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D&D General What is adversarial DMing?

payn

Hero
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).
This is an interesting question. Often, folks think of mechanics and rules when considering adversarial GMs, but you can certainly have adversarial GM behavior in the social pillar. The one example above about saving the king and then the king turning tyrant, is just one. It could be a unique or logical development based on all the other elements of the campaign. Or, it could just be another in a long line of "players never win/win" choices by the GM. Whether its tolerable or not depends entirely on the context of the campaign and the GM's campaign reveals in total, and not just in one specific example.
 

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I have often found that new players are less likely to view a dm as adversarial even when they come across difficult encounters or situations. They've never faced a gelatinous cube before, and so they are in a more exploratory and experiential mindset compared to a more seasoned player. If something is difficult, that take that seriously as difficult that exists in the world, not difficulty arbitrarily decided by the dm. (I would say that since they don't yet know the system or 'how to play' the game, they have more trust in the dm, but trust is evidentially a contentious term around here ;)). This is just in my experience, of course.
 


Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
This is an interesting question. Often, folks think of mechanics and rules when considering adversarial GMs, but you can certainly have adversarial GM behavior in the social pillar. The one example above about saving the king and then the king turning tyrant, is just one. It could be a unique or logical development based on all the other elements of the campaign. Or, it could just be another in a long line of "players never win/win" choices by the GM. Whether its tolerable or not depends entirely on the context of the campaign and the GM's campaign reveals in total, and not just in one specific example.
Interesting. Basically, the Giant civilization knowing it was falling created an eldritch machine that is basically a suckiness engine to make sure a world they would not rule would be bad. Cannith explorer activated ot a century ago (hence the Last War among other) and the villain wanted to turn it down but are misguided and will turn it to 11. PCs have so far discovered the villains' plan, prevented their actions but are yet to decide that maybe the goal of the villain was worthwhile and implement it right themselves instead of hust opposing the villains. So basically the "everything sucks" is the campaign real problem and souring their victory the illustration of it. I feel it's justified and will provide for a meaningful ending but of course I am not the best placed to judge.
 

payn

Hero
Here's how you can tell you've got the right balance as DM in my view:

You can act like and have your players respond to you as if you're the heel, but your players all know you're not actually the heel.
I love this idea of right balance. I think I'm getting closer to being able to make my own definition.

An adversarial GM is one that is engages in a number of disruptive behaviors without concern for balance between player feedback and/or enjoyment and their own.
 

turnip_farmer

Adventurer
Still, no reason to mock them and cackle.
No reason other than that it's fun!

One reason that I think I've been enjoying running WFRP more than DnD is that it has a lot of 'haha, you're dead' stuff baked into the player-facing rules. If I want someone's face to eplode in DnD, I have to be extremely careful to telegraph it very clearly in advance to avoid looking like a dick. But in Warhammer, they all know that every time they fire that fancy gun there's a 2% chance it will explode in their face. It says so in the book. I can laugh uproariously when it happens knowing that they made the choice themselves.
 

Greenfield

Adventurer
Adversarial DMing? When the DM sees his role as being an adversary of the players.

I have a tale of what I consider to be the epitome of it.

A DM had planned an adventure for his table. It was a raid on a stronghold. He, with the help of a friend, planned who was on guard at what shift, and how forces were distributed.

After the game I asked him about it. He described the conflict, their battle with the court high wizard in the middle of the night, backed by his top aide.

I was curious: Why did they end up facing both? Was't one supposed to on duty at night, and the other during the day?

His answer? "I had to make the defenders stronger. The party was winning."

He took it personally if the party won a battle that he didn't plan on them winning. He argued that it was his job to "present them with a challenge.". What that meant though was that he'd raise the bar as things progressed, so that no matter how well they planned, no matter how well they coordinated their actions, it was always a coin toss, at best.

End result? The players in his game gave up anything resembling planning, cooperation or teamwork. The best you could do was earn the DM's wrath the next game when he next ran.

After a big victory, half the players would make it a point to miss the next game session, so they wouldn't be there when the DM "got even".

I don't play at that game any more.

In my own view, the DM has to "wear two hats", with regards to the game.

First hat, worn when planning the game session/adventure: Playing the part of whatever Big Bad is involved, he/she has to plan for the defense of whatever it is the PCs are going after. This should be done within the limited resources said Big Bad has. No new or additional resources should be invented for this part, but it should be done with full malice. The PCs are the enemy.

