It's just hard work...
It’s 2020. We used to think the world was becoming a more laid back place, but then we realised it kind of wasn’t. Opinions somehow became more important than truth, and social media and the internet emboldened people who wanted to express those opinions. We’re all preachers now, delivering sermons from electronic parapets in angry, shouty voices to a flock of people that largely just cover their ears and refuse to acknowledge they can hear anything.
D&D and other tabletop RPGs are exactly like this too - someone shows up to a game, plays for a few sessions, and then gets all bent out of shape because they’re not enjoying it - the DM doesn’t let them do this, that and the other and the party doesn’t take them seriously. Their beef could be that they get heat because they deal 200 damage per round and they’re sick of people complaining that no-one else gets to kill anything. It could be that they’ve rolled a character with 93 Charisma, but their chance to charm the actual face off one of the Demon Lords seems not to be coming around any time soon. It could be that every time they make a decision they feel like it’s immediately countermanded by the GM, and that they are forced into doing something else instead that their character would never do.
The truth is, as many people have realised by now, there are a lot of different types of player. Some of them are the often reviled min/maxers, hunting for ways to be the absolute best they can be at one particular thing (usually splatting stuff but not always). You have people who want to be party leader and steer the action down a certain path, keeping everyone else in line (or their vision of what that means). You have chaotic players who want to be unpredictable - they’ve had a bad day following the strict rules of school or their workplace, and it’s about time they broke free. Players can be devious, wacky, heroic… anything. As DM, it’s your job to cater for that.
But you can’t please everyone! That’s what everyone says. It’s literally impossible to keep everyone happy at all times - there are things that people will take issue with, and you shouldn’t try to make sure they’re all happy. So give up! Do what you want and what you think is best. You’re (probably) not being paid to do the job, so it’s not like they can ask for their money back, right? (Unless you are and they can, in which case get on that bike and prepare to backpedal like a beast!)
But what if that sentiment is all wrong? What if everyone can be happy? Including you?
A lot of the time, horror stories about people storming off comes from a lack of understanding about what that player may or may not want. Someone is dead set against multiclassing, but you’ve allowed it and now the Fightarbarian is pulping two orcs per hit while the wizard is reduced to hiding behind a rock. Off goes the wizard because they’re not having fun. People might say that this is one of the easiest examples to fix - throw in encounters where the characters can’t win by fighting alone. The monster (or army) that shows up is far too strong for them so, unless they negotiate or deploy some good old fashioned trickery, they may as well use their sharp weapons and bulging muscles to dig their own graves.
Except that doesn’t work, because if you challenge the above Fightarbarian like that, they’re going to tear off their loincloth (possibly in real life), froth at the mouth and go charging into the middle of the army like a screaming dervish, assuming this is a challenge to their ability to pump out the most efficient damage numbers in the game while soaking up hits like a bathroom sponge. And then the wizard is going to get more exasperated, and the Fightarbarian is going to die, followed swiftly by the rest of the party, and then everyone will send you death threats in the mail. Sad times, campaign over.
What if you put your crafty hat on and tweak a little encounter that caters for everyone? All it takes is adding a layer of plot on top of your encounters. You make a level-appropriate encounter with a Sphinx, using the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The encounter is deadly, but there is a chance of survival that’s made even better if the party all do what they naturally want to do. The wizard can engage it in witty banter, solving its riddles and throwing counter riddles at it, just teasing it enough that it thinks it’s going to get a robed, bearded snack within the next few minutes, but always staying one step ahead. Meanwhile, your tactical leader-type (playing a Ranger) gets the chance to take the Fightarbarian with them on a mission to deploy the ol’ pincer movement. With the meat grinder following in the leader's footsteps closely and under express instructions not to rustle their boot leather too loudly, you grant a little cheeky bonus to their stealth rolls too. You do this partly because of the Wizard's distraction, partly because of the fact you've put them in the Ranger's favoured terrain, and partly because you are wise and benevolent.
