Monday, August 24

Awesome Gaming, Deep Role-Play and DM Profiling

Oh, today’s post is going to be flame-bait :) Preachiness alert: if you’re starting to get annoyed, skip down to the DM profile listing later in the article and carry on reading – I get a bit soap-boxy in the early-to-mid part.

illithid Corvys and myself have a long-running feud. I’m in love with Owlbears, Illithids and Catoblepas’ (actually, not that last one, but he’s vehemently against them so I need to be opposed – this is all part of healthy debate which stimulates ones thoughts and results in arguments lasting until the early hours of the morning). He, on the other hand, is a grand fan of properly thought-out economic policies, sustainable government systems, and somewhat realistic cultures.

I write worlds of cannibal elves and dragon-politicians, dungeonball and other Hasbro-games derived D&D adventures, and have a long-running love affair with the Tarrasque. Corvys writes epic sagas on lands that are renamed, but essentially the Scottish Highlands, the Romans, and theocracies ruled by the Catholic church by any other name (not that there is anything wrong with this – players have a much greater recognition of the world that they are in when they play Corvys’ adventures).

This blog post is about the difference in our styles (and why I’m awesome, and right, and Corvys is equally right, but only three-quarters as awesome).catoblepas

As I pointed out to a friend the other day, there are many books (the Dungeons & Dragons 4e DMG, 3.5e DMG II, Robin’s Laws, etc.) that profile players for DMs. Hack ‘n Slash kick-down-the-door types, “real roleplayer” psychological types, storytellers, loonies, munchkins, simulationists, gamists, and so on. But there has been remarkably little written about DMs.

I’ve been questioning and spending time with a wide variety of DMs. I’ve picked up a few interesting bits along the way. One thing I’ve learnt is that DMs tend to try to adjust themselves for players – which is great. The group is catered for, and everyone is happy. What interests me is that few players ever learn about their DM.

I’ve had the pleasure of playing in a variety of groups, and I’ve come to realise that while every players interest and connection with the game is based on their personality’s needs being met, that the DM has needs to – and often, when the DM’s needs are ignored, the gameplay becomes stale, stilted and forced.

If you’re a player, ask yourself this: has your DM, over time, had a harder and harder time generating owlbear2 material, being spontaneous, or focusing on the game? Do they feel more invested in the world you’ve been playing in, or less? Because I, when I have DMed, have come alive when my players have been considering of what I want to play. Obviously, as a form of relationship, it goes both ways – I try to provide for my players needs – but when I, as a DM, are in the “sweet spot of story-telling”, I can barely stay seated. I rarely keep my players from ending a session and pouting because their wives need them home, because they just want another five minutes… just one more round!

So this is my hypothesis: while every individual player is left satisfied when a DM deals with their individual needs, when the players cater for a DMs needs, the DMs energy, innovation and passion surge and the players – as well as the DM – have a satisfying session.

There is a disclaimer, however. Some DMs take this to a bipolar extreme. When their needs aren’t met, they don’t connect with the material at all. They’ll be great when they are in the sweet spot, but incapable when outside of it. This is, in general, frustrating to players. The games focus shifts from the story to the DMs mood. This isn’t good, and the players should communicate that to the DM.

To put it bluntly and possibly rudely: some DMs have a fake idea, or a one-dimensional idea, of what RPGs are about. In doing so, they put too heavy a focus on one aspect of the game. This is why player profiling exists – to knock DMs out of their inward gaming focus and encourage them to engage with every need required. If your DM isn’t catering for what you feel you need, it is imperative that you communicate this to him in a polite way. Shouting down a game that doesn’t meet your needs results in hurt feelings, but pulling a DM aside post-game for a word about how you’re not enjoying the game much can make the game better rounded.

But on to the DM Profiling!

As I’ve experienced (and I welcome more categories in the comments, I’m still got many DMs to meet and I’m sure everyone thinks they’re in their own category :) ), DMs don’t tend to fit in a large box. Instead, they tend to be a puzzle with lots of pieces. Most DMs, like most people, are made up of a complex variety of traits. As a result, no DM will fit a single archetype that I will list. Instead, they’ll typically fit (largely) one or two, with maybe a few more minor traits fitting.

these are the major DM archetypes:

  • The action-movie DM
  • The storytelling DM
  • The psychological DM
  • The doormat DM
  • The psychotic DM
  • The design DM (and the DIY DM)
  • The sandbox DM
  • The seat-of-the-pants DM
  • The religious DM
  • …and I’m sure there’s more, but I want to leave a few out so we’ll get the comments!

