Bad DMs in DnD are a problem. They can destroy a campaign with ease and cause the group to suffer through an elongated period of abuse in worst case scenarios.
There are 5 ways to spot bad DMs in DnD. Look for uncertainty, favoritism, competitiveness, and being controlling or unclear.
These seem a bit vague at first, but these 5 aspects of a bad DM are the most common. They cover just about everything for most bad DMs out there, so let’s dive into explaining these concepts!
The 5 traits
Most people give 1 scenario on how to spot a bad DM, but that doesn’t help you. Here is why it doesn’t help you.
A typical example of bad DMs is where they show favoritism towards a player. This scenario is easy to spot and will be an immediate red flag to most. But what if the problem isn’t as easy to spot? What if the bad DM is favoring an NPC, class, or style of play instead? The issue is still favoritism, but you have not been taught how to identify the problem. Instead, you will be blind to spotting a bad DM in these scenarios.
That is why we are covering the 5 traits of what make a bad DM in DnD rather than just 5 ‘red flag’ situations.
The five traits are:
- Lack of clarity
These 5 traits are at the root of almost every bad DM out there. If you have ever had a bad DM, you should be able to trace it back to any one of these core reasons.
You see, the core problem of a bad DM isn’t any given situation. It is what makes those terrible situations occur. Just knowing about the traits isn’t enough though. You need to be able to identify if a horrible trait is making an appearance in game, so let’s delve into each trait.
We have already talked a little bit about favoritism in the last section, but we have not covered the root problem of favoritism.
Bad DMs in DnD can favor anything. They can favor the rules over fun, fun over the rules, and yes favoring either is a problem. If you favor the rules over fun, the game becomes a game of rules lawyering with no focus on the story or player experience. If the game is just focused on fun, then there is no structure and the players are just along for the ride with no agency.
Favoritism doesn’t have to be blatant.
Favoritism at it’s worst is when the DM is making it apparent like favoring another player over others, but if the DM favors one aspect to the detriment of another aspect it can cause disaster. As stated above, it may not seem like much, but it can be a complete deal breaker that eventually sucks the life out of a game.
With this understanding of favoritism, it might be hard to tell if your DM is actually bad. They might favor combat over storytelling a little bit, and that doesn’t make a bad DM. They just have prefferences or strengths that they lean on a bit.
So how do you tell if the DM’s favoritism is natural or a detriment to your game?
Identifying bad favoritism
Bad DMs in DnD favor aspects of the game to the detriment of others. This is what makes favoritism bad.
Let’s use the combat vs storytelling comparison with two examples.
- The DM favors combat a little bit more than storytelling and there is a 60-70% combat ratio in your game.
- The DM favors combat so much that when the players want to engage in a story the DM forces combat.
The difference should be obvious. In scenario 2 the DM is taking away the agency of what the players want and forces them into doing something that they didn’t chose.
Identifying bad favoritism vs natural favoritism is generally this easy, but what if you are unsure?
If you are unsure if your DM is favoring things in a negative way, talk to them. Tell your DM that you noticed they are doing a lot of combat. 60-70% and ask if there can be more roleplay (if you want) or if they are open to considering your idea. If through actions they are willing to consider your ideas, then you do not have a bad DM.
As a side note, 60-70% combat or more isn’t always a bad thing. People do like different styles of D&D, and there is even a Diablo hack and slash style of play. This is why favoritism isn’t always a bad thing, but what about uncertainty?
A new DM is at a table and is trying to get the game rolling. They have 20 papers of notes and are ready to deal with anything. The players see this and decide to have a field day throwing odd questions at the DM. The DM is unprepared for this and says yes to anything they don’t know. The game is a complete mess and the players will just steamroll through the game not really having much fun or a memorable experience.
Has this ever happened to you?
If so, you had an uncertain DM. This DM was uncertain about anything they didn’t already map out and uncertain of how to respond to rules that they don’t know about. This DM also has heard that saying yes is better than just saying no. While this is true, there are times when to say no as a DM.
Now, we have to ask, is this a bad DM?
The answer is, yes. This is a bad DM. Not all bad DMs in DnD are malicious. They can be new or just someone who isn’t suited to the roll. Being a DM isn’t for everyone, and that is okay. This trait is commonly not considered important by many people, but think about this.
A DM is a leader. You have to be a leader in the group since you are making the calls that everyone has to go by. You make calls on rules, give final verdicts, and lead the players to an area. What they decide is up to them, but they still need to have someone lead them there.
Not everyone is cut out to be a leader. It is a difficult task, and there are many different types of leaders. As with favoritism, there can be good and bad types of uncertainty that we need to go over.
