Tuesday, March 28, 2023


Very well: in this post, you're the DM.

Nevermind the players whom the last post addressed.  Your players in this post are excellent, focused, capable persons with tremendous skills as gamers and role-players.  They've got loads of experience, they know precisely what their agenda is and as they sit down at your table, they've begun to deliberate how they're going to achieve their agenda despite you.  Let's take it from there.

To begin with, you don't have an agenda.  You DON'T start unloading your books and the adventure you wrote up last week that the players have never heard of and start, "This is going to be great!  I've got the whole evening planned."  I understand you think that's your role; you've been told by enough sources that this is what you're supposed to do.  You're convinced that the difference between a good DM and a bad one is how much preparation you do, and with this running, you've been working like a dog for three weeks to get this adventure ready.  You're proud of the work you've done and damn it if you're not better prepared that you've ever been in your life.

We stated clearly that the players are faced with a distinction between what they can control and what they cannot.  This distinction does not apply to the DM.  It may be easy to say that you don't control what the players do, but that's patently ridiculous.  As DMs, we can create any circumstance we wish, we can have invented character tell any lies we wish to tell, while the setting can be easily arranged to produce a con job of infinite proportions.

The players MUST rely upon the information they receive from you, their DM.  They have no information of their own.  This gives us vastly more power than how many orcs we can have appear at a whim, or how devastating lightning bolts from the sky might be.  We control everything the players see, hear, touch, smell and feel.

Our only limitations are how devious we wish to be, or how devious we can be, given our human limitations.

Since we don't want to be devious, we need to start with two fundamental premises as dungeon masters: (1) we have no agenda, period; (2) the more control over the game and the setting we can reasonably give the players, without breaking any of the established game rules, the better.

Let's break down number 2 first.

Whatever those rules are, as they vary from game to game, as DMs we still have to respect them.  The rule says that if the characters roll a die that hits, or saves their lives, or succeeds in knowing something, then we are beholden to accept that result just as the players are required to accept results that don't go their way.  If the rule states that a weapon does this much damage, then it does no more or less than that amount.  If a spell has this sort of effect, or this bit of technology has, then we're bound by those rules too.  This should be obvious.

If a rule exists that says a monster has this many hit die and this many hit points, is that a hard and fast rule?  Yes and no.  In the first place, a player has every right to expect a goblin to have such and such hit points, armour class, powers, capacity to do damage and so on.  In the second place, the creation of wholly unseen monsters is considered acceptable practice in the game world, which every participant acknowledges.  Therefore, the creation of 3 hit dice goblins is accepted practice.

Yet because we wish to grant as much control as possible to the players, we are tasked with providing explanations for the discontinuity, in the form of rumours, hints and visual self-evident that these "goblins" are not your everyday goblins.  "They were goblins all right, but they were huge and strong.  It took four soldiers to bring one of them down.  If you folks are considerin' goin' out to those mountains, you better watch your step."

There are numerous rules throughout the game that are fuzzy in this manner.  With enough experience, their presence becomes obvious.  But hard and fast rules, such as hitting, is NOT a fuzzy rule.  Those who fudge dice are still taking agency away from the players, no matter what their intent.  It's worse because they righteously believe they have the right to decide what's better for the player, when in fact all they're doing is arbitrarily imposing their power as DM by ignoring the rules.  In the long run, they steal the party's sense of measuring their success from one battle to the next, since they all seem to go "so well" for some reason.

If there is a rule the DM cannot abide by, then the DM better get rid of it — and then honestly say they are getting rid of it, and why.  DMs should state clearly that such and such rule is being adjusted because they don't like the constraint it puts upon them.  They shouldn't try to reframe the matter by declaring that they're making matters "better" for the player, who may not even care about the rule change.  Such moments should be a debate.  Any one player should have the right to veto the change, even if every other player wants it.  Otherwise, it's just a tyranny of the majority, which only leads to the one player finding a game that suits.  Once a tyranny is established, it just goes on being a tyranny, forsaking individuals one at a time until only one individual is left, and no game.

Rules exist to provide the players with grounding in what's called "fair play."  When a DM chafes against rules, or when a player does, it's always a means of seeking greater personal power through lies and obfuscation.  Whatever the rules are, when they are respected, they establish a firm, fixed frame in which everyone must play, no matter who they are.  Many people, who perceive their inability to succeed within a given frame, go to war against the frame at the first opportunity.  And since in a role-playing game, the participant with the most power is the DM, it's the DM that goes after such rules first.

But the DM shouldn't care.  DMs should not have agendas.  They should not care if the die kills the player.  They should not care if the game begins with their dungeon or not.  You and I should sit down as DMs and wait for the players to decide what they want to do ... and we should be absolutely happy to do so.

We may create the game setting as a "facility for play," but we are not facilitators.  We are not referees, because unlike referees, our freedom of actions is just as controlled as the players'.  What we are is IMPARTIAL.  That is, we favour neither the party nor the monsters we run in a combat; we favour neither door the players might choose, and neither path the players might take.  We have no selfish interest in any part of the game's play.  We're here with just as much interest as the players have to see how it'll all turn out in the end.  Will the players succeed in their agenda?  We don't know.  We're not meant to know.  We're here to put what would seem to be a rational arrangement of obstacles between the party and their goals, as we would want there to be if we were the party and we were trying to achieve that goal.  No more and no less.  If the party dies, too bad, so sad, they tried, let's do it again.  If the party succeeds, great, terrific, here's your reward, let's do it again.  You, my dear DM, must be "favourably disposed" to neither.

This means that whatever you've done on your own to prepare for this running today, it matters not a whit unless the players first say, "Hey, have you got a dungeon ready?  We'd like to tackle a dungeon."  If so, great.  We can say, "Oh, hey, I just happen to have this one," without expressing a word about how hard it was to write up and have ready, or how many weeks its been since the thing was finished.  No matter.  Eventually the players will want a dungeon.  And when they do, we'll be ready.

But until then, shut up about your dungeon.  Your game setting isn't just a dungeon.  Make the dungeon for yourself.  Make it because someday it's sure to be needed.  But DON'T make it because you can't wait, come Saturday, to sit down smugly with your dungeon and talk about how ready YOU are to run it.  That's not what a dungeon master does.  That's what a self-entitled preening bastard does.  We are not the person in charge of this game.  The players are.

There seems to be some difficulty in understanding the word "run."  Imagine, if you will, that your job is to run a generator in an apartment block.  That is, you're here to make the electricity work.  You're not in charge of what the tenets will do with it ... and if you fit the profile of the sort of people who do this kind or work, you don't give a fuck.  You're impartial about that.  You're committed to one thing: make the energy flow.

This is your job as DM.  Make the world work.  Let the players decide what they'll do in your working world.  Wait and see what happens.


Took me all day to write this.  This morning I accidently overwrote a new file with an old one, destroying a day and a half of work.  When I climbed out of bed this morning, everything associated with seafood, fish oil and whaling was done.  Now it's gone and I have to do it again.  Not my first time as a writer, but it's had me gently furious all day.  If some of that leaked into the post above, my apologies.  I had intended to be positive, but that's an uphill climb for me just now.


  1. It can be very tempting, once something is designed, to put it in use and see how the party reacts to it (or, more likely, how they praise you for your genius).

    The advice to patience is excellent. And there's always so much to work on that we should be doing anyway.

  2. Understood...I've lost work before and I understand how it can color one's mood very black indeed.

    RE Impartiality

    I like the "running a generator" analogy. Good stuff.

  3. Wise words indeed. I will keep them foremost in mind when I start running.


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