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D&D General What is adversarial DMing?


Victoria Rules
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.
As DM I'd never tell them out-of-character what the next adventure was going to be* unless they had some way in-character of finding out and then did so. In general terms, if asked ahead of time I might say there'll be a variety of different adventure types as the campaign goes along, but that's about it.

* - the exception being if I'm planning on running a module that some players might have already been through or DMed, I'll ask if they have; in these cases I have to trust the players not to tweak the party makeup due to this meta-knowledge. They're usually pretty good about it.

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Victoria Rules
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?
She's not.

She's (IMO rightly) thinking she's going to run a dungeon crawl with whatever party shows up. Nothing adversarial there.
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.
I agree with "make the character you want to make if allowed by the setting" but I don't agree there's a player-side right to expect anything about the setting to be altered because of the characters we-as-players have chosen to play.

In other words, the DM makes the setting and then the players make their characters, in that order because before the DM makes the setting the players can't know what'll be allowed as PCs and-or options in it; and time will tell whether the characters work in the setting or not.


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.

I think the key here is the players' perception of the situation.

If the players only see that everything sucks all the time, no matter what they do they never get any clue as to why and think there is nothing they can do about it, things will always just be that way, that's just the campaign? That's a problem and, frankly, the players are justified in feeling annoyed /unhappy.

If the players see that everything sucks, but not only are they slowly doing something about it, but they start seeing that it's an artificial fixable issue and it's telegraphed that their actions could help solve it? Then, still sucks or not, they see progress and are likely to be much more satisfied about it.

That's also the difference on whether this is adversarial or not. Never impart any information on the true issue and everything always sucks, they players have no clue why? IMO - adversarial and unfun. Everything sucks, but the players can and do make inroads as to why and see ways to change it (even if they ultimately might not succeed)? Likely non - adversarial and likely more fun for the players.


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.
Yes, I realize that that's the default position that most people have, which I'm suggesting I know that I'm unusual for rejecting outright. In such a game run by me, there wouldn't ever be a hook that led to a full-on dungeon crawl.

Helpful NPC Thom

Colloquially, adversarial GMing is when the GM is a jerk. We can faff about trying to define it like legal scholars, but that broad definition suits me. I know it when I see it. Adversarial GMs are the kinds of fellows who brag about killing PCs, work to foil the PCs, or neener-neener the PCs like that scene in Jurassic Park where the black tech guy has AH-AH-AH YOU DIDN'T SAY THE MAGIC WORD.


B/X Known World
So even if we don’t agree on the details, the general consensus is any DM who treats the game as a competition and tries to win against the players is an adversarial DM. I wonder if the same applies on the players’ side of the screen.


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?
For me, "Adversarial DM'ing" is the DM specifically trying to DM his/her game as "uncaringly as possible"...in terms of PC survival or detriment, and not hiding his/her emotions when highly unusual dice/situations come up...even at the expense of a PC.

I would classify myself as "mostly adversarial" in this regards; maybe 90/10. I don't like to see PC's die, and sometimes it honestly pains me to have to roll the damage dice and say "...oh man... sorry... 19 points of damage; Freelick, the Franetic of Glossamere, is impaled, and dies". But I'm not going to downgrade that damage to only 9 points just so Freelick lives. A non-Adversarial DM would probably do that, favouring the PC because of a "fluke dice roll".

Adversarial means I do 'try my darnedest' to "kill the PC's"...but only insofar as I am playing to role of the bad guy; the bad guy WANTS to see the PC dead. I may even play up the 'glee' of when the bad guy hits/hurts the PC for effect (e.g., "Ok, his turn... [rolls dice, gets a 19]... HA! Take that, Glascia! Straight to the sternum! You're going down, Fighter!"). But...and this is key... my PLAYERS understand that I'm NOT CHEATING and I am NOT TRYING TO KILL THEIR PC!

