Friday, May 31, 2013

The DM vs. the Playing Field

Trust is a serious topic in roleplaying games. If the players don't trust their DM, they could as well leave the  table and look for someone else to do the job. No matter the cause, often enough the position of the DM is just not well enough understood. Or changed to fulfill a publishers need to sell product. Or given another perspective, because some independant roleplaying game invented a new twist on the concept. This hobby of ours is only but a few decades old and the more I read about it, the more I realize how underestablished most of it's terms are. But this is not about a definition of the term "Dungeon Master" (I'm not entitled to formulate something like that), it's rather a dissection or an attempt of a structured analysis.

What some books say

It's a fun exercise to read about the role of the Dungeon Master (Gamemaster, Storyteller, Host, whatever) in published roleplaying games. It also might help to see the discrepancies between the rules and a published game, so I'll start with that.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I looked into the Rules Cyclopedia, HackMaster 4e, GURPS 3e, Runequest (german version and too lazy to check which edition they used...), Werewolf: Wild West (oWoD) and D&D 3e. Heres how they came along.

Rules Cyclopedia - Is rather uninspired in it's attempt to explain what's necessary for the job. Could be summarized with "Be fair, be prepared! Let the players do the decisions, describe the results and always remember: you just play the monsters, the players are not the enemy!". Fair enough.

HackMaster - There is an oath and a code of conduct. Being the DM is a privilege, but also a responsibility  and a duty. Well, they are funny and meta about it. No surprise there. Doesn't help the understanding, though.

GURPS - They are all "Hey, we did this awesome game and you're about to DM it. Do whatever you want with the rules, they are all yours now! But you'd better be up to the task, because if it doesn't flow right, that's totally your fault. Cheers!" I like their attitude towards the topic. A lot.

Runequest - I love Runequest for what it is, but I suppose they thought a beginner would never touch this game. No help here.

Werewolf: The Wild West - Ah, a storyteller game! And there is a surprise, too: it's the best description of the job I've read so far. They present it like a DM should: precise, but with ease and flavour. They make aware of the difficulties without discouraging the reader to do it on his own. That's, in my opinion, how it should be done in rulebooks (that reminds me: Castle Falkenstein, another fine game, had a very similar approach). Interesting to note is propably that a Storyteller's functions are very much the same as those of a classic Dungeon Master. The changes in those WoD games where all for the players and their characters (for all that is worth...).

D&D (3e) - The worst of them all. Even Runequest with it's "I don't care"-attitude was better than that. It sounds like a sales pitch. They try to sell a potential DM his duties as the power he has over the players, diminishing the same powers in the same paragraph. It 's a wonder to behold. Tells you everything you need to know about 3e and nothing about how to DM the game.

In conclusion I have to say presentation is key. Jut reading those few sentences about how different games present their DM variant, made me curious about GURPS, Runequest (now I need to know...) and Werewolf (if only for reading) again. A RPG Rulebook should be written as if a DM was presenting it. Ideally, it gives a reader all the examples he'll ever need. Castle Falkenstein is a very good example for that, Werewolf: The Wild West is another one.

One thing stays true...

All agree in one aspect of a DM's role: he is considered a referee. Here is the definition Wikipedia offers:
"A referee is the person of authority, in a variety of sports, who is responsible for presiding over the game from a neutral point of view and making on the fly decisions that enforce the rules of the sport, including sportsmanship decisions such as ejection."
Seeing it like that, we have (rules aside, of course) three important parts in every game: (1) the playing field, (2) the players and (3) the referee. In a soccer game, for example, all those parts are fixed. You know how much players are allowed, what the field looks like in size and texture, even the balls and the tricots are regulated for an official game.  Here, a referee's tasks begin and end with the definition above.

It's all that! But more?

I believe how much influence a DM has on the playing field, is the main reason for debates about what a DM is entitled to do. It's like this:

The playing field is the problem...

The players might change the playing field, but the DM decides the impact. They kill the Big Bad? The DM decides what moves in next. They rob the king? Again, the DM decides who or what will hunt the characters. Of course, publishers want players to believe that a "official" module is all it needs to leave the playing field out of the DM's hands, because it's canon and whatnot (nobody is looking at you, 3e, honestly). It's untrue noenetheless. The scope of the decisions needed is just to broad and detailed. DMs know that, players should know and accept it. Even if a rpg has rules to give players more power over it, the DM is still the person to have the last word (I don't know of any rpg where it's any different...).