Good and bad uncertainties
Bad DMs in DnD are uncertain at times, but it can go beyond just actions. If a DM is unable to control a room or have a commanding presence they seem uncertain. If a DM is not confident, or at least seems confident to the players, they are uncertain and able to be walked all over.
Uncertainties about the rules, how well they can lead, or any basic sense of charisma can lead to a DM being bad. Just like favoritism, this can be confusing so let me give 3 examples.
- The DM is uncertain about the rules. They constantly look them up and are unable to make a decision. They even resort to letting the players make the calls.
- The DM is uncertain about a situation and makes a bad call. They then have to talk to the players and work something out.
- The DM is unclear about a situation and takes a small amount of time to think about it.
Obviously, situation 1 is bad, but what about 2 and 3? In situation 2 the DM made a bad call and in situation 3 the DM took time to think about a topic.
If a DM is willing to work with players to clarify a bad call, it is not a sign of weakness. Taking some time to think about a topic is not a crime. A little bit of time, (20 seconds) doesn’t make a bad DM. It makes the players maybe lose some confidence in the DM or gain some confidence (depending on how many times this has happened).
Being uncertain does not mean making small mistakes or being willing to compromise. You still can’t flippantly change the rules, but listenting to player input and changing rules when it makes sense to do so is a good DM. A DM who listens to their players and takes their opinions into account is actually a good DM, but those that don’t consider their players are generally controlling.
These are the most hellacious stories of bad DMs in DnD. The player wants to make a gnome fighter who specializes in underwater basket weaving, and the DM later on kills the character. Telling the player that they need to make a real character next time or they might end up dead all over again.
These bad DMs in DnD get the most press and seem like the absolute worst. They are scummy and are pretty easy to spot. At least, it seems that way.
An overtly controlling DM is easy to deal with. You leave the group or have someone else DM, but there are other ways to control the game to the detriment of the players.
A more subtle way to control the game and ruin it for others is to control the story. We call this railroading. It is sometimes hard to spot, so read our article on ‘Am I railroading my DnD group’ to figure out if it is actually railroading or not. If you read the article, you also found out that railroading isn’t always bad. This seems a little odd, but there is a certain level of control required.
Each group is different. Some groups are able to pretty much write the plot by themselves. Others do something and then look to the DM for the next thing to do. That is why finding out if your DM is a bad DM is hard sometimes. Here are three clear signs:
Signs of control
- They try to take away agency.
- An agenda is forced.
- Player input is heard and ignored.
Taking away agency is a terrible crime for a DM. Bad DMs in DnD do this the most. They don’t let you chose a character, make your actions not matter when a villain gets away despite them legitimately failing and dying, etc. This rolls into the forced agenda. What the DM wants to happen will happen. The game becomes more of a storybook than a collaborative effort. Lastly, player input is ignored when they say a rule doesn’t make sense.
Ignoring some player input is acceptable in certain circumstances. In session 0 A DM can tell a player that there are differences in this game before the game begins. This is fine, and there are other times that control is okay.
If a player commands the room and table it can be a good thing. We talked about how in the uncertainty section that DMs need to be leaders. Leaders have to command a room and the game a little bit, but good control vs bad control is the difference between the qualities of a leader.
A good leader/DM will command the room to a reasonable level while listening to others. A bad leader/DM will not care about the others and force their way through without discussion or trying to make others understand. In addition, a bad leader/DM will not listen to anything that the players say and try to take control.
Too much control can make a bad DM. It is hard to spot a bad controlling DM if it isn’t overt, but the main way to spot a bad DM who is too controlling is if they take away your agency or make you do things that you do not want to. These are terrible DMs, but competitive DMs can also ruin your game.
When we play a game vs others we like to win. Anyone who says they just don’t want to win is either above the game or just lying. Even in fun social games, I have never seen a person who says they don’t want to win not get a little excited over winning. This is where bad DMs in DnD come from.
As a DM, you cannot take the stance of you vs the players. Once you do, the game is ruined.
This seems like a harsh stance, but view it this way. When a referee is in charge of a baseball game, they are not competing. They are above the game and are unbiased in the outcome. That is because they have no stake in the game and this is where DMs differ from referees.
DM’s are in charge of the rules of the game. They are referees, but they also control the other team that the players are fighting against. Therefore it is easy for the DM to get caught in a me vs them mentality. Once this happens, the game is going to become a nightmare very quickly.
Imagine a baseball team having the referee on their side. Wouldn’t that make things a little unfair? The answer is that yes, it definitely would. And that is what happens when the DM has a personal stake in a fight.
The players will most of the time not win against the DM if the DM is legitimately trying to kill the players, but this also applies to NPCs or storytelling elements.
If a DM makes an NPC to fight the party or be with and better than the other party members, it can be a problem. This begs the question, is it okay to be competitive at all as a DM?
