Collaborating with Your DM
  • Collaborating with Your DM


    Is your D&D game a battle of DM versus players? Or do you prefer a collaborative relationship over an adversarial one?




    Before I dig into this, let me be clear: the best style of play is whatever your group prefers. Iím not here to tell you your fun is wrong. If everyone is enjoying the game, thatís the only thing that matters!

    However, I know a lot of people who had unpleasant experiences with DMs who came to the table and gleefully announced their intention to shoot for a TPK. In other cases, the DM wasnít that aggressive, but enjoyed running a world in which the players felt they didnít have much agency and characters existed mostly as pawns in the DMís story. If your group isnít that into roleplay, it can work.

    I support a more collaborative approach for groups that enjoy lots of roleplay, so the whole group tells the story. Long campaigns especially benefit from this approach. The DM still has plenty of control, but involves the players heavily so their characters affect the story instead of merely walking through activities. It works best when all the players are onboard with this approach, so everyone has a little breathing room for character exploration. Personally, I like playing in a game where Iím a fan of the other characters and am excited to see what they do even when my character isnít there.

    This method does require a bit more preparation outside the game, for DM and players alike. But itís fun! When youíre collaborating with someone, itís a bit like getting some extra play time.

    The main campaign Iím playing in currently has five regular PCs: a well-adjusted barbarian, an arcane archer/professional prizefighter in a wrestling-style kirin mask, and three enormous drama llamas (one of which is my character). Itís a nice balance because everyone has goals and desires as individuals and as a group, but not everyone is in a pit of existential horror all the time. Weíve formed an interesting unit, and can help each other with various problems.

    This campaign is RP-intensive, so our DM works with each of us separately from time to time to find out what our characters are feeling, what they hope to accomplish in the short-term and long-term, etc. He consistently requests feedback, and always is receptive to emails about character business between games. Itís nice knowing that heís interested in what we want, both as players and characters, and we see these conversations bear fruit in the game.

    Over time, Iíve learned to trust him with that information. This trust is crucial. I wouldnít feel as comfortable getting so deep into roleplay in a game where the DM only intended to use personal insight to torture the characters. In this case, we know he cares about us players as people. Heís definitely going to use that information to fuel drama. Thatís part of the job. But thereís a difference between being ruthless and being careless. He maintains a good sense of each playerís threshold for fictional pain, which is important and keeps it fun -- even when weíre crying or having in-character nightmares in real life.

    (That actually happened last week. I had my characterís nightmare. I mentioned this while hanging out with my game group and our DM was perhaps a little too excited to get all the details. I take it as proof that the game is going well though. Itís gotten under my skin enough that my brain is still playing when Iím asleep! Thatís amazing! But if you donít want to get quite that intense, thatís okay too.)

    Yet another benefit: a collaborative approach bleeds over into the way players interact with each other. When you spend enough time delving into characters, you might end up having in-character, out-of-game conversations like I talked about a few weeks ago.

    I donít mean to suggest that DMs should soften all the edges and make every session a picnic at Hugs and Puppies National Park...unless thatís what you all want, of course. You can fill your game with plenty of dramatic tension and thrills, but balance it with opportunities for characters to stop and have feelings. Then it will actually make an impact when the DM occasionally springs a major trap. They get the joy of watching players freak out in a truly meaningful way, and players get the rush from that emotional rollercoaster. If that sounds good to you, try it! Itís well worth the effort.

    This article was contributed by Annie Bulloch as part of ENWorld's User-Generated Content (UGC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 24 Comments
    1. DemoMonkey's Avatar
      DemoMonkey -
      Good article.

      As an aside, releasing a group of old-school experience point hungry murderhobos into "Hugs and Puppy National Park" would be a session to remember.

      I suspect the park would need to be renamed afterwards...
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      A DM announcing gleefully that there might be a TPK is a sure warning sign. A DM is victorious when their players have fun, not when their monsters win.