Then, when the tactical strike squad arrives behind the Sphinx, the Wizard’s next riddle is a Confusion spell, because the Sphinx’s passive perception wasn’t high enough to detect that it was being snuck up on, and everyone rolled initiative while it wasn’t looking. Too bad, Sphinxy - no action in the first round for you! The Fightarbarian pumps damage into it like chlorine into canned chicken, and all of a sudden it looks likely that the party will be able to defeat this challenging foe.
It was through teamwork that they did it! Hurrah! Love, hugs and fairy cakes all round. Except it wasn’t. It was through DM coercion. You engineered a situation where they had to work together, but you made that working together enticing because the players all got to do what they wanted to do. If your players don’t love being allowed to do what they want to do then, with apologies to your players, they are potentially deranged and may need serious help. Not many people play games to be screwed out of doing what they want to do, after all.
The Wizard now loves the Fightarbarian. The feeling is mutual. The Fightarbarian is pleased that there is a Wizard in the party, because they are finally forced to acknowledge that no one character can do literally everything (shut up, Paladins) and the Wizard’s usefulness will never again be brought into question. Further, the leader/tactician is chuffed because they just proved that their obsessiveness about planning everyone else’s actions on top of their own can also benefit the party. Now you can apply this model over and over again, working in solo encounters as necessary to let people shine at what they want to be good at, and you have a recipe for success. There is no need or requirement for you to ever have a situation where someone can’t be involved. You can even step a little outside of the exact thing that they want to do and supply similar alternatives ("Oh no we need to decipher the code on this ancient magical trap! But the ceiling is falling down and someone is going to need to hold up this archway or we’ll all be crushed!").
I know what you’re thinking - you’re thinking well done, you’ve oversimplified it. Except I really haven’t. What I’ve done is leave out the crucial, crucial, crucial first step to achieving this. You have to get to know your players. You need to know what “type” they are - what makes them tick. You can do that in one of two ways:-
1. Talk to your players about the game before they even roll characters
By this I mean let them know what kind of setting you are planning the game to be in. What’s it going to be like? Is it going to be combat heavy? Keep an eye on your real life party as you describe the game - if three people sigh at the prospect of walking around with weapons always drawn then maybe you need to make some changes, but equally it will give them the expectation that rolling a super-diplomatic character with 2 hit points and a -2 Con penalty might not get them anywhere. You might even find that some people feel encouraged to break out of their usual "type" of character and go for something different.
It’s worth a quick aside here to say that “Mad Scientist” players exist - Duck Totem barbarians, Warlocks who want a piece of salted caramel fudge as their patron, you name it. If you’re going for a harrowing Dark Sun/Out of the Abyss style survival landscape, you maybe need to know if those players are planning something totally barmy. That way, you can either talk to them about whether they could be persuaded to innovate in a different way, or you can try to find a means of accommodating their idea without totally ruining the theme of the adventure.
2. Play other games with your players and get a sense for what they like to do.
The more you’ve played with someone, the more you know what makes them tick. One of the players who is a staple part of my real life party particularly enjoys playing rogues and thieves, but I know well enough that if there is a chance for her to take the role of party protector, she will also be up for that. Obviously if she rolls a rogue she isn’t going to be tanking, but I can interpret that in other ways, such as making underworld deals behind the scenes to keep certain factions away from players or (look out) to cash those deals in when she’s in a situation where a rogue would otherwise not be of much use to the party. Boom - she’s not picking someone’s pocket but she gets rewarded for doing something else that she enjoys doing in the game! You can do this too.
The final point of note to consider is that there is one group of people that you can’t please, which is people who will never be happy with anything and who have decided that they’re going to moan and ruin things before they even arrive at the gaming session, subconsciously or otherwise. Toxic players are best avoided where possible, or dealt with outside of the game by having a polite chat about why their presence might be disrupting things. (Note: this is not to be confused with bullying people who don’t ‘fit the party dynamic’ - please don’t do that!) But, aside from that, by adding a healthy dose of plot to your encounters, you can absolutely keep everyone involved and having fun, and reward them for doing what they enjoy doing most. Reward for them will bring reward for you - the extra work you put in will give you happy players who love your game, and before long keeping them happy will become second nature, and no extra work at all!