On the Special Snowflake Setting

Today we talk about the most important fact in gaming.

There's been a lot of talk about Special Snowflake Settings and experience with a variety of Dungeon Masters. Hell, tens of thousands of people have used my Guide for New Dungeon Masters to start running games, including my wife.

She killed the entire party in her first game. It was awesome.

The problem is, all of these are polite guides and statements that allow people to continue to ignore the most important thing about gaming in the entire world forever.

The Special Snowflake Setting

So what's the problem with the special snowflake setting? Why does it even have a bad rap at all, much less one that's so bad that it's considered gauche to use it?

This is a problem with definitions. Chris Kutalik in his second post on Special Snowflake Settings  describes an evocative mythical forest environment, and how enjoyable it was to play in such a unique and creative setting.  This is in counterpoint to the extensive world-building and how nobody cares about what color hats people wear and how he's glad no one is complaining about that anymore, because good riddance.

This is, I believe, a conflation of two different things.

He notes that in Harald Wagner's game the setting was described with a series of bullet points. Other than those changes it was by the book Labyrinth Lord. The Special Snowflake Settings are not like that.

Instead Special Snowflake Settings required large amounts of knowledge, a significant buy-in before play, and had many firm and unchanging elements that were considered both integral to the setting and immutable. Why? Money and politics.

I'll give you an example of a broken special snowflake setting and how I fixed it.

The Specialist Snowflake Setting of All

The best example is, of course, the Forgotten Realms. In the beginning, it was not a Special Snowflake Setting. Some of the early role-playing game books by Greenwood and Jaquays are the best supplements in gaming. But it has turned into one of the worst offenders of the Special Snowflake Settings that exist, due to the weight of the accumulation of years and popular characters.

Drizzt and Elminster are the worst offenders. Others, like the human, Mirt the Moneylender, who's still alive even after the timeline was shifted forward a hundred years are also included. Why did that happen? Well, Mirt is one of the key figures of the setting (as one of the masked lords of Waterdeep, ooops, spoilers) and Wizards of the Coast, who owned the Forgotten Realms decided:
"Hey! This will sell better if we steal popular ideas from Ebberon. We can have dragonmarked people, except call them 'spell-plagued', and put in a bunch of cool stuff with our new cosmology like flying islands and add in stuff like Dragonborn, because people like dragons. Oh, we will also need to destroy all the necessary history Dungeon Masters feel they need to run the setting so that they don't have to worry about it, so we'll advance the timeline 100 years."

Of course, immediately this causes a problem for the fiction department who says
"Wait! The books that have Elminister and Drizzit in them sell the best. So we've got to find away around the attempt to wipe history away to keep these beloved characters around otherwise how will we keep the fiction line profitable?"

Also, they made Ed Greenwood cry. Which was a totally shi**y thing to do.

The point is, that these conflicting forces leave the actual Dungeon Master at the table struggling to run his sometimes years-long game, without being subject to the cognitive dissonance of needing to deal whatever changes are being wrought to the system based on the most recently published book. The setting ends up even more convoluted in order to reconcile all the conflicting needs of the forces of profit and politics.

Of course it isn't that the Dungeon Master has to adapt to the changes. But his players might expect him to, otherwise, what's the appeal of the Realms? And that's the damming thing—the thing that brings us to our original point, the downside of the Special Snowflake Settings is their immutability. You can't kill Drizzit, Eleminster bumping into your party seems like a cheap shot, you are no longer a player in a game, you're just waiting until you can play again once the Non-Player Characters leave.

How did I solve it in my Forgotten Realms Campaign? Simple.

Everything published in any Forgotten Realms book or story is simply a fiction of Ed of the Green Wood who lives in the dales, or R.A. Salvatore who lives near the Spine of the World. Their penny dreadfuls and stories are the popular myths of the day. There are no Harpers, No Elminster, no Drizzit. Those are just storybook characters that we tell children to make them feel safe at night.

The Special Snowflake Conflict

The point is, that Special Snowflake Settings are in direct conflict with the most important thing in gaming.

