Friday, May 13, 2016

Homework Time

Tell me in the comments section,

What are the rules that restrict a DM from telling the party what to do.

This question came up as I was working on the lesson plan for my tutoring; and I think it is very telling that after a day and a mess of page views (so I know people have seen the question) that there is a hesitancy in answering.  Readers know me well and naturally do not want to be 'caught' giving the wrong answer.

But is there a 'right' answer?  I don't think that there is.  Yet this is a question that every DM must face and overcome - and has, if they have been a DM for any period of time.  I know that many will feel that their personal solution to the problem will be something that others will see as errored and wrong - but we all know there is no absolute and defined rule to this query.  Therefore, I encourage people to speak up and express themselves: we cannot change the universe if we're not occasionally ready to stand up and speak against 'correctness.'


Maxwell Joslyn said...

One part of my rules is a DM Code of Conduct. It doesn't have a lot to it yet, but one line is:

"When the players are disputing possible courses of action, the DM must not and will not take sides in any way."

On the right track for your question, I think.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I guess I couldn't keep entirely out of the conversation - but sometimes we must press a little to get a conversation started.

MountainBlogger said...

You're right, this is an extremely difficult question, because as far as I can tell there's only wrong answers. Here's an attempt:

1)Direct appeals for advice should be responded to with, "What would you like to know more about?" If not immediately obvious information, respond with "How would you like to learn or clarify that?"
2)Never say "No" only "If you do this, the result could be..." or "Yes, but..."
...and probably most important, and this is where skilled (and difficult/labor intensive) world building is critical...
3)Rewards and dangers should be (usually) obvious and plentiful. Players should have lots of opportunities to hear about the many wondrous and awesome things they can risk to gain. Making sure they can properly weigh the risk vs. reward is the ball game, so to speak.

Players want to maximize their understanding and their chances of success. The most common way to do this is to ask the DM endless questions. "Does my character think this is a good idea?" Generally my best responses have been something along the lines of: "If you do this, A or B might be the result."

I agree with Maxwell that the Platonic ideal is a DM who always sits back and only ambiguously smiles...perhaps Alexis has achieved this? I certainly haven't, and haven't met any who can get away with it.

NPCs are a major risk, as players will frequently canvass them for their opinion. The twin risks are the NPCs either always being stupid/useless for advice, or having their advice being (or being interpreted as) the DM's opinion. The ideal goal might be to present NPC advice as always being limited by the NPCs worldview and desires (only semicompatible with the players).

So, perhaps never answer such questions outright. Guide the player in asking better questions. "What are you trying to achieve? What would you like to know about C?" Always keeping in mind the limits of possible knowledge, but making it clear when more knowledge could be obtained through expending time/money.

Of course, the devil's in the details for all the points above, and it's easy to slip into a pattern of telling your friend what he/she wants to hear.



Maxwell Joslyn said...

The topic of "Rules for the DM" in general is something that seems to tie people in knots.

"But the DM can break/change/ignore the rules," they say.

Yes, but those are the "rules of interaction," which govern how entities in the world function. The DM can declare that these goblins know how to use poison without having ranks in Poisoning; or that on the DM's say-so, PVP cannot result in a death, so get your shit together guys; or, having rolled* HD for the camp of orcs, decide to place high-HP ones at the front lines; or decide that this particular NPC paladin can't lay-on-hands for some reason.

But all that doesn't mean there aren't standards for the DM: "rules of engagement" by which the DM abides while running the game. I'd kick a player out for being an immature troll -- and I'd leave a game if the DM was an immature troll. In both cases there's something that's being

* Would ignoring the numbers rolled would be a violation of "rules of engagement?" Yes, I'd say -- that's fudging. If you're going to ignore dice, don't roll them in the first place -- make a judgment call, as is your right within your ability to selectively ignore "rules of interaction", and go with it. Then, write anything new about that judgment call down as part of your world, and if you change it before you enshrine it in that way, let the players know.

"Hey, last session was the first time using Mud Men, and I gave them too much AC. If you fight them again they'll be easier to hit." I'd greatly respect a DM who was willing to do that, who recognized that the information previously given to the party (toughness of Mud Men) had changed, and that change deserved to be propagated to the party's available information because it wasn't the result of in-game forces, but rather a meta-game adjustment.

