Monday, August 25, 2014

The Five Cardinal DM Sins (Part 2)

Last week we had a look at Arrogance and Affluence and this week we look at the last three: Attachment, Adherence, and Anal.

3.       Attachment (being too attached to your NPCs or monsters)

“The root of suffering is attachment.” – The Buddha

I love it when a DM puts in the time, effort, and imagination to create something both interesting and challenging for the players. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an original work/adventure/idea but it should have that particular DM’s personal touch added. This is the difference between a good DM and an excellent one. However, when a DM puts in their time, effort, and creativity into a project, something diabolical and sinful can happen from time to time. This would be what I like to call the “Attachment Effect”.

Essentially, the Attachment Effect is where a DM has created something that they love so much it becomes more important than anything else. Depending on what it is, the DM can become so protective of this thing that it begins to railroad the adventure and perhaps even alienate the players. Here are two examples of the Attachment Effect that I have personally witnessed:

1) Attachment to a Monster. Our group had been on the trail of a Dragon who had attacked a nearby town. We followed it into a labyrinth of underground caverns and began to prep ourselves for the big fight. Our DM however, had other plans. Unknown to us, he had worked for hours creating an elaborate backstory for this Dragon and he had planned for our group to find him, have a dialog, and eventually come to terms peacefully. Our group however, attacked the Dragon on sight despite the pleadings of the DM. This lead to a total party kill (TPK) and the DM eventually scrapped the whole campaign.

2) Attachment to an NPC. Sometimes DMs like to put NPCs into the mix as their way of getting in a little playtime for themselves. This is not a bad thing on its own but can develop into a problem when the NPC begins to have more playing time than the actual players! If you suddenly find that the DM’s NPC is doing most of the talking, making most of the decisions, and even winning most of the battles, something needs to be done and fast.

To combat this Cardinal Sin the DM must be continually reminded that the players and the story need to be the two main foci for any adventure. NPCs and monsters are great tools for accomplishing the task but they are just the means to the end, not the end themselves. NPCs and monsters are no more an adventure than a hammer and a drill are a house. 

4.       Adherence (being a rules lawyer)

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” – Abraham Lincoln

Being a rules lawyer is one of the worst qualities I can think of in a player. And, let me be clear, there is a big difference between someone who knows the rules well and someone who continuously brings them up. But, when the DM himself or herself is the rules lawyer, it creates a very unbending and harsh environment where players can feel restrained. This is the total opposite of what D&D should be, in my opinion.

Make no mistake, the rules are a fundamental part of what makes the game work and everyone, both DMs and PCs, should have a solid grasp of why things are the way they are. But understanding and enforcing do not always go hand-in-hand. For example, I recently had a PC in my group, the Bard, attempt to give a rousing speech to a group of local villagers to boost their moral and give them the courage to defend their town from an impending attack. I told him to roll his diplomacy but in my mind the roll really didn't matter. I was going to give him their undivided attention and he was going to succeed no matter if the die had come up 1. It was an iconic moment; it was a critical piece to the story; and, from my point of view as the DM, the rules could bugger off. His actual roll was, in fact, very good; however, if I had been a rules lawyer and the roll had come up 1, the villagers would have ignored him and several negative things would have happened. The player would have felt discouraged, his fellow players would have been let down, and the story would have been placed in crisis because without the villagers the PCs would have had to defend the town alone. Why unleash all of those issues over one stupid roll?

In my mind, the rules are nowhere near as important as the story and the story should trump the rules every time. If you feel like, or have been told that you are a rules lawyer, I want you to repeat the following ten times before every game: “Knowing and enforcing the rules at every opportunity does not make me superior. It just makes me annoying.”  

5.       Anal (being overly concerned about every single tiny teeny-weenie detail)  

“Fastidious taste makes enjoyment a struggle.” – Mason Cooley

‘So as you approach the entrance to the cavern you notice that there are several bushes nearby with dark green, almost black, leaves interspersed with bright red berries that remind you of strawberries, although they are smaller and more round in shape similar to snake berries. The bushes are about three feet high and have a kind of chocolate brown bark to them. There is also a smell in the air around their proximity that has the initial scent of cinnamon, but then turns very sour like that of a lemon or grapefruit. Sorry, where was I?’  *Bang!* (that would be the PCs taking matters into their own hands).

Fortunately, I’ve really only seen one DM in my experience who committed this sin regularly. However, when it exists it can be a game killer. Now, in the defence of some, this issue can be temporarily brought on by nerves (maybe it’s the DM’s first time or first time with a new group and they are trying extra hard), or it could be brought on by the DM playing for time while he or she frantically thinks about what’s supposed to be next. These circumstances make this Cardinal Sin forgivable. What is not forgivable is a DM that does this regularly because they are a little stuck inside of their own mind. How does a DM get stuck in their mind? It usually has something to do with being a perfectionist or trying very hard to be as detailed as possible (often in an effort to impress the players). Ironically, this can be one of the quickest ways to alienate or disengage your players from you and the game.

The best advice to handle this Cardinal Sin is to RELAX! Not everyone needs to be J.R.R. Tolkien when they describe things. Players just want the basics and if they need something specific, they will ask. In fact, the only time I go into more detail about a room than two or three sentences is when I’m trying to set something up that will come into play later such as a trap or a hidden monster or a secret passage. As a DM, be aware if you are doing too much. Also, do your best to work on the quality of your words, rather than the quantity. Let your motto be that time honored cliché: keep it simple stupid.

Do you have another Cardinal DM Sin you’d like to add to the list? Make a comment below!


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  2. I think you're dead on for Attachment, and that's probably the best I've seen it expressed. (Powered by the Apocalypse stuff spins this as 'treat your npc's like stolen cars' but I like avoid attachment better.)

    I disagree on Adherence though. In your example the failure sounds like a really interesting complication, or the start of an adventure rather than the culmination of one. We get equally attached to story, to the tropes and rhythms we expect, and it can actually be glorious when the dice push us out of that and into something unexpected.

  3. When I am giving advice to new GMs about things one of the top items is this axiom "The more time you spend creating an NPC or the more important that NPC is to the plot.... the faster the party will kill them" :)