I Am The Entertainer, And I Know Just Where I Stand

The players are at the table to win. The DM is at the table to entertain.

The statements above seems stark and cold, but – for me – it rings more true than false. I have often wondered about the role of the DM, and how Dungeons & Dragons is referred to commonly as a cooperative game. I struggle with the cooperative definition, because I find that playing D&D is laden with competitive overtones. The role of the DM is quite complicated and in many ways – contradictory. During any given session, I am engaged in the following:

  • Encouraging players to develop their character by setting goals in the campaign world.
  • Deterring players from achieving their stated goals with a litany of hazards and enemies.
  • Rewarding players for taking risks and engaging in creative storytelling and roleplaying.
  • Punishing players with penalties, including death, for taking risks and engaging in dangerous behaviors.
  • Improvising to match player interests in the campaign world.
  • Railroading players to keep them (and the gaming session) on track in the campaign world.

    Billy Joel, who provided the title for this post.

In addition, the game features a major resource imbalance between DM and player away from the game table. The DM spends time creating a quest and a set of challenges that must be overcome before the players can achieve the quest. If the DM creates a challenge that is too difficult, then the game either stalls or the players die, which results in more work for the DM and players since new plotlines and characters need to be built. The DM is responsible for creating challenges that are properly balanced for the players.

The players are there to win. The DM is there to entertain.  

Below, I discuss how I have executed the mental gymnastics to ensure my own happiness as a DM while running a campaign during the past two years. I present how my chosen profession – psychologist – grants me an intriguing perspective on facilitating a roleplaying game like D&D, and contemplate why the bulk of hand-wringing about editions, rule sets and “the future” of the product(s) is conducted primarily by DMs and not players.

Emphasize the Players, Not Myself

One of the more difficult challenges I faced in my early years of training to become a psychologist was the habit of relating the client’s experience to something in my own life. The technical term for this is self-disclosure, and refers to anytime the therapist discloses something about his or her personal life or personal reactions to a client. It may sound innocuous, but self-disclosure can be a major factor in therapy in terms of creating a situation that is helpful or harmful to the client.

The unique thing about a therapeutic relationship is that the client does not have to worry about my problems. The counseling session is all about the client, and whether or not I’m in the middle of an emotional crisis is not important. The client does not have to inquire about my day, ask about how I’m feeling or really be concerned with how my holidays have been so far this season. The client is encouraged to be selfish in therapy; it’s their time to talk about themself without any need to “return the favor” to the person they are speaking to at the moment.

Think about this the next time you are listening to someone talk about their day (i.e., friend, partner, family member). There comes a time when you want to turn the tables and talk about what your day was like. We get frustrated when someone “never listens” and “always just talks about themselves.” We have expectations for this type of communication that sound something like the following, “I’ll listen to you for a while, then you’ll listen to me.” When there is an imbalance in the communication, it becomes uncomfortable. There is a built-in give-and-take when people seek help from friends and family. A client does not have to worry about this give-and-take in therapy. This is what I mean by the client is encouraged to be selfish.

When conducting a therapy session, the client is the star of the show. My attention is focused on him and the problems he is attempting to cope with at the current time. I’m locked in to what is being said, how it is being said and constantly contemplating why it’s being said as I listen. My personal life does not come into play, and the client does not need to share the spotlight with my personal issues. My responses are (hopefully) honed and carefully crafted to explore the client’s presenting concern in more detail and increase the likelihood that he can overcome the problem.

How does this relate to being a DM? Glad you asked!

I take on a similar mindset when I’m in the DM role. I’ve mentioned before that the DM is a player in the game, but I think that statement is too nebulous. It’s like saying the umpire in a baseball game is a player; the umpire is on the field and effects the outcome of the game, but he’s not a player. Not really. And when I get together with my group to sit around the table for D&D, I am a player. But not really.

I see my role as an entertainer, and that is probably why I have not killed any of the players yet (although we came -3 hit points away from a negative-bloodied PC death recently). The players are invested in their characters, and it’s my job to put those characters into situations where they can shine. The DM should be selfless in this regard. The game is not about the DM; it’s about the players.