  • They require a large amount of buy in at the start
  • They contain numerous items that remove agency from the players
  • They constrict play by having certain, immutable things
  • It's impossible for any one person, off the cuff, to do something without conflicting against something that someone wrote somewhere.

All Special Snowflake Settings: Shadowrun, Star Wars, the Forgotten Realms, et. al. have these problems.

Let's talk about how that relates to play at the table.

A 16% Enjoyment Rate

That's a pretty terrible percentage of fun for our hobby. But it's exactly the experience that's related here.

She relates a sequence of convention games with Dungeon Masters who took scenarios and made them unfun. She talks about saying no. She talks about listening to the players. I talk about Player agency and the Quantum Ogre. Chris talks about Special Snowflake Settings.

We are all taking about the most important thing in gaming.

Gaming is a social activity where we engage in shared, structured play, for enjoyment.

The reason the my Guide for new Dungeon Masters, the Quantum Ogre, The Alexandrian's "Don't Prep Plots. . . (The Principles of RPG Villainy) and blog posts like The Surest Way to Become a Better Game Master get shared, and reshared, and shared again is because they are being shared by players because five out of six Dungeon Masters are still making people miserable at an event for the purpose of enjoyment.

  • If you are already saying you're a good Dungeon Master, you are part of the problem.
  • If you are already justifying your behavior, you are part of the problem.
  • If you are already deciding I'm wrong because your players don't complain, you are part of the problem.
  • If you are feeling defensive about anything being written or discussed here, that is the surest sign that you are part of the problem.

In fact, if you are doing ANYTHING but thinking about how you need to listen to your players and ways in which you can improve your game, you are part of the problem.

The reason people are talking about this is because you, the Dungeon Master, aren't listening. It's why people keep writing about this. It's why people moved away from more freeform games towards games for more rules. It's why so many books on advice for being a Dungeon Master include saying yes.

Anyone who ever in the history of the world who robbed a bank had a very good reason for doing so.

That doesn't make it right.

A Bit of the Solutions

What does this post do to help the situation?

I was struck by this quote in the article:
"I believe that all these GM's whose games were failures from the player's perspective actually wanted the players to have fun, the player characters to shine, and extraordinary magic to happen during the adventures. Unfortunately, they wanted this to happen along a specific path perhaps dreaming of the way they would love to play through the adventure themselves. And none of us gave feedback because frankly, after a GM has been deaf to your input for six or seven hours, it doesn't seem very worthwhile to tell them "Look, you're not listening."

This is an opportunity missed.

We keep writing over and over the same advice. The trouble is, that studies have shown, that the bottom 25% of people frequently believe that they are in the top 5% because they lack the mastery to understand what mistakes they are making,  the middle 50% all believe that they are way above average, and the top 25% believe themselves to be below average, because they have enough insight into their mastery to tell where they went wrong.

The problem is, that the people who need this advice the most aren't going to listen to it. This is obvious by the experiences people have with public play Dungeon Masters. Clearly articles on the internet aren't cutting it. A refutation of every strange, bizarre, bad faith, misinterpretation of the "listen to your players and give them agency" has already been written. Seriously. If you post any sort of refutation in the comments, I won't have to reply with anything but a link.

So, the problem at this point is that people aren't giving the feedback to the actual Dungeon Masters in an assertive way. This is a concrete skill that can be taught. It isn't easy, but if we want Dungeon Masters to improve, taking the step to give them this feedback is important.

  • We don't want to be aggressive and cause them to be defensive because this will cause them to reinforce their bad habits.
  • We don't want to be passive and stop going to their games, because they won't realize that it's their responsibility that people don't want to play with them. 
  • And we don't want to be passive-aggressive and try to subvert their game, because this provides them justification for their behaviors and makes you feel better at the expense of everyone else. 

We want to be assertive. This will involve some confrontation.

The X-Files Season 03 Episode 20 - Jose Chung's... by mutterz
Be part of the solution.

Also note that this assertive method of interaction also works for people engaging in passive-aggressive, sexist, racist or otherwise unacceptable behavior.

