Avoiding Animus at the Table

Volo's Guide to Monsters | Dungeons & Dragons

After a bloody battle against a warforged sneak, his juggernaut underling, and his skeletal minions, each of the party members lies dead on the ground. In the fields of a scarred farm, a bulette-riding goblin with a massive, stone maul executes each of the living party members, goblins hollering around him. As a kobold warlock saves a fellow party member, the speeding boulder rams into him, shattering his bones and sending his soul to the Nine Hells.

All of the situations I described above are encounters that have gone wrong for at least one person in my party. Whether it was the dice not rolling their way, the odds being against them in every way, or them mistakenly taking a battle against a powerful foe, at least one of them died; their character’s soul left its mortal shell, grey mist coiled around it, and it made its journey to the Astral Plane, where it would soon enter a portal to its respective eternal resting place.

Of course, in-game this is a sad or infuriating event. If an entire party dies, something has gone wrong. The villain likely won the day and their plans are moving forward, without a bastion of heroes to halt them or protect the rest of the world. Even if a single party member dies, it’s an extremely taxing encounter, especially at low level.

Very few people come out happy after a death or a total party kill. However, that doesn’t mean there needs to be animus between the players or them and the Dungeon Master. Yes, these are the encounters where there is a chance that the players will become swept up in rage at another player’s actions...

“Why didn’t you charge past the juggernaut, going for the sniping warforged sneak?”

“Where was the healing!?!? Why was there no healing?!”

“Your dice are trash. You need new dice.”

...players might even become angry at the Dungeon Master...

“You targeted me and lost us the battle. What’s up with that?”

“I don’t think you actually rolled those two critical hits. Thanks for the TPK.”

“Is this encounter of an appropriate challenge rating for our group? I don’t think so.”

...which could create a boiling aura of blame, hatred, and fury at the table. Players yelling at players, the Dungeon Master defending their actions — it’s a mess. I never want that, and I’m sure you don’t either. We play D&D to fight dangerous beasts, to tell fantastic stories, not to play the blame game and bicker over the unfortunate demise of the characters we love.

That’s why everyone needs to understand two simple truths: no one is perfect in D&D and it’s not the DM versus the players, it’s the world versus the players. 

Artwork from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes / WotC, via D&D ...

On the first point, no one is going to play perfectly at all times. Maybe someone forgot to use their Second Wind ability as a fighter; that’s okay, don’t tear them up over it. Perhaps someone’s dice weren’t allowing them to roll over a five today, don’t beat them up! In the end, D&D is a game and many people play to have fun, not to optimize every move of their characters. Mistakes will happen and sometimes these mistakes will lead to catastrophic failure, which includes death. Be sad for a bit, reminisce about the fallen heroes, and move on to the next leg of the adventure. Don’t linger on the past and rip apart your friends. Odds are you’re going to share many more exciting, happy, and tragic tales with them in the future.

The second truth is my favorite line to espouse to my players. Whenever something doesn’t go their way, whether it’s a lord deciding to betray them at the last moment or a few skeletons deciding to focus fire on a single target, it’s not me — the Dungeon Master — committing these vile actions, it’s the lord himself, it’s the skeletons themselves. Everyone at my table should know I try to stay as true as possible to the world and characters I’m portraying. If I think the bandit lord would surrender to the party based on their past actions and his mental state, he will; I won’t force him to fight because I want a battle to take place. As a result, everyone should know it’s not me versus the players, it’s the world versus the players. I know some games don’t enjoy this concept, preferring the thought that the DM is out to kill the players, but in my game, it’s not true. I want to see them succeed. I want their stories to grow and flourish. Sometimes that’s not what happens, though. There is inherent risk in my world and D&D, without it, what’s the point? Regardless, it’s not me they should be angry at when their characters fall to the crazily calm warforged sneak or the proud goblin chieftain. They should be furious at the villains, at the world, prepared to avenge their former characters during the life of a new one.

If everyone adheres to these two, simple truths, a lot of heartache and anger can be avoided at the table. 

Instead of these two negative emotions, everyone’s minds can be filled with intrigue in the new possibilities of the next story, the next battle, the next villain — a chance to avenge the fallen. With these new chances for the incredible, everyone’s bodies will be filled with vigor, prepared for the next wicked trap, the next hearty ally, the next leg of the adventure.

Everyone has a better time at the table when they can trust there won’t be outrage when a battle is lost or something goes wrong. Try following the two truths if you aren’t already and see what happens. I can promise you, it’ll surely be a positive experience.

Until next time, stay creative!

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  1. Back when I was DMing, I found the players most likely to say "I had to do that, it's what my character would do." are also the least likely to be receptive to the DM saying that. They were also the least likely to stay at the table long.

    There are things I don't miss about running a fairly open table in college.

    1. Definitely! Some people misuse the "It's what X would do excuse" to justify their mean actions.