So many fucking "DMs" can't even get the "be consistent and treat the things you do in the game like legal precedent" thing down so that the players can actually GATHER INFORMATION and ACT ON IT. There's no concept of record-keeping whatsoever. That's pleb-tier. It doesn't mean every effect has to be explicable to the party or replicable by the PCs (the Foo Monster casts 3rd-level spells as a special ability and ignores fire damage? deal with it) but it does mean that there should be consistency (next time you fight a Foo Monster, unless there is in-world reason, that Foo Monster should be as the previous ones.)

Alexis Smolensk said...


You seem to be under the impression that there is some authority that has set forward a set of rules of which I am not aware.

Could you please identify these "rules of engagement" you speak of or define the source of the "rules" that people break, change or ignore, for the benefit of my readers? I presume these were written expressly in application to DMs and players.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

I'll admit to having invented those particular hoity-toity terms on the fly, but I don't think the concepts they denote are baseless or empty. No "authority" has put these forth other than myself, Alexis, so I'm sorry if I wasn't clear that I was trying to explain my personal viewpoint -- albeit one I think others could benefit from adopting.

I was using "rules of engagement" here to refer to governing interactions at the table between human beings (the players and the DM). Examples: do not insult other participants; players acting to undermine other players is not tolerated as this is a team game; cheating on the dice is forbidden; trolling (I will attempt a definition if you want one, but not this moment) is forbidden; my rule above about DM not taking sides. I assume that most people have some of these but don't make them explicit; I am all about explicit. Most people don't need to be told not to cheat, but relentless trolling? insults? DMs taking sides or blatantly fudging to make encounters run longer? I've seen those behaviors destroy any semblance of worthwhile gaming, and I don't want them at my table. [Some of these would necessarily apply only to players or only to the DM. The roles are asymmetric after all.]

On the other hand, "rules of interaction" refers to the rules which govern the game world. Assassins can assassinate, thieves can backstab, other classes cannot do either (in my game at least.) Combat actions X, Y, and Z cost this, that, and the other amount of AP. The price of a widget X is determined from this recipe, based on these material components, the prices for which are themselves calculated in such and such way. And so on. These are what are typically thought of as "the game rules".

We can call them whatever you want. "Rules you (and I) have to follow to play at this table" and "rules that your character follows in the game" is more explicit, if you like. It's the same as having two sets of rules at your local soccer club: one which you agree to if you want to use the space, and one you agree to by playing the game of soccer. It should go without saying that the content of both sets are subject to individual game-group taste.

Again: I think most people do actually have rules in the "engagement" category, they just don't spell them out. I am doing so because when I believe when I say "there should be DM rules," the first reaction is likely to be "b-b-but isn't the DM above the rules?" He's above the game-world rules but that doesn't mean he's a tyrant free of social conventions. The English-language double meaning between "rules" meaning one type and "rules" meaning the other leads to that reaction, so I've added descriptors.

My memories of crappy games with other DMs are fresh in my mind. I'd be excited to play at a table whose DM explicitly acknowledged their responsibilities in this manner ... which is why I'm talking about it. (yes of COURSE this is way of saying I'd like to run as a player in my own gameworld -- who wouldn't?)

Jens D. said...

Well, I avoid doing that in general. I avoid sentences that contain "You should do ..." (or similar) unless I'm in-character as an NPC. "You could do ..." is totally fine , though. I also avoid giving only one solution to problems (unless the players reduced it to one solution with their decisions to begin with and to a point where adding options would seem forced).

There are rules/guidelines for this in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (I quote from page 262 here):

"During most of a D&D game, the Dungeon Master leaves the decisions to the players. The DM presents the setting—describing what the characters see, offering choices of actions, and so forth. But the course of the game is determined by the actions of the party, as decided by all the players. The DM can almost relax and enjoy the characters' progress as they explore, make maps, solve puzzles, and so forth."

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, you know well Maxwell that I don't believe that the DM is above the rules.

Let's take a moment and look at the original statement:

Is "telling" the party what to do the same as "forcing" the party to do something?

When you create walls between what the DM can do and what the Players can do, you depart from the premise I landed on the other day:

The DM and the Players are going on the same 10-mile hike. The DM, however, is turning right when the players are turning left. But they are not marching separately. They are marching TOGETHER.

