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D&D General What is adversarial DMing?


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That is as succinct as could be put, and I totally agree. It's when a DM seriously thinks of the monsters' victory and the PCs' failure as their win condition, not that the players enjoyed themselves and had fun (which, granted, can involve challenging them with difficult encounters and puzzles, or even meatgrinder dungeons).

I think fundamentally an adversarial DM is one who views player losses as some sort of victory for themself.
 


Desdichado

Adventurer
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.
I recognize that my EXTREMELY strong feelings on this regard are unusual, so I don't try to harp on it too much. I'm a very strong believer in the ideas of GM sovereignty and player sovereignty. Building the characters that you want to is one of the hard and fast rules of player sovereignty that I have, and if I GM is going to "punish" them by not bringing a game that works for the players that he has, as opposed to some platonic ideal of a party, then to me that's adversarial and passive-aggressive.

Of course, I also have EXTREMELY strong feelings with regards to pre-prepared games. In reality, if a party creates a party of all wizards or something, then they OBVIOUSLY shouldn't be doing standard dungeon-crawling, and that shouldn't be assumed to be what the game is about. It's the GM's job to recognize that and adjust his game accordingly. Otherwise, he's messing up one of the cardinal rules of good GMing, which is that he needs to read the group and present a game that's fun for them, not some game that has nothing to do with the group.

But I don't want to derail your thread to talk too much about what is clearly little more than a personal affectation of mine, since I recognize that I've never really seen anyone else talk about this, or even very many people agree with it when I state it.
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff (She/Her)
I see being adversarial as, well, being adversarial. Like, someone whose goal is to defeat the players by any means. Whether they do it with all the subtlety of 1st Tarasque cavalry regiment of archilich army or they play with their food, it doesn't really matter that much. It's determined by intent, not by the results.

I don't think that can be effectively diagnosed from outside, be it by a player at the table or a third party doing forum psychoanalysis, but it doesn't really matter that much. If someone at the table feels like the other party is out to get them, then there's some serious talking needed.
 

Mysteries and Investigation: A dm can be perceived as adversarial when the things the players try are shut down. It's complicated, because the dm might just be trying to play the world in an accurate way, but the result is that the players find that they can't do anything. Or the players come up with a plan, and to the dm it is not a great plan, and doesn't take into account a lot of information, but the players don't realize that. Mystery/investigative scenarios falter for this reason: the dm thinks they they are giving plenty of clues, and the clues are obvious, while the players are totally stumped because they actually have very limited information. I think the way to address this is 1) be a fan of the PCs and 2) be very generous with information.

Traps: Gygaxian traps are notorious for being gotchas, where there is no or very limited ability to notice the danger you are walking in to. He exacerbated the problem by getting annoyed at players for being overly cautious. 5e traps are more like a perfunctory skill check combined with a slight annoying hp/resource tax. I'm not even sure the osr has solved this problem, for all the talk of "player skill." Either the traps are deadly enough to really put the "crawl" in dungeon crawl, or they are a resource tax (though, that's maybe more significant when resources (e.g. HP) are more scarce). Chris McDowall has some good thoughts on this.

Combat: Is combat-as-war, with unbalanced encounters, unfair? There are some that might say that even combat-as-sport, where the dm plays the adversaries in a tactical mini-game, is overly adversarial, and that a dm must balance their encounters and adjust on the fly to make sure the PCs don't die. Then we get into what someone on another thread called combat-as-performance: the dm plays out the encounter for maximum drama and so that the players feel like heroes, but in reality there was no danger to their characters. I've presented players with balanced encounters that they defeated, but to them it felt adversarial because it wasn't easy, and because I was rolling in the open and playing tactically rather than merely narrating their successes. I'll be honest I have no idea what to do when players want combat-as-performance, often because admitting that that is the desired playstyle breaks the illusion of combat being any sort of game challenge (whether as sport or as war).
 


payn

Legend
Another important element to bring up is sometimes players train or force a GM to become adversarial. Charop-ers, rules lawyers, tournament minded players can really push the challenge level required of a GM. The arms race isn't always started by a GM alone. All I know is, once you tune up to an arms race mentality as GM, it can be very difficult to tune down to a more casual pace. Thus taking us back to the misalign expectations of the table.
 