      I find that running a game where the PCís actions and internal existence (i.e., what they feel and want) matters really helps with player involvement and enjoyment.

      As a DM, I love those collaborative moments where I get to pass the mic to a player: ďHeira, youíve landed the killing blow on the frost giant king; tell us what happens to him.Ē Or: ďGarivar, the trip through the woods with your companions is mostly uneventfulÖexcept, tell us what those pilgrims do to cause your group some trouble?Ē
    1. Oofta's Avatar
      Oofta -
      One of my goals, whether I'm always successful or not, is to ensure that the players feel like their PC's actions make a difference in the campaign world and that what matters to the PCs makes a difference in the tone of the campaign.

      Some people don't care, they just want to roll some dice and eat some junk food while making bad jokes which is great. But I've always encouraged people to write stories (even if it's just a paragraph or two) from their character's perspective. What did the PC think of the captain of the guard? Are they intrigued by where the red fog is coming from or did they just agree to find out what's happening because they're going to get paid?

      Creating a living, breathing world can be a pain but it's also a big part of why I play.
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      Hugs and puppies at national parks are awesome . . . IRL.

      In my games, however, its owlbear hugs and that mama dire wolf isn't going to be happy with you petting her pup in the Lich King's forest.
    1. toucanbuzz -
      I go middle of the road with a lean to collaborative. My players know I won't pull punches, but I'll also toss in the occasional technical tip if a player forgets an ability ("your smite does radiant damage"), wants to do something but doesn't quite know if they'd even stand a chance (you know your own body, it's an athletic check, still considering it?), and during planning maybe a devil's advocate ("don't forget, they'll probably have archers on that wall...").

      As far as world-building or story-building, depends on the game. Since my gamers lean towards story-based adventures such as Curse of Strahd, they focus more on their interactions with my NPCs. Our collaboration, I suppose, is that the more genuine my NPCs, the more my players get involved. The more of that, the richer the game.
    1. Lanefan -
      Side question: why is this thread in the 5e forum? The article and subsequent discussion can be applied to many systems - shouldn't this be in General?
    1. pming's Avatar
      pming -
      Hiya!

      ...and from the other side of the screen...


      As a DM, if my players want something, they need to go after it. I don't want a Player to tell me OOC that his character wants to find a girlfriend and then expect me to 'make it happen'. If a Player wants to get his PC into a family, with a wife, kids, a pair of dogs, and a small farm just outside town...it's not up to me to make sure all the stars align so that they can find a perfect wife, have perfect children, have perfectly loyal and trained dogs, and have a perfect farm for just the amount of money that he has saved up via adventuring.

      Don't get me wrong. I, as a DM, am not going to go the opposite either (re: have him get screwed by a gold digger, find out he's infertile, etc). I'm going to run the world as the world. As a Player it is up to him to put in the PC effort to find out a good place to "pick up chicks", so to speak, learn about raising dogs, check out the area he's interested in buying or building a farm, how to actually live on a farm, etc.

      As for a PC Party, well-balanced is best. Also, Good alignment for everyone also helps greatly (you'd be surprised how much the parties capabilities and planning change when everyone is LG, NG with maybe a single CG). But that's not for me to decide. That's on the Players. As a DM, the "world at large and everything in it" doesn't give two flying harpies about the PC's and their "goals" or "desires". This means that I, as a DM, also need to at least put on the poker-face of "I don't care either". Of course, I do care...sometimes I'm happy to see a PC bite it due to them just being, well, disruptive d-bags. Other times I'm saddened to see a PC die. Mostly I'm just a bit disappointing I don't get to see what that PC would have become.

      As a DM who is "neutral", like me (generally), I actually find that when the Players don't see me as a "cooperator" in the sense described in the OP, that they will talk about things "as a party" outside of the game a bit more. They know that I pay attention to get a vibe of what direction they are heading, desire wise, in the game. If they keep talking a lot about getting out of the city and checking out that spot on the map called "The Cave of Whispers"...I know to brush up on my underground survival notes and that area in particular. The only time we all talk "as a collective group, everyone deciding equally" is when we are at session 0 of something. We discuss what 'focus' we want...intrigue, exploration, big wars/battles, undead-focused, underground dungeon delving, etc. But after that...I cut them loose in the world and off they go!