Steps to Assertive Interaction

  1. Ask For Time
    • What this step is about is allowing the listener to prepare themselves to hear what you are saying. What you are really asking for is attention. This will give the Dungeon Master the opportunity to focus and really listen to what you are about to say, with their full attention
    • Note that "No" is a perfectly acceptable response to this question. Your best bet in this case is to avoid playing games with people that don't want feedback.
  2. State your thoughts and feelings. 
    • This has three essential components. First, you have to empathize with the listener. Second, you need to state the problem, and lastly you have to state what you want.
    • If you do this, and you do it correctly, it will be one of their foundational Dungeon Mastering experiences and they will carry it with them to every game they ever run in the future.
      • Empathize with the listener. This contextualizes your interaction as an assertive one instead of an aggressive one. In an aggressive confrontation, you're trying to win. An assertive conversation involves attempting to reach a balance, where your needs are met as well as theirs.
      •  State the problem. The important and hard thing to do at this point is let go of your anger and sorrow. Yes, you didn't have fun. But if you use this opportunity to lash out or attack the other person, you are back to an aggressive interaction. 
        • One good way of managing this interaction is to avoid the use of "you language" instead of saying "You said no and railroaded us." say "I felt we had a good idea/were ignored/had no choice in this scenario."
        • It's important to stick to and mention facts, not judgements. 
        • Use assertive body language. Speak clearly and calmly. Face the other person.
    •  State what you want. This is where you make a specific quantifiable request for change of the persons behavior. It needs to be specific and quantifiable so that there's no confusion about whether or not the person is meeting your needs. If it's not, what they consider "Helping" or "Doing better" might not be.
  3. Listen
    • This is important because here the Dungeon Master is going to tell you why she made the choices you did. They will justify their behavior, and in doing so, give you the insight you need to understand why it's more important for them to meet their internal need, rather than focus on the enjoyment of the shared, social activity. It is important you listen closely so that you can understand what their motivation is. 
    • Once you've sussed it out, it's important to acknowledge their reason and validate it. Once you understand their reason, repeat it back to them to make sure you understand what they mean in your own words. In most cases, it's because the Dungeon Master has a specific idea about how their game is going to go. This is something they will likely feel very strongly about. After you've acknowledge it, you can state your original point, which is that "I felt ignored." or "I didn't feel like I got to make any choices" or "I felt like my enjoyment wasn't important to you." 
  4. Conclude
    • After repeating steps 3 & 4 until both sides have been heard and had their feelings acknowledged, and the other person either has or has not agreed to your specific and quantifiable request for a change in their behavior, thank them for their time.
    • To manage your expectations, remember that no one who was wrong in an argument every went "Oh my goodness, you were so right! Thank you so much, I now see the error of my ways!" Frequently when confronted with their shortcomings, they become defensive and angry. If you follow these steps and allow them to speak their mind, they may defend their actions at the table, but if you're calm, the next time they encounter this situation, they can't help but remember what you said.

Using the example of the session where the players were playing goblins and the Dungeon Master didn't allow the players playing goblins to set fire to a building.

DM: "So, does anybody have any feedback?
PLAYER: "Yeah, I've got some feedback if you want to have it. F--- YOU AND YOUR S----- GAME!" [Flips table]  
Oh, wait, that was the aggressive interaction.

PLAYER:. . . "No the session was great" [Gets up and leaves the table]
Oh, wait, that's the passive interaction. I'm sure I'll get it this time.