Let me delve a bit deeper into each archetype (and please forgive me for using masculine pronouns, I’m doing it for brevity’s sake):

The action movie DM is all about the fast pace. Maybe not always combat-oriented (though a combat-heavy game will almost always result), they will tend towards a game with great physicality. Traps and physical skills will abound, and they’ll love interactions with the world: causing cave-ins and swinging on chandeliers will engage this kind of DM, and keep the game moving. On a more sober note, this may be a result of a DM who is uncomfortable with play-acting NPCs deeply – things like romance sub-plots will be shut down quickly, for fear of having to role-play a situation they don’t enjoy. Try to find the specific things that make the DM uncomfortable, and avoid them if possible. If you want to engage this sort of DM, take joy in the physicality of the game. Interact with the environment and be forceful characters. Consider focusing on a few stronger character traits than complex, interwoven layers of character desires, dreams and fears.

dm The storytelling DM is all about plots. Intrigue, backstabbing, and rich suspension of disbelief from the players will engage this DM and keep him wanting to feed the players more. In-party fighting can often intrigue this guy, as will taking initiative in changing the world. Getting out of the railroad might be intimidating for an inexperienced storyteller, but the thrill of players who want to have a hand in the political landscape will override this quickly. Some storytellers, though, are only doing this because they feel it’s “superior” to mere action. If players run head-long into combats at the slightest drop of a hat, they’ll disengage, feeling that the game has turned into one big series of dice-rolls. Notice if your DM is trying to steer away from combat, and maybe try alternate approaches.

The psychological DM is all about the mind-games. Instead of engaging with the physical world, like the action-movie DM, or the social world, like the storytelling DM, he’ll try to get you to investigate your character. These kinds of DMs often encourage flaws in PCs, and ask for lengthly back-stories. Their number-one aim is to get you to role-play – play a role! When you choose instead to meta-game, or build yet another human fighter, they’ll quickly lose their spark of interest. If you really want to engage this sort of DM, look at things like accents, or giving your characters a bit more background than “orphaned and learnt their skills on the streets”. Try making a few decisions that are detrimental, but give your character a little more personality.

Geek-712146 The doormat DM isn’t quite as bad as his name makes him out to be. This sort of DM will make it his personal quest to match every iota of the adventure to a player or characters needs. If one player is unhappy with the game, suddenly every creature in combat misses them, every non-hostile NPC wants to hand over all their money, and the game rapidly turns into a Monty-Haul. This often comes about when a novice DM learns about players needs being first, and begins to believe that players needs are all. This sort of DM really hits a stumbling block, though, when two players disagree on a point and require a ruling. He’ll normally pick neutrality, but will pick a side with a domineering player if he can’t remain in the middle. This sort of DM needs players who do care about him and his role in the game, and are prepared to help him come out of his shell a bit. Find out what adventures he has read and likes, discover his favorite monster types. Encourage the game to head in these sort of directions. If he stays a doormat, eventually the games will become dull and boring, and the group will start to lose interest.

The psychotic DM isn’t quite a mirror-opposite to the doormat, but he’s certainly found his own place. This is the guy who will hit you with insane encounters: he’ll try to TPK as hard as he can. Don’t get me wrong: all good DMs should give players a challenge, but this guy takes it to the next level. If your characters drop like flies, you’ll have a psychotic DM. Often, this comes from a desire to give the players a sense of achievement. When your party of 6th levels takes down the Baalor, you’ll feel on top of the world – until his grandfather, ten levels stronger than him, hunts you down. The darker side of this DM is a genuine sadist. It’s good to explain to the DM that you feel he’s being hard on the group, if you feel that way, and encourage him to tone it down a little. Alternatively, if you like this sort of play style, then find novel ways of engaging with the scenes. Don’t get discouraged when a PC dies – roll up a brother who is out for revenge! Play smart, don’t be afraid to retreat, and may the dice gods be with you!

dm_ed_1 The design DM will spend his free time building adventures, maps, NPCs, economies, political scenarios, campaigns, new spells, feats, skill uses, skill challenges and more. This guy loves new species of critters, and only uses the Monster Manual for a guideline, or potentially just to get his NPC blocks *just* the right shade of olive in his word processor. This sort of DM thrives when they’re being creative, and they tend to write amazing rail-roads. The name of the game for these guys is fore-shadowing. A good design DM will set you a railroad – which some players love, and some players hate – because they want to introduce you to their cool new stuff. If you don’t like the railroading, mention it to the DM and encourage him to design broad, not deep. If you want the best play experience with this DM, try to puzzle out his designs. Roll your nature/dungeoneering/whatever check, and learn about the species. Map the dungeon, explore the world. Let his creativity work for you.

