Ego Check: Scott Rehm of The Angry DM (Part I)

I have mentioned a few times that one of the first blogs I started reading when I turned online for DMing advice was The Angry DM. The articles made a big impression on me because they did not only offer advice for improving the game, but also advocated for those toiling in the DM role. When I started the Ego Check series, I was hopeful that I could eventually reach the writer of The Angry DM for an interview.

Fortunately, Scott Rehm, the writer of The Angry DM, agreed to share his time with me for an interview. The interview covered so many topics and I’m happy to say it’s the first Ego Check that will require a Part I and Part II. In the first half of the interview, I speak with Scott about the creation of The Angry DM and how “Angry” has connected with the D&D community. Please take some time and enjoy the first half of an extensive interview with Scott Rehm. And remember, Angry’s not a system, he’s a man.

Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I want to get the most obvious question out of the way immediately, “Why are you so angry?”

I think the better question is: why aren’t you more angry? Look at what DMing entails. Really look at it. You spend hours every week creating worlds, characters, and stories. And you can’t do that without truly getting attached to what you create. You become invested. Heavily invested. Hell, you have to be invested just to put in the time to begin with. Even learning all of the rules is a huge time commitment. And, even if you’re not running a homebrew campaign or writing your own adventures, you still need to study the adventures and bring them to life. The most inexperienced, laziest DM still puts enough time and creative energy into every game for it to qualify as an unpaid, part-time job.

Players, on the other hand, just aren’t that invested and they never will be. If they truly were, they wouldn’t be able to stay players, would they. They’d be driven to go beyond creating one character. When the session ends, they can just stop thinking about the game. They don’t have to put in any real time or effort and they don’t risk much by coming to the game. Once in a while, you get a player who insists on creating this elaborate back story. But how many of those have you seen that actually used the DMs world as a jumping-off point or even acknowledged the details from the setting? Very few.

And who wins? The players! And I don’t mean in terms of encounters, though they win those too. Because the whole damned game is set up to let the players show off their amazing characters. “Look at me! Look at how awesome I am!” The entire world – everything the DM creates – all of that exists solely to either fawn over the PCs or get slaughtered by the PCs. The few times a DM tries to find something to latch onto, like a favorite NPC, he gets slapped across the face. “No! This is the PC’s story. Keep your DM PCs to yourself!” Say yes to the players. Bow and scrape for the players. Don’t step on their creativity. You can create a dark, hopeless world in which civilization is struggling to find its footing and recover from a devastating war with the primordials and have it deal with the overarching themes of sanity and what it means to be human, but if someone wants to play a silly gnome bard named Skippy, you’re not allowed to say no.

DMing is a sick trap. Its hell for creative people. Create something you love, then turn it over to the ravages of a bunch of uninvested, self-worshiping morons. DMing is like writing an epic series of novels and then locking yourself in a room with a bunch of fan fiction writers, week after week, and clapping for them as their self-insert avatars urinate on the corpses of the characters you breathed life and subtlety and nuance into for years.

So the question is, why aren’t more DMs more angry about this whole scam.

The DM role can be a thankless job. You do an excellent job of summarizing how the workload in a campaign is extremely one-sided. I have always appreciated your strong stance advocating for the DM because so many suggestions exist for how to make the game experience better for the players. There are not many sources focusing on how to make the game experience better for the DM. Your site offers often humorous advice for DMs, such as a post last year responding to a reader asking about the problem of too many players in their game. A portion of your response is below:

I propose a nice, unbiased tournament. Decide how many seats you want to fill and tell your players flat out that there are, say, five seats available. Then, get a copy of the Tomb of Horrors (the old school one, not the sissy new one) and run the whole group through it. Every time a character dies, they are eliminated. Last five survivors get the five seats. First, no one can complain that you didn’t give everyone a fair shot. Second, anyone who didn’t get a seat no longer has a character to be attached to.

And you doll out suggestions for DMs such as the following:

DMing is a lot easier when you just stop giving a crap. After all, the players don’t. Why should you?