Arguments that give the players autonomy from the DM creates an adversarial relationship that destroys the trust and camaraderie that is possible at the game table. Please note, please, please note, that giving the DM autonomy from the players does the same thing.

That is why I DO argue that the DM must obey the same rules as the players; and vise-versa.

Going back to your first statement, Maxwell: "When the players are disputing possible courses of action, the DM must not and will not take sides in any way."

Why? What do you think will happen? It sounds as though you're saying that if the DM argues for one action against another, this will "Force" the players to adhere to the DM's choice. However, we're not saying the DM forces anything. "Taking a side" in an argument does not guarantee obedience. A party that feels free to say to the DM, "No, We Will Do What We Want," because they know and trust the DM to accept that decision, does not need to fear that the DM will somehow use force to compel them.

And therefore, there's no threat or abuse if the DM happens to give their opinion on just where the 10-mile hike will go.

I know this will seem wrong: but remember, sometimes we need to take things on faith.

DMs are just people. They are not the boss of the players. We need to stop creating "Codes of Conduct" that are based on the presupposition that DMs are special.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Jens D.,

Welcome back to the blog. Haven't seen you since we had that spat some years ago. Welcome, welcome.

Consider this. The DM has a duty to be HELPFUL. Not because it is right or wrong but because it is considerate. As the players deliberate and discuss, the DM can step in and provide a bit of extra information where that is relevant. One player says, "That road through the trees is going to be more dangerous than the other road" and the DM can say (quite honestly), "No, not really. There's a lot of traffic on that road and none of the residents around here have ever mentioned bandits or ambushes, despite the trees."

A players says, "We're probably not strong enough to take on that dungeon" and the DM can say, "Well, I don't know - you fellows ARE pretty tough; you're probably more able than you're giving yourself credit for."

In an adversarial game, this can be interpreted as the DM leading the party into a trap. In a friendly, positive and supportive game, however, the party that TRUSTS the DM can appreciate the additional voice at the table that provides a better sense of what their REAL choices are, not just their ASSUMED choices.

Which game DM would you rather play with?

Oddbit said...

"...rules that restrict a DM from telling the party what to do"

Specific phrasing.

Note: DM CANNOT TELL, not DM should tell, or Players cannot tell, or DM can tell.

There are no literal rules that say a DM cannot tell the party what to do in any rule book I've read.

Nor should there really. That said a good guideline might be not to tell the party what to do as it can really only end in the players either defying the will and therefore failing or otherwise derailing, or the players get converted to dice rollers for the game you are running/playing. (I guess there's a third possibility of inventive workarounds that still proceed towards success, but I don't think those would be a standard occurrence)

Guideline being the emphasis, because there are cases where maybe it might make sense for players to ask a question like "What would be the proper way to greet a noble?" Then assuming the DM feels like this is a question that SHOULD be answered, telling them what to do to follow that path seems relevant...

Of course this could also be related to outside game situations, such as inter-player conflict or some other issue that doesn't involve in-game interaction. In that case the rules are usually defined by your local governing authority but otherwise are pretty open. Whether or not they listen and what the response should be might similarly be defined by local governing authorities. That said, you can always tell Steve (or the whole party for that matter) to go suck an egg, and there are no rules against this in my local area.

Of course, maybe this is less extreme and more a minor issue.

As a guideline, if you do tell the players in the party to do something, you might want to ensure it is not done out of self interest alone and more for the benefit of the whole of the group. If a short term act is required you might want to make sure to inform them that it is in-fact short term, and the same if it is a long term act. That said, I'm fairly certain I've not read any real rules on that topic.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Benefit of the group: bingo, Oddbit.

If a DM would just act for the benefit of the group (while retaining the principles of offering an adventure) we'd all be a LOT better off.

Jens D. said...

Yeah, honestly not sure we had a "spat" to begin with. I argued my case, you didn't publish it, I didn't see any reason to comment any further from then on. End of story until I decided to comment again two hours ago. We'll see how that goes :)

But to the point: I see it the other way around. The DM has the duty to be fair and he is in a reactive position, not in an active one like you describe it. Once the players realize I'm impartial, they start trusting my decisions. It's not about helping, actually, it's about teaching them to make decisions on their own and you can not do that the way you described in your comment, you do that by making their decisions relevant (to go with your example, I wouldn't tell them the road was safe, I'd let them run with it and they'd loose time or a random encounter would ask them why they are so cautious on this safe road, so it's an opportunity to narrate something ...).