Usually I may smirk when something bad befalls the PC's, but that's for added effect. It gets the Players more emotionally invested in the situation because I am, effectively, "everything". To relate to real life...it's like when you go to wash your car in the drive way. You walk outside, around the corner of the house to turn on the water...and step in dog poo. You clean that off, then get the bucket, sponge and rag, and hose. You turn on the water and discover the hose nozzle is busted. Wonderful! You take it off...and cut your hand in the process. Band-Aid it, then start washing. You start to scrub the car only to realise the soap you are using stings your new cut like a mother! You put on a rubber glove...and get back to it. Surprise! It has a hole in it. ... ... So, in this 'real life' scenario, I, the DM, am the one rolling the dice behind the screen for all the fumbles you are making ("Perception...you failed? Huh... you step in dog poo"..."Right, you think you have everything; make a Cleanliness check to see how you do. Another fumble? LOL! ...Your nozzle is broken and you cut your finger for 1 damage"... "That's two fails in a row...time to roll on the Murphy's Law table...", etc). Sometimes life is darkly funny...and if you were the DM watching such dark humour unfold unexpectedly, well, enjoy it! It makes all the times when the PC's plan is smooth as butter and they kick azz that much more special. :)

So, long story short, "Adversarial DM'ing" is when the DM specifically doesn't care about your PC's success or failure...and at the same time gets enjoyment as a Player does...but from the perspective of the monsters/environment...as the game unfolds and dice are rolled. Players rejoice and high five when the fighter one-shots the Orc Chieften...so why should they get all the excitement when the Dice Gods smile on them? If a DM rolls well for something that tosses a spanner right into the PC's plans...he smiles, lets out a chuckle, and may even say "HA! Take that!". It's enjoyment at fluke rolls and surprising turns that can happen in an RPG, plain and simple.

Now, a DM that specifically sets PC's up for failure, knowing the most likely outcome...? That's not Adversarial DM'ing. That's just being a Richard!


Paul L. Ming


So even if we don’t agree on the details, the general consensus is any DM who treats the game as a competition and tries to win against the players is an adversarial DM. I wonder if the same applies on the players’ side of the screen.
in most ttrpgs & d&d players don't usually have a level of system & narrative control needed to be "adversarial" players as the adversarial term is used for adversarial GMs/DMs. That's not to say that players can't be problematic in their own ways so much as that they get other terms like
  • murderhobo
  • chaotic stupid
  • Lawful Anal
  • That guy
  • One of those roleplayers
  • spotlight hog
  • metagamer
  • powergamer
  • derailer
  • novelist
  • joker
  • problem player
  • etc
That's not to say that those are all prima facie problematic players if the moniker fits at all, just that taken to an extreme they tend to cross a line somewhere. Take the power gamer as an example, played right it doesn't matter if bob has an array of nuclear warheads in his back pocket if he pretty much only brings them out when things seem to be going sideways in order to pull the group out of what looks like an expected death spiraling trainwreck when things have gone wrong. If instead bob is orders of magnitude beyond the group average & pulling out those warheads on a regular basis in ways that make the rest of the group look/feel inadequate that's a completely different story.
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Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I view adversarial DMs as doing everything they can to kill off the PCs, but there can be good and bad adversarial DMs.

An example of a good adversarial DM is one that let's the group know what kind of game they run. Then it's kind of a competition between DM and players that involves a lot of skilled play. Probably a lot of new PCs as well. So lots of deadly traps and puzzles, lots of difficult combats including some that retreat is the better part of valor and so on. Not the type of game I enjoy most of the time, but I get it.

Bad adversarial DMs? The ones that hold nothing back and just want to lord their power over the PCs as they enact their own version of the SAW movies. I've had DMs like that. Bring two PCs to the session and kill every PC off one after another in "inventive" ways.

So adversarial DMs are not inherently bad. For that matter, not all bad DMs are adversarial DMs.


I'm detecting an interesting twist on this topic: I see the "Adversarial DM" as one who will change the encounter/setting (sometimes on the fly) to make things harder for the PCs, often maliciously.

Some have suggested that a "Good DM" should change the encounter/setting to make it better suited to the PCs or party makeup.

I guess I'm seeing those two positions as opposite sides of the same coin. I'm thinking that part of the challenge for the party is to be able to adapt to the in-game situation, rather than expecting the situation to adapt to them.

This is simply an opinion, and YMMV, of course.


Mod Squad
Staff member
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.

So, I'm going to push back on the "misalignment of expectations" because some of the original, stated expectations Gygax lays out in AD&D are kind of adversarial.

Adversarial GMing is the GM equivalent of the CN rogue who steals from the party and stabs them in the back because "that's what my character would do".


My player's think I am adversarial because I constantly berate them for their poor life decisions, character defects and physical abnormalities.


An adversarial GM runs the game as if the players and/or their characters are the enemies.

But how much of it is adversarial vs a misalignment of expectations?

