DM Criticism: Learning to Take Criticism as a DM or GM

Taking criticism isn't easy for anyone. But as a DM, you're making yourself incredibly vulnerable. You're sharing every part of yourself, from your analytical thinking to your creativity. Players can be thoughtless when they come up with DM criticism, as well as unhelpful:

  • That doesn't make any sense. Why would that happen?
  • This is boring. When does something interesting start?
  • I have no idea where to go or what to do here.
  • That wasn't fair.

This is a game that they may have only briefly encountered, but something that you've been working on for days, weeks, months, or even years. But that doesn't mean that their comments don't have merit. How can you become a better DM without internalizing the complaints and acrimony?

Recognize That the Game Experience is Uneven

Players seldom see all of the work that you put into the game -- and their experience of the game doesn't necessarily reflect the game itself. Through no fault of their own, a player could simply fall into a section of your game world that you haven't worked out, forcing you to think on your feet. It's impossible as a GM to plan out everything that a player could do. Even the most skilled DMs are going to have times when their players surprise them.

Roleplaying is often frustrating for players -- and that's part of the appeal. Players need to tackle difficult bosses or solve complex puzzles. They need to figure out mysteries and think up unique and creative plans. And just as a DM is in a vulnerable situation, so is the player. They don't know what will or won't work in your world: it's up to them to figure it out.

This frustration can bleed off sideways, to the point where they really aren't angry at you or at the game but their experience of it. And often this frustration dissipates at the "A-ha!" moment; the moment where everything clicks, the player understands the world, and becomes an active participant in it. 

And remember: sometimes something that sounds like a complaint isn't always a complaint. "This doesn't make any sense!" can be seen as an indictment, but it could also be the forlorn shout of a player who simply hasn't figured it out yet.

Learn to Take DM Criticism When It's Warranted

It's common that a player may actually be more experienced than a DM. There is a right way and a wrong way to bring up criticism, but it's important to recognize when criticism may not be entirely unwarranted. A player is giving you their subjective experience of the game. It's up to you to decide how helpful that is.

If a player's complaint is "I didn't have fun," that's not very useful to you. But if you ask them why they didn't have fun or what would have made them have fun, you might get a better answer. Perhaps they felt that there was too much combat and not enough roleplaying, or maybe they actually had a problem with another player that you didn't notice at the time.

It's often said that if multiple players have issues, it's a problem -- but if only a single person  has an issue, then it's their problem. But that might not always be true. You should listen to and consider all criticism because every criticism comes from a different place. A player might, for instance, realize that a certain spell is consistently being used wrong. 

Likewise, a single player could be the only one in position to notice a gap in your DMing. A skill-heavy player could notice that skill checks simply aren't used in your game well, while other players may never encounter it. Just because they are the only person to notice doesn't mean they aren't correct.

Identify Harmful Criticism -- And Take It in Stride

Of course, not every criticism is useful. An easy rule of thumb is to consider why the player is complaining. If a player is complaining because they just aren't having fun, then something has gone wrong that you need to work together to fix. But if a player is complaining because their character doesn't look cool enough, because other players aren't going along with what they want, or because the story isn't what they wanted it to be, then that's really a personal problem.

DMing is often about making space for other players and dealing with difficult personalities. Part of being a DM is actually engaging your social skills, so this can still be an excellent opportunity for you -- and them -- to grow as a person. But it's not necessarily your responsibility or a failing of the game. 

Take a Break When It Becomes Too Much

DMing is hard work, not only in terms of preparation but also the emotional toll. When you need to take a break, you should take a break. Have your players run some one-offs, play some board games, or do anything to get your energy back. There may be few things more important than roleplaying, but taking care of yourself is one of them.

The most important thing when dealing with criticism is not to take it personally and to get useful criticism from your players. Rather than ask them what they disliked, ask them what they would like to see more of. Reframe everything as a positive opportunity to have more fun and remember that roleplaying is inherently collaborative; there is no one method of GMing or DMing that works for all players.