The sandbox DM, on the other hand, believes that the world should be eminently explorable. You know you’ve got this guy when you leave a town and he asks if you want to go north, south, east or west – and you haven’t been given any direction so far. He wants the players to be free, to play around and have fun far away from the railroad and all the static planning that it represents. Often, this will come because they want your decisions in the world to have real meaning. The weak point, of course, is that planning can be a bit hit-and-miss, and so as a result gameplay can, potentially, devolve into long pauses as the DM comes up with new material “on-the-fly”, or reasonably random encounters and short plots as he can’t put in the hours that are required to come up with really good twists. If you want this guy to come alive, follow any leads he puts out. Develop theories on why you fought a band of hobgoblins, followed by a rust monster, followed by a gelatinous cube. Let plots emerge as you play, and let him grab on to ideas you’ve come up with and run with them – gameplay becomes a team-effort quickly.

The seat-of-the-pants DM takes the sandbox to the painful extreme – no preparation, no expectations. If you’re lucky, you’ll be told the setting is a published one, so you’ll know an over-arching theme. This DM will make it up 100% as you go along. Randomly rolling monsters, if you’re lucky, or just coming up with new ones and declaring it’s dead when he’s decided you’ve hit it enough. This DM exists because he wants an organic story. He wants to cater for players as they go along, but sacrifices coherency and long-running plots and themes to achieve that. If players are low on health, then the hobgoblin tribe they were just killing suddenly gives in to their clearly superior strength, and offers them healing as part-payment for stopping the slaughter. To engage this guy, live every encounter to the full – but my player-instincts tell me to take the DM to one side and encourage him to start putting in more effort. He may just be short on time or resources – find the short-fall, and help him out.

The religious DM (as loathe as I am to use the term as negatively as I’ll be doing it here) is the DM who decides that there is One True Path. The game will be amazing if only the players do things Just As He Likes It. The players will always meet elves, or any game in a desert is “guaranteed” to meet with success. I call him religious because these statements come from faith (note that I, personally, am religious, and mean nothing bad about religions in using this term – it’s just apt for describing this). This DM has had a small window of success, and has cargo-culted a specific part of the game. Low-magic insisting DMs, high-magic insisting, published-world insisting, home-brewed insisting. DMs who insist on ONLY one RPG, or edition of RPG, because all others aren’t as good as his preferred one, or all other suck. You see the common thread of one-dimensional insistence. While it may benefit you in the short term to meet half-way and try to play in the scenarios described, this DM typically will be frustrated when the game doesn’t always generate the greatness that the First Game That Was Awesome did. I’d recommend telling the DM that you’d prefer to branch out into other things, but you’ll wait out an adventure or two to let him see what you mean. Demanding change will only result in hurt feelings – rather, let the DM test the hypothesis consciously, and when you can show him that it didn’t turn out as he liked, encourage a bit more diversity.

That’s all the DM archetypes I’ve got on mind for today. I might post some more – but name a few of your own! I’ll discourage (read: delete) comments that are openly offensive and/or stupid (“Crap DM – any DM that uses warforged in their world”, for instance), but otherwise go crazy! We can always do with more input.


  1. Great idea and great analysis.

    This is fantastic and unexplored but very true.

    The only issue is that your "names" are generally pejorative and confusing. Doormat, you admit, doesn't really describe the behavior, nor, is it particularly flattering.
    The fundamental argument Robin Laws made was that you shouldn't look down on someone for having a play style.
    You personally may feel that a DM who is focused on making the players happy, to the point that they will ignore rules, bend reality, in an attempt to make someone feel better/have a better time is a sad-sack, but if you want to connect with them you'll do better by not sniping at them.

    Since this may become a seminal post (it's certainly the first systemitized one on the topic I've seen) you owe it to yourself to give the different styles "proper" names.

  2. @TheGoof: The "names" are sweeping statements - they're designed to be provocative! The Doormat DM is, erring from a "default" DM, more of a metaphorical "doormat".

    No person can be classified by a single moniker. The archetype is door-mat to the extreme, and people who have some aspect of it shouldn't be looked down on. I'm just remarking that the extreme exists, and *as an extreme* it is weak. There are some extremes that aren't as likely to hurt a group as much as a doormat DM - the design DM, for instance (though I'm biased - as this blog attests ;) ). There is nothing wrong with any of these traits, if they are recognized by an individual and curtailed if it's found that the group is suffering for it.

    I don't know if this will be a seminal post, I have a vague inkling that someone else scooped me on the concept (though I can't for the life of me remember who...), but I hope so :)