Dungeon Master Definition (Part I) – Chefs & Menus

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.

It’s something.

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.

Author: 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.

14 thoughts on “Dungeon Master Definition (Part I) – Chefs & Menus”

  1. I very much agree with what you’re saying here. Too often it seems people forget that the DM is also a player and is probably the person at the table that is most heavily invested in the game/world being presented. While a good DM should be able to “go with the flow” that doesn’t mean that all of our planning and hard work should be thrown out the door just because the players got sidetracked by an unimportant detail (what I like to think of as ‘shiny object syndrome’). In the end it should fall to the DM’s discretion as to when to let the players’ actions change the story/encounter and should be done because the DM feels it will improve upon the experience he or she is trying to build; not just because your players are easily distracted.

    As such, if some of your players are the easily distracted type it might be best as the DM to anticipate this and just eliminate unnecessary ‘decorative’ elements from the encounter (harkening back to your original tweet); or at least plan ahead and determine in advance how you’ll react should they overly fixate on an otherwise unimportant object.

  2. I love, if the PCs think its important, make it important. Its something, as a creator, I strive for. Its difficult, because as a creator, I imagined things happening a certain way, and I wanted something else to be important.

    I think there’s another piece to this puzzle however. The Altar does not need to be important in the way the PCs think its going to be important.

    The PCs don’t need to be right all the time. My experience is that the PCs don’t want to be right all the time. That would be boring. However, the fact that the PCs are drawn to this altar tells us something about the way the PCs think and how they want the story to build.

    So maybe you want the PCs to look at the bookcase, because theres a secret staircase behind it. Now action at the altar makes the bookcase slide back. Your making a connection.

    Maybe what’s really important is in the next room, and you feel the PCs are delaying the exciting thing, ruining the tension. Well didn’t you know the Altar had writing on it, describing a ritual that needs another item to be place within a certain amount of space from it. The PCs can’t find the item in this room, I guess its time to check the adjacent rooms.

    Maybe interacting with the altar, triggers the priests senses and the important fights comes to them. Now you get to use the same room twice! Plus you get a bit of a King of the Hill feel, where players and monsters struggle for control of one area of the room.

    Maybe you need your players to move on. And they find out very little, beyond a detail or two, for now. But you’re a smart DM. You recognize that the players were drawn to this altar. Later on, when you hint at the dark ritual, hidden portal, or piece of forgotten lore, you work in that little detail about the altar, and your players know where to return. They’ll feel very smart.

    1. I would say be very careful with this sort of Flow and Tie. Just because the PC’s think something is interesting doesn’t mean you should tie that thing to their story. This leads to a “Monty Haul” sort of scenario. Sometimes an alter should just be a peice of stone. This is what keeps PC’s guessing.

      Making PC’s feel smart isn’t the goal of the game. That may sound bad, but think about that for a moment. Doing something smart is it’s own reward. It’s not a reward if it’s given without merit.

  3. Sageheart, I think you expressed how I am feeling in that the DM doesn’t seem to be considered a player of the game all that often. The “players” are the PCs, but in terms of just sitting down to play D&D, the DM is one of the players and his or her enjoyment should be considered.

    Brian & Morgoth, I think you are discussing oppostie ends of the same spectrum. How much should the DM adapt to the players and their choices? It gets back to the question of when is an altar just an altar.

    For instance, I play a rogue in one group and have another rogue in the group I DM. As a PC, I *always* check doors for traps, and the rogue in the game I DM does the same. It’s basically part of the job description. Should I make every door interactive then to match the expectations of the PC in my group? I don’t think so, because it doesn’t make sense for every door in the world to be trapped or locked.

    It’s a balancing issue. Sometimes I want the players to feel smart, and have done so with leaving clues that are not clear until weeks later in the campaign. But other times the players should be confused by the villain’s intentions and plans. They can’t always be one step ahead.

    Good discussion!

    1. Perhaps I oversimplified a bit. I agree that the players can’t always be right, and I’m not arguing for that.

      I’m also not arguing for things that don’t make sense for the story. The players can’t just declare wandering livestock to be mystical portals. Nor if something was done repeatedly, like checking a door for traps, produce the same results each time.

      However, if the players spend a particular amount of time, or pay a particularly large interest in something (and by doing so are breaking their norm a bit) they’re basically showing you the type of game they want to play and the kind of story they want to tell.

      When I play D&D I want to be a collaborative and interactive story. There’s a reason this is better than a video game. So if the PCs freakout over every alter, and altars are a pretty regular thing in your campaign, then some if not most altars altars are going to be mundane. Otherwise, the fact that they’re interested in this altar is your clue to help them tell the story they want to play.

      While the PCs don’t need to feel smart, they do need to have fun. Its a game after all. When we feel like we figured something out, we feel good. It’s why we love mysteries, foreshadowing, and side bits in theatre.

  4. I think the best approach typically is to improvise some interesting details about the altar, but certainly don’t have it start spouting necrotic energy because some PC took an interest in it. That’s a terrible idea. There need to be relatively ‘normal’ things in the world so that when the Necrotic Altar does turn up it’ll feel special.

  5. In some cases the DM may want to tell the player: “OK, you rolled 25 on Kno (History). _You_ tell _me_ about the altar.” This won’t work for all games though.

  6. Simon, that is an interesting idea to tell the player, “You tell me about the altar.” You’re right, that would not work with all groups. It feels a bit hostile to me, “You think you’re so smart, you tell me what’s happening in the game!” lol

    Brian, I agree that there should be a balance. And I’m not against throwing the players a bone on some things if they are curious in them. I wanted to emphasize that the DM is also a player of the game; I’m going to write more about that in Part III post.

    1. >>Simon, that is an interesting idea to tell the player, “You tell me about the altar.” You’re right, that would not work with all groups. It feels a bit hostile to me, “You think you’re so smart, you tell me what’s happening in the game!” lol<<

      It requires that everyone be on the same page, a good degree of mutual trust, and some interest in shared creation, as opposed to exploration/conquest of the DM's pre-created setting. But it can add a lot to enrich the campaign, and take some of the burden of creation off the DM, just as the 4e combat rules take some of the combat-administration burden and load it onto the players.

  7. If I tied everything the players spent time looking at into the story, the first item in every room would determine how the plot plays out. Sometimes I think you just have to tell the players, “Your perception check reveals nothing interesting about the altar.”

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