing the spotlight and helping others shine, by learning about the campaign world, by learning your character, and by accepting failure, you will increase the enjoyment of the game for everyone at the table.