More light, please...

Well, that's that. But is there any definition what a DM is and needs to do that is not biased (I still won't do it...)? So because it's what we do in the 21st century, I google it and check Wikipedia. I never cared to look what the wiki had to say about it and it turns out, it's a solid description (the referee is also in there, of course). Here is an excerpt:
"The DM is responsible for narrative flow, creating the scenario and setting in which the game takes place, maintaining the pace and providing dynamic feedback. In storyteller role, the DM is responsible for describing the events of the D&D game session and making rulings about game situations and effects based on the decisions made by the players. The DM can develop the adventure plot and setting in which these PCs participate or use a preexisting module. This is typically designed as a type of decision tree that is followed by the players, and a customized version can require several hours of preparation for each hour spent playing the game. 
The DM serves as the arbiter of the rules, both in teaching the rules to the players and in enforcing them. The rules provide game mechanics for resolving the outcome of events, including how the player's characters interact with the game world. Although the rules exist to provide a balanced game environment, the DM is free to ignore the rules as needed. The DM can modify, remove, or create entirely new rules in order to fit the rules to the current campaign. This includes situations where the rules do not readily apply, making it necessary to improvise. An example would be if the PCs are attacked by a living statue. To destroy the enemy, one PC soaks the statue in water, while the second uses his cone of cold breath to freeze the water. At this point, he appeals to the DM, saying the water expands as it freezes and shatters the statue. The DM might allow it, or roll dice to decide. In the above example the probability roll might come up in favor of the players, and the enemy would be shattered. Conversely, rules do not fit all eventualities and may have unintended consequences. The DM must ultimately draw the line between creative utilization of resources (e.g. firing wooden arrows into a dragon, then using a spell that warps wood at a distance) and exploit (e.g. "horse bombing" - using a non-combat spell that creates a temporary mount, several dozen feet above an enemy; hiring several thousand commoners to form a line and use a rule that allows characters pass items to each other immediately to propel objects at railgun speeds.)." 
(source: Wikipedia)
There is a lot more interesting stuff, where this came from (one article referenced there asks the question if D&D even is a game, for instance) and this post is not as extensive an analysis as I'd like. There is a lot more to talk about (certain DM styles and techniques, what kind of person all those definitions describe, how this is not about controll, etc.). But that's for future posts, I guess.

Questions for the kind readers!

What game explained the term best and what are those definitions lacking the most in your experience? How did you (if you're a DM) come to terms with the "job"? Was it something you read about it, experience, both or nothing of those? I'd really like to hear some other perspectives on those, so please feel free to comment (first time I do something like that and I do hope this won't get embarrassing...)!


  1. I just did a retrospective of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia over at
    d20 Dark Ages.

    But to answer your questions:
    I honestly don't know of a rulebook that adequately describes the [i]experience[/i] of being a referee/Dungeon Master/GM (whatever you want to call it).

    I've been running games for almost 25 years. And before that, I watched my older brother run games for his friends. So I had an idea of what DM is supposed to do. But in my early years I read everything I could on the subject because I wanted to be a great DM. One of the best books is the old [i]Storyteller's Handbook[/i] from revised Vampire: The Masquerade Second Edition. It talks about the Storyteller/GM being the creative force behind the game. Another was the AD&D 2e [i[Campaign Sourcebook & Catacomb Guide[/i].

    I learned that while a DM is the creative force behind the game, his or her creation should not be forced upon the players. I resigned myself to knowing that while I'm entitled to my labors at a DM, the fruits are really for my players. I'm there to show them a good time. The best way to do that is to know my players, and be as impartial as I can be.

  2. Nice, I'll check it out!

    And thanks for answering in detail!

    There was a language barrier if you wanted to play D&D without speaking English. Local Gaming Shops were hidden and secret places (at least that's the impression I got at the time). First time I learned about Roleplaying Games was in an editor's note for Joel Rosenberg's "The Sleeping Dragon" in '91. Our first rpg book we got by accident. We didn't know anybody playing this and our only reference was this book we bought. The first convention I went to (four years later, I think)was the first time I encountered someone else DMing. It was Runequest. This guy knew his game and was an excellent storyteller. It really was inspiring.

    Funny thing is, now that I think about it, V:tM (first German translation must have been second English edition) was the first game I had with an emphasis on storytelling and usefull advice how to be, as you put it, the creative force behind the game. And we're talking '96 or '97 here.

    Well, what I'm trying to say is that we had very different starting situations :)


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