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D&D General What is adversarial DMing?

overgeeked

B/X Known World
People talk about it fairly regularly and seem to assume everyone just knows what they mean by it, but what is it? A particular attitude towards the players and/or the game? Specific actions in isolation? What? DMs that are out to get the players. DMs who try to win the game against their players. Killer DMs. Rocks fall, everyone dies. DMs drunk on power and abusing it. The extreme end of combat as war. Laughing at players when their characters roll badly. Cackling when monsters crit PCs.

But how much of it is adversarial vs a misalignment of expectations? People not used to the harsher early days of the game could easily mistake that style of "the world is dangerous and if you're not clever and careful, you will die" for adversarial DMing. Granted, sometimes it absolutely was, but more often than not it's just the style of play rather than the DM out to get the PCs. And there's a lot of really adversarial advice for DMs in the AD&D DMG, so that doesn't help.

My experience with adversarial DMs is the DM who will agree to anything, any character, any race, any class, any homebrew, any magic items...just to get you at the table, then once play starts, punish you for those choices he allowed. Some examples, a player wanted to have a drow character and the DM allowed it, but promptly had the town guards murder the character at the first town...this was five minutes into the game, if I recall. Someone else was playing a drunken master monk and wanted an everfull mug (we started at 5th level for that game)...the DM allowed it, but in the first combat...again, less than five minutes into the game...the DM forced the character to drop the mug (I think it was a disarm) and described the mug shattering when it fell. I'd played with that DM long enough to know better than to get "creative" with characters. To me that's a clear example of adversarial DMing. If you're not going to actually allow someone to do something, play some character, or have some item, just say no. Don't say yes then snatch it away.

Most people seem to agree on a few extreme cases of adversarial DMing but not so much on the rest. So help me out. How do you define adversarial DMing?
 

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J.Quondam

CR 1/8
I'd probably go with something like:

"An adversarial GM is one who plays the game contrary to the expectations of the other players, and continues to do so when called out on it."

Basically, it's a GM playing for their own jollies, at the expense of everyone else's. That could mean a lot of things, imo: screwy homebrew rules, ignoring/changing the agreed genre or tone, pushing players' buttons (violating social contract), power-tripping, and so forth.
It does not necessarily mean being a "mean" GM, or running deceptive NPCs, or using save-or-die mechancis, or things like that, as long as the players are all agreed on that sort of thing.

IMO, it just boils down to a GM consistently not playing in the way the table has agreed to.
 

payn

Hero
Your point about misalignment is a good one. Sometimes folks like to take a specific instance and make a general case out of it. For me, if the GM constantly punishes the players for their decisions, no matter how much thought and care, it moves into the adversarial category. Its a consistent pattern of choices and behavior that outs an adversarial GM.
 



Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Most people seem to agree on a few extreme cases of adversarial DMing but not so much on the rest. So help me out. How do you define adversarial DMing?

This isn't easy, because the term is often thrown around by people who use it to simply refer to, "DMing styles I don't like." Which is a definition, just not a very helpful one!

I think that there a lot of examples of DMs that abuse their authority that aren't adversarial DMs. For example, a DM that fudges in favor of monsters when the combat is "too easy" might be adversarial, but maybe she's more into illusionism and wants the combats to feel more meaningful.

Or there's the classic "Give and Destroy DMs" - the DM that will Monty Haul a campaign, because it feels good to have the players happy and getting stuff, and then she will realize that the players are OP, so will devise a way to take the player's stuff away, but then repeat the cycle. That's really bad DMing, but not adversarial.

Finally, there's the Killer DM. The Killer DM might be adversarial, but might just be running a really hard campaign and letting the dice fall where they may. They're not trying to kill the players, but death is by-product of their style (and surviving an accomplishment).

If those examples (IMO) aren't adversarial DMing, then what is? I go to the root of the words- an adversarial DM is one who believes their role isn't to be a fan of the players, or to be neutral, but to actively oppose the players.

It can take many forms- but the view is that the DM is the opponent (and the DM thinks that the players are the opponent). The DM isn't providing challenges for the players to overcome, but providing challenges to defeat the players. A DM that delights in "gotcha".

