Monday, August 17, 2009

Thoughts on DMing

How many regularly practicing gamemasters are there in the world? One hundred thousand? More, Less?

I use metaphor a lot to understand and learn. I keep trying to find a metaphor for what a DM does, is it like being a chef? Like being a DJ in a club? Sort of for both, but not quite either. Seems a rare hobby indeed, we have here.

One last thought. I keep hearing this idea that rules complexity is added to roleplaying games to help counteract "bad" DMs. I'm not sure if anyone believes that, but I think it is fallacious. Say for example that a "bad" DM (whether that means new, unskilled, or just a jackass, I'm not sure) needs help describing and bringing combats to life. So, someone adds more rules to combat: hit location charts, critical charts, action points, etc. And combat becomes bogged down as the poor "bad" DM needs to keep checking all these charts. Rules complexity and explicitness do not make for a better game experience by simulating an expert DM; they change the gaming experience completely.


  1. As you point out, there are different kinds of "bad" DM. I tend not to think of new DMs as "bad"; they're Ditto with boring DMs. The "bad" DMs fall into a few different groups: adversarial, railroading (or ramrodding), and "realistic" are the ones that jump to mind. There's not much you can do about railroading DMs; it's not a rules question but a play style. Adversarial DMs rarely think of themselves as such, but they interpret any vagueness in the rules against the players. Monsters nearly always get surprise, or mysteriously gain hit points if you roll good attacks, or manifest spell resistance at the drop of a hat. DM fiat, in this case, is not the players friend, and clear, concise, and explicit rules can help level the playing field, as it were, between players and DM (assuming they want to keep the DM).

    Realistic DMs are similar, but tend to create rules, sometimes on the fly, to make the game more "realistic". I played in a game where, in the final ultimate, battle, my character took a large amount of damage from a single blow - though not nearly enough to kill me. The DM declared that it was enough damage to break or crack my ribs, and the pain was so great I couldn't fight, move faster than a walk, or do anything requiring concentration. That was "realistic". There was no healing available, for whatever reason, and my fighter spent the rest of the fight twiddling his thumbs with at least 1/3rd of his hit points.

    If I had to pick one or two lessons to teach DMs, it would be keeping things fun and keeping things moving. There are 6 people (or so) around the table; you need to KEEP THEM INTERESTED. The best way to do that is to keep them doing something. I switched to "Players Roll All the Dice" a few years ago, and intend to use it forever more - it frees me up from mundane dice rolling, and keeps the players involved (players roll defense instead of monsters rolling attacks, and players roll to overcome save DCs instead of monsters rolling to save). I still roll damage, but there's no comparison, no "did that hit" exchange to go through - just "take 15 hp" (to simplify it). As a player, I don't like sitting there like a lump while the DM lectures at me, and I don't expect my players to sit through it either.

    And, it's better to have something completely random happen than to hunch behind a screen for 5 minutes looking for the "right" answer or encounter. Better wrong than nothing. Keep moving, keep talking, don't get bogged down. Learn to improvise.

  2. And if someone dies, throw them a monster to run. It'll be awesome.

  3. Thanks for the detailed reply! Yeah, I don't consider new DMs "bad" but I get the impression most bad DM experiences are with new DMs.

    As for the Railroaders/Adversarial DMs I guess I stand by my point; changing the rules to try "keep them in line" isn't going to work. They'll find ways to be adversarial with the new crunchier rules anyway and then you've changed the whole game to try to prevent some outliers from playing poorly.

    I guess I see rules written for the DM, not for players. They should be just enough to guide the DM in running quick and fun play as you suggest, but not so much that they become cumbersome. Players should only know enough of the rules to be able to roll the dice and have fun.

    I think that the "realistic" DM you mention is interesting because I can see someone trying to do that, let story emerge from the combat "the hit was massive, it crushed your ribs!" But the effects it had on your character were too specific. That's that tricky counter-intuitive aspect of our chosen hobby, it seems like adding detail like that to combat would be awesome but in play . . . uh, not really.

  4. I have a number of different metaphors I use in my role as GM/DM/CK/Ref (mainly for myself, to give myself different frames of reference). Sometimes I think of it as being the band-leader in a 50's bebop jazz quartet; sometimes as executive management (giving people the resources they need to succeed in their jobs...not so much as the big cheese); and sometimes as the theatrical producer.

    I agree wholeheartedly with "Players should only know enough of the rules to be able to roll the dice and have fun." Which leads to a metaphor I particularly like: Roller Coaster Tycoon.

    My other expensive hobby is playing music, mostly bass. Of course I hit wrong notes, but as long as I maintain the groove, it is not a big deal. DMing is the same way, keeping the pace is more important than getting each detail right. Details are important, but most players enjoy the experience more than the details. In the end, it is a game, not a simulation (the words "role," "playing" and "game" are actually significant).

    Nice post!