Strangely, this mindset has helped me process the imbalance and contradictory nature of the DM role. I have evaluated the factors that are fulfilling to me when preparing and running gaming sessions. The following list is not exhaustive, but I achieve my enjoyment when:

  • Players respond in a way I anticipated and carry out a great moment in the gaming world.
  • Players do something unexpected that makes the adventure even better than anticipated.
  • Each member of the party is involved and highlighted throughout the campaign.
  • Players interact with each other or a NPC I created in a meaningful way to further a story.
  • Players debate about the next course of action and have to wrestle with ethics and morality.
  • Players become slightly panicked and quiet when a combat encounter is unfolding poorly.
  • My decisions and actions increase the enjoyment of each player at the table.

Much like when I’m functioning in my role as a psychologist, my satisfaction while DMing is linked to the success of another person. I gain satisfaction with “a job well done” when the other person shines; it’s not about me. If a therapy session – or gaming session – became about me, then problems would develop quickly. The client would not get what they need from the relationship, and players would not be as satisfied with the gaming sessions.

The players are there to win. The DM is there to entertain.

Are You Entertained?!

It seems the majority of voices lamenting changes to D&D are from DMs, and given what I discussed above – that is perfectly logical. To a player, the rules set the table for the gaming experience, and the primary goal becomes learning how to exploit the rules and system to the player’s (and party’s) benefit. Why wouldn’t a player optimize their PC to become as effective as possible in the gaming world according to the established rules? A player does not need to be concerned with rule changes and game balance as much as the DM (unless, of course, when the player’s powers are nerfed). 

"A new edition? WHAT?!"

Since the DM is the person responsible for ensuring each player is entertained and appropriately challenged, changes to the rules and the game matter a great deal. For example, a macro-level change to 4th Edition is the amount of damage monsters inflict through attacks. Monsters published early in the life of 4th Edition became too weak as the players advanced in level, and no longer posed a significant threat to many players. Once the imbalance was noted, updated monsters were released that increased the threat level to the players. Before the updated monsters, DMs were concerned that appropriate challenges could not be built according to the rules – players were steamrolling through combat encounters. A great deal of commentary and discussion about this topic continues to this day because it’s the DM’s responsibility to create balanced encounters that are entertaining and challenging.

The players simply show up and kill things!

As speculation mounts about a possible new edition of D&D, I believe most of the worry and doubt is generated from DMs. And why? Because DMs are the individuals who have to learn the new rules, run the game, and effectively challenge and entertain the players. A new gaming system if a minor adjustment for players, but it’s a major adjustment to DMs as they have to spend more time learning the rules and balancing the game to effectively meet player needs.

It raises an odd contradiction about the development of gaming systems – the game is seemingly designed to enhance the enjoyment of the players, but the person that spends the most time with the game is the DM. Perhaps this is where the cooperative term comes into play – the DM cooperates by taking on the duty of entertaining the players.

The players are there to win. The DM is there to entertain.

Final Thoughts

  • To be very clear, this post is not railing against players. I play twice a month in a 4th Edition campaign and whatever I wrote about players above applies to me as well. I’m not saying, “DMs are awesome, players suck!” Not at all. The game needs both at the table to be successful.
  • Think about what makes you happy as a DM. Where do you derive enjoyment from the experience? If you find yourself trying to win, then form a definition of what it means to “win.” Determine if that definition of “winning” is feasible with your gaming group.
  • You might wildly disagree with the notion that DMs are at the table to entertain. Perhaps you find this idea rudimentary. Fantastic, I hope you tell me why! I’m still learning my way behind the screen, but this approach makes sense to me and gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

This post will be updated with Poll Results in approximately one week. Please vote!

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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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50 Responses to I Am The Entertainer, And I Know Just Where I Stand

  1. S'mon says:

    Eh, I think you missed that “it’s a cooperative game” refers to inter-player cooperation, not player-GM cooperation!