DM:"So, does any body have any feedback?"
PLAYER:"I'd like to mention some things, if you're interested in hearing them."
PLAYER:"It's clear you did a lot of work to prepare for this scenario. I'm sure it was pretty hectic for you to come to the convention and run it for us. I'd like to thank you for putting in that time, it means a lot to me." [pause]
PLAYER:"I'd like to talk about some of the things that happened during the game, is that ok?"
DM:"Sure, uhhh, what?"
PLAYER:"Well, I feel kind of sad. I felt like our plan to burn the house down was a real good one. When we were talking about it, I thought you looked uncomfortable, and I don't understand why we weren't able to burn it down. I think that would have been a real funny thing for the goblins to do. I feel it's important to listen to your players, to get an understanding of what they enjoy in a game. In the future, I'd like it if you listen to the players when they are excited about something and consider how you could adjudicate it instead of saying no."
DM:"Oh, well, If you did that, you would have missed all the treasure in the house and the fight wouldn't have been fair, and all that work would have been wasted!"
DM:"Well I put in a lot of preparation!"
PLAYER:"I hear that you spent a lot of time getting this game ready. I could tell, that's one of the reason I thanked you for it."
DM:"I don't want all that to go to waste, and you would have missed all of that treasure."
PLAYER: "Yes, its true. That preparation would not have been used today, and our characters would have missed that treasure. That would have been a good in-game consequence of our choices."DM:"You just wanted to make the game unfair. That idea would have ruined the challenge of the combat."
PLAYER:"I hear that you really value providing a fair challenge, and there were a couple of encounters that were really hard later on. That horse gave us a lot of trouble. But not every encounter has to be a tactical challenge. There were consequences to us doing it that way too, losing the treasure like you mentioned."
PLAYER:"So, all I'm asking is that next time the players ask for something that seems like they are excited, you say yes and adjudicate it fairly."
DM:"Yeah, well, I don't like my work going to waste."
PLAYER:"I think you'd eventually find a use for that material, either when you run the module again, or put somewhere else in another adventure. I'd like to thank you for taking the time to listen to me. I hope you at least consider what I said. Thanks for devoting the time and energy to run a game for us."

Maybe it won't do any good. But maybe it will change a bad Dungeon Master into a good one.

We'll never make any change if we don't try.


  1. Nice post even if double-barrelled. The stuff on communicating really deserves to be broken out into its own because it is about so much more than settings.

    What your example recalls to me is that very few players actually have the upper hand when it comes to understanding *why* their experience is not fun, and are able to make the correct theoretical analysis in terms of agency, and deploy the correct counterarguments to the GM's defenses as the one in the example does. Most of the times the players are miserable and don't know why and the GM thinks they are doing OK. For that you need the kind of clarion call in the middle of the post where the GM has to consider that they are wrong and leaning on crutches and feel the real need to step up their game.

    1. That's an excellent point. I had not considered that. Hmmmmm. Clearly bloggers have the upper hand in this issue.

      Also, sorry about the double-barreled. I'm really trying to make sure that people know I'm not trying to milk articles for Patreon. I'm trying to give value for their donation. I agree, that this might have been better as a two part article. It's actually a surprisingly difficult decision. I very much do not want to take advantage of my backers and want to make sure they get value for their donation and support.

    2. I totally concur with the second half of the article, but I think I also may have missed the connection between Part 1 (snowflake) and Part 2 (DM feedback).

      If I can summarize what I think I got out of Part 1, could you let me know if I missed the boat?

      Part 1 -- If you are DMing in a setting with a lot of canon
      1) Don't let the canon interfere with the player's actions/activity in the setting.
      2) Don't let the setting's pet NPCs take over the action.

      Hopefully I am already doing this as I often don't even know all the canon of pre-defined settings. :)

      As far as the Realms go, I am right there with you. I would never use NPCs from the novels. Those kinds of settings I milk strictly for the ambiance (so to speak). You have countries pre-populated with cities, cultures and places to see, but the people are all my own. An NPC named King Azoun may rule over Cormyr, but that's about where the similarity ends. Don't count on him being or acting the same as the "canon" since I probably have no idea who he is beyond the name anyway. :)

      Perhaps my players are saved by my own ignorance of pre-published settings. :)

  2. Playing in a campaign that makes you feel like all your options are already set out in front of you and you can't really have any impact is sorta not fun.
    A DM should be able to take a campaign in new directions becasue of player input.

  3. Thanks for the advice Courtney. Listening to the player's is so important. I love being a DM and i miss player feedback in my games. I'm sure i could be better at inviting it. Sure i usually play with people i know very well, which makes it easier, but i will share this post with them and i look forward to what they have to say.

    About Special Snowflake Settings i'm just reminded about how WEG Star Wars didn't feel like a high buy or took away any agency when i ran it as a teen. We just felt cool blasting Stormtroopers, cheating Hutts, smuggling and running away from the law. My suspicion is that Special Snowflakes are more about how you approach a setting, rather than a feature of the setting itself.

