D&D next re-empowers DMs; players stay empowered

How much should the outcomes of the characters’ actions be decided by the game master instead of the rules?

Before role-playing games, the rules of a game specified every action players could take, and then decided the outcome of each possible action.

The invention of the dungeon master freed players from the tyranny of the rules. Most editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected the DM to make frequent decisions about the characters’ fates.

CORE5-8 The Dantalien Maneuver

Taming bad dungeon masters

The DM’s power to augment the rules enabled the hobby we love, but this power enabled capricious DMs to zap characters when players failed to laugh at their puns, to demand to be addressed as “Mr. DM sir,” to curry favor by lading treasure on their girlfriends’ characters, and to win D&D by killing the rest of the party.

Perhaps inspired by all the tales of bad DMs, the fourth edition designers shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a 4E DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. As much as possible, 4E shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules. In stark contrast to earlier editions, 4E’s spells lack effects outside of combat. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. (You can.) For action outside of combat, 4E presents the skill challenge, where the DM only has to decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance.

Restoring DM empowerment

Now the D&D next designers speak of returning dungeon masters to their traditional role in the game, or re-empowering the dungeon master. See Rodney Thompson’s first answer in this Rule-of-Three post and Monte Cook’s discussion in an early Legends and Lore, “The Temperature of the Rules”.

The phrase “DM empowerment” may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle your DM’s power fantasies. DM empowerment lets DMs fill gaps in the rules—and sometimes override the rules—with their own judgement. DM empowerment lets your wizard use spells outside of combat, among other things. If Mike Mearls came from a marketing background, we would be talking about restoring player freedom instead of DM empowerment.

You might say, “Even though 4E minimizes the DM’s power, my character still has the freedom to try anything.” Really? When did you last try to use a power outside of combat? Do the 4E rules even explicitly allow powers outside of combat? As much as possible, 4E limits your character’s actions to the familiar bounds of the rules.

Even though 4E allows you to attempt things outside the rules, players tend to limit themselves to the menu on their character sheets, just as they rarely stray from their favorite restaurant’s menu.

Players who limit themselves to their defined powers make my job as a 4E dungeon master easier, because I worry about allowing players to improvise actions that duplicate powers. The game includes powers that do things like trip or blind, and this suggests that these stunts require special training. If I allow anyone to throw sand into a foe’s eyes, effectively duplicating the rogue power Sand in the eyes, am I diminishing the value of a level-7 power? If I allow the improvised power, I set a precedent. What happens when a trick proves too repeatable? I don’t want characters to enter every combat flinging handfuls of sand. No real-world army prevailed with such tactics. I never want to say no, but I’m wary of yes.

In practice, as a DM, I allow improvised actions when the unique situation makes the action difficult to repeat. Repeatable actions demand extra scrutiny, because they must always be a little less potent than a comparable power.

Resolution transparency

The opposite of DM empowerment is not player empowerment or player entitlement, it’s resolution transparency, where the outcome of any action is resolved by rule so players can anticipate the likely outcomes in advance. Resolution transparency lets you subject your enemies to both ongoing cold and fire damage without ever worrying whether the DM will decide that the cold douses the fire.

Player empowerment, also known as player agency, refers to the players’ ability to change the game world. When players lack player agency, either they lack meaningful options because they are being railroaded, or because the DM’s favorite non-player characters upstage and supersede the player characters.

Player entitlement means players enjoy unrestricted access to all game options for their characters. They can, for example, shop for any magic items their characters can afford.

Rules volume

DM empowerment and resolution transparency effect the volume of rules a game needs. Both original D&D and D&D next fit their core game rules into a few pages by relying on the DM to resolve all the areas the rules fail to cover. Rodney Thompson writes that D&D next “trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

In theory, a game could give players freedom while maximizing resolution transparency by including mountains of rules that cover every possibility. For example, 4E might include a damage-type table that reveals that cold cancels fire. The lightning damage type might bear extra rules for dealing with damage transmitted through water and physical contact. The 80s saw several games with such extensive rules, but nobody plays Aftermath much anymore.

How fourth edition avoids too many rules

Fourth edition features greater resolution transparency than any other role-playing game, while avoiding extra complexity. The design works this magic by focusing the game on combat encounters and skill-challenge encounters. These two activities provide a way to ignore all the messy, game-world details that otherwise require mountains of rules or a game master’s judgement to resolve.