    Of course there are ways in which players and GM have to work together to create a fun game, but that’s no different than everyone playing Monopoly or Starfleet Battles and agreeing to stick to the rules, or house-rules.

    I see the GM’s primary roll as to challenge the players, offer meaningful choice, and create an interesting environment to explore. Entertainment is an emergent property of running a good game. Focusing too much on entertainment at every moment can lead to the ‘tyranny of fun’ and a hollow experience, like a Michael Bay movie, that ends up not really being much fun at all.

    • The Id DM says:

      The Michael Bay reference is quite interesting. I suffered from “the tyranny of fun” when I was running games as a teenager. I hope I have learned a thing or two since then. I agree the DM has to challenge the players, and that is why we’re so concerned with rules and game design. Changes to the game changes the equation in terms of how the DM can challenge the players.

      • S'mon says:

        BTW I do agree that the GM is not there to win, and I think the Gygaxian approach can be excessively adversarial. I also agree that of course the game as a whole must be entertaining and satisfying – more satisfying than watching TV, playing video games, or typing blog comments. :)

  2. S'mon says:

    “Railroading players to keep them (and the gaming session) on track in the campaign world.”

    I suggest you not do this – not even the Chris Perkins soft-railroading kind. Develop your improvisational skills, don’t plan too far ahead, and have some simple throw-in encounters for the rest of the session you can use if the PCs deviate wildly from your plans and you need time to prepare.

    4e D&D can be hard to improvise, but the advantage of fights taking so long and being inherently quite interesting is that if you’re not ready to run the PCs’ Assault on the Tower of Evil until next session, it’s easy to throw in an encounter with gnolls to keep them busy for the rest of the current session.

    • The Id DM says:

      I agree that railroading isn’t the optimal strategy at all times, but I think the notion that a DM does not (or should not) influence the direction of the party is unrealistic. Just take any published adventure; the DM has a script to run the players through. Yes, there is room for improvisation but the DM is working from a prepared plotline. And there are ways to influence the party’s direction that are quite subtle. Also, I want to stay away from inserting extra combat situations just for the sake of filling time.

      • S'mon says:

        The GM influences the party’s direction by creating the environment and (usually) by offering hooks; eg the PCs are asked to undertake a mission. Preferably the PCs should be free to decline the mission without the campaign ending. That may not always be possible, the GM may only be ready to run a linear Adventure Path. But in that latter case there should be very clear player buy-in: “We are playing Rise of the Rune Lords” – and even then, if the players play 1 AP adventure then decide they don’t like it, but do want to continue the campaign, a really good GM should let them abandon the AP and continue to play in the same campaign world.

        But actual rail-roading to keep things on track, to ensure specific events unfold as planned, is never good practice IMO. If the PCS reject a hook twice, don’t keep forcing it at them. If they do something unintended, let events unfold naturally, don’t try to force them back onto the tracks. If an adventure requires real railroading to function, it is not worth playing IMO.

      • S'mon says:

        “Also, I want to stay away from inserting extra combat situations just for the sake of filling time.”

        With 4e D&D especially, I think knowing when to add in encounters, and especially when to remove them, is a fine art. Most WoTC published adventures benefit from having 1/3 to 1/2 the published encounters removed. Having done that, there’s space to be flexible to restore some later and to add new ones (whether by fiat or by random encounter roll) in a different context, helping to create the feel of a dynamic, living world.

    • I disagree that railroading must always have a negative connotation though. Obviously a rigid DM who says “Go this way or were not playing anymore” is a bad thing. But railroading can also be done very subtly. I’ve quite often manipulated PC’s toward a direction I wanted them to move without them knowing it. Be it, rumor, incentive, or what not, railroading is a skill which DM’s should seek to develop. Not merely for control, but in order make things fun. I would also say that improvisation is KEY to railroading. Improvisation is a skill which needs equal attention, but when you think about it, a good railroad requires good improvisation. The ability to come up with something on the fly to get the PC’s back on course.