  4. My philosophy as a DM: Never have an agenda. Never want something to happen, rather, want to see what does happen.

    If the players miss the treasure, they miss the treasure. That's the trade off, in a way, for not having to fight the goblins. (Also, what goblins are just going to chill in a house while it burns down?)

    1. Yep. An impartial adjudicator is a great place to Dungeon Master from.

  5. Becoming a passable DM is really hard. Staying impartial and keeping your own metagame knowledge out of your choices is hard. You have to live in the very moment as well as keep track of a lot of stuff going on elsewhere and elsewhen... Not to mention the mechanicals. This article is a great step toward explaining how, when things go wrong, the players and DM can work together to make them right.

  6. Probably not surprisingly since you think my definition is over-broad and murky, I feel that your definition of Special Snowflakery is over-narrow and conflates aspects of poor game-mastering that are not unique to Special Snowflakery. (I have banged my head against that kind of behavior from GMs in the blandest of City States of the Invincible Whosewhatsee too many times as a player.)

    I would characterize the turn-of-the-decade backlash against that kind of unique setting as not just being against the info dump/exhaustive worldbuilding but as one that was broadly aimed at overly-unique, personalized setting creation that strayed too far mechanically and thematically from Gygaxian, TSR, Classic or whatever D&D (though I think you could make a great argument that kind of worldbuilding as always been there since the get go). It's that backlash that I am lashing back at.

    Player co-creation, buy-in-through-play and freedom to act are a separate (but not wholly unrelated) nexus of issues that cuts across this distinction.

    Secondly, Greenwood's Forgotten Realms was most certainly a SS setting even by your definition. In fact I distinctly remember--and greatly relished--his worldbuilding articles in Dragon in the early to mid 1980s: the long, detailed bit about FR's pantheons, the long article about creating involved political histories and intrigues (Dragon 67), the various unique magic items with pedigrees etc. When FR was going into production Greenwood dropped huge boxes of campaign whoha notes on the staff. The man clearly had a wide-reaching approach to the campaign setting that had evolved at his table.

    Is there a distinction between a snowflake setting that organically builds its way up from the ground floor (with and without player co-creation) and one that springs wholecloth like Athena from the GM's head beforehand? Yes and I still greatly prefer the former to the latter. But is it still special snowflakery? Yes I think so too.

    Anywho kudos to your wife for the TPK and I am still mulling the rest of your post. It is at least 84 percent correct.

    1. Thanks!

      I may have not explored the Special Snowflake setting issue enough, due to my desire to keep the article length reasonable and cover assertive communication. Heh. Your comment made me chuckle.

    2. On the topic of avoiding building the special snowflake: I am a big proponent of campaigns that start with Two Dots. The less a DM shall commit to paper prior to session one, the better the game will be in session 20, 40, 100 because of a lot of the stuff you talk about here.

    3. It's a good and thoughtful post and my own was a bit murky admittedly. Re: assertive communication that is something I feel like the players in the Hill Cantons campaign have gotten good at giving and receiving. I should write up something about a rather sharp but respectful debate that came up recently.

    4. Interesting thoughts.. I agree with Chris, though: I think his post and yours are using "Special Snowflake" to mean different things since you assume a straitjacketing of player agency that I don't believe to be inherent to what Chris discusses. I would also suggest that a certain amount of evocative detail enriches the game for some player's rather than detracts. Certainly player's like Chris's online Hill Cantons campaign, to name one, and things like the Slavic and Weird fiction flavor only seem enhancements. Likewise, a lot of people online seem quite fond of Eberron. It seems to me metaplot and important NPCs are the things most damaging to player agency, at least that seems to be the biggest knock on the Forgotten Realms. I all add that a lot of the problems you add are implementation problems, not ones inherent to the setting. There is no reason why ever Star Wars novel, comic, and cartoon need be relevant to one's Star Wars game. There's not really a reason why every movie should. The setting isn't really to blame for bad choices made with it.

    5. On the same token (and what I alluded to in an earlier post), movie/comic canon doesn't necessarily imply that it what did (or will) happen in my version of the game.

      Let's say I decide to play a Star Wars rebellion game set a few years prior to "A New Hope". Does that mean Luke Skywalker will blow up the Death Star in about 3 - 5 years?

