A DM’s Guide to Communication

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of discussion about in-game and out-of-game issues at D&D tables.

One of the players is telling someone else how to play their character.

My DM made an unfair ruling, PLEASE HELP!

A player decided to play Murder McStabbins in our Heroic fantasy game.

I feel like my character is useless.

etc…etc…

Most of these issues have one root cause: poor communication.

Fortunately, there’s a tried and true method for preventing and fixing these problems when they occur. A DM that uses these methods earns player respect and keeps the players invested in the game.

To understand these methods and why every DM should employ them, we first need to look at the role of the DM.

The DM Facilitates the Game

In a cooperative storytelling game, the DM serves as the primary facilitator. The DM’s primary duty is a noble and honorable one: making sure everyone is invested and enjoying the game!

Welcome to the game!

This means the DM issues rulings on how certain actions and spells resolve/interact in the game world, providing montsers/antagonists/traps/dungeons/plot twists/etc….

But it also means making sure that communication is healthy at the table!

When communication is poor, in the best case the players end up on ‘different pages’ and begin to get confused by the actions of other characters and the stroy, in the worst case misunderstanding breeds animosity and the group begins to dissolve.

There are 4 skills the DM needs to do to have good communication at the table: Openness, Regard, Clarity, and Consistency.

Openness

Openness is the ability to recognize potential problems and bring them into the discussion.

Overcoming the social anxiety of dragging something out into the open is not easy!

But the alternative is to let issues fester, unspoken until they embed themselves in the fabric of a group and become passive (or not so passive) aggression.

Openness is a preventative measure that dispels future conflict. By seeing the potential underlying conflicts and bringing them into the open you can address the issues while they are still small, before they cause harm to the group.

This may be as simple as a DM issuing a ruling on a spell, disclosing a house rule, or pausing to explain something important to the plot that the players might have missed.

It may be something more charged like discussing in character actions with a player or certain habits that have lessened the enjoyment at the table.

When having these discussions it’s import to practice regard.

Regard

Regard is respect and active listening. This is the most important skill in communication and DMing.

Regard comes into play once you, the DM or the player, have decided that there is an underlying issue which needs to be addressed. This is both regard for feelings of the individuals and the entire group.

When no one listens

When raising an issue, first consider if it needs to be before the entire group (as with a rules decision) or if it is better to have the discussion privately (‘bad’ player behavior). 

Then it is time for the most important aspect of regard: to listen

Entire books have been filled with tips on how to listen well and earn the respect of your audience. In short, after you’ve raised the issue in a non-confrontational way, stop talking and try to understand the other person’s perspective.

Often you’ll find that there are a few assumptions you have that don’t match up with the assumptions of the other person i.e. “we’re playing a traditional fantasy game” “intra-party conflict is fair play” “we’re playing a magical-realism game” etc…

Mismatched assumptions about the game, the setting, characters, and even about the players at the table manifest as conflict. By listening to others you should identify the underlying assumptions causing the conflict and state them clearly.

Clarity

When resolving a conflict it is important to be clear and consistent!

If you’re not clear, group members become frustrated when they discover that their assumptions about the game didn’t match up with yours. i.e. If a player creates a fire mage and the setting plunges the group into the depths of the ocean where fire magic is less than effective, then that player is going to be disappointed.

As a DM: state your rulings and expectations for the game clearly and explain the reasons for them.

Even if you’re not certain, even if this is a temporary decision that you may change later: that’s OK! Just state:

“I want to see how this pans out: so for this session we’re going to do it this way. I’ll revisit it at the end and decide if we want to keep it like that or change it.”

Consistency

After you’ve made a ruling, stick to it. Do not change it in the middle of combat or game session without good reason!

Every time the DM makes an unannounced change to the rules, the confidence of the players is diminished. Do not rule against the fun of table without good reason and be generous in compensation to the players when you do. 

Don’t retcon without good reason.

If at all possible, discuss any rule changes before a session starts and give players a chance to modify their characters if they’d be unduly affected. This way players won’t feel cheated and you don’t lose time discussing rule changes mid-combat.

Conclusion

Don’t let potential conflicts fester and turn into aggression at the table. Hone your courage and bring conflicts out into the open in a non-confrontational way.

Be respectful and listen to everyone, identifying mismatched assumptions during the discussion. 

When resolving a conflict be clear and consistent.

If you practice these techniques, and I emphasize the word practice because it will take years to master them, you will have the respect of the players at your table and be able to transform potential conflict into healthy discussion at the table.

 

If you enjoyed this article you may also enjoy Active Player Agency – A Crash Course and  The 5e GM’s Guide to Travel.

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