      Personally I don’t have any trouble improvising with 4E. It plays the same as any previous edition has from a DM standpoint. I can whip up an encounter, RP opportunity, or skill challenge at the drop of a hat. But I can guarantee that the ones I’ve planned ahead of time will be better. Ergo it pays to keep the PC’s on task.

      Having been in an open sandbox type or World before and currently, (I’m a player in Iddy’s campaign) there is a certain level of satisfaction and frustration in my opinion.

      It is cool in that we can sort of choose what we want to do, where to go, and things can change dynamically. But it can be frustrating, because you can tell which encounters were planed and which ones aren’t. (not a knock on Iddy, you can tell with any DM). You also have to account for the whims of 4-5 other people which may or may not align with yours. So with sandbox, instead of 1 DM guiding the players, 5-6 players are guiding a DM. Ever try to take an impromptu road trip with 5 people? Something about too many cooks in the kitchen.

      I’ll give an example: Our last session we ventured into a “Building/dungeon” to achieve our goal. After a battle or two it became apparent that the DM was randomly designing the dungeon. I don’t blame him, I’ve tried the same thing in the past. You see it think it sounds cool, might save some time, and want to give it a whirl. However as a player you suddenly realize the story is now in the hands of a D8, and my decision to go down this hallway or that hallway no longer matters.

      This is a perfect spot for railroading the PC’s right back on track instead of sticking to the guns of the layout setup. Fortunately for us we found and interrogated a prisoner/worker, and via intimidation/diplomacy made her tell us the location where we were supposed to go. So I suspect Iddy (to his credit) formed a path in his mind, estimated an encounter between where we were and our objective, and railroaded us right back on track.

      In this instance railroading was not a bad thing. It actually was the right thing to do. Else I would have gotten board wandering around the random dungeon waiting for the magic number on a D8.

      • S'mon says:

        Not all dungeons need to be played through room by room in the traditional style. The GM can always say: “You search through dozens of rooms, until…”

      • That’s a very helpful trick. Especially for some of the old school modules.

      • The Id DM says:

        I appreciate the feedback. For that session, I had a general idea of what might happen, and the choices made by the party certainly influenced the evening. For example, I had no thought of including a safe for the party to crack. That just developed during the evening but it fit logically with the situation.

        Since I use Masterplan to write notes about locations and NPCs, if I’m reading from the laptop – then, yeah – it’s obvious that it was prepared ahead of time. :-)

        I’m actually going to write about the random-encounter experiment at some point. Maybe next week if I can find the time.

        And if “via intimidation/diplomacy” means “killed her co-worker with Magic Missle,” then – yes – you did that during the session.

      • Whatever it takes. =)

    • Wayne says:

      The is a fine difference between “Railroading” and having “All Roads Lead to Rome”.

      Meastro has the right idea, it’s about keeping the players mainly on the chosen path while still allowing them to make their own decisions to get there.

      But, there is something to be said about always having a few extra “random” encounters prepared in case things go wildly awry…

  3. TheAngryDM says:

    I was going to write a long comment disagreeing with some of your finer points here, but I don’t have to. Because I already did: http://angrydm.com/2010/07/winning-dd/ . And honestly, it is a matter of the very fine details where we disagree, especially with regards to D&D vis-a-vis other, more collaborative games. Because D&D is victory/success/conquest oriented rather than story/character oriented (thematically, though people will do with it what they will).

    I think it is important to distinguish between short term “enjoyment” vs. long term “satisfaction.” These are not technical terms, just words I used in my own article to get my meaning across. I think it is important to keep in mind that sometimes a game that is satisfying in the long term may not be enjoyable for a player in a given moment. In order for victory to be satisfying, for instance, there must be a credible threat of failure or defeat. A player can’t win if they can’t lose. Its a bit tangential to your main point, but the DM who appears to be adversarial and who will allow his players to lose may actually be doing more to ensure the long-term fun of a game than one who focusses entirely on the players “in the moment” fun and does not allow the game to feel challenging or the DM who gets caught fudging or cheating to ensure his players’ victory.

