[RPG] As a DM, how to avoid unconscious metagaming when dealing with a high AC character


In my previous campaign, a player started the campaign with a tanky fighter build with a chain mail, a shield, and Defense fighting style, for a total of 19 starting AC. For a level 1.

I was still learning to DM, so I became frustrated whenever it was a monster's turn and the closest target was him. Unconsciously, I finished the monster's turn noticeably more quickly than others attacking other targets ("Oh, a 12. The dagger can't pierce your armor. Okay, next one is …")

This resulted in:

  1. Frustration when forced to deal with him – closest target or the only target.
  2. Preference on attacking targets other than him, if possible.
  3. Preference to attack with save-based effects on him. Usually I saved limited resources of save-based effects and exclusively used them on the tank.

I tried to become as objective as possible, and this resulted in me trying to do the reverse: forcing my monsters to be inefficient by attacking him over easier-to-hit target beside him, reluctant to use save-based effects on him, etc.

I tried to be fair, but it seems I become meta-metagaming and I don't like that.

How to deal with this tank fairly? I've tried not to think about the 19 AC, but it is inevitable that I need that info to properly play the game (and the AC won't likely to change for a long time).

Best Answer

Avoid the DM vs Player trap

It looks like you may have fallen into that trap, based on how you presented the problem. This isn't a matter of a "fair fight" between a monster (or a group of monsters) and a PC. It's about the player making choices that have costs. This player gave up more offensive power to be better at defense. Honor that choice.

That high armor class is neither a fluke nor an exploit. It is well within the limits of the game as built and comes with a cost: reduced damage output (and in the case of heavy armor, disadvantage on Stealth checks).

Your player took an opportunity cost to become hard-to-hit

Rather than taking the dueling style, which would have added +2 to damage for each hit, or Great Weapon Fighting, which would make his damage output higher, this player chose to be harder to hit. There is no reason for you to get frustrated - You Are Not The Monsters.

  1. Monster success is not a sign of a good DM
  2. Monster defeat is not a sign of a bad DM.

    The monsters1 will try to defeat the PCs based on your choices, to be sure, but the monster's defeat or difficulty in hitting a purposefully built hard-to-hit character is not a problem. It's a consequence of the players' choices.

Bottom Line: put yourself in a neutral mind set, be the referee.

  1. Do this before play begins: commit yourself to being a referee2 rather than a "side" in a battle or a contest.

  2. Don't over-identify with monster/NPC success or failure.

  3. The PCs are the stars of this movie anyway. They are by design scheme intended to become larger than life. Take a look at these descriptions of the tiers of play in the Basic Rules, p. 12:

    the first tier (levels 1–4) ... threats they face are relatively minor, usually posing a danger to local farmsteads or villages...

    In the second tier (levels 5–10) ... These characters have become important, facing dangers that threaten cities and kingdoms...

    In the third tier (levels 11–16) .. These mighty adventurers often confront threats to whole regions and continents...

    At the fourth tier (levels 17–20)... becoming heroic (or villainous) archetypes in their own right. The fate of the world or even the fundamental order of the multiverse might hang in the balance during their adventures...

The dice are your tools, let them help you be fair

Let the dice / RNG remove your fears of metagaming. They are fickle and they are fair.

  1. It doesn't matter if the monster hits or misses. Roll the dice and see what happens. That little rodent who rolls a 20 or a 19 still hits this "tanky" character.

  2. Let RNG help you. If you feel that you are picking on one player too often, or that another player never seems to get attacked, use a random die roll to see which character gets attacked when more than one character is within range. I've been using that tool since I started DMing.


1 For the purposes of this answer: Monster also applies to any NPC opposing the PC's.

2 It is worth noting that when D&D was first published in 1974, and before "dungeon master" became the term of art, the person running the game that the players were in was called "referee" or "judge." Both of those terms have the connotation of impartiality: embrace it. It'll make you a better DM.

The terms DM, judge & referee are all synonymous in D&D; largely a matter of choice. (~ Tim Kask, Editor, Dragon Magazine #9, page 6)

RNG: common abbreviation for "random number generator"

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