For combat, 4E’s designers opted for broad, simple rules that gloss over the physics of the game world for the sake of playability. For example, a power’s flavor text never matters, just its keywords. And while the keywords matter, their meanings do not. “Lightning,” “cold,” and “fire” damage could as easily be “kootie,” “loogie,” and “mojo” damage.

Skill challenges provide an activity where the game-world provides flavor, but where only the list of applicable skills actually matters in the game. As originally conceived, skill challenges grant players resolution transparency, while making the game-world unimportant. Players wind up studying their character sheets and lose any immersion in the game-world. See my series starting with “Evolution of the skill challenge,” for an analysis of the skill challenge, and how the activity changed to allow greater DM empowerment.

By glossing over the game-world’s messy details, these design strategies diminish the importance of the game world and focus everyone’s attention on the rules and stats.

Advantages of DM empowerment and resolution transparency

Both DM empowerment and resolution transparency have advantages.

Benefits of DM empowerment

  • Grants players more freedom to interact with the game world.
  • Enables lighter game rules by trusting the DM to fill the gaps.
  • Makes the game world more important, enhancing player immersion. Monte Cook writes, “Empowering DMs from the start facilitates simulation. No set of rules can cover every situation, and the DM can address fine details in a way no rulebook can.”

Benefits of resolution transparency

  • Allows players to anticipate the likely outcomes of an action in advance.
  • Players understand their options because the rules list most of the actions their characters can take. Players rarely need to ask the DM what they can do; they rarely need to ask, “Mother may I?”
  • Limits the importance of the DM’s skill and personality.

For my taste, I tend to prefer resolution transparency during combat, although 4E goes farther than I like. Outside of combat, I want players immersed in the game world, not in the game’s rules, so I favor DM empowerment.

Tabletop games need empowered DMs to succeed

The biggest competitor to D&D is not another tabletop game, it’s World of Warcraft and countless other computer and video games that duplicate most of the D&D experience, 24/7, with better graphics. D&D enjoys two competitive advantages: face-to-face social interaction, and the DM’s ability to account for actions outside of the game’s rules. A game like 4E that eliminates the DM’s judgement from the game throws out a key advantage. Without a DM, why bother to log off?

This entry was posted in D&D fifth edition, Role-playing game design and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to D&D next re-empowers DMs; players stay empowered

  1. Mark says:

    I was led to this blog after reading some info on 5E Next and, honestly, I disagree with most of what your criticisms were of what 4E did and how it went about it. In particular, players encouragement of using stuff out of combat and how DMs adjudicate improv. actions.

    You state: “Perhaps inspired by all the tales of bad DMs, the fourth edition designers shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a 4E DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. As much as possible, 4E shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules.”

    I believe it wasn’t shrunk, just better defined in terms of how the rules work. Transparent rules cuts down on arguments at the table for unclear or obtuse rules. The whole RAW vs. RAI debates nearly vanished at most tables once 4E rolled around. I fail to see why this is a bad thing OTHER than perhaps the DM wasn’t instantly looked to for default answer.

    Further, you say: “You might say, “Even though 4E minimizes the DM’s power, my character still has the freedom to try anything.” Really? When did you last try to use a power outside of combat? Do the 4E rules even explicitly allow powers outside of combat? As much as possible, 4E limits your character’s actions to the familiar bounds of the rules.

    Even though 4E allows you to attempt things outside the rules, players tend to limit themselves to the menu on their character sheets, just as they rarely stray from their favorite restaurant’s menu.”

    And I think this is probably the most troubling thing for me. How sad is this that your players feel relegated to JUST these options. You ask, how often did players try stuff outside of combat and my reply is ALL THE TIME. I had fighters using Cleave to cut through wooden support pillars, wizards using Scorching Burst to melt ice that covered doors, Clerics using lance of Faith to light hallways, and the like. The idea that people felt “boxed” in is, in my humble opinion, truly a problem of the player and not the rules. And where players attempt things outside the box, THATS the perfect opportunity for DMs to flex their muscles.

    “Players who limit themselves to their defined powers make my job as a 4E dungeon master easier, because I worry about allowing players to improvise actions that duplicate powers. The game includes powers that do things like trip or blind, and this suggests that these stunts require special training. If I allow anyone to throw sand into a foe’s eyes, effectively duplicating the rogue power Sand in the eyes, am I diminishing the value of a level-7 power? If I allow the improvised power, I set a precedent. What happens when a trick proves too repeatable? I don’t want characters to enter every combat flinging handfuls of sand. No real-world army prevailed with such tactics. I never want to say no, but I’m wary of yes.”