    • S'mon says:

      Yes, I agree with that.

    • The Id DM says:

      Angry,

      Thanks for stopping by, and I suggest anyone interested in this post go to your site to read your complete thoughts on Winning D&D. You description of satisfaction reminds me of playing Braid (although I never finished it). There are puzzles in that game that are frustrating as hell. I’d go through the level and feel like a complete dumbass but after various attempts, I’d get an “ah-ha” moment and the satisfaction that came with solving the puzzle was greater than other games that feature, “You need the red key to open this door” type of puzzles.

  4. S'mon says:

    “Just take any published adventure; the DM has a script to run the players through”

    Mm, the adventures I run are mostly site-based exploratory, like B2 Keep on the Borderlands, without really a script as such. When I get a script-y adventure I tend to open it up, make it less linear, think of alternatives to the script-as-written.

    • Which is one of my all time favorite modules. Have you run “return to Keep on the Borderlands”? In my opinion it is even better! A great module with plenty of options yet always keeps the PC’s on task.

      • S'mon says:

        No, I missed that one – I had about 8 years away from D&D during the 2e era, and about 3 years not RPing at all, and that came out in that period. I haven’t actually used B2 much myself, but the campaigns I’ve run in the past 11 years have mostly been sandboxes – Lost City of Barakus and Vault of Larin Karr, for instance, or my current Wilderlands 4e campaign. In the latter case I have a very proactive player who points to spots on the map and declares “We go there!” – which occasionally means a session runs short if I haven’t got orc fortress #3 statted yet, but it hasn’t been a big problem.

      • Return to Keep has a TON more intrigue at the Keep itself. I upgraded it to 3.5 and 4E and have run it with several different groups. It’s always a hit. It’s a very sandboxy feel for PC’s but has tons of hooks that keep the PC’s on task without the feeling of a bad railroad. Some of my players favorite stories are of things that went down in the Keep. Great module, highly recommended. (it was the 25th year anniversary edition)

  5. librarian says:

    Old-school i.e. old DMs see their job as killing players, not helping them to enjoy the game. That’s why those games died or evolved, and why old-school DMs can never find people to play with them except other weirdos over the internet. It’s also why they fill their rip-off retro clones with lewd and exploitative images of women, but that’s another issue

    • The Id DM says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I don’t think you can lump “old-school” DMs into one group like that. I also don’t think everyone who is returning to early-edition roots is trying to create a game that is only fun for the DM. For example, I think the Fourthcore stuff can be quite entertaining if the players are looking for a different type of game experience.

      As for the discrimination issues regarding women in the gaming community, that was something I discussed with Anna Kreider of Go Make Me a Sandwich.

      http://theiddm.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/ego-check-anna-kreider-of-go-make-me-a-sandwich/

      • S'mon says:

        I must be more towards the Old School side, and I have run OSRIC/1e campaigns via chatroom on Dragonsfoot (*eek!*). On the other hand I also run tabletop 4e D&D games every week at the London D&D Meetup, I have lots of real people wanting to play in my games, and the female players there seem to enjoy them at least as much as the male players do. So as a generalisation, I would say librarian is talking a load of rubbish.

    • S'mon says:

      BTW I have Basic Fantasy RPG, Labyrinth Lord (2 editions), and OSRIC, as well as Mutant Future; none of them include any “lewd and exploitative images of women”.

  6. Very insightful post! I think it’s important for the DM to be the entertainer as well, but one thing that ought to be stressed is the importance of the DM having fun. If the players aren’t having fun, that’s a huge problem. But if YOU aren’t having fun, that’s an even bigger problem. Then nobody will have fun, guaranteed.
    Thanks again for the great post!