DMs, use a gavel at the game to symbolize your role as judge and final authority on all rules. You can also hit people with it.

Do you know what they call someone who always says yes? Spineless. Don’t be a spineless DM.

The tagline of your site is D&D Advice with Attitude, and you certainly live up to that phrase. But I’ve always wondered how much of The Angry DM is “real” and how much of it is a snarky persona. Could you talk a bit about that distinction, if indeed there is one to be made?

I was afraid this question would come up eventually. It’s one I generally avoid. The thing to understand is that there are actually two different Angry DMs and one of them appeared by accident and took on a life of his own. It’s a long story, but I’ll try to be brief.

The first Angry DM is The Angry DM behind the blog. Originally, when I started the blog, I wanted to provide generally good advice and house rules, but I also wanted to entertain. In real life, I have this sort of bombastic, over-the-top, ranting style of humor. A bit like Lewis Black without the constant barrage of profanities. And I wanted to use that voice on the website. But I also didn’t want to censor myself and avoid criticizing things that needed it. The “Advice with Attitude” tagline was a warning to readers that I was going to do just that. But I always wanted it to be constructive.

In “Tearing 4E a New One,” for example,  I was very critical of the encounter resource mechanic, but ultimately, I offered a set of house rules folks could try out if they found they needed them. My review of Gamma World was critical of some design decisions I thought didn’t serve the product well, but it also offered ways to change the game to suit a long-term, serious campaign. Ultimately, I think the essence of what I was trying to accomplish shows through most in my articles “Winning D&D” and “Put Away Your Skill List.”

When I set up the Twitter account to tie into the website, I intended for it to be a personal account tied to the website. Same basic voice, same intentions. But, when I noticed Sly Flourish’s excellent series of D&D Tips, I was struck with an idea for a funny tip that an old-school, Gygaxian, tyrannical DM might give. The sort of DM every Dungeon Master’s Guide advises you not to be. It got a good response and I came up with another. And another.

After that, I noticed that The Angry DM was getting mentioned on Twitter and casually on podcasts like The DM’s Roundtable and Dice of Doom as the epitome of tough, unfair, tyrannical DMing. Comments like: “I realized the players were going to lose, so I lowered the dragon’s hit points. I’m sure The Angry DM would disapprove.” So, I let the character grow. As the character grew, he started to develop motives and a back story because, well, I’m a role player. I can’t help it. Over time, my Twitter account became a conflation of two different personas: Scott (that’s me and ultimately, that’s also who publishes and writes the website) and Angry (which is The Angry DM’s actual first name who is responsible for the tips and sometimes hijacks my Twitter feed to badmouth players and stir up trouble).

I know there is still some confusion out there and I know it is because I have handled things very poorly. If I had it to do over again, I would create a different Twitter account for my personal and site-related Tweets. But, there is a part of me that enjoys the fact that people never know where I am really coming from. At heart, I am a jokester and I find it funny whenever I cause some mood whiplash. But I do somewhat regret having trapped myself in this multiple personality disorder setup. Of course, if I wanted to, I could claim that it is a brilliant statement on the way players in D&D have learned to flit effortlessly back and forth between playing a character and speaking out of character and to be able to interact with others doing the same thing. Honestly, that might have something to do with why people seem to accept it so easily.

The first rule of Angry is: you do not talk about Angry.

I should mention that the Ask Angry article you cited is the only article on the website written by Angry and not me. It was intended to be a spoof advice column building on Angry’s D&D Tips. Unfortunately, I only got one e-mail and the person who sent it thought he was going to get serious, useful advice. I sent back a rather long explanation and genuinely tried to help him resolve his issue because I felt guilty about the confusion. In the end, without any more requests for advice, I let the column die.

As for the question of how much of myself I’ve put into Angry, I’ll say this: the people who know that the character is joke would be surprised to learn how much of the real me is in there. And the people who think there is a teddy bear hiding behind the façade would definitely be caught off guard if they ended up on the other side of my screen. In the end, aren’t all role players really just playing different facets of themselves magnified?

