In my article from last week, I mentioned that it was a Cardinal Sin for DMs to assume that they knew exactly what their players were going to do at any given time. This got me thinking about all of the Cardinal DM Sins and so I thought I would outline the top five for you. Now this list is by no means complete; however, I feel that these five terrible sins are the worst and should be avoided at all costs. If you are a DM and you recognize that you have one or more of these issues, you should seek advice from your players or even other DMs as to how to cure these terrible afflictions.
1. Arrogance (assuming that your players will always do exactly what you think they will do)
“An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life – becoming a better person.” – Leo Tolstoy
I will begin where I last left off. Too many DMs, especially the ones who have been playing with the same group for years, think they can predict down to the last breath how their party is going to react to any given situation. This problem can present itself on the DM side of things (i.e. the DM is stuck in a boring routine and is never prepared for the wacky side-adventures of his/her players when they do happen) or on the player side of things (i.e. the players never do anything wacky because they are stuck in a boring roleplaying routine). Both of these scenarios are unacceptable for all people involved.
One of the foundations of D&D is how open ended it can be. In fact, I’ll bet that if many of you recalled your favorite or most funny moment in D&D, it probably came out of something improvised on the spot. It is that capability for the player and/or DM to be creative that sets roleplaying apart from every other type of game available. If you want to just sit on the couch and play a perfectly planned game with a straight-up plot, there are thousands of console games in which you can indulge. Go fill your boots! In my opinion, D&D is better because it’s not “straight-up”.
Thankfully, atoning for this sin is easy. Firstly, if the problem is with you, the DM, you must always have a good plan in place as to where you want the campaign to go next and be prepared for a few side-adventures. There’s nothing wrong with these so long as you can eventually get back to the main plot. Secondly, if the problem is with your players, you need to do something unexpected to shake things up. It’s time to think outside of the box, get out of your comfort zone, and engage in half a dozen other clichés that gets the group as far away from their normal routine as possible. It doesn’t have to be long-term or even something so wacky your players will be wondering if you’ve suddenly become possessed, it does need to be different and memorable and put the idea into the player’s heads that something about this campaign is going to be different so they should pay more attention and take a few more risks than usual. Try your best to find a balance between your regular game and something totally off the wall.
2. Affluence (giving away too many items and/or magic with no challenge or consequence)
“He who wants everything every time will lose everything any time.” – Vikrant Parsai
In many ways, players are like children. In game you have to teach them values, morals, and show them what their limits are. Sometimes they should be rewarded, and sometimes they should be punished. And, just like children, you have to be wary of the trap of spoiling them in an effort to buy their love or maintain their interest. Keep in mind that there is a big difference between your players liking you and respecting you. Personally, I would much rather my players dislike my stingy nature with rewards and yet respect me as a DM than like me for what I give them and not respect me as a DM at all.
Spoilt children always expect something bigger down the line, and spoilt players always expect that their characters will get better and “cooler” as they grow in levels. How do you expect to maintain that expectation when you give away most of the cool stuff too early, or for little effort? And when you fail to meet their expectations down the road you will find yourself in the very interesting position of having given away everything the players ever wanted and they still are very displeased with both you, as the DM, and the campaign in general. Why? Because human nature dictates that enough is never enough.
To combat this sin, you have to do two things: 1) Do not give in to the wants of your players just to “keep them happy”. Giving out rewards or needed items is one thing and handing over +5 armor just because the guy next to you keeps whining about it is another. Remember that you are the “parent” in this situation and sometimes you have to put your foot down and make the hard calls. They may not like it but they will eventually respect you for doing so. 2) Always try to couple risk and reward. Nothing should come for free in D&D and, if you are inclined to give your players that +2 sword or a wand of magic missiles, you should make damn sure they have to work for it. Maybe they have to slay the two-headed Ogre; or find the well-hidden treasure room in the dungeon; or even save up thousands of gold pieces from an entire campaign to purchase it from an NPC. However they get their hands on that “whatever”, make sure that it is a reward and not charity.
Stay tuned for next week’s article which will have the remaining three Cardinal DM Sins!