Probably half of it. I try to do my best to run the game knowing all of my NPCs are expendable and the PCs are not. However, when I invest hours writing story arcs and plots, designing encounters and dungeons, and then all of it falls apart to crappy dice roles it's really easy to get upset. It's also difficult to fight off the instincts to fudge the numbers and have it play out in a way that best suits your original vision. That's not adversarial, it's just not GMing.

A big part of being a GM is letting the players be story tellers, and have their PCs lead the story in a direction they want. Sometimes it's hard to let go of your original plans and go in this new direction, which is what makes dungeons great for GMs as they confine the story to a known section of the world. And this is where the difference can really stand out. A normal GM tailors a dungeon to challenge their PCs, thus letting them engage in a story from a point of weakness with the knowledge that they can and should win, albeit a costly victory. The adversarial GM will change the rules to punish players, force PCs to lose, and ensure that even in strength their victory is costly. The PCs are handily winning? More monsters show up! Now the PCs lose. There's an unusual situation that might benefit the players? Not this time. It comes up again later? Well, it benefits the NPCs so the ruling is applied differently now.

Let's be honest here, the GM can beat any party because their resources are unlimited. Only the players and their characters are limited. They have level limits, experience limits, action limits, everything they have is reigned in to ensure all of the players and their characters can participate, and none of them completely overshadow the others. The GM has a completely different role. It's to design a campaign that challenges the players and their characters, showcasing and outlining their strengths and weaknesses. The story is told together, as a group. Cooperation is key. If there's no sense of cooperation then someone, GM or player, is being the adversary. That doesn't mean there's zero competition. Not at all. There's lots of it, but always in the spirit of the game which is a cooperative story.


B/X Known World
So, I'm going to push back on the "misalignment of expectations" because some of the original, stated expectations Gygax lays out in AD&D are kind of adversarial.
Right. Which is why I specifically pointed out that a lot of what Gygax suggests in the AD&D DMG is explicitly, negatively adversarial.

What I was saying in that quoted bit it that there might be times when it's more a matter of a difference in perception and expectations rather than a DM being explicitly adversarial. Like you want to run a hardcore OSR dungeon crawl but for some reason the players are not explicitly aware of that style. So the game starts and characters drop like flies. It's not that you're necessarily being adversarial in a negative sense, rather it's you running the game you intended to but the players have a different set of expectations. Just explicitly putting in the wiggle room required to not raise quite as many hackles.
Adversarial GMing is the GM equivalent of the CN rogue who steals from the party and stabs them in the back because "that's what my character would do".
Exactly. It's selfish, me-first behavior at the expense of the group's enjoyment. Adversarial players exists as well. As you mention, there's that party-destroying player, but there are others. Most player types taken to extremes would likely fit.

I disagree with the conflation of "challenging" and "adversarial." A good DM presents a meaningful challenge, though what counts as such will vary between tables and even sessions at the same table. An adversarial DM isn't interested in providing a real challenge; in fact, I would say the term very specifically means pretending to offer such a challenge while actually offering either a genuinely unwinnable scenarios (as in, not just "I didn't design this with a win condition" but "I will actively close off any win condition you find, so losing is the only option"), or scenarios that rely on DMPCs, stupidly obtuse and bizarre logic, or otherwise various "gotcha" processes that theoretically permit a win but practically enforce a loss.

Adversarial DMing is, for example, advocated as a way to deal with so-called problem players who have the temerity to play as non-human races, or "worse," monstrous ones. That is, you intentionally make that player's gaming miserable until they stop playing the wrong choices and start playing the right ones, because obviously anyone who wants to play a dragon-person is a dirty no-good powergaming munchkin and needs to learn how to be a good player instead.

Given I have been expressly told that it's perfectly cromulent to have NPCs be horrifically racist to non-human (or, more commonly, non-LOTR-hero) races in order to induce players to choose to play those races instead...yeah, adversarial DMing is alive and well, much to the hobby's detriment.


Mod Squad
Staff member
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.

It is the DM's job to hold up their end of whatever the table agreement is. Presenting the setting as-is, without regard for what PCs the players decide to one, is one agreement, but there are many other valid possible agreements. And, the GM has some responsibility to communicate that before starting.

If you are running in a public setting, where you don't know who is going to show up, and they all want to play wizards, it is the GM's job to inform folks, "Look, the thing I have prepped really isn't designed for this party. I'll run it for you if you want, but I don't know if it'll be the most fun experience for you." Allow the players to make an informed choice. If they say they want to play anyway, then you go forward as best you can.

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