      When I, as DM, get a "rush" from seeing the Players excited for whatever reason...be it a series of crazy rolls, or a political situation they got themselves into where consequences for failure are significant, or maybe two PC's have both decided they want to woo the same NPC, etc... it's not because I "listened to what they wanted and then set it up to come about". From the DM side of things...it's not a surprise. I'm not going to feel that same level of "excitement" if I knew this 'scene' was coming up. Like trying to watch a murder mystery twice. Once by yourself...and then once with your friends. Sure, it's cool to know when to watch their faces for the "big twist", but it, to me at least, is infinitely more meaningful when I see it at the same time my friends do and we all look at each other with a gobsmacked stare and say "....No...effing...WAY....!" O_O The ONLY way I've gotten that is when I specifically don't plan/decide/steer the game towards that goal/encounter/reveal.

      So, to sum up, where I sit as a DM, working with and listening to your players is good for "broad stroke" campaign decisions when doing prep work for the next session. If they seem interested in getting some treasure via dungeon bashing...I know to get maps drawn, write up some wandering monster charts for various areas around where the PC's are currently at in the world, maybe come up with a couple "weird things going on" that NPCs can relate over a tankard of brew, that sort of thing. I set the stages, they choose which one interests them. Or, often enough, they'll do a 180 and say "Hey! We're at a port town, right? Lets go be pirates!". But that's ok. Because I have it covered. I have notes on ship names, types, cost to buy or pay for passage, rumors about buried treasure, lost islands, and horrible sea monsters. Why do I have that? Because I never know exactly what the Players will decide and therefor need at least some guidelines to "everything around the PC's". If all I did was focus on "working with the players" to build/create a custom-tailored session specifically for their PC's goals and desires, well, I wouldn't be surprised. They wouldn't be surprised. Nobody would be surprised. We all would "see it coming" at least a session or two away. It wouldn't' be "...no...effing...WAY...!", and instead it would be "...Oh...right...guess that's Bill's que...", and then Bill would have to, hmm... "fake role-play?" his characters surprise and alarm at the sudden unexpected arrival of the Spanish inquisition. The reality being that something like this sudden arrival was going to happen at some point.

      I'm honestly not trying to poo-poo the OP's idea. As she said...play the game that makes you happy. And that is so-o true! Could I run a game like the OP and enjoy it? Yes. Absolutely. In fact, I HAVE ran games like that (but not for D&D; one was for Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set ["FASERIP"] and one was for some other game I can't remember...they were both a LONG time ago...decades...). But, for me and my players at least, we discovered that we enjoyed the "random and unplanned" RP'ing surprises and twists and turns and all that so much more when they came about, well, organically and unexpectedly. You only get that if, as DM, you divorce yourself from the "co-operative" DM'ing style and move more into the "neutral and uncaring" DM'ing style. At least that's the only way I've been able to be truly surprised by some turn of RP'ing and PC interaction events.

      YMMV.

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
    1. autumnfyr -
      I always try to balance encounters, or at least let the players know if an encounter may be too easy or hard. If I start a game night "gleefully" talking about a TPK, it's a sign to my players that they might be in over their heads, and after 20-something years, my players still don't always take the hint. At that point, let the chips fall where they may.
    1. pming's Avatar
      pming -
      Hiya!

      @autumnfyr, " If I start a game night "gleefully" talking about a TPK, it's a sign to my players that they might be in over their heads"

      ...huh...sounds like me before every session.



      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      The job of the DM is to describe the world, play the NPCs, and adjudicate uncertainty in action resolution. It is not the job of the DM to contrive coincidences either for or against the party.