TheSword

Legend
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.
5e difficulty is entirely down to the DM and the table. Difficulty is within the control of both players and DM. If players want to play on hard mode they just don’t select healing word. All of a sudden 5e is hard as any edition since 2nd.

Also difficulty is a simple a case of turning up the dials on what an encounters foes can withstand and up on what they can dish out. There are so many ways to do that within the game.

When players use the internet to research killer builds, find optimum spell choices etc then it isn’t the game system that’s powerful, it’s the players approach.

A first level character in 5e has the same number of hp as a character in 3e. Less in a lot of cases.
 


toucanbuzz

Legend
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The KODT comic strip is a spoof on adversarial gaming. New gamers are trained by the "veterans" that the DM is always out to get you, and it's your job to know the rules inside and out to thwart them. When a natural consequence happens, it reinforces the players that indeed, the DM is a killer DM. Of course, as you see the rules lawyer gamer at the end, he understands "DM Code" for that's a bad idea.

The DM isn't perfect of course. The KODT DM was famous for grudge monsters (like the goring llama) and getting pissed when his players ruined yet another campaign (by taking out the BBEG at 1st level):
1631647518217.png

It's a spoof, but in the above example, the DM violated his own code of being a neutral arbiter of the rules and letting the dice fall where they may. It looks adversarial, but it doesn't mean the DM or the players are actually at odds.

If you have repetition of jerk actions and refusal to be frank with players (e.g. "A drow doesn't really fit the setting well"), then yeah, you've got something. Call it adversarial or what you'd like, but for me, it'd be a DM without gamers.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Of course, I also have EXTREMELY strong feelings with regards to pre-prepared games. In reality, if a party creates a party of all wizards or something, then they OBVIOUSLY shouldn't be doing standard dungeon-crawling, and that shouldn't be assumed to be what the game is about. It's the GM's job to recognize that and adjust his game accordingly. Otherwise, he's messing up one of the cardinal rules of good GMing, which is that he needs to read the group and present a game that's fun for them, not some game that has nothing to do with the group.
Setting aside how a group of wizards would perform in a dungeon crawl (amazing, I was told recently, just because of unseen servant alone), the question I would have here is why is the group creating a gang of wizards when the DM is running a dungeon crawl? Is this group talking to each other at all? Does that make the DM adversarial or the group just uncommunicative? If I as DM say I'm presenting content X and the player agree, then show up with characters that aren't very good in content X, that's not on me.
 

Absolutely. I've had players that feel the need to win so badly that they compulsively cheated, and players that felt like they had to try to wreck and derail the campaign at every chance.

I'll add that there is such a thing as adversarial players. One problem I've had recently in playing story-oriented games are players who still feel the need to "win," even as I try to explain that the purpose of the game is collaborate on a story.

That's the difference there, whether adversarial DM or player; it becomes about persistent grudges. The DM that gets mad because the players managed to one-shot their BBEG and suddenly now there's a tarrasque to punish them for it. The player that fell for the obviously trapped gem and starts trying to disrupt the campaign as revenge.

The DM isn't perfect of course. The KODT DM was famous for grudge monsters (like the goring llama) and getting pissed when his players ruined yet another campaign (by taking out the BBEG at 1st level):

An adversarial relationship doesn't develop in a vacuum. Frequently it is just a horrid feedback loop with escalating bad behavior on both sides. But then there are DMs that just venture out into the world like that - their pattern was set and they presuppose every gaming group to be the same as the last, which in turn makes it the same as the last - or ends it entirely.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
Setting aside how a group of wizards would perform in a dungeon crawl (amazing, I was told recently, just because of unseen servant alone), the question I would have here is why is the group creating a gang of wizards when the DM is running a dungeon crawl? Is this group talking to each other at all? Does that make the DM adversarial or the group just uncommunicative? If I as DM say I'm presenting content X and the player agree, then show up with characters that aren't very good in content X, that's not on me.
From my perspective, the question is backwards. Why is the GM thinking that he's going to run a dungeon crawl with a party of all wizards? Again, I admit to having extremely strong preferences towards the concept of player sovereignty including "making the character that you want to make, if allowed by the setting." I also feel strongly that the GM can't know TOO much about the game he's going to run until he knows what and who the characters are going to be.