I find the development of “Angry” to be fascinating! And it’s interesting how it came about accidentally and then took on a life of its own. It’s a great insight on your part that you took on the role easily as a roleplaying gamer, and that the RPG audience also allowed you the freedom to experiment with that role without too many questions. But you mentioned that you feel a bit trapped in a corner with the Scott/Angry dynamic – when is the current setup most challenging for you to balance? Do you foresee separating the two personalities?

Perhaps “trapped in a corner” is too strong. Honestly, I don’t find the split particularly challenging, possibly because Angry and I have very similar personalities and voices. When I want to be me, I’m me. When I want to be Angry, I’m Angry. And Angry is only allowed on Twitter unless I specifically ask him to do a project for me, like the Ask Angry article. He was very excited about that idea because it gave him a chance to tell those “Sissy, Player-Loving, Sunshine and Rainbows and Bunny Farts DMs” to “grow a pair and kill a PC, dammit.” His words, not mine.

But, I’m also aware that it does create confusion, particularly with new Twitter followers who haven’t meant Angry yet or who are expecting all Angry, all the time. Occasionally, a new follower meeting Angry for the first time will try to argue with Angry, explaining why he’s wrong or telling him to lighten up and have fun. Honestly, I don’t understand that all, confusion or no. When you have someone who has chosen the handle “The Angry DM” and is actively encouraging you to start fist fights between players (not characters), that person is either dangerously irrational or a joke. If he’s irrational, nothing you say is going to change his mind. If he’s a joke, you’re just ruining it. Either way, you’re wasting your time and you’re not going to win. But I digress.

I could separate the feeds - give Angry the Twitter handle and make one for myself – and I’ve thought about doing just that. But, the website would end up being my website with his name on it. I could give him the website too, but I don’t think he’d offer very good content. I am also worried about what it would do for my ego to discover that I am less popular than a psychotic, tyrant DM character I invented. I would probably try to compete with him for attention, becoming more psychotic and tyrannical myself. Angry and I would keep escalating, and then I’d end up living the plot of a Philip Roth novel. Or maybe I should just drop everything and write that novel. It would probably end with Scott imprisoned for murdering his group of well-meaning players to earn Angry’s approval and the approval of the internet. Sort of a Norman Bates with the Internet playing the role of surrogate mother. There’s a cautionary tale for you, huh?

Joking aside, the real problem, the one I feel most acutely, is not separating myself from Angry, but rather that I’ve created two different personas with the same name. I value having that name on different things for different reasons. I suppose I could resolve it through roleplay, having Angry sue me for the trademark and logo and forcing me to change the website and domain to something like:”The Tough But Fair DM: Uncensored” or something. But that really doesn’t roll off the tongue, so I will probably continue things as they are and rely on readers, fans, and friends to be smart enough to distinguish between the two.

I am certainly not advocating for you to change, although I don’t wish a psychological meltdown for you either! I really appreciate your willingness to talk about the Angry persona. As I mentioned, there were times reading your Tweets or articles when I wondered how much of the material was in “your” voice. You probably do have to trust your audience more than other writers since you’re asking more of them. But I would argue that you’re also giving them a bit more with not one set of ideas, but two.

For example, I’ve enjoyed Angry’s advice a great deal – both for some laughs but also for legitimate DM tips. I’m likely too accommodating as a DM to my players. I think it’s because I’m a rather new DM and I err on the side of thinking, “The more experienced players must be correct. I just want everyone to have a good time.” It’s an issue I’m continuously working on and Angry’s advice over the last year or so has forced me to think about the DM role from another perspective and become more assertive.

It sounds like you think Angry has connected more with people than you. Why do you think Angry, the “psychotic, tyrant DM” you created, seems to garner more attention?

Considering Angry is basically just an ongoing psychological meltdown and people seem to find that funny, I think my own psychological meltdown would probably attract quite an audience. But I don’t think there’s much danger of that, despite any appearance of multiple personality disorder in this interview.