    • The Id DM says:

      I think it’s helpful to DMs to be aware of what does and doesn’t relate to their enjoyment preparing and running the campaign. For example, if a DM doesn’t like the preparation, then focus on published adventures and the many adventures posted by other blogs and sources online. If a DM doesn’t like combat, then communicate with your group that you’d like to limit combat in the campaign. You are correct; the entire game will suffer if the DM is trying to bang a square peg into a round hole to please the players.

  7. Roger (@ralixgaudreau) says:

    Your post pretty closely aligns with the DM’ing style I’ve used for about the past 20 years. In general, players play the game because they want to look cool, so I run my game based on that premise. That doesn’t mean that the PCs just walk all over the encounters — as has been stated many times, a victory is meaningless if there was no real risk. So, I have always seen my job as one of entertaining players through the presentation of challenges where victory is likely but never automatic, usually coming at the cost of some pain or negative consequence, and often strongly bound up with story elements. (I say “often” rather than “always” because sometimes a challenge/battle really *is* there just for the fun of it.) Sometimes the victory is unlikely, and the PCs really have to exercise their ingenuity to find a way out that doesn’t include a pine box or a Raise Dead ritual. No matter what, I’m (not-so-secretly) rooting for the PCs, and I genuinely enjoy it when they are victorious, especially in those cases where the victory seems unlikely. When I am successful in my role as entertainer, I find that I am entertained as well.

    • The Id DM says:

      It can be a challenge to develop effective consequences that will resonate with the players. Since the gaming world isn’t real, it takes time and effort to craft situations that will result in the players actually “feeling” something about the environment and NPCs. It is something I continue work on in the attempt to improve.

  8. PlaneShaper says:

    While I agree with all of your subtasks of the DM — Encouraging, Deterring, Rewarding, Punishing, Improvising, Railroading — I think you have drawn a false conclusion. Perhaps because you are a psychologist, you’ve your own set of biases from which you view the role of the DM, which has led you to see the DM as being the source from which entertainment flows.

    Personally, I see everyone as having an entertainment responsibility. It is a social setting, not a therapy session, one in which everyone should be expecting of some amount of reciprocity.

    I think your comparison of the DM to an Umpire is where things split between the conclusion you’ve drawn based on the aforementioned tasks and the conclusion I draw. I see D&D as not having an umpire at all. While the DM does provide final arbitration, the books provide the source of rulings, a source which all of the players (DM included) have equal access to.

    D&D, to me, is more like a baseball game where the teams never change sides. The PC’s function as the team at bat, and the DM functions as the pitching team. The only real goal of the PC’s is to see how many points they can rack up by the time they get to the end of the 9th. And the only thing that ends the game early is if all the PC’s manage to get ejected from the game. It isn’t whether they can “win” or “lose” because the DM never gets “points.” The PC’s are competing against nothing but their own scoreboard.

    See, the DM’s *provide* for the PC’s. The DM provides the setup upon which all the players play. But that doesn’t make the DM any less of a player themself. What if the PC wants to steal a base, or bunt, or pinch hit? The DM responds to those actions as much as as any PC responding to the the actions of the DM, like a fastball instead of a curve.

    Baseball isn’t a perfect analogy, because there is a lot more freedom of choice in D&D. PC’s have a lot more options available to them, and the DM has the freedom to change the functional layout of the field (like, he doesn’t have to set bases up in a diamond). If your group is up for it, the PC’s players can help build the setting, and the DM can also control a PC.

    The DM’s job only seems more massive because of how customary it is for there to be only a single DM. Why not have two DM’s? One plays the pitcher and out-fielders, one plays the catcher and in-fielders. Why not have the PC’s interact with each other in such a way as if they were interacting with NPC’s? As DM, there have been times when I’ve let the PC players run the game for hours amongst each other with absolutely no input (or sometimes even presence) from me.

    A good psychology thesis for you might be looking into *why* it is that out of every 5-7 people, there seems to be one person with the personality that is both willing and able to function as the DM for every task the DM has. Or perhaps, why it is viewed as the responsibility of only a single person, rather than a shared set of tasks with one person taking a majority role.