It's a constellation of behaviors that usually go to the same problem; the DM views themselves as a participant in a zero-sum game, and that their role is to win.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
Mostly, a non-adversarial DM looks at his group of players, and wants to have a good game with them, so he accommodates to at least some degree what makes the game fun for them. An adversarial DM is one who refuses to do that, for various reasons, including his holding on to ideas about how the game "should" be run that are contrary to what the players think is fun. It reeks of either 1) passive-aggressiveness on the part of the GM, or 2) unwillingness to accept that his role as the facilitator of the game is first and foremost about making the game fun.

One common example here is the notion that the players better create a balanced party, or the world will punish them for their character generation choices collectively. To me, that violates both of the rules above.

Sometimes adversarial can be misapplied, though. If a DM can't let go of some precious idea he has about what D&D is about, even if none of the players enjoy it, then he may just be a bad DM, or at least a bad DM for this group, without actually being adversarial. Adversarial also implies at least some degree of conflict. I don't mean conflict IN GAME, I mean conflict between the players and the GM. By the same token, I've seen many cases of adversarial relationships between PCs that are managed cooperatively by the PLAYERS in such a way that it's loads of fun for everyone involved. Adversarial implies adversity at a meta-level.
 

TheSword

Legend
DMing adversarially is seeing the game as DM vs Players, where their aim as DM is to beat the players, by killing or thwarting them.

In can often include appealing to authority in the form of the setting or published materials to abrogate responsibility for why players fail or die.

It fails to acknowledge the essential imbalance between DMs and players.

It’s of no interest to me in any way as a player or as a DM.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I once had a player complain that I was a little too gleeful whenever the monsters or other opponents rolled well or scored critical hits. But then he realized, I was equally gleeful when I rolled for NPC allies and they also rolled well.

"Oh you just get excited about rolling well, no matter what the reason!" he observed. Eventually, he went on to further observe that I also expressed joy when the players rolled well and made devastating attacks on the NPC opponents. He was fine with it after that.

I just like dramatic results and have a hard time tempering my pleasure at seeing it happen.
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
Mostly, a non-adversarial DM looks at his group of players, and wants to have a good game with them, so he accommodates to at least some degree what makes the game fun for them. An adversarial DM is one who refuses to do that, for various reasons, including his holding on to ideas about how the game "should" be run that are contrary to what the players think is fun. It reeks of either 1) passive-aggressiveness on the part of the GM, or
Maybe. The way I see it is if the DM presents a game idea, this is what they want to run, and the players agree...then reinforcing those ideas isn't adversarial. If enforcing those ideas becomes a problem, then it's a misalignment of expectations. Like the DM says they want to run an old-school dungeon crawl and the players agree. Then after a few sessions the players decide nah, let's just leave to do something else. Or a 5E game with variant encumbrance, to which the players agree, then all show up with firbolg and goliath artificers with the replicate bag of holding infusion in their back pocket. That's a clear sign that there's a misalignment of expectations.
2) unwillingness to accept that his role as the facilitator of the game is first and foremost about making the game fun.
What's fun is different from person to person. So making sure everyone's expectations are as aligned as possible for a group is paramount.
One common example here is the notion that the players better create a balanced party, or the world will punish them for their character generation choices collectively. To me, that violates both of the rules above.
I disagree. It's not adversarial to have a world that exists independent of the PCs. That's strong worldbuilding. If it's a party of all squishy wizards that doesn't mean they'll never face a well-armed and armored melee combatant. You don't give out extra healing potions because no one wants to play a cleric. To me, that's a player-side problem. They can generally be assumed to know what to expect, if they choose not to prepare for that, it's on them. They can easily pick up a hireling or two to cover their deficiencies. But if they choose not to...that's on them. A world that's always shifting to perfectly suit whatever the PCs have in tow is way, way too video gamey for my tastes.
Sometimes adversarial can be misapplied, though. If a DM can't let go of some precious idea he has about what D&D is about, even if none of the players enjoy it, then he may just be a bad DM, or at least a bad DM for this group, without actually being adversarial.
Bad DM for that group, yes.
Adversarial also implies at least some degree of conflict. I don't mean conflict IN GAME, I mean conflict between the players and the GM. By the same token, I've seen many cases of adversarial relationships between PCs that are managed cooperatively by the PLAYERS in such a way that it's loads of fun for everyone involved. Adversarial implies adversity at a meta-level.
Yeah, definitely.
 