I’m not sure whether people are connecting with Angry or just find him entertaining. But, if there is a connection, I think it might be because Angry speaks to something primal in all DMs. At least, that’s why I connect with him.

How it feels to be a DM at times!

Entertainer or Creator?

I know there are a lot of ways to classify DMs and their styles. I think Angry exemplifies what I would call the Creator DM, a term I’ve just made up to oppose the Entertainer DM, which is another term I’ve just made up to define the other end of the spectrum. The Creator DM is the DM who has an artistic vision and wants to bring that to life. Ultimately, it’s the selfish side of being a DM, the side that knows he is a brilliant world-builder and storyteller and wants to impress his audience. On the other hand, the Entertainer DM is the utterly selfless DM; running the game entirely for the players. Maybe he writes his own material, maybe he doesn’t; the setting and the story are less important to him than just saying yes to his players and letting them feel awesome. He’ll happily let the elf surf down a staircase on a shield, rapid-firing his longbow all the way down just because the player saw it in a movie and wants to do it. The Entertainer DM’s personal joy comes from seeing others have a great time. Of course, this is a spectrum and most DMs will fall somewhere in the middle.

Angry is the ultimate extreme, the pure Creator DM. When he was introduced to gaming, he was enamored with creating his own worlds and stories. He thinks he is a genius author, director, and producer. The sort of DM who always claims he is working on a novel based on his last campaign, even though it will never be finished. Angry doesn’t see his players as participants, he sees them as a captive audience. Moreover, he sees them as a safe audience that, due to his position of power over the game, can’t really criticize him. He needs them because Angry is terrified of discovering he’s not the artistic genius he thinks he is. In the rare instance where a does raise an objection or criticism, Angry assumes it is because the player is too stupid to understand his vision. Angry probably would be happy writing novels if not for his fear of rejection. If you’ll forgive me for saying so, Angry is the ultimate Id DM. He is motivated by selfishness and fear and doesn’t care about satisfying anyone’s needs but his own.

Of course, his players rebel because they are participants and want to play a game, not have a novel dictated to them. This drives Angry crazy because the true Creator DM needs complete creative control. Over time, he has grown frustrated. He hates the game and despises his players for “ruining his vision”,” but it’s the only safe creative outlet he has. He has become bitter and spiteful, in addition to being railroading and controlling. In short, he’s a terrible DM and he’s grown miserable doing it, for which he blames his players. He insists that he’s stuck doing it, but if anyone really did offer to DM, he’d talk them out of it because (1) he knows he’s the only great DM in his group and (2) he’s afraid that people might be happier and prove that he’s a bad DM.

Now, every DM falls somewhere between the Entertainer and the Creator. And both aspects are important to being a good DM. An out of control Creator is a terrible thing, but an out of control Entertainer is just as bad. In his zeal to please his players and give them anything, he would rob the game of challenge and, possibly worse, of coherence and structure. The world would fall apart while the players ran around casually defying the laws of physics, ethics, and common decency in the name of feeling awesome and getting away with whatever they can. The PCs would probably kill each other in the end, but that’s okay; they’d rub their resurrecting belt buckles and start again. If the Creator is the DM behind the railroad plot, for example, the Entertainer is the DM behind the Monty Haul campaign where players casually knock off gods with +12 hackmaster swords and end up unsatisfied because being constantly, improbably awesome and never failing is ultimately unfulfilling.

A good DM needs to strike a balance between control and freedom. Between entertaining himself and his players. And I’m sure that every DM has, at times, felt the frustration of suppressing his Creator aspect, of reigning it in. Every DM has felt the sting of his players trouncing a great encounter like it was nothing. Or ignoring an artfully designed NPC. Or just wildly running off the rails pursuing some crazy side quest while the main adventure lays forgotten behind the DM screen. As DMs, we’re not supposed to feel those frustrations for therein lies to road to bad DMing. At least according to the advice offered in most game systems. Angry gives a voice to those frustrations; he lets DMs know its okay to have those dark voices and he says the things they sometimes wish they could say. Sometimes kowtowing to players is hard when it’s at the cost of a great idea for a story or a world that the DM is proud of. Angry isn’t afraid to admit that.

