Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Dungeon Master

From p. 6 of 4th Edition's chapter, How to be a DM

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.

Who Should Be the DM?: Who should be the Dungeon Master for your gaming group? Whoever wants to be! The person who has the most drive to pull a group together and start up a game often ends up being the DM by default, but that doesn’t have to be the case. 

Dungeon Masters Can Partner, Trade Off, or Change: The role of Dungeon Master doesn’t have to be a singular, ongoing, campaign-long appointment. Many successful gaming groups switch DMs from time to time. Either they take turns running campaigns, switching DM duty every few months, or they take turns running adventures and switch every few weeks.

Rating: false

I know that for many readers, the above sounds true, but there are plainly false statements that depend on accurate understanding of the metaphor.  A "hat" is a profession or a role.  The DM does not wear many "hats"; there are many different sorts of things a DM does or accounts for, but these are not different roles in themselves.  A doctor examines patients, prescribes medicine, writes reports, manages staff and so on, but these are not different "hats."  "Rules moderator" is not an independent role.  Narrator and acting the parts of NPCs, these are not roles.  These are all part and parcel within the DM's role.  A quibble for some, but factually inaccurate.

Moreover, the passage does not actually describe what the DM does.  It doesn't answer the question.  Example:

In baseball, the pitcher is the player who throws the baseball from the pitcher's mound toward the catcher to begin each play, with the goal of retiring the batter, who attempts to either make contact with the pitched ball or draw a walk.

The answer is not, "The pitcher has many hats to wear in the course of the game.  The DM is a ball thrower, a ball catcher, a player that performs many actions, and is the most important player on the diamond, the team and during the game."

The answer given about the DM above is gobbledygook.

The question, "who should be the DM?" is asked twice, I expect for emphasis.  Imagine if I ask you, who should be the quarterback?  Who should be the last leg in a relay race?  Who should play 1st base?  The answer, whoever wants to be, offers a fair, non-prejudicial answer to the question.  Everyone deserves a chance.  Everyone deserves respect.  No person is better than anyone else.  It's only reasonable that the answer to "who?" should include a disclaimer that encourages everyone to try.

A Little League baseball coach taking charge of a dozen 9-year-olds does not say, "Who wants to play 1st base?"  It is a good way to start fights and it doesn't solve the problem of who should be there.  Acknowledging that parents are a larger problem for which child gets the "honour" of playing which base, it is best understood that the game is not about the needs or wants of any one player.

Let's say Jimmy, Judy and Jane all want to play 1st base.  Putting the question of who is best at it on a shelf, the larger question is, which will contribute the most to the team if they're put in that role?  Not only to the team's potential to win (which builds morale and makes everyone happy), but also towards the team's general feeling that one is really liked in the role while the others are disliked.  Suppose that Judy is obviously the best skilled; but when she is in that role, she swaggers and acts conceited, so much that her general attitude undermines the benefit of having her play 1st base.  Perhaps Jane has skills which could be improved if she gets an opportunity to play the position; which she would not be able to improve if Judy is always there.  Perhaps Jimmy is a terrific morale-booster when he's in the in-field, giving everyone the wherewithal to really dig in when the game gets hard.  Variables have to be weighed.

The good coach tries each player; and looks to see if others who may not want to play 1st base have the skills for it.  Judy is used against the tougher teams, but Jane gets some real experience now and then, and during practices is given more training in the position.  The coach and Judy discuss her attitude and see if it can be smoothed out.  We find a place for Jimmy somewhere in the infield; possibly at first base if Judy or Jane are injured or miss a game.  We approach the problem flexibly.  EVERYONE is happier if Judy makes a great play or Jane doesn't make an error ... so we don't want just anyone to play that position, because losing games every week is very, very depressing.  No one has fun, and fun is the point, right?

The approach taken by the 4e text misses a real opportunity.  Instead of opting for a political, inclusive argument, crammed into six lines, we could drastically cut down the previous section about how many players ought to be at the game table, widen the margins on the page so that we have a little room to write, and talk about the actual skills the DM would need in order to act the part.

A DM should have control of the language, an ability to express and give details about abstract things, patience with numbers, a cool head, a real interest in rules (how they're made and what purpose they serve) and should be someone with an academic bent towards reading about history, anthropology, games and general science, all subjects which will come up a lot during play.  There's a lot of reading and note-making involved in being a DM, as well as an expectation for keeping the peace and treating everyone at the table equally.  If the game is going to be about "story," some creative ability would be necessary.  A DM takes responsibility for the way the game is played and will often receive pushback for doing so; therefore, the DM may have a temper but ought to be a person who does not hold a grudge.

This is a very tall order for anyone, much less the children that the company normally markets towards.  Putting it in plain English like this -- let's not kid ourselves -- really kicks a lot of would-be dreamers wanting to be a DM in the gut.  We see much advice online arguing that one or another of these things doesn't matter.  A DM doesn't need to read.  A DM doesn't need to be creative, just "imaginative."  Factual history about things is "optional."  We don't need to know "all the rules," or follow them "exactly."  Etcetera.

No matter how we paint it, the DM in the chair learns the truth in short order.  Everyone may want to be the pitcher or play 1st base, but a line-drive at a timid pitcher's head soon ends that fantasy.  The fifth missed throw to first, producing doubles and triples out of what should have been outs, as well as shouts of anger from teammates, very quickly ends the fantasy.  However we wish to paint what a DM does as a "simple" act, an hour as DM gives no leeway.  As the DM, you're expected to act as DM, no matter what sort of fantasies you possess about what's actually required.