      #$%& no! And my players should (and would) know that. By picking a point in time to place a game in a pre-defined setting, the game now forks from the "history" of the canon. Perhaps the Death Star is being built and my players want to sabotage the early stages of construction. Hell yes... and if they are successful, Alderaan won't be destroyed (though who is to say I would have destroyed it in the first place).

      Or maybe they want to try to use their canon meta-knowledge to introduce some design flaws (like the location of an exhaust port) into the construction plans by slicing some computer files. Sure! Why not let them? As long as they know that there may be no one named Luke that will be able to take advantage of that. Perhaps it would be best if they themselves planned on gathering an attack force that could take advantage of that at a future date, rather than hoping (see what I did there) someone else does the job.

      Think of it like time travel. As soon as you introduce players into a point in time in a pre-defined setting, the future is completely unwritten and rewritten n by their actions.

      With that caveat in mind, I think anyone could play a fantastic game in a universe like Star Wars. They have to know there is no future canon (and perhaps the past canon is also different as determined by the GM). The player's build the new canon through their play.

  7. Okay, but, like, all those times I said "No, the session was great," at the end of your games, I meant it.

  8. Might there be something to be gained by differentiating between canon-heavy settings (which seem like what you are discussing here) versus surprisingly distinctive settings?

    I've usually thought of the second kind as special snowflake settings, whereas the first type is somewhat different, though both can pose barriers to entry. Which is maybe the higher point?

  9. I'll take a bad setting with a good DM any day vs. a good setting (snowflake or not) and a bad DM. Without over-complicating this fascinating discussion any further, I suggest the following: if your DM is incapable of learning from prior failures and can't handle honest feedback, find another game. If your DM is looking for feedback and fearful of running a bad game, even if they are running a bad game now, at some point in the future they will be running a better game. Conscientiousness usually equates to superior game mastery.

    I've received honest feedback from players (emails, phone calls, one on ones after the game) through direct solicitation and have done my best to incorporate that information into better ACTIONS as a DM, but in general, people play the game for entertainment and don't want to feel uncomfortable by airing grievances. Unhappy players typically vote with their feet. I am grateful for the campaigns that I've killed through my DMing errors. They taught me to not make those mistakes again.

  10. I'm definately a beginer at DMing (still running my first campaign) but I've been experimenting with gathering player feedback and thought some comments on them might be generally helpful.

    First, I give players IC rewards (xp) for giving feedback. This doesn't seem to reward in more feedback than if I just asked but helpd establisan institution of time for giving feedback. It also allows me to effectively forewarn players that they should think about things they might want to bring up. Feedback is always asked for at the end of a session.

    Second. I find I get more actionable results by asking for ways to improve the game. I still ask for consturtive criticsm as well, but most what I get skips the crticism part and goes straight for the suggestions.

    Third. Rewarding criticism that I feel misses the mark or that I don't intend to do anything about (the reward for criticism is capped per session) means that players seem to continue to give (increasingly pertinent and actionable criticism). This was an issue for me early on in the campaign, where some players criticised what I thought were fundemental planks of the campaign, we discussed them and some changes were made but I tried to keep those overal planks. I thought players would be discouraged from giving input, but this appears not to be so.

    Fourth. I still ask for an recieve input even if the players have declared that they enjoyed my session immensely. To me a good game and a game with room to improve are not mutually exclusive.

    That said, this article has reminded me of an incident that did not come up in feedback which I feel bears further discussion. So the system still continues to need improvement (mainly I think it building the trust of the players that I will improve through their criticism and actively seek it, it seems to be a thing that constantly needs to be maintained) even though it is the new idea I am second proudest of implementing.

    1. @Issara

      That sounds like a great system. May I ask what base rules you are using?

    2. I use GURPs as the concept required a rather generic base set of rules. Even for a modular systme I butcher it horribly.

  11. Ruining a DM's preparation is in the real world seldom a reason that a DM tries to put a game on rails. The more usual reason is that the players are about to box themselves into a corner from which there is no obvious path to further play with some sort of anti-social dick move, and the DM is incapable of on the fly inventing something interesting from a situation where the most interesting things in the environment have suddenly disappeared. Only a few DMs have the necessary background of all those burned down houses to recall one from memory and improvise something new.