Second hat, worn during play: The DM should be the impartial arbiter of the game, implementing the Big Bad's plan as written, but without favoritism. The DM isn't god, because in these games the gods play favorites. He/she has to be better than that.

The DM I mentioned would insist that he be present when the players made their plans. He needed that so the bad guys could be prepared. On one occasion the table split into two groups, each walking to a separate room. Both groups made battle plans, and whichever group the DM listened in on was the plan that would be discarded.

The DM accused the players of cheating.

Like I said, I don't play at that table any more. By the way, the DM was and is a good friend. He's just not someone I care to play with any more.
 

Nefermandias

Adventurer
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.
Nah. You are seeing thing backwards imo.
The DM proposes a campaign tone and theme and then the players should adjust and build characters that would fit into that campaign.

Also, I strongly believe that every DM should make a list of which classes, races and sourcebooks are allowed at any given campaign.

Guess our views on that matter are diametrically opposite.
 

jgsugden

Legend
In the end, it is a matter of whether you pleasure yourself first, or you pleasure your partners first.

If you're the DM that focuses on making a game where you get to do the cool stuff, and you get to show the other players how awesome you can be ... that is a person with all the power using other people for their own pleasure, which is not a good look, and tends to result in less repeat play.

If you're the DM that focuses on what makes a game great for their players and folds those elements into the story, the setting, and the play style, then the PCs and you are going to find mutual pleasure in your approach.
 
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TheSword

Legend
Nah. You are seeing thing backwards imo.
The DM proposes a campaign tone and theme and then the players should adjust and build characters that would fit into that campaign.

Also, I strongly believe that every DM should make a list of which classes, races and sourcebooks are allowed at any given campaign.

Guess our views on that matter are diametrically opposite.
…I think the players pick a DM they like the style of…
…The DM proposes a theme…
…Then the players design a character of their choice within the boundaries of the theme.

That’s how it works in our groups anyway.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
Nah. You are seeing thing backwards imo.
The DM proposes a campaign tone and theme and then the players should adjust and build characters that would fit into that campaign.

Also, I strongly believe that every DM should make a list of which classes, races and sourcebooks are allowed at any given campaign.

Guess our views on that matter are diametrically opposite.
I'm not talking about tone and theme. And I'm not talking about classes, races and sourcebooks. I agree with you 100% on that.

I'm talking very specifically on the idea that if the players don't build a "balanced party" then their chances of failure increase, because the game the GM has in mind was not built with the actual PCs in mind. Ultimately, that's the deeper root cause of my extreme position on this one very specific issue. Good GMing is GMing with the PCs in mind, not "generic campaign that any group of players could play". Otherwise, the game is unlikely to rise above mediocre to OK.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
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.
Put like that, it's adversarial, but in fiction conflict doesn't have to be. For instance, drow in my game are known to be evil as a general rule. There are some very few good one, but those are unknown to the common folk and even most informed folk. If someone wants to play a drow, I will let him know up front that the world isn't going to see him as a happy person and not all of them will stop to talk to him. If he chooses to play a drow with that knowledge, what happens after is fair game. The world is not required to conform itself into a happy, friendly place for every PC.

A simple definition of adversarial DMing is when the DM plays the game in an DM vs. Players manner. Not World vs. PCs, which is often part of the game, but DM vs. Players.
 
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Nefermandias

Adventurer
I'm not talking about tone and theme. And I'm not talking about classes, races and sourcebooks. I agree with you 100% on that.

I'm talking very specifically on the idea that if the players don't build a "balanced party" then their chances of failure increase, because the game the GM has in mind was not built with the actual PCs in mind. Ultimately, that's the deeper root cause of my extreme position on this one very specific issue. Good GMing is GMing with the PCs in mind, not "generic campaign that any group of players could play". Otherwise, the game is unlikely to rise above mediocre to OK.
Well, good thing D&D 5e doesn't really need a "balanced party" by design. But yeah, I believe it's best to build character agnostic campaigns and let the players figure out how they want to approach the challenges.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
First hat, worn when planning the game session/adventure: Playing the part of whatever Big Bad is involved, he/she has to plan for the defense of whatever it is the PCs are going after. This should be done within the limited resources said Big Bad has. No new or additional resources should be invented for this part, but it should be done with full malice. The PCs are the enemy.