Again, maybe this is better suited to another thread or something; I don't want to derail the thread. I'm convinced that my preferences here are very unusual.
 

Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
I am wondering if my gming style wouldn't be seen as adversarial... I am running an Eberron campaign pitched from start as more Zolaesque than Vernian tragedy. Yet a player pointed out that I did allow them to be proactive with their actions and succeed in their goal, but they feel the campaign let them often choose the lesser evil to save the world. Even the bad guy are arguably more nobly motivated than the good guys they work for. So they can do what they want, including saving the world, and get to shine doing so, but the world will still be equally sucking after their intervention (up to the point where they endeavour to change the nature of the world, an epic-level task). I am not delighting in making players miserable, they keep returning so they must have fun overall, but this in passing remark that anything that can go wrong will go wrong and sour their success (as in "if we save the king from an assassination plot we'll be heroes but we bet he'll become so paranoid about assassins that he'll become a tyran on a police state and even worde king tha. he was before...") makes me wonder whether it's seen as adversarial or just a tone disconnect (prompting me to hasten the point when they can embark on setting changing (and campaign concluding) events).
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
From my perspective, the question is backwards. Why is the GM thinking that he's going to run a dungeon crawl with a party of all wizards? Again, I admit to having extremely strong preferences towards the concept of player sovereignty including "making the character that you want to make, if allowed by the setting." I also feel strongly that the GM can't know TOO much about the game he's going to run until he knows what and who the characters are going to be.

Again, maybe this is better suited to another thread or something; I don't want to derail the thread. I'm convinced that my preferences here are very unusual.
I don't imagine it's unusual for people to want players to make what they want to play, but lacking knowledge of the game the DM plans to create (even setting isn't enough information in my view) is putting the cart before the horse as I see it.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I don't imagine it's unusual for people to want players to make what they want to play, but lacking knowledge of the game the DM plans to create (even setting isn't enough information in my view) is putting the cart before the horse as I see it.
Yeah. The DM puts in an order of magnitude more work than all the players combined. If the game they want to run is X the players can either choose to play or choose not to. They’re not a pizza delivery service taking orders.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Yeah. The DM puts in an order of magnitude more work than all the players combined. If the game they want to run is X the players can either choose to play or choose not to. They’re not a pizza delivery service taking orders.
Or at least have a conversation about it before the DM puts pen to paper. I'm fine with custom designing games for my regular johns, even if they request something that isn't my favorite. But we need to talk about it. I certainly don't tell them "Make PCs in the blind and I'll craft a game around that." That seems less than ideal in my view.
 

Willie the Duck

Adventurer
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?

Adversarial/permissive, railroad/sandbox, gamist/simulationist/narrative, old school/new school. All of these things are (relatively) clear in extreme cases and hypotheticals but rarely if ever would exist in their purist form out in the wild (at least in a gaming experience that most gamers would regularly tolerate). Reality is almost always going to be a measure of degree or even just a leaning or preference.

With that in mind, I would say that an Adversarial DM would be one who (completely regardless of the reasonableness of the position, there can people who are completely right in this regard, and those who are completely wrong, plus a huge middle ground) think that the players need someone keeping them on the back foot in some way for there to be a sufficient game challenge, worry overly that the players are trying to get away with something (again in a way that is detrimental to the game actually being enjoyable), or otherwise feel that they need to make sure that player or character actions are met with significant pushback or consequence at a rigorous number of junctures. The motivation can be anything from duty ('look, you asked me to be the DM, so this is my job'), to paranoia ('I knew you were trying to cheat!'), to competitive ('got you this time. Same time next week?'), to quasi- or really sadistic ('haha, you died!').

Once again, this is going to be something measured in degree, and just like every school principle, police officer and DMV employee don't fall into the category of either pushover or jerk-obstacle, most DMs aren't either explicitly adversarial or not-adversarial, so much as being adversarial some of the time (and some of the time it being justified, and sometimes not).
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
I will point out that I'm making this statement from the perspective of a gamer who sees himself primarily as a GM rather than as a player. Obviously, I've done loads of both, but my stance on this is based on my GMing.
 

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