      The relationship between players and DM is neither collaborative nor adversarial. This is a role-playing game. It isn't some exercise in story-telling.
    1. ad_hoc's Avatar
      ad_hoc -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ralif Redhammer View Post
      A DM announcing gleefully that there might be a TPK is a sure warning sign. A DM is victorious when their players have fun, not when their monsters win.

      I find that running a game where the PCís actions and internal existence (i.e., what they feel and want) matters really helps with player involvement and enjoyment.
      I don't know how you can have one without the other.

      When I DM I let the players know that TPKs are entirely possible because I want their actions to have meaning.

      I also don't like the framing of DM as enjoyment bringer. It is not the DM's job to make people have fun or entertain. It is everyone's job.
    1. DCRWrites's Avatar
      DCRWrites -
      What excites me as a DM is when things happen in the game that the players are still talking about even months later. That's cool.

      I want the players to have fun and enjoy the game, and I love it when they try to influence the world. I never try to kill their characters or aim for a TPK because quite frankly that would be too easy. I'm the DM, I can throw whatever I want at the PCs in whatever number I want. Challenges, sure; I want the emotional investment that comes from the PCs overcoming their foes, but the fun of the game comes from the journey.

      The monsters and NPCs may want a TPK, I want to create emotional investment.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      I try to make my players feel comfortable with what their characters know about the world. This is I think the most important distinction between a DM that works against the players, and a DM that works with the players. There have to be some things that the players can feel certain about. There have to be some characters in the campaign that the players know they can trust, and they need to feel safe in the knowledge that the DM is not just going to turn that around all of a sudden. There has to be some consistency to the world that the players can rely on. Consistency to the laws of the land, and consistency to basic physics, and to how characters interact with one another. This means that the villains do not have psychic powers that allow them to some how know about the player's secret plans, unless previously established.

      For example, I have a female pirate in my campaign called Scurvy Scarlet. And it has been well established in the campaign that she is a bit untrustworthy. Her alliance can swing to either side, depending on what benefits her. If the players form an alliance with her, a future betrayal does not come out of left field.

      On the other hand, the players also befriend people that ARE loyal allies, and they will always remain loyal allies. Once a character has been clearly established, it is not likely to suddenly change. A character that is dumb will not suddenly act smart, and vice versa.

      I have played in campaigns myself that are very different. Where the DM uses his npc's to screw over the players at every opportunity, where no one can be trusted, and every attempt by the PC's at social interactions is doomed to failure. There's no point in trying to bluff your way out of a situation, if the npc's all have fool proof lie detectors. Nor is there a reason to intimidate a character, if it is only going to result in combat. Every npc is a character just waiting to kill your player-character, and every location is an ambush or robbery waiting to happen. There are no safe locations. So don't trust anyone, and always keep your weapons at your side. Keep it on you in a tavern, and keep it under your pillow at an inn. Also, always have someone keep watch at night in an inn, or all your stuff will be gone in the morning.

      It is a nightmare if you're playing with a DM that constantly makes you feel like that, and so I made it my mission to do the exact opposite. I want my players to feel safe at various points in the campaign, and I want them to feel safe to take actions without the DM always screwing them over on technicalities. I feel it is very important to break up the tension with moments of safety, where the players just get to wander around in town without a cut purse lurking in every shadow. I think you also lose a lot of suspense if the players are never ever safe, and it makes the players annoyed with the game-world.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Thereís a world of difference between a DM saying ďjust so you know, I run difficult games and the chances of a TPK are higher than normalĒ and one cackling out ďAlright, letís see if I can get a TPK today!Ē Itís possible to be difficult but fair, challenging but not adversarial.


      I think fun is absolutely the responsibility of everyone at the table. But when one personís fun (either a DM or a player) is kicking over everyone elseís blocks, no oneís going to want to play with them.


      Quote Originally Posted by ad_hoc View Post
      I don't know how you can have one without the other.

      When I DM I let the players know that TPKs are entirely possible because I want their actions to have meaning.