    That’s why you make such instances a bit harder than ones who have automatic powers that enable them to try. Grabbing a handful of sand and flinging it into someone’s eyes can be done a MYRIAD of ways that doesn’t over-shadow powers of similar function. Powers often have damage + effect in 4E, so doing this as an Improv. Action might just have Effect without the damage or might only target a single creature OR might have a saving throw to end the effect prematurely or might take a standard actions to do instead of a minor action or a combination of any of these.

    Additionally, the flavor texts can be overlooked but doesn’t mean that everyone did. And of course the DM can always say NO to a particular power being used if the situation warranted the refusal (a Fireball underwater seems to be a contentious issue for some, by example) and it says so RIGHT in the rules.

    Now I know that this is over a year old and all that and that 4E is out the door and 5E Next is the new Coke, but I felt obligated to throw in my two cents on a topic I often seen touted as truth (often on messageboards discussing dislike over 4E) when it’s anything but.

  2. [strained metaphor] As far as I can see, 4e was “New Coke”; a product that was different from the original for the sake of being different, and which many people complained about. Eventually the company went back to Original Coke (5e), albeit with some reformulation including corn syrup (Natural Healing in 5e). It was mostly better, or at least as good as it once had been, and the mistake of New Coke was swept under the rug. [/strained metaphor]

    I actually agree with most of what you say in this blog post. I for one am glad to see a return to immersion and a strong DM capable of making rulings for the betterment of the game. In reading the PHB, I’ve found very little that I actively disagreed with philosophically, unlike in 3rd and 4th editions. The difference is that in those editions, you had to fight the weight of RAW to make a change. Unless the change was purely beneficial to players, you’d find a lot of resistance. In 5e, if I don’t like something, I can change it more easily by declaring a variant rule. Natural Healing is one of those things.- I plan to use a more immersive method that takes a lot longer.

    As a DM, I understand that making natural healing take longer will stretch out adventures, make healers more important and dedicated to healing without magic items that heal, etc. If I’m willing to accept these things, the game doesn’t get in my way. It’s then up to the players to decide whether to play in my game, which means that everyone who sits down is on the same page.

    I’m thrilled with 5e, and this is coming from someone who loved the early open playtests, but became a virtual hater towards the end. They got it right for me, and they won me back.

    • Mark says:

      Scott, I’m having a hard time understanding why players would be more open or inclined to go with DM fiat in D&D: Next but not in 3e or 4e? I mean, if the DM is going to change a rule, especially one like healing, wouldn’t it stand that players would argue and complain regardless? In 4e I’ve played different variants on Healing Surges with varying degrees of success and I heard no complaints. Same thing when I went with Wounds / Vitality over traditional HP in 3e games.

      I’m just not seeing the part where DMs lost any power, just had more clarity of rukes to make adjudications easier.

      • I don’t know if you played second edition, but in second edition, much like 5th, there were variant rules and it was up to the DM to decide which were in play. In addition, both editions had text to the effect of “Ask your DM if you can do X, Y, Z”. 3rd and 4th editions lacked this text.

        An example of DM fiat (I prefer “authority”) in 5th edition is the stealth/hiding rules. they have been written as intentionally vague (according to Mike Mearles) to allow the DM to make rulings on the fly based on the situation at hand. For example, you can be hidden from one foe, but not another.

        This takes some authority away from the players and gives it back to the DM. Certain mechanical character concepts, like a “stealth build” are much more dependent on the DM to allow them to shine. Even a Warlock’s core abilities depend on a DM who is willing to allow a party short rests relatively often.

        In 3rd and 4th, the rules had the authority. This gave the players more authority over the game world. 2nd edition (and earlier) and now 5th gives that authority firmly to the DM. The DM can give it back, by giving the group input on house rules, etc, but its his or hers to give.

        If players are giving up this amount of authority to the DM, then it seems that they have to accept a certain degree of fiat in other areas if they want to play. Each group will decide for themselves if the DM is using his authority well, or abusing it, and can leave or stay as they see fit. Sure, this was always true, but this edition gives the world back to the DM. The world is the DM’s character, moreso than in 3rd and 4th.

Leave a Reply