So for me the DM is a benevolent but fair and impartial party in the game, giving players the opportunity to learn making the right decisions in the gaming environment not by telling them but by showing them and making it part of the narrative in a way that is entertaining, adds to the story and allows player (if not character) development ... I really don't tell them what to do because everything they do should be an opportunity to explore the game further and experience something, but not an opportunity to get lectured. If the need arises to explain the rules further because they, for instance, don't act the power level they actually have, I do that between games.

Anyway, it's not necessarily the only way to do it (and not in complete disagreement to what you wrote) but it is the way I'm doing this for some time now and it worked well for me and my players :)

Alexis Smolensk said...

As soon as you limit the DM's behaviour or the Player's behaviour to this or that, you create camps that are then adversarial. I argue that this has been the problem with DMing from the very beginning: a fundamental misunderstanding that the DM has one role and the players another.

This is what makes it SO hard to teach people how to be DMs from being players. They don't get it. They don't know what they're supposed to do and all they feel is the limitation and the restrictions and the us-them dynamic, which makes them feel that they are push-pulling their friends instead of creating a FRIENDLY dynamic where everyone at the table is concerned about everyone else not because of restrictions or limitations, or because you're allowed to be "reactive" while they're allowed to be "proactive", but because we are all friends playing together and every friend has the SAME goal: to create an adventure, to create risk, to promote conquest and enable party indulgence in success.

We've heard the "benevolent-but-fair" argument a million times but in truth it fundamentally assumes a superior-condescension dynamic. This is self-limiting and ultimately self-destructive. It promotes distrust, conflict and eventually makes it impossible for people to feel free and open at the gaming table.

It is completely understandable, Jens D. I've argued your position myself, many, many times. But I see my error, now. I had a tremendous epiphany, built on an actual working and effective heirarchical structure that doesn't create an adversarial conflict:

And this has changed everything for me - and about what I'll teach people about establishing TRUST as a DM in order to promote Openness, honesty and a free exchange of ideas. "Benevolent but fair" doesn't - because it puts the judgement of what's fair into the hands of one person - who should be comfortable with the Players telling the DM how to DM and the DM telling the Players how to Play.

Jens D. said...

All right, fair enough. I'll play ... For one, I practice non-violent communication at the table. So instead of saying "You did good" I'd say "I like that", thus treating others not from a perspective of superiority but equality instead. I also see a strict division between the personal interaction and the role I need (yes, need) to have as a DM in a game, which is very well possible since I randomize everything and mostly take care of continuity, only reacting to player input and system response as much as I can. The rest of the time I rely on spontaneity and creativity. I am, in that, very much with the players exploring what is happening. I'm not restricted or limited, as you put it, but I'm challenged every time to be agile and intuitive.

Furthermore I'm a (struggling) Daoist and practice the wei wu wei (doing without doing), so for me it's a lot about the limits of control. It's what I mean with "not being active". Martial Arts is another good example, mainly Aikido (but Judo would work, too): you are only able to react to a force properly if you've internalized the reaction patterns. It's what they call "fighting without the sword" in Kendo and means transcending the rules (or freeing yourself from the rules) to use them as intended. You could also call it "The Flow" or intuitive DMing ... Well, anyway, it is possible to go this way and lots of fun to explore so far.

So I have a very different game to what you are describing here and not telling players what to do is a direct consequence of this thinking.

Links to further elaborate:

More credentials (as demanded under point 3 of your code of conduct): I also wear a brown belt in Judo, write about gaming for about four years and design/play my own games for one and a half years now.

I don't think I will ever be done exploring this, but I'm confident enough by now to say that this is worth exploring further and not, as you describe what you think my argument was, erroneous (which is, admittedly, my fault, since I didn't go that much in depth about where I come from in this). I'm not even saying you are wrong here (would be a form of violence, btw), but your Kung Fu is most certainly very different to mine ;)

Also: you are right in that post (even though I don't agree with your conclusion for the reasons stated above). The hardest thing to get for a DM is valuation and that can makes it very difficult to get better at it. It's a very difficult issue for several reasons.

Maliloki said...