      I also don't like the framing of DM as enjoyment bringer. It is not the DM's job to make people have fun or entertain. It is everyone's job.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by Oofta View Post
      Some people don't care, they just want to roll some dice and eat some junk food while making bad jokes which is great.
      ::shivers::

      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      Side question: why is this thread in the 5e forum? The article and subsequent discussion can be applied to many systems - shouldn't this be in General?
      That depends on which game features Drama Llamas as a playable race. Or "ancestry."

      Re OP: if part of the game might also be a part of a character's (unique) backstory, let the player tell it. ::Casting 'Summon Wil Wheaton'::
    1. Oofta's Avatar
      Oofta -
      Quote Originally Posted by DMMike View Post
      ::shivers::



      That depends on which game features Drama Llamas as a playable race. Or "ancestry."

      Re OP: if part of the game might also be a part of a character's (unique) backstory, let the player tell it. ::Casting 'Summon Wil Wheaton'::
      I stopped assuming that people play for the same reasons I do a long time ago. I don't have a problem with people that treat the game as little more than an elaborate version of Betrayal at House on the Hill (assuming they don't become possessed and try to kill the rest of the party of course) if that's what they want.

      As long as they're OK with and support the people who do want to RP or have a deeper investment in story it's fine.
    1. Dausuul's Avatar
      Dausuul -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ralif Redhammer View Post
      A DM announcing gleefully that there might be a TPK is a sure warning sign.
      Not necessarily. It's a technique I've seen used (and used myself) to ratchet up tension in combat-heavy games. You talk about how deadly the adventure is and how you're looking forward to racking up the PC body count, and it makes it that much sweeter for the players when the session ends and they're all still alive and the BBEG who was supposed to kill them all is lying dead on the floor.

      Actually being an adversarial DM is very bad. But pretending to be one can add some edge to the game.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Heh, that's fiendishly clever.

      Many years ago in a Ravenloft campaign, the PCs were exploring a vampire castle. I might have laid down some hints that this might be a spare castle belonging to Strahd Von Zarovich. Okay, so it was just a plain old vampire. But when he rose from his coffin, the PCs ran in terror without a second thought (even though they could've taken him). Glorious.

      Quote Originally Posted by Dausuul View Post
      Not necessarily. It's a technique I've seen used (and used myself) to ratchet up tension in combat-heavy games. You talk about how deadly the adventure is and how you're looking forward to racking up the PC body count, and it makes it that much sweeter for the players when the session ends and they're all still alive and the BBEG who was supposed to kill them all is lying dead on the floor.

      Actually being an adversarial DM is very bad. But pretending to be one can add some edge to the game.
    1. guachi's Avatar
      guachi -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      The job of the DM is to describe the world, play the NPCs, and adjudicate uncertainty in action resolution. It is not the job of the DM to contrive coincidences either for or against the party.

      The relationship between players and DM is neither collaborative nor adversarial. This is a role-playing game. It isn't some exercise in story-telling.
      The very first sentence in the Basic Rules (and I'm fairly certain it's the same in the PHB) - the FIRST SENTENCE - is this The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling...

      Still in the introduction, first sentence of the fourth paragraph One player, however, takes on the role of the DungeonMaster (DM), the gameís lead storyteller...
    1. Dispater's Avatar
      Dispater -
      Good post, I also think collaboration has to also come from the players. If you show your DM trust, they will open up and let you be a greater part of the storytelling. The DM wants things to run well too, and inexperienced DMs need experienced players who will help to fill in the blanks and generate their own opportunities for roleplay.

      I see a lot of posts "I am DM I do this, this and this and that" and they waffle on about agency and murder hobos, but I dont see a lot of posts coming from players who actively try to better their game. DMs are far from perfect and if you treat them as an adversary you will bring out the worst in both them and you. DMs usually just want to create a story and have fun while doing it. If you let them and help them, everyone can have a good time.
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