There’s another article that popped up on the Google Spotlight last week, How to completely, utterly destroy an employee’s work life. Again, it’s not a great article, but it reminded me to talk about denialist DMing.
It’s hard to design an adventure that’s difficult but not impossible. The sheer number of variables that go into any monster, let alone a fight or entire dungeon, make encounter difficulty more of a best guess than a clear formula. Add in traps, skill challenges, the d20 system’s inherent randomness, and players’ startling predilection toward terrible decisions, and the difficulty of a session can swing wildly at the slightest stimulus.
The best DMs I’ve seen have the ability to change difficulty on the fly. If a monster knocks out a player, perhaps it opts to attack somebody else rather than deliver a coup de grace. If a fight is much harder than expected, maybe the next fight will have one or two fewer creatures than planned, or maybe a trap spontaneously disappears. If a puzzle is stumping everyone or there’s no place to go in a mystery, a clue or lead might appear out of the blue. Making things harder on the fly works exactly the same way, but in reverse.
But not everybody is comfortable randomly changing the adventure at a moment’s notice, which is why we have planning. And the question I want to address is how to plan a session with the appropriate difficulty. Or, rather, how not to do it.
A denialist DM is one who bases session difficulty on the likelihood of the challenges subverting the characters involved. They build encounters that deny characters the ability to use their strengths. Essentially, it’s just like plusses and minuses, except that nobody is ever a plus. For example, if a denialist knows that the party has a fire mage, they will lean toward monsters with fire resistance. If a party has only slashing weapons, they will lean toward skeletons and other creatures that resist slashing. They will choose high-SR monsters for a party of spellcasters, undead for a party of rogues, and mindless or savage creatures for a party of diplomats. The idea is that those monsters pose a greater challenge than they normally would based on the party makeup.
On the plus side, this encourages parties to cover multiple bases and try new tactics. If a party of rogues fights mindless undead, many of their strategies and abilities aren’t as useful. But in a balanced party, only the rogue is at a loss, and the rest of the party can still run (perhaps more effectively, as with a cleric). The rogue could take their normal actions and be terrible at them, but ideally the player will think of something different and helpful, like drawing artillery fire or aiding other players. For a few fights, this is realistic and fun, and it gives players a chance to try out strategies and mix up fights a bit.
However, this also means that a character isn’t doing the thing they were designed to do. In the above example, a rogue can flank or distract enemies or do any number of things, but many of these things aren’t rogue abilities. The “rogue” part of the character isn’t helpful, so the player runs it as something else, which means they’re not playing the character (or at least the crunch, the build) they designed.
All DMs do this occasionally, and should. But a denialist DM doesn’t limit this to an encounter here or there. A denialist DM will use undead far more often against a party of rogues, because the fight is legitimately harder, but in a way that punishes the players for their decisions in character building. They would also set adventures in the wilderness to limit the effectiveness of savvy urban bards, or set adventures in a city to hold back druids and nature specialists. Even worse, there’s no right player decision. No matter what characters are in the party, a denialist DM will punish those characters, so if one member of the rogue party becomes a cleric or ranger and starts fighting undead, a denialist will instead use elementals.
The deeper this goes, the more players commit character resources to builds that quickly become worthless. I’ve said before that I don’t like save-or-die effect because they mean a player sits around not having fun based on a single die roll. With a denialist DM, there’s no die roll. The DM is actively trying to design a campaign where the players do not get to play the characters they wanted.
I’ve played with denialist DMs before, and it’s no fun. In one campaign, a player designed an illusionist that was completely worthless because all the monsters knew how to deal with illusions. Certainly, this is occasionally fine. An illusionist, no matter how accomplished, shouldn’t be able to wave their hand and scare away any and every hostile creature. But the first time a mundane tiger looked at a fifteen-foot-tall fire elemental, complete with sound and heat, and thought “That’s probably fake. I should ignore it and the guy with the sword to fight the man in the robe, because the DM wants to punish him for having low AC.”, we knew the campaign wasn’t salvageable.
Fixing this is actually pretty easy if you’re a DM. Just take note of what the players are designed to do (that is, what the player enjoys doing, since they designed a character for it) and give them the opportunity to do it. Sometimes give them something that limits their effectiveness, and sometimes give them something that accentuates it.
It’s a lot harder if you’re in a campaign with a denialist DM. As in the article that prompted this post, most denialists don’t realize whether they’re doing it to an extreme, and the bad ones will ignore complaints and assume the players are just looking for an easy ride. Try asking them what each character is built to do, then ask them to recall the last adventure (or fight, or NPC interaction) where they got to be good at it. If the DM legitimately can’t remember the last time they had a monster vulnerable to fire in a combat with the fire mage, there’s a problem.