Dungeons & Dragons Online

Ruminations on DMing: Constant fun isn’t the end-all-be-all

Okay hold on! Before you get out your pitchforks and go " u/WoodlandSquirrels is a big old fun hating meanie", hear me out for a second. I promise you two things: that the title isn't just clickbait and that I suspect I can get you to agree with me by the end of this post, at least on some level.

So during this past week, this sub has had several discussions that tend to advocate for various things in the name of fun: not stunning players for longer than a single turn and ask your players if they want to die as examples of posts, and other highly upvoted advice i've seen has included things like "don't use monsters that are immune to the damage someone in the party likes to deal" and "players should never get a negative consequence for a choice based on roleplaying their character". These are some of the ideas I'd like to offer some pushback on. To be clear, I don't think these are all terrible ideas (you should definitely discuss the desired level of lethality with your players in session 0), but I feel like there's been something missing from that conversation. And here we are, with me trying to address that.


Title Bout of the Century: Fun Vs. Engagement!

"Fun" is a term that has been problematic in game design as a whole for a long time. Everybody loves fun! It's fun when games are fun! But wait, then why are games like Dark Souls so acclaimed and widely enjoyed? Why is Last of Us so sad? Why does Wingspan the board game/card game let other players discourage others from playing the cards they want to play? None of these things are "fun" things per se. I've played all the Souls games, and rarely have I thought after dying that "well that was a fun death". I'm not actively having fun when I see characters I love go through tragic situations. And when I have a damn Blue Grosbeak in my hand but I cannot play it as it would benefit my opponent and allow them to win due to the bird they just played, I'm not smiling and laughing, enjoying the fun of it.

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Enter the better term that most game designers settled on: Engagement. A game doesn't need to be fun at all times, or even necessarily ever…. but it DOES need to be engaging most of the time. This is not a simple semantics point either. "Fun" is a form of engagement (or rather, a response to it), but not all forms of engagement are fun. And sometimes, inflicting negative emotions through storytelling or design can have a negative effect on fun (unsurprisingly, I don't enjoy watching my favorite characters die in fiction) BUT a positive impact on the experience as a whole, through increased engagement as an example. Therefore, you shouldn't always treat an experience that is not "fun" in the moment as something that is detrimental to the experience as a whole.


Fun isn't a zero-sum game; funcoins multiply sometimes

One other thing that we can take a look at are games with multiple participants. When someone in such a game is having fun, it might not translate into equal fun for everyone else. Hell, they might even be having fun directly at the expense of someone else; Multiplayer Online Battle Arena or MOBA games are a good example of this. In some games, another player may be, either on your team or on a team opposing you, be doing something that directly hinders your preferred playstyle or strategy. It can actively diminish your experience as a player, if you cannot accomplish what you want to due to the actions of others.

However…

In a game with multiple participants, it's not always about the single player! What isn't always a positive to a single player can be a positive to all other players, and perhaps even to a higher degree! What might be not-so-fun for a single player might in turn actively enrich the game as a whole, and the experience of everyone else participating in the game. This should be a familiar concept to everyone playing DnD. When another player is having a scene that isn't so important to you, you don't interrupt them. You don't burst in and hog the spotlight screaming "HEY EVERYBODY, THIS IS ABOUT ME NOW". You let other people have their moment, and you enjoy the fiction itself even if it does not directly involve you as an active participant. Similarly, your moments should not be all about you either; you should try to find ways to make them interesting for other people, and look for ways to allow other players to interact with things that are relevant to your character.

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However, when this is largely a commonplace code of conduct for DnD, why is it that everyone seems to suddenly forget about it when it comes to combat? For example, being paralyzed and being in mortal danger or being knocked unconscious or even dying is not necessarily fun for you. But boy does it raise the stakes, does it create tension; and boy, does it make the situation that much stickier for your allies. You should be able to enjoy all of that. And if you don't, you should at the very least be able to let other people have their enjoyment. The negative situation that you encounter can contribute to the experience of other people playing the game with you. What's important is that the potential negative a player encounters isn't so huge that they simply disengage from the game entirely; this is what often happens with sudden and unexpected instant death effects in DnD. But if that is the effect of being unable to act for a while, I don't know how anyone gets through a single session of DnD when often player characters have scenes that do not involve all players.


A players enjoyment of something is not a static value

The final thing I'd like to bring up is the idea that fun NOW is not the same thing as fun LATER. What I mean is that which may feel frustrating, agitating or annoying in the present moment you might not feel the same about later. I've had player characters that have failed at things in absolutely miserable ways that I felt quite bad about at the time, but that later on contributed to a much richer story for the character and to a much better experience about that campaign for myself. In the role of a GM, I've TPK'd a party that I felt quite bad about at the time and the players felt dejected about it as well; but over time, it has become a cherished memory for me and the players that I still socialize with.

What I'm not advocating for is that you abuse your players and tell them they'll thank you later; but some experiences need time to ferment, to mature, to blossom. While they may be something you do not like in the moment, they may turn out to be things you couldn't think you'd want to have gone any other way later down the line. When we consider only the enjoyment of the present moment and attempt to eradicate all negative experiences under that banner, I think we are robbing ourselves of something more; of richer experiences that gain a flavor otherwise unobtainable.

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While it's fine to play any kind of campaign you want – and sometimes you don't want to deal with negativity or hardship – having patience and a holistic outlook is crucial to building those kinds of amazing tabletop experiences you read, watched or heard about before joining the hobby yourself.


It was way too long and I didn't read it, OP you wordy ponce, summarize it for me!

Negative experiences have their place. Dull experiences have their place. Sometimes things that are not super fun for you or any individual player may contribute to the experience of the table as a whole. Do not abuse your players for the greater good; Do not heap punishment on them or just expect them to deal with everything; And do not absolve yourself of the responsibility to try to make a game that everyone can enjoy.

But do not always shun the entire spice rack that are the whole host of things that are not "fun" in the moment either. Those spices can contribute to magical moments and great stories! Sometimes they take time to stew and emerge as something greater. Sometimes they might not emerge at all and flop entirely. But overt obsession with everything being fun all the time will make your games not be able to reach all the heights the medium of tabletop role playing games is capable of. Sometimes its fine to let fun take a backseat for a moment.

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