Last week, I posted a quick tip on Twitter (which is a device I blatantly stole from SlyFlourish) on running encounters:
I thought it was a fairly harmless suggestion. The intention was to encourage DMs to be aware of the objects and terrain they describe in their encounters. It had been my experience that PCs sometimes focus on objects or environmental features that were not intended to be important to the encounter. The best example of this I could think of were how our gaming groups (one I DM, the other I’m a PC) interact with altars. In our two gaming groups, the appearance of an altar halts play as players persist in investigation even if it does not get them anywhere. There have been times when the altar is important and key to success, but others when it is not. My suggestion was for DMs to be aware of the likelihood that an object such as an altar could distract PCs.
I was surprised by some of the responses I received after I posted the tip. Perhaps my original post on Twitter seemed to be “player bashing,” but that was never my intention. A few other DMs supported the tip, but others indicated that I was approaching the issue incorrectly. For example, a few of the responses of that ilk are below:
- give the altar something to do. It hits for 5points necrotic on any failed divine power/skill use. 3 MedDC religion checks to stp
- Or, don’t complain when players want to spend 15 min. examining each doorway, altar, chest, door, etc. for traps or clues
- If they find it important, it is. Work it into the story. Some of my best narratives were orig. rabbit trails.
- not really, it’s their story, not mine. I don’t need to know where things are going, pcs just need to think I do.
The first response is certainly helpful if you want to go with the players’ desire to have the altar be a key element of the encounter. The second response caught me off guard, and I had to ask for clarification; the author clarified that if a DM introduces one treasure chest that is trapped, then the party will investigate all future chest for traps because it is the safest route. The last two responses were from the same person, and there were two ideas that struck me, which I summarize below:
If the PCs find something important, it is. It is the PC’s story, not the DM’s. The DM does not need to know where an encounter or story is going, but hold the illusion that they are under control.
While I welcome all feedback and agree with this point of view in some situations, something about the exchange that afternoon nagged me in recent days. Below, I attempt to explain why, and start by trying to wrap my head around the definition and purpose of a Dungeon Master.
I wanted to go to the source to find the definition of the Dungeon Master. I realize the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) has been errated to hell and back, but I think the following information is safe to review from Page 6:
The Dungeon Master
One player has a special role in a D&D game. The Dungeon Master controls the pace of the story and referees the action along the way. You can’t play a game of D&D without a DM.
What Does the DM Do?: The Dungeon Master has many hats to wear in the course of a game session. The DM is the rules moderator, the narrator, a player of many different characters, and the primary creator of the game’s world, the campaign, and the adventure.
Moving ahead to Page 20 under the heading, Modes Of The Game, the following paragraph describes the DM’s role in the Exploration mode of gameplay:
1. Describe the environment. Outline the options available to the characters by telling them where they are and what’s around them. When you detail the dungeon room the PCs are in, mention all the doors, chests, shafts, and other things the PCs might want to interact with. Don’t explicitly outline options. (Don’t say: “You can either go through the door, search the chest, or look down the shaft.”) That’s putting unnecessary limitations on the PCs’ actions. Your job is to describe the environment and to let the PCs decide what they want to do with it.
The Dungeon Master is the referee, and that word is used throughout the DMG. The DM is also “the primary creator of the game’s world, the campaign, and the adventure.” However, the DMG later adds the DM’s “job is to describe the environment and to let the PCs decide what they want to do with it.”
Hmmm. Those comments more or less mirror the discussion that vexed me over Twitter. The DMG states the DM is the primary creator of the world, but also warns the DM to not limit PC options. The warning is similar to the comment that stated, “If the PCs find something important, it is.”
But is it? That is one question I’m wrestling with at the moment. When can a DM draw a line, even if that line is invisible and the PCs are not aware of it, to redirect the PCs? And perhaps the biggest question from all this is regarding the role of the DM. Why does the “primary creator of the game’s world” have to respond at all times to the wishes of his players? Referees are not beholden to the players on the field. I’ve been trying to find the words to describe how the DM/PC dynamic as discussed by some on Twitter wears on me.
I enjoy metaphors and analogies, and perhaps there are a few that come to mind in this situation. After reflecting on this for some time, I settled on the DM as a chef and the PCs as customers. The chef organizes her or his menu around their strengths and the perceived preferences of the customers. The customers come into the chef’s establishment, look over their options and order one of the dishes that is presented. It’s a tidy interaction; the customer gets food they enjoy, and the chef walks away feeling that he performed a good service in addition to getting paid for his time. (I’m not getting paid by my PCs, so I already know this is not a perfect example!)
But the customer wants to order something that is not listed on the menu. The chef must decide if he or she wants to make an exception and cook a new item for the customer. How easy will the dish be to make? Do I have the proper ingredients? It’s not a dish that I’m familiar with, could I even make it well? How much should I charge? Will it take me too long to work on this dish and the other customers will suffer? There are many factors to for the chef to consider. Perhaps the chef decides to make an exception for one customer, but other customers at the same table or close by learn that they can order off the menu. The chef could soon be overwhelmed by special requests that were not planned for in the kitchen.
The chef will likely decide to hold firm to the menu in the future, or possible make slight deviations from it in special circumstances. The menu items are “the rules” that the customer must follow. The customer is aware that when they make a special request, they are deviating from “the rules.” And so it goes.
The chef is the primary creator of the customer’s world. The chef has spent likely a lengthy amount of time to prepare the kitchen, gather all the ingredients and ensure the customers have a good list of menu options. Customers straying far off the menu could be viewed as strange, a nuisance or plain rude. So why are DMs not allowed to be chefs?
I think the primary aspect of the feedback I received on Twitter that troubles me is the notion that the DM is an outside spectator during the game. The idea seems to be that the DM is a dispassionate observer of events with no investment in the game other than ensuring his or her players have a good time. And believe me, I stress out about ensuring my players have fun all the time. But as a DM, I’m devoting many more hours creating, planning, preparing and organizing the campaign compared to all of the players combined. The suggestion that the campaign is only for the PCs and their interests always supersede the DM’s seems not only out of balance, but a great disservice to DMs who spend so much time creating a world.
The first words in the DMG on Page 4 read (emphasis added):
Most games have a winner and a loser, but the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game is fundamentally a cooperative game.
Yes, cooperative. Meaning the DM should be flexible and allow players to order off-menu from time to time in certain situations, but players should understand there is a limited menu of options available and the chef might decline their special request. Ideally, the players would not be aware they have a limited menu and the chef would make every customer feel as if they are the most important person in the room. This is a skill that I am continuing to learn, and I want to take a moment to thank everyone that interacted with me on Twitter. The feedback and ideas I receive from others are making me a better DM!
Later in the week, I will present a Heroic Tier encounter that I created for my PCs; we ran through the encounter last year. I will present direct feedback from one of my PCs as I believe it meshes well with some of the items I discussed above. The presentation and discussion of the encounter will elaborate on my feelings regarding the DM’s role in the game. See you back on Wednesday for Dungeon Master Definition (Part II) – Ambushes & Destiny.