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Which Dysfunctional DM are You?

Written by Janna - Published on July 23, 2009

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

This frazzled DM unfrazzles with a beer…
Picture by Pirate Alice

The Frazzled DM

You love to DM. You enjoy planning and running adventures, but your favorite part of the RPG experience is gathering everyone together and showing them a good time. The problem is, you have trouble saying ‘no’. Your downward spiral begins with a few hastily-planned sessions and a few last-minute game cancellations due to other commitments. It culminates with the sad realization that you just have too many demands on your time, and that you can’t meet them all without some degree of mastery over the space-time continuum.

The Solution: You know how, in airline safety instructional videos, they tell you to put the oxygen mask over your own face before you try to help anyone else? The same applies to running a D&D game (minus the oxygen mask – probably). You have to take care of yourself before you can give your players a great game. Work on your time management skills and make sure you’re not neglecting family, non-gamer friends, or other real-life concerns. After you’ve given yourself enough time for your hobby and your other needs, learn to say no to further requests. Also, check out this article about overcoming DM guilt once and for all.

The Truncated DM

Does this sound like you? “Wow, this game system rocks! I have a great idea for a campaign! I’ll just do some planning, and— Ooh, wait, this game system rocks! I have a great idea for a campaign! I’ll just do some planning, and—Hey no, on second thought…” etc, etc, ad nauseum. If so, you suffer from the dreaded disease ADDD: Attention-Deficit DM Disorder. You start out with great ideas, then lose your enthusiasm once the game gets off the ground. Then you move on to the next game and/or campaign setting and/or game system, only to lose interest in that one, too. You don’t feel good about it, since it leaves your players in a perpetual cycle of hope and disappointment, but you just can’t seem to help yourself.

The Solution: You know how, when you really want to buy a firearm, some states impose a waiting period? The same applies to running a D&D game (minus the gun – hopefully). To keep yourself from taking brash actions, like starting up a game you’re not going to see through, give yourself some cooling-off time before you start recruiting players. Ask yourself why you want to run the game. Figure out how you’ll fit the game into your schedule. Take your time planning the adventure. Then, after a month or so, if you still want to run the game, you may proceed with my blessing.

The Controlling DM

You love being in control. You hate it when players ignore your plot hooks, react in an unexpected way, and walk all over your carefully-crafted adventures. You just want your game to progress to its logical conclusion in an orderly manner. You spend lots and lots of time planning your games, and lots and lots of time fuming about problematic players.

The Solution: You know how, in Jurassic Park, Ellie points out to the old man that his control over the dinosaurs was just an illusion? The same applies to running a D&D game (minus the dinosaurs – usually). D&D is a lot like life. You only have limited control over the outcome. Also, no Dm is an island; the game doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to you and your players. You can guide the players to a degree, but at the end of the day, no party will have a good time if you force them through a maze like so many rats. Develop your improvisational skills to better deal with the curveballs your players will undoubtedly throw at you. Learn what motivates the PCs, and exploit that knowledge to lure them in a certain direction. Also, experiment with non-linear games and learn to love the chaos.

Did you see yourself in the above examples? I’d like to hear how you (or a quote-unquote friend) overcame a DM dysfunction.

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Written by Janna

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Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.



12 Responses to “Which Dysfunctional DM are You?”
  1. I think certain aspects of all three describe me at some points! Good insight, Janna.

  2. Steve V says:

    Definitely the frazzled DM on my part for this campaign (4e)! The last campaign (3.5) I was the controlling DM. Hmm, I wonder what kind of DM I’ll be for my next campaign, though hopefully I won’t have to think about that for a long time.

  3. Jeremy says:

    I’m definitely the controlling DM. I used to plan for hours and then pitch a fit when someone circumvented everything I so masterfully crafted. I used to get angry at my players for not saying and doing what I thought they should say or do. Basically I was a pretty crappy DM.

    But no more. Since 4th edition I’ve been really working on relaxing a bit and have made some gradual improvements. I started by planning a lot less… just basic short term goals with no direct course to get there. It worked a lot better and got me to loosen up and practice my improv. We’re coming up on the end of the heroic tier and my players are wanting a little bit more complexity and plot, however. So I’m starting to plan a lot more but still keeping in mind that I have very little control over what goes on! It was a hard lesson to learn!