    But that’s how, while I agree with the six sub-tasks you wrote down (and there may be a better categorization scheme, but it’s a good model for now), I disagree with the ultimate conclusion you made, and repeated throughout your post. The DM(s) is there to be equally entertained by the PC’s. A group of PC’s that never steals bases, never guns for a walk, never runs a double, triple, or hits a Home Run isn’t a very entertaining group of PC’s.

    But no one can “win,” because only one team should be collecting points. And everyone plays (DM included), so everyone is there to be entertained.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for the long comment!

      I wrote down those behaviors – Encouraging, Deterring, Rewarding, Punishing, Improvising, Railroading – as examples. The list was not meant to be exhaustive by any means, but provides a good summary.

      While I think it makes sense on some level that the players are there to entertain the DM, the game typically does not work that way. Compare the amount of time a DM and player devote to preparation for each session. The DM might spenda *hours* creating plot hooks, monsters and campaign worlds. One a player has created a PC, the only thing they might do between sessions is level-up if needed. The player is likely not writing down notes on how to engage the DM with a meaningful choice next session.

      To return to the baseball analogy (which you really ran with, excellent!), you mentioned the rules act as the Umpire, not the DM. I think this is a potential problem because the rules are static. It can result in a great deal of rule-lawyering and lack of improvisation and flexibility in the game. It can result in players telling the DM, “You can’t do that. The rule is on page 135.” I know this because I’ve done it as a player – as recently as this weekend when we had to figure out if a Dominated creature could fling itself into a pit (the rules say the creature gets a saving throw first).

      But why can’t the DM have the power to say, “You know what, in this situation with this power, the rule doesn’t apply.” The mentality that “the rules” are the final arbiter can lead to negative consequences. Obviously, a DM should inform players about houserules, but players must be open to the idea that DM’s can make judgement calls and rulings. That is why the DM – not the rules – are the Umpire in my opinion.

      In terms of why one person decides to be a DM, the least-complicated explanation is that the game *needs* a DM in order to be played. Without the DM, the game doesn’t begin or continue. Again, returning to baseball, it’s like asking why one person always plays centerfied – each baseball team requires a centerfielder. The game has traditionally featured a single DM, but I’ve heard of other formats that have two DMs or share the responsibilities with other players. It would be interesting to explore other options.

      • thehydradm says:

        This is an eye opening article, but I wanted to leave a short reply to this particular response because I definitely agree. I’ve been reading over the old Ask Gary threads on ENWorld recently (if you haven’t you should!) and there is nothing so constant as his dislike for rules lawyering. While we’re paying the game designers the big bucks to give us the rules I don’t think we can ever rely on them as the umpire because the rules can’t adapt to changing situations and often get blatantly in the way of fun (“what does stunned do again? Does it grant combat advantage too? Hmmm *flips open book and stops the game*…)

      • Honestly I don’t like the baseball analogy. Umpires in baseball are supposed to issue the rules, move the game along, and basically try not to stand out.

        The DM should issue rulings based on the rules, keep the game flowing along, and yet still have “moments” just like any other player. His moments however may be RP moments, or big reveals, or in some cases unfortunate crits for the PC’s. If I wasn’t having fun as a DM I certainly wouldn’t do it.

        The only thing they have in common is moving the game along.
        Now PC’s can always throw monkey wrenches in that of course when they want to quote rules at ya… =) /snark

  9. Wayne says:

    I agree with a lot of this!
    And i’ve even enlisted the aid of other DM’s during the “design” phase. I’m still the only DM at the table, but when creating stories, plotlines, and hooks- two heads are definitely better than one.

    • The Id DM says:

      I’ve shared the burden of story creation with the players that have filtered in and out of the group over the past two years. I encourage them to develop a backstory and personal goals for their PCs. When they give me this information, I can weave it into the plot of the ongoing campaign and often link it with other PCs in the party.

  10. Wayne says:

    Another well-written article!

