Outsmarting the DM is something that every player should strive to do and dungeon master should encourage. This means that the game is alive and interesting.
Outsmarting the DM can be bad or good. If the DM is bad, this is bad for everyone. If the DM is good, this is a highlight of the campaign.
If you are the DM and have been outsmarted you can feel bad. That is why we are going to talk about when being outsmarted is good, bad, and what to do after it has occurred.
What causes outsmarting to happen
Most of the time new DMs have a problem with being outsmarted. Older dungeon masters are not smarter, they just know how to deal with it when it happens.
D&D is a game that involves the dungeon master and a group of players. When you have 1 person vs 3,4,5, or more even if that 1 player is god they will not always out-think the group.
Outsmarting the DM occurs when either the players
A: Are trained to be creative and are having fun.
B: Want to punish the DM.
Usually, all groups start out with cause A. They want to be creative and have fun. When it turns to cause B is if the DM is unfair and makes the players feel like they need to outsmart the DM.
There are many horror stories about the players outsmarting the DM. Here is 1 example.
In this horror story, the player wanted to outsmart the DM because the DM was extremely unfair. You can see the slow spiral of bad decisions and how the player felt to get to this point.
This is 1 instance of bad outsmarting, but there are 2 scenarios that can cause being outsmarted to have a negative result.
The good reason why dungeon masters are outsmarted is that they realize that the game is a narrative story told by everyone. But before we get into the good sort of outsmarting we need to take a hard look at the bad reasons for outsmarting.
Being outsmarted with malicious intent
Outsmarting the DM can be a goal for the players. In the video above the player wanted to outsmart the DM for a malicious reason. That reason was not unwarranted, but it still was intentional to blindside and mess with the DM.
The only reason why a player would want to go about outsmarting the DM with malicious intent is because the DM deserves it, or that player is petty.
It is hard to tell which is actually happening in the moment. If there is some confusion find out from a bystander if there are any problems. Do not ask leading questions. Let your players naturally respond and tell you if you are the problem or that player is.
If it is the player, we have a section on problem players here.
Most likely, it is the DM.
If you are a new DM this is probably your fault. You are trying to control the story and lead your players to unfold a narrative that you have written.
You also might have given up information about their character or not let the players do many things. If you say ‘no’ a lot then this is a valid reason to start a player rebellion. Usually, they want to have a damaging rebellion instead of one that will change things or make them better.
In this second scenario of the players outsmarting the DM the players did something unexpected. You thought that they would not do something like roll a natural 20 to find something. Naturally, they roll a 20, kill the bad guy, or break the game.
The second bad scenario is where you show panic. In your eyes the players see the fear. They know what they have done has befuddled you and the game is broken.
Normally 1 of 2 bad choices happen here.
- You panic and can’t go on. The game is broken and it cannot be fixed.
- The player’s hard work is taken away.
If you can’t go on, this is the better of the bad options. It is because you have the mindset that this is a problem. In the solutions section, we will talk about this.
In these situations, the dungeon master is broken. I have broken people before as a player, but this only usually affects new DMs. Older DMs usually go to bad choice number 2.
Taking away a player’s hard-earned work is like taking a toy from a child. That child will not be happy about what you did and wants the toy back. This is worse with players since they worked hard to get be creative enough to break the game.
This is where dungeon masters want the game to go 1 way. The players are there to play the game and enact a story that you have in mind with some variation. This is railroading. Read our article on railroading here to see the potential problems.
The dungeon master reacts by solving the problem. The MacGuffin is taken, the bad guy teleports out, something slimy and unwarranted happens. Players know that things were forced and not natural. They know that the bad guy shouldn’t have escaped. They know that the item should not have been taken. The players know, and they are not happy.
This is what leads to player resentment and starts malicious intent. The players are not allowed to play the game or have any agency, so why should the DM? These are the thoughts that go through a player’s head and it is completely fair.
So how can outsmarting the DM be a good thing?
Outsmarting as a positive
D&D is a group game where everyone tells a story. The dungeon master facilitates what goes on, but the players can have a huge impact on their adventure changing what destiny would normally have. In other words, the players can change the DM’s story.
This is the basic definition of D&D that most people should have, but some dungeon masters do not. Some dungeon masters want to the players to go along and do what is expected of them. Those dungeon masters will have the negative consequences as described in the above sections.
So what happens when a DM Follows this definition of D&D?
The DM tries to allow players to have their own agency. Their actions have meaning, and the players are always trying to become smarter and more creative. Whatever they do has consequences, but it does not mean that those consequences are punishments. Check out our article on consequences to figure out more here.
If the players are trying to become smarter and more creative, they will naturally outsmart the DM. The DM in these situations has facilitated growth and loves to see it. So when a player is outsmarting the DM, the DM is proud.
It is no longer a problem. It is an opportunity.
This makes the game not go the way it was planned to. This makes it interesting. In no universe would you expect this unexpected thing to happen, but now that it has does that mean?
If the players outsmart the DM and kill a bad guy when they are not supposed to, what does that mean? Does the bad guy have friends? Are the players now a target for greater threats? Will their deeds bring them into the eyes of a court?
This is not the end.
Not the end
When players are outsmarting the DM some DMs panic as described above. They panic because they cannot fathom that there is more. After this outcome, the game is over!
The game is not over if the dungeon master is outsmarted.
You most likely have prepared the environment. If so, then going forward is easy. The city might be grateful for a time, but there are other enemies. New rivals may be born, and old failures might come back to haunt the party.
The world and game does not need to stop with just 1 plot ending. This is a new opportunity. You just have to not let the players know how much they screwed up your plans.
If you view this as not the end of your game then you will want to continue. Do not use this time to make the mistakes listed in showing panic.
Speaking of time, when players are outsmarting the DM the dungeon master might need to take a break. Everything they have worked on is ruined and they have no idea where the game is going.
That is why if you need to ask for a break. Take some time to re-coup and tell them that you didn’t expect what they just did at all. Make the players feel good for doing an impressive deed.
If you want to not let the players know that you need time, try to give the players something to talk about outside of combat. In-game, not out of game topics. Give them a plot point, a merchant’s letter, or just let them talk about the day. You can do this by asking how camp is after the unexpected twist and use that time to think.
If you are an experienced DM then you most likely know about ambiguous phrases.
“The players vanquish the necromancer and high five each other. They ask the dungeon master if they have won and the DM says that it appears so.”
This does not mean that the dungeon master had this planned. It does not mean that the dungeon master has any clue what to do next. It actually means that the DM is internally screaming and frantically trying to figure out what to do next.
The players are paranoid, plan, and the dungeon master is frantically planning. A soup of chaos for everyone!
This tactic keeps the players on their toes and can be used when the dungeon master is not panicking. The players are never sure, and this is where the story truly gets interesting.
I cannot tell you exactly what to do when you have been outsmarted. Outsmarting the DM is something that will always happen. Each game is different and any advice past looking at your environment and being levelheaded won’t help.
You need to view this as an opportunity and not the end.
Once this is done, everything will fall into place and the game can continue. Just remember to give a sly phrase and panic internally! Just please do not take away the player’s hard-earned work or give the players malicious intent.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!