Nefermandias

Adventurer
Which half?
I usee to be a pretty chill, "fan of the party", never say no DM through the course of 4e.... But then 5e came about and unleashed the Hyde within me.

Now I'm a killer DM who relishes on the player's suffering and tears. My philosophy shifted towards combat as war and I'm genuinely delighted when my cocky players underestimate something and end up getting their arses handed down to them. I'm not above mocking them and cackling maniacally when they get critted either.
 

GuyBoy

Adventurer
I see adversarial DM-ing as totally self-defeating. Ultimately, campaigns should lead to character advancement and success (or some level of success). Their achievements should be hard-won, sometimes at cost, and certainly not a smooth route to that success. Pain, both emotional and physical, should be on the characters path.......but ultimately, the BBEG should be foiled, the prince(ss) rescued, and heroic tales recounted over a fine glass of red wine. Well, my view at least.

To be fair, I’ve only experienced one truly adversarial DM, and he was only like this to one player (not to me, but to a friend), constantly killing his characters, including newly-rolled ones, which led to a bizarre arms race, as my friend (who is much better than me at character creation) made ever tougher characters, only to have the DM throw ever tougher adversaries to kill them. I still game with the friend. Not with the DM.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I usee to be a pretty chill, "fan of the party", never say no DM through the course of 4e.... But then 5e came about and unleashed the Hyde within me.

Now I'm a killer DM who relishes on the player's suffering and tears. My philosophy shifted towards combat as war and I'm genuinely delighted when my cocky players underestimate something and end up getting their arses handed down to them. I'm not above mocking them and cackling maniacally when they get critted either.
Sure. I think that might be a player empowerment thing. 5E has shifted so drastically to the non-challenging side of assuming the players must always win that it's pointless and boring unless the difficulty is cranked way up. The game went from "zero to hero" under TSR to "superhero to superer superhero" under WotC. The players just assume they're badasses and will easily win everything all the time. That's dull. Still, no reason to mock them and cackle. Maybe play an older edition or talk about house rules to tone the characters down.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I see adversarial DM-ing as totally self-defeating. Ultimately, campaigns should lead to character advancement and success (or some level of success). Their achievements should be hard-won, sometimes at cost, and certainly not a smooth route to that success. Pain, both emotional and physical, should be on the characters path.......but ultimately, the BBEG should be foiled, the prince(ss) rescued, and heroic tales recounted over a fine glass of red wine. Well, my view at least.
Not in mine. I used to think the same but shifted to more emergent storytelling. Whatever happens in the game is the story. No pushing towards story structure or pre-defined happy endings. Some games work out that way, others are Game of Thrones nightmares with beloved characters dying left and right. That's the luck of the dice. Those stories can still be recounted over the beverage of choice, however.
To be fair, I’ve only experienced one truly adversarial DM, and he was only like this to one player (not to me, but to a friend), constantly killing his characters, including newly-rolled ones, which led to a bizarre arms race, as my friend (who is much better than me at character creation) made ever tougher characters, only to have the DM throw ever tougher adversaries to kill them. I still game with the friend. Not with the DM.
Yeah, that's bad DMing.
 

payn

Hero
I see a lot of solving out of game problems with in game solutions. I don't think that's exclusively an adversarial GM thing, but definitely one of the hallmarks. I think some folks try and explain away adversarial GMs as just being tough, or maybe a good GM who just made a mistake. I still think adversarial GMs are a thing, but there isnt an easy single thing you can point to and say, "yeap, thats it." Its usually a combo of bad GM choices and behaviors that are easy to conceal as legitimate and defend piecemeal. Its the sum of the parts that usually make the adversarial GM.
 


Nefermandias

Adventurer
Sure. I think that might be a player empowerment thing. 5E has shifted so drastically to the non-challenging side of assuming the players must always win that it's pointless and boring unless the difficulty is cranked way up. The game went from "zero to hero" under TSR to "superhero to superer superhero" under WotC. The players just assume they're badasses and will easily win everything all the time. That's dull. Still, no reason to mock them and cackle. Maybe play an older edition or talk about house rules to tone the characters down.
These guys have been putting up with my bs since the late 90's. I still remember when 3e came out and we went together to the store to get the new books... I like to believe they would have left already if they didn't like the style.
 

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