    I disagree in Simon’s first post about the definition of cooperative game, I think the cooperation is shared amongst everyone; the DM and every single player all have an equivalent role in telling the story, and working together to ensure the fun is there for everyone (obviously there will be times when people play so drastically differently that certain people don’t ‘fit’ in certain groups, but that is the topic of another discussion).

    I also agree that it is up to the DM to provide certain situations to let certain players shine for a moment or two, simply because it is a game, we are all there to have fun, and being in the spotlight for a round is fun. I’m not talking anything drastic, just the occasional undead for the cleric to turn, and a bunch of weenies for your 4e controller to nuke, or your 3e barb to great cleave through.

    But the biggest thing i think the DM needs to do that you kinda missed, is he is there to *challenge* the pc’s. It could easily be argued that ‘challenge’ is actually a subcategory of ‘entertain’, because (as Simon pointed out) the game just isn’t entertaining if it is too easy. We all know combat can go many ways, a string of nat 1’s and/or 20’s can greatly influence the outcome of a fight, so all you can really do is plan the encounter and hope for the best.

    Outside of combat, there are other ways to challenge pc’s – the obvious being skill challenges, but other things apply: tough time-based decisions (do i stop the villain, or rescue my gf from his death trap!), moral dilemma’s, etc. Again, the end result is that the heroes are gonna save the day, but how long it takes, how easy it is, and possible repercussions should vary by the decisions they make along the way (try making a flow chart of expected decisions/outcomes for short story arcs, the impact that kind of thinking/planning has on a short arc is amazing!).

    In short, keep em entertained, keep em challenged, keep it fair, and keep it fun. :)

    -w

    PS – Everyone hates new editions…if for nothing else because you have to start over with $100 worth of books, only to get reworked numbers, with fewer races, classes, feats and items. And everything is likely to get errata’d or lost to power creep over the first 2 years anyway. I’m not trying to be cynical, but i heard it over and over during the 4e launch, and i expect to hear it again in a few years… :)

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  12. benensky says:

    Good article and interesting comments.

    I am a “cheating” DM and let people know it. I am not a DM for everyone.

    When I play I would rather have my character live and develop it’s story. When I DM I try to create an experience where the players feel they are in a world where they want to talk with other people in the tavern (just for fun, not only to get information). In addition, when looking to buy a new wand I want the player to look forward to the banter with the wizard in the magic shop.

    I DM and like playing under DMs that will not TPK a party because of bad dice rolls or the characters are not maximized or their skill level did not match challenge of the module. (However, If I jumped off a cliff or dove into a pool of molten lava I would not be surprised if I died and would kill a character that did it.) Combat encounters are just an other experience in the world not the focus of the game to be won so you can level up to 30th level so you can say you won the game.

    Not everyone likes that because I will “cheat” to let the characters live. Some players feel that they did not really “beat” that encounter. That is fine. Quit playing with me and find and other DM.

    On the other hand, I would grow frustrated and quit a game DMed by the Angry DM. Not that what the Angry DM is doing is wrong. I find that some people want to play more of a strategy game when playing D&D and want to be challenged and do not mind dieing in the game.

    Saying that, my point is, hopefully the world is big enough that people can find DMs that fit their style and DMs can find players that like playing under them. I have no debate with DMs like the Angry DM.

    Additionally, I believe people have a rite to counter the point made by the Id DM in this post. It is a posted point of view in an open forum.

    Finally, let me say, I really liked the Id DM’s article. I work hard to come up with interesting things to keep my game fresh and entertaining for my players. Hope you follow this up with more articles.

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  16. Contrail says:

    I am a “mastermind/world builder” DM …. I’m a numbers guy.
    From experience the best DM is a talking rulebook … “If the DM knows when to go easy” (cheat)

    … the DM’s role in the story is to write the introduction, then do as little as he can for the story and instead have his NPC’s react to current events.

    an analogy for a DM?
    the puppet master … only ever gently pulls on strings to change the world, its the puppets who tell the story.

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  20. Note too much to add here, everyone has contributed wonderfully, but if I were to say one thing, it’s that being a good DM can often mean getting out of the way.

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