Angry’s advice does have some merit because, ultimately, the Creator aspect is an important part of DMing, but its taken to a ridiculous extreme. People sometimes send me messages after I shoot off a tip saying, “I love how you combine good advice with really bad advice.” And I, personally, love that style of humor: take something reasonable and then take it too far. I remember one tip that got a lot of those responses: “Make the game your own; don’t cave in to pressure from other DMs, bloggers, your players, social mores, or state and local statutes.” Its good advice for any DM: own your game and take pride in it, but not to the extent that you are ignoring your players. And not to the extend that you might end up in jail.

Ultimately, I’m nervous about divulging so much of Angry’s character, partly because I don’t want to ruin him as a humorous character and partly because I’m afraid of what people will think that means for me. After all, I’ve already admitted there is more of myself in Angry than people might think. In fact, I’m wondering if I should be discussing this on a tasteful leather couch instead of at a keyboard. At the very least, I feel like I should be paying you $250 an hour for this interview. I’ll admit that I do fall firmly on the Creator side of the middle, but I am fortunate to have a group of players that forgive my tighter hold on creative control because they’ve come to appreciate the benefits to the game. I do have regular discussions with my players to ensure they are happy with the game and to talk about what we want out of the game. And that’s something Angry would never do. Hell, he’d never even consider it a worthwhile discussion. That, combined with the fact that I truly do love being surprised by the game and that I’ve never lost my love of the game, keeps me from turning truly Angry.

And, of course, I could be off the mark on all of this. It could just be that people find Angry funny with no deeper meaning than that. I tend to read a lot of meaning into everything. If you’ll allow me the privilege of turning the question back at you, do you find that Angry resonates with you, apart from providing entertainment and useful advice? And if so, why do you think that is?

I really think you nailed it, and I was going to remark that Angry is true Id. I think we all have impulses to do what makes us happy regardless of the consequences it might have for others. But that drive to seek out pleasure and gratification is balanced by an assessment of moral standards and potential consequences. To stay with Freud’s terms, he also referred to the Ego, which attempts to mediate between Id and reality to satisfy the Id’s drives and urges in a realistic way that will not cause long-term harm and grief (hence, Ego Check . . . aren’t I clever?). So while I DM most of the time with consideration for my players’ needs and interests, I certainly have a desire to fulfill my own needs in the game and the players be damned!

It relates to some of your initial comments about the DM investing much more time into a campaign than all of the players combined. I think on some level, all DMs are a bit resentful about the workload disparity. Angry taps into that resentfulness on a primal level, and even though many DMs laugh at the comments, fragments of the message ring very true for them.

I don’t believe “pulling back the curtain” on Angry will harm you or the persona in any way. It does not diminish your site or work in the slightest for me.

And don’t worry, this “session” is on the house! ;-)

Return later this week for the second half of my interview with Scott Rehm. During the rest of the interview, we discuss a variety of topics including interactive storytelling, player choice and how a game’s system influences the level of roleplaying during sessions.

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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10 Responses to Ego Check: Scott Rehm of The Angry DM (Part I)

  1. theweem says:

    Very interesting, well done ;)

  2. BeefGriller says:

    Enjoyed this article, and am looking forward to Part 2.

  3. The Id DM says:

    Thanks for coming by to read the article. Part II will likely “drop” on Wednesday.

  4. Great questions. I’ve been wondering these things, but have been afraid to ask TheAngryDM!

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  6. S'mon says:

    “He hates the game and despises his players for “ruining his vision”,” but it’s the only safe creative outlet he has. He has become bitter and spiteful, in addition to being railroading and controlling. In short, he’s a terrible DM and he’s grown miserable doing it, for which he blames his players…”

    Does he post as Kzach on EN World?

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