Second hat, worn during play: The DM should be the impartial arbiter of the game, implementing the Big Bad's plan as written, but without favoritism. The DM isn't god, because in these games the gods play favorites. He/she has to be better than that.
Yeah. I can definitely see that split. I think that's how I try to run my games. The world is what it is. The smart bad guys will be smart bad guys. The dumb ones, dumb. Set everything up and let the dice fall where they may. I can plan for reinforcements to show up at a given fight beforehand, but I would consider it bad form to decide during the fight that reinforcements show up just because the fight's too easy. I like emergent storytelling with games. I want to be surprised.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Personally, it's my job as a GM to be adversarial -- I am expected to introduce adversity into the lives of the characters so that the game is about something. The point, though, is for the adversity to be honest adversity and, in the case of D&D, fair. The term adversarial GM, to me, implies that the adversity being brought is not honest or fair.
 

bloodtide

Explorer
Adversarial DMing? When the DM sees his role as being the direct personal adversary of the players for a reason such as to stroke the DMs ego at the expense of others or fuel the DMs hate. You can't just say "an adversary" as a DM vs the players and characters by design.

In the game, the DM is set up to be an impartial neutral role in the game. The whole game world is against the characters...that is the whole point of the game.
 

Adversarial has taken a negative connotation over the years, and I feel it's undeserved. It's a style of game that some people enjoy, including players. An adversarial DM is one who takes greater focus on the "game" part of RPG. The DM designs devious challenges, always with a chance of success, which the players must overcome (often by outwitting the DM). The movie "Escape Room" is a perfect example of an adventure designed by an adversarial DM.

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!
<snip>
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.

Not all adversarial DMs are bad, but it's very, very easy to become one. A good adversarial DM not only ensures the possibility of success, but acts impartial during the actual running of the game. A great example of this is the Tomb of Horrors, which was originally designed specifically to kill Lord Robilar, who managed to succeed instead. A lot of the earliest adventures were designed this way, with a general setup that isn't balanced specifically to the party, but rather to force them to outwit (outplay) the enemy instead.

I consider myself an adversarial DM. I setup the challenges, not necessarily "balanced" by game assumptions, then force the players to try and solve the problem. During design I might be vicious and evil, but during play I let the dice fall as they may. I used to fudge dice and use dues ex machina to force things to a specific outcome, but this isn't being fair IMO (making me a bad DM). I often joke about delighting in the player's failure, and they consider me a "killer DM." Not because I go out of my way to kill them, but because I will do so with impunity. When the players succeed, they know it's untainted by DM fiat. Sometimes it's because of their characters, sometimes luck of the dice, and sometime simply because they outwit me (I postulate that if I come up with 100 different possible outcomes, any particular group will find the 101st outcome).
 

IMO adversarial GM as a term almost borders into the realm of jargon for ttrpgs like d&d. An adversarial GM goes from being a fair & impartial puppetmaster for the world the player characters interact with to something where players go in ill equipped with things like flashing neon sign type warning light knowledge their characters should know/consider. They might stack the deck by nerfing disabling or finding blatantly not impartial loopholes against player abilities. They might require players to do things like hit on the exact question/solution in a module & have NPCs completely ignore when players are fishing close then later blaming for not asking to speak to the mayor's assistant who never came up rather than wasting time with the seemingly fruitful & helpful mayor or whatever.

There's been a lot of other examples through the thread already, much like pornography however there is no simple answer that doesn't include "We know it when we see it" types of specificity. For that reason it's easy to look like an adversarial GM without actually being one if the slightest whiff of it is suspected.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
I feel that this short video from Colville is a good explanation (to players) about the good side of adversarial DMing. (i.e. that the DM is on their side and wants the players to win.)

I felt that it was relevant to the thread.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
I disagree here in that I see is as the DM's job to present the setting as it is, neutrally and without regard for what particular PCs the players decide to run in it. Thus, if the players have an all-wizard party and then bite on an adventure hook that takes them into a full-on dungeon crawl then so be it: I just run it neutrally just like I'd run it with any other group of PCs.

As for adversarial DMing in general: most would probably consider me as adversarial in that I see it as my job to, fairly and without malice, try to kill the PCs dead and-or otherwise make their lives miserable and I see it as the players' job to ensure their PCs survive...or at least some of them...and prosper. I also see myself as enforcer of the rules (my job) that players try to break or twist (their job).

This does not mean it's my job to throw ancient dragons at 1st-level parties; but it does mean it's my job to play the foes they do face to the best of their abilities given who and what they are (e.g. mindless skeletons won't know a thing about tactics or focus-fire etc.) and not to pull my punches unless the situation clearly calls for it. It means that yes there's going to be gotchas; it's on you-the-PCs to take precautions to ensure there's fewer of them, but they'll still happen now and then regardless. It means that combat is nearly always going to be war.
 

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