    I say this as a DM who has recently allowed PC's to burn down the house, but you make a complete strawman of your hypothetical DM. When ever has the sole problem with DMs been they don't receive enough negative feedback or that players aren't assertive enough of their rights and wants? I once played under an other wise good DM that had players who consistently browbeat the DM with 'assertive' feedback. This is complicated topic that deserves better, and which frankly doesn't seem to have to do with your 'snowflake' terminology.

    As I said, I let them burn down the house, but the most painful loss wasn't the destruction of 10 hours of my prep time, but the fact that in burning down the house they'd elegantly managed to evade my every attempt to follow the "three clue rule" (or 9 clue rule) by burning down evidence that would point to various new ideas, persons, and plots and the players themselves aren't proactive enough to play themselves out of empty spaces in the small world. The plot had just become disconnected. They'd just destroyed the most obvious breadcrumbs that would lead them to further fun. And the result predictably was them floundering with no idea how to be active or proactive, and yet again waiting for me to invent something which would come to rescue them from their boredom. The fact that by continually denying my hooks they were willfully protagonizing NPCs doesn't seem to occur to them, and while none of them complain about the fact that they are generally so passive that I have to hang figurative exclamation marks over quest givers and have NPCs resolve problem, they are nonetheless robbing themselves of agency in their hurry to never get 'taken in'.

    On the one hand they think they are being 'creative' by one of the oldest tropes in the book - burning down the dungeon (so much so, that Gygax devotes considerable wordage to dealing with it in 'Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain'). And yet on the other hand, they seem to really want me to tell them what to do next and where to go. The precampaign questionnaire and verbal discussion with the players suggested a strong preference for 'adventure path' style play, and one player verbally told me, "I want to be on a railroad."

    And, as I said, I let them burn down the house, but in point of fact most of the time when you see these sort of decisions, they are not actually decisions of group play but single players taking control of a session or acting on their own and making a choice about how the game will progress for everyone. Occasionally it is necessary to railroad individual players for the good of the fun of the group, as for example when a player in the first session of a new campaign decided to commit an act of highway robbery and I basically ignored the social interaction check that suggested he would have intimidated the NPC into turning over the goods because the consequence of that action would rebound on the entire group in a way that they weren't invested in.

  12. One last note, the surest sign of a poorly constructed and weak argument is the claim that denying your reasoning validates your reasoning. I flatly deny that you can characterize disagreement with you as "part of the problem".

    1. If you are commenting here, it obviously indicates that you are concerned about your games. I imagine most Dungeon Masters are. The problem is, that those miserable experiences the author of the linked article and her husband and friends had at conventions were all given to them by Dungeon Masters who likely believe that they don't have any problems and run a good game. This is conjecture on my part, but matches my real world experience.

      I think it's the absolute best thing in the world that you stopped by to comment, because it allows us to examine the exact thought processes that lead toward people making these poor decisions. Thank you for taking the time to comment. It definitely sounds like you have several different factors and issues going on in your games.

      It's important in my reply to note that the article specifically refers to convention games and not home games, which may grow problems with longer roots.

      "players are about to box themselves into a corner from which there is no obvious path to further play with some sort of anti-social dick move"

      Players making decisions always carry consequences. Any given action can be responded to logically in a way that creates more adventure. I note you mention "anti-social dick moves" which are a real problem and often need to be addressed assertively themselves outside of the structure of play.

      "you make a complete strawman of your hypothetical DM"

      Not Hypothetical and not my Dungeon Master. This is the result of the author of the linked article playing in seven convention games, six of which contain the types of examples mentioned in this article.

      The author is explicit and clear about the situations, her analysis is well worth reading.

      " I let them burn down the house, but the most painful loss wasn't the destruction of 10 hours of my prep time, but the fact that in burning down the house they'd elegantly managed to evade my every attempt to follow the "three clue rule" (or 9 clue rule) by burning down evidence that would point to various new ideas, persons, and plots and the players themselves aren't proactive enough to play themselves out of empty spaces in the small world"

      This is really the crux of the entire issue.