This is the joke.  The passage implies that multiple people will want to be DM, where we know from experience that's not generally the case.  In my early days, I was very lucky.  My friends were all social outcasts, because we lived at the library, read books, played wargames and argued about art, history and other intellectual things.  We wanted to be DMs because we had the creative and information-driven skills.  Some were better that others, however, because we also had people and management skills.  It soon became clear that Scott and Irwin could feel the lack of enthusiasm for their games; while Asif, John and I were viewed otherwise.  Asif had to quit when his family decided that D&D wasn't appropriate, when the family business needed attending.  John faded away; he disliked all the prep and after awhile, he was never ready to play.  Scott gave up quickly; Irwin plugged on longer than any of them.  I was the last man standing.

That, however, was a rare situation.  Many, about a third of the DMs I spoke to at game cons in selling my book, did not want to be the DM.  They had been volun-told to be the DM, because their friends wanted to play and it was decided who would run by the group.  These were DMs doing the best they could, not sure how to do it and yet committed to pleasing their friends.

This is why the third part above takes a moment to deal with the idea that you can "trade off" with others, excusing DMs from having to do it all the time.  I grew up with the phrase, "Winners want the ball."  I think it applies here.  DMs want to DM.  They don't really want to play.  Oh,  maybe for a while, because it's more relaxed and there are things we want to try ... but really, with such a dearth of DMs in the world, if you want to, it's usually easy to make it happen.

I've never seen "partners" DM in real life.  I have a fantasy where I'd like a secretary, but a "partner"?  Gah.  I've seen people write books in partnerships; I'd think it's easier with an academic collarboration, where nothing is being made up.  But a partnership would require two persons of the same stripe; happens, obviously, but it is very, very rare.  It appears in the 4e text only because it's an official recognition of "See, you don't have to do this."  I very much doubt that "many successful gaming groups switch DMs" outside the bubble of published D&D writers, brought together through the company, writing this book.  It stinks of not understanding what it is really like out there.

Who Should Be the DM?  Those who can prove through their actions that they're able to run the game.

This series continues with What Do You Need


  1. 100% agreement here.

    My current group has several people who enjoy DMing, and a couple others who've given it a try. But there are really only two of us that really enjoy it and do it consistently. One other did an amazing job a few years ago, but seems content to just play now.

    One of the guys who keeps trying but keeps scrapping his campaigns after a few sessions pitched a shared DM campaign for all of us to co-run, but everyone quickly shot that idea down for the reasons you mention. We all have different styles, different types of games we like to run, different feel for each game we run. A big game where every week a different person runs the same characters in the same world just sounded like a recipe for disaster.

  2. So many thumbs up for this post.

  3. Wasn't the original twitter thread to the effect of "4e will answer all of your questions about DMing"?

    Seems like Wizards could have saved a lot of paper and ink by just publishing a card that said "Whatever, have fun" containing the same amount of information on how to be a DM.

  4. Yes, that's the thread I read that started this. Alyssa Visscher highlighted parts that come later than what I'm crawling through presently; but as far as "answer all questions," I suspect many D&D players don't have as many questions as I did when I was starting out.

    Part of Vischer's thread, scattered over multiple tweets, reads:

    "Think about it this way. Say that you have a recipe for making pie. It lists the ingredients, which you go to gather. You then turn the page to read the instructions. The 'How to take these ingredients and turn them into a pie' ... There's none. Go make pie. Let's say that every single month, you sat at the kitchen table with your parent and watched them bake the pie. You watched them sift flour, cut the lard, gently fold the liquid into it. The process of rolling it out. Adding the cinnamon apples, top crust put on, & into the oven. You might not be able to do it perfectly the first time, but if you have the ingredient list, you can probably get a decent pie the first go, and after a few more goes, you've got it down! But if you have never made pie before or watched it being made, and all you have is the ingredients list? You're all NOPE, THERE'S NO WAY. Great, I know what I need, but now what? HOW do I make this? You following my drift? This 4e section on narration is the instructions."

    Which is an EXCELLENT metaphor. But does the content thus far translate into what Visscher says? I think we're still on the ingredients page.

    I read this whole section back in 2007, after 4e came out. I haven't read it again since, which is funny, since that was before my blog and I've never felt the need to come back and promote this content. At present, I have deliberately not read ahead. I'm interested to see how it strikes me when I get there. In the meantime, while it is occasionally hard to be positive, I'm taking that as my goal.

    Rather than merely disparaging, I'm adding additional content when it occurs to me; I feel this is the best use of this material.

  5. I actually partnered a campaign with a friend. Both of us had been playing/DM'ing for 10-15 years at that point. We were both pretty typical DM control freaks who weren't used to sharing. We together roughed out the big picture of what was going on and then traded off DMing adventures. Then we'd provide the other DM with an NPC for that adventure to play.

    It went surprisingly well - we both got to do the creative stuff we enjoyed, and got to play a character every now and then. Much more interesting to role play an NPC like that for a whole adventure than the normal back and forth as different NPCs when you are a DM. While we planned the world and setting together, we didn't plan the individual adventures together, though. So when we were a player, you still had the sense of discovery.

    Anyway, it worked for us.


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