"As the players deliberate and discuss, the DM can step in and provide a bit of extra information where that is relevant. One player says, "That road through the trees is going to be more dangerous than the other road" and the DM can say (quite honestly), "No, not really. There's a lot of traffic on that road and none of the residents around here have ever mentioned bandits or ambushes, despite the trees.""

This is pretty much how I've always run my games. It always felt dickish to not give clarification to a misinterpretation of the world when they're discussing something. As long as the player characters would have a reasonable chance at knowing the information, as in your example.

Same with if they misinterpreted a piece of information an NPC has given them because I failed to be as clear as I meant to be.

Always more enjoyable for me to run this way.

Ozymandias said...

The most basic answer, I think, to this is question is: the same rules that apply in everyday life where friends engage in friendly activities. Don't be a dick.

Where this gets complicated is when we over think the situation - which, to be fair, we must do because there are competing rules or priorities. The DM wants to create tension for the players so he must present information in a manner that helps his cause. This is not being a dick, it's doing his job. But this can run counter to the "don't be a dick" rule if not handled correctly.

One thing we must remember is that DM is the source of information about the game world. This ties in with the question by way of example (storytime!). I'll try to be brief...

The players were moving through a dungeon and came to a door. They checked it for traps, listened at it and found it unlocked. They opened it and I began my description of the inside. Remember, as the DM, I am the source. The players cannot know about the world except from what they learn through me. So as I'm just beginning to describe the room, a player interrupts with, "I do such-and-such a thing," and I responded with, "No, you dont."

He did not take kindly to this. In his view, I was breaking a rule - the player has full control of his character. However, by declaring an action before I could finish... it didn't make sense given the context, because the body and mind can perceive far more than we can say in a split second. Think about it: if you were to close your eyes and feel along the wall to the next room, then open them for two seconds and take in everything... then try to write that whole experience and read it aloud to someone... it's not possible to communicate with words in such a short time what your mind perceives.

So yes, "don't be a dick," as in don't tell players what they can and cannot do. But you're also responsible for conveying your world's information through their characters' senses, so there might be times when you have to risk being a dick to get that information through.

LTW said...

I have found myself helping the players come up with solutions to a problem they face. Sometimes they don't think of every solution, even obvious ones. In this situation, I will usually try to lay out all of the options for them or suggest that they haven't thought of everything. "Or you could always try to target these guys clustered together over here..."

Once when the party was taking a particularly long time trying to get out of a situation I suggested that the party's wizard cast spider climb on the rogue and yada-yada-yada...they rolled dice and I had solved the very problem that I had presented to the party (climbing wasn't part of the encounter, they wanted to escape unnoticed from a castle after blah blah blah....). I felt pretty weird about it, but I don't think my players cared or even noticed what I had done.

I sort of made a personal rule not to do it again because it felt like I had done something wrong. Not necessarily railroaded, but that I had played with myself at their expense or stolen their thunder. My rule is that if I am going to DM, that I should let the players play and just be as supportive with details about all the player's options. I also am trying to build trust with my players so I want to stay as impartial as I can while keeping everyone engaged. I draw the line when it comes to making a decision for the character or stating what I would do. Maybe

I should rethink this, especially if the outcomes are known and familiar. Like if there are two doors, and one door has a dragon behind it and the other a sack of gold, this isn't something that I should weigh in on. Take the choice between facing a known potential amount of damage by jumping from a great distance into a castle's moat or fighting off a number of familiar guards. I could probably state what my preference would be for the player here.

The key is to be impartial. I have an image of D&D being like watching golf on TV. I am the ever positive commentator going from player to player and talking to the rest of the group about whats going on in this player's game. Then they roll and it could be a good shot or bad.

James said...

If the players are discussing among themselves, I will answer questions and comment on the players' plans. An example is like such:

Player A: I think we should charge the front gate.
Player B: I think the front gate is heavily guarded.
Me: The front gate is quite heavily guarded. You saw x number of soldiers on top of the walls during your recon.

If the players decide "let's storm the front gate," I will be ready for that (especially since I know my group, and that is their most likely course of action). Since there is an information gap between player and DM, and players (at least my players) don't want to hear every detail before making decisions, I will try to keep them informed on the things their characters would know as it pertains to any in-game discussions.

As far as "telling the party what to do," the closest I will come is advising that something is probably a really bad idea. If they want to do it anyway, that is their call. They are adventurers, they inherently want to take risks.