      I believe destroying the house is a painful loss to you because you spent a ton of time deciding what you wanted the game to be about and when the players didn't do what you wanted, it wasted your time and changed the focus of the game. I don't believe the players viewed it as a painful loss.

      The game isn't about what you decide the game is about.

      Gaming is a social activity where we engage in shared, structured play, for enjoyment.

      Shared means that the players have as much say as what the game is about as the Dungeon Master does, and they share that via their actions in play.

      You accuse the players of lacking proactivity, when they are the ones that came up with novel solutions to the problem you presented them with.

      As to the issue of your time, if you spend 10 hours prepping a game, why would you devote all that time prepping something that can be bypassed? I mean, you've clearly indicated you have lots of interesting hooks. If the only way these interesting hooks can interact with your world is in the one (or nine) specific places you put them in the house, then how interesting can these hooks be? Surely they must be influencing other things somewhere else in the world.

    2. "The plot had just become disconnected."

      Don't prep plots!

      "They'd just destroyed the most obvious breadcrumbs that would lead them to further fun."

      I think it's super important to remember that the players themselves determine what is fun for them in the game. My personal experience is that this is statistically never equivalent to following the prescription plot of a module.

      I believe that burning down the house was both a smart thing to do and fun for the players, because it allows them to subvert the expected flow of the game in a fun and entertaining way. They thought laterally. They feel empowered.

      The most powerful evidence I have that the players had fun, is of course that they choose to do it. They are unlikely to actively make choices that they find unpleasant, without some of your mentioned "assertive feedback".

      " The fact that by continually denying my hooks they were willfully protagonizing NPCs doesn't seem to occur to them"

      My question to you is, what are the players hooks? What types of hooks are the players interested in?

      Also: Isn't willfully protagonize the NPC's awesome? Isn't that exactly what you want to have happen as the result of player choice? Having them be the cause of whatever choices or actions the non-player characters take is a fantastic result of player agency.

      I mean, there are tons of logical or natural consequences of protaganizing the NPC's. Perhaps the NPC's don't do anything and the bad things come to pass. The campaign just got more interesting. Perhaps the NPC deals with a situation in a way unsatisfactory to the players. The players just got more invested.

    3. "The precampaign questionnaire and verbal discussion with the players suggested a strong preference for 'adventure path' style play, and one player verbally told me, "I want to be on a railroad."

      If that is the case, and this had been discussed before hand, then I'd reply with burning down the house. . .

      "The house leads to the next stop on the path. It can't be burnt down because it is the next stop. If you do burn down the house, you'll be leaving the path/railroad and will have to be responsible for your own choices."

      That said, If you are on an adventure path/railroad, I'd bypass clues entirely, and just narrate what they discover. I know that when I've told Dungeon Masters "I want to be on a Railroad." It's because I was tired of them telling me no or trying to hide the adventure. If they want to be on a guided adventure, why add fail points like clues?

      "they are not actually decisions of group play but single players taking control of a session or acting on their own and making a choice about how the game will progress for everyone"

      Gaming is a social activity where we engage in shared, structured play, for enjoyment.

      Nothing can happen at the table, unless it is explicitly or tacitly accepted by all players. If the above occurs, it's because someone failed to recognize the shared and social nature of the interaction and didn't speak up by saying, "hey, maybe we have a different plan."

      If you do have this problem, it's a social one, and is best addressed outside of play.

      "Occasionally it is necessary to railroad individual players for the good of the fun of the group, as for example when a player in the first session of a new campaign decided to commit an act of highway robbery and I basically ignored the social interaction check that suggested he would have intimidated the NPC into turning over the goods because the consequence of that action would rebound on the entire group in a way that they weren't invested in."

      This definitely sounds like a communication mismatch.

      Personally, I'd stop our shared social play for a moment, and talk with the player and group. "That seems strange, what are you trying to accomplish?" "What would you like to do?" etc. If they have some hidden motivation this might bring it out and allow you to leverage it to create more interesting play. If not, and they are just being disruptive, addressing their behavior assertively at the start of the campaign is the best way to go about it.


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