  4. GroovyTaxi says:

    My DM dysfunction was that I was way too kind. Everytime a player was about to die, I threw a divine intervention in there and made some random high-level guy come in to rescue everyone. Sometimes it made sense, sometimes it didn’t, but at least it kept the game going. Still, my players never really felt like they were in danger, ‘cus they knew I’d make someone come and save their asses.

    It was pretty easy to solve, though : all I had to do was to become a mean little DM. I don’t hesitate to make a PC die when he’s supposed to be dead. The only exception would be some awfully lucky crit from a monster, or a non-stopping fumble spree from the players (which happens very often, my players are rarely lucky with dice). The use of a homemade DM screen was pretty useful, since I can now cheat when I want to cheat and avoid my players an unlucky death, while still killing them if they didn’t do well enough. I might sound like a player killing madman, but my players actually like it! =D

  5. ColoQ says:

    May I suggest another? The Warlord GM. D&D is a game: and this guy plays to win. Unless at least once a combat or encounter, a player doesn’t look at you with utter exasperation at the situation the game isn’t fun for this Purveyor of Pain. Unfair rules calls, and unfair situations abound. Why make a reflex save, when a Dexterity check is more painful? Set the difficulty to 18, and then laugh when the fighter in full plate fails the roll. Life is not lived in your world until the players are so frustrated as to be visibly upset. Of course killing them wouldn’t be prudent, because you need your rag dolls to continue feeling pain.. next combat.

  6. Cheri says:

    Definitely the truncated DM … so many games, so many settings, so little time!!!

    In other words [upon seeing new game system]: “Oooh Shiny!”

  7. ColoQ says:

    My dysfunction, has been the frazzled GM… Too little time. And basically games become what random monster do I pick out of the MM today?

  8. Morivado says:

    I would like to throw out another one: The Unmotivated DM

    So you’ve got a great idea, and now it’s time to hit the books and flesh everything out so it’s nice and specific enough to be, y’know, something that doesn’t sound like it’s pulled completely from your bum in the last half hour. It’s one problem I encounter SO often; I’ll have a session I need to plan for next week, and even though I’ll be through the ‘concept’ stage, I just can’t seem to sit down and actually write out everything I’ve got cooking in my head.

    The solution? Distance, distance, distance.

    Forced writing is going to come out sounding like forced writing. Take a step back for the next couple of days or so and then do all the clerical work when you can get excited for the session again. Do the things you really want to do, and hopefully get around to the ‘work’ before it’s too late. Plus, during this time, I often find that you’ll come up with ideas for stuff you might want to use, if not in the planning session, but maybe in future ones.

    Hope that helps!

  9. The Reaper says:

    I’m more the DM who TPKs only when players piss him off, and also the one who loves making intricate storylines and characters (which lead me to creating the immortal, monster-stated, mega-god state known to those who listen as “sentinel). Then again, I’m better on the player side, if I didn’t have a compulsion to know what’s next in the adventure….

  10. victor says:

    You’re just a pup, dear, I started playing in 1978 (you do the math) I DM’ed before I played. I saw the box on the shelf at a department store and the rest is history.
    Anyway, one of the most important lessons that I have learned over the years is never fall too much in love with your own creation. If the players find an end around or don’t appreciate that you researched the Welsh language in order to come up with impossible to pronounce names, don’t sweat it. The point of the game is for everyone to have fun. Take your responsibilities as DM seriously; don’t take yourself seriously.

  11. Sherman says:

    As someone who’s run a lot of games (and I mean a lot!), I can speak to another reason for your “Truncated DM” issue. I’ve run games that lasted a couple of sessions and I’ve run games that have lasted a couple of years.

    Aside from the “ooh, shiny” mentality, there is also a mentality that says if you start a new game, it will be better than the current one. If you think you have a good idea, and the players just aren’t biting, it’s easy to start a new game and see if the new one gets their interest up. Unfortunately it’s only part of the problem normally.

    Often times I think a group just won’t jive. You can’t make a game work for people who can’t pay attention or whatever the issue might be (usually paying attention…) I’ve seen the reverse happen for players who change characters frequently. They say they want a different character, but what they really want is a different game.

    My advice if you find yourself changing games too frequently (and too frequently is only too frequently if you’re finding you’re not enjoying the games) is to find a new group of players or switch out some at the very least…

  12. Terrak says:

    My biggest problem is my lack of acting ability. My npc’s have three different voices to choose from: the goofy dude, the scary dude, and the english dude. It gets a little redundant.

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