DMs are not above the game. They have to control a side and this is what can make bad DMs in DnD. That being said, you will be a little competitive.
When a DM makes a terrible roll for the 20th time, it can get annoying. DMs can be a little invested in not being terrible since they are controlling a side, and if you have ever seen a passive DM who doesn’t care about the monster’s success you will realize that the game is boring quickly.
You also need to have this adversarial tone when playing any sort of monsters. You don’t expect them to win, but you when playing the monsters have to express that they want to win. This builds tension and is necessary for your games of DnD.
With all of this, how do you tell when competitiveness has gone too far?
If the DM is enjoying the party suffering a bit too much and keeps pressing an unfavorable situation with enthusiasm, or when a DM is completely disheartened by loss. This is when competitiveness has gone too far.
We expect to lose as DMs, but still need to have fun and make it fun for the players. Problems only arise when we truly try to take the side of the enemy and make the players lose. When we do this, we get emotionally invested enough to press the issue.
If a DM just naturally progresses the fight with how the enemies would logically act, there is no issue. The problem arises when the DM takes glee from near party destruction. At least, genuine glee and not inner turmoil and trepidation.
Lack of clarity
In the competitive section we left the last part a bit unclear. The lack of clarity on being able to tell if a DM is genuine or acting is a hard skill to assess, but the lack of clarity on a DM’s part is a death knell to a group.
That is right. Not the campaign, but to the entire group.
A lack of clarity is a classic sign of bad DMs in DnD. Some may confuse this with uncertainty, but there is a clear difference. An uncertain DM doesn’t know the rules, while a lack of clarity is confusing for their own advantage.
A classic example of this is a DM making up rules on the spot. Not calling a rules ruling, but instead making up the rules. This happens for a lot of reasons. The DM can be inexperienced and just make mistakes, or the DM is malicious.
A malicious DM is easy to spot. They want to change the rules and make them up to fit their own benefit. A save for a fireball is dexterity now, and later constitution for a monster because… reasons?
Lacking clarity is natural for most DMs. They can’t know how to describe every situation and end up missing things. To see how hard it is to use descriptions properly, look at our article on ‘how to use descriptors in DnD.’ It is not easy to do well, and is something that most DMs struggle with. It can destroy games and lacking clarity is never okay.
Lack of clarity is never okay.
Bad DMs in DnD lack clarity a bit too much. It almost seems suspicious how much they change rules or don’t describe a situation well enough. The description can be so bad that it makes the players do something stupid. This is not okay in the slightest, but we all make some mistakes.
Lack of clarity is always a problem, but how you handle it dictates if you are a bad or good DM. A bad DM will try to force their perspective while a good DM will acknowledge their fault.
That doesn’t mean that acknowledging your fault makes you a good DM alone. If you constantly make mistakes clarifying a situation or the rules, you are a bad DM. Same goes to any DM that you have.
Lack of clarity is usually the last issue that a DM gets over. Mainly because it is hard to describe everything needed for the players all the time. It takes a lot of practice, and really will show the difference between a good and bad DM.
Having a good DM
I know that this is all a bit overwhelming. Bad DMs in DnD might seem like they are the norm with everything that can go wrong, but there is good news!
Good DMs exist out there. It will take a while to get that experience, and there are a lot of failures to become a good DM, but they do exist. Having a good DM can make you a life long lover of the hobby, so you should have at least a few good DM experiences. That is why I have a new service for you all.
I am giving out professional GM/DM games for those who are interested in having a good DM. I have gone through all the failures and still try to learn and grow as a DM should. If you are interested in this, or just want to help support the blog, then you can get a great DM game for your and your friends at levelupgm.com.
You can also become a good DM through trial and error, but having a good experience will help you progress. So watch and play with many other good DMs out there. Try to spot bad traits, and see how DMs respond to difficult situations to help you become a better DM.
Bad DMs In DnD can ruin games. There are 5 key traits that almost every bad DM uses. They may not use them all, but they use at least 1 of the 5 key traits. Remember ,the 5 key traits are uncertainty, competitiveness, favoritism, being controlling, and lastly being unclear.
Even knowing these traits doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to spot a good or bad DM. You need to look at the degree in which each trait manifests. Some are good to have a little bit of (controlling for example), while others are just going to naturally occur (lack of clarity).
The extent of each trait is what matters, and I hope that you never spot these negative traits in your DM. If you are a DM, watch for these. We can always grow as a DM and improve. I can tell you this even after 20 years, since I am still always improving and growing.
You can be a good DM! It just takes time.
But if you have a bad DM, get out or talk to the DM. If you can’t do anything to help save your game, then I am here for you. While you are trying to find a new game, or if you just want a good DM check out levelupgm if you want a guaranteed good DM experience.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!