The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master

If you play Dungeons & Dragons in game stores, you will meet an unfrozen dungeon master. Fifteen years ago, I was one.

The first surge in the popularity of D&D started in 1977, when I found the first Basic Set, and continued in the 80s. Nerdy kids everywhere found the game, played obsessively, and then mostly moved on. Eventually groups separated for college and jobs. Players abandoned their books in their parents’ attics or sold them for gas money.

But we missed the game, and 10, 20, or 30 years later, those of us who loved D&D come back. We are the unfrozen dungeon masters.

Over the years, D&D has changed. Not just the rules, but also play style and player expectations have changed. When unfrozen DMs play, we can either adapt to the new style—shaped by 45 years of innovation. Or we can find like-minded players in the old school—still as fun as ever.

An unfrozen DM came to my local store during the fourth-edition era. He played enough to learn the new edition and then served as a DM on a Lair Assault. After the game, he told me about the rules he fixed on the fly because they didn’t suit him or his style of game. Such changes defied the spirit of fourth edition, which aimed to limit DM meddling in favor of giving players a clear understanding of how their actions will play in the game world. Such DM fiat especially defied the spirit of a competitive challenge like Lair Assault.

Since then, I haven’t seen a DM so clearly unfrozen, but DMs still stagger from caves and icebergs into game stores. When they run a game, newer players probably see too much focus on pitting an unyielding game world against the party, and too little on shaping the game to suit the players and their characters.

This topic inspired a question that I asked on Twitter. The answers showed the gulf between the game when I started playing and the current style of play. I felt a little like a DM staggering from melting ice to see a new world of wonders. Will I ever learn enough of the new ways to fit in?

When D&D started, DMs were called referees and they played the part of a dispassionate judge of the game. As a referee, you used die rolls to place most of the monsters and treasure in your dungeon. When the players explored, you let die rolls and the players’ choices determine the outcome. A referee ran home adventures the same they ran a tournament where competing teams might compare notes and expect impartial treatment.

D&D’s roots in wargaming set this pattern. Referees devised a scenario in advance. Players chose sides and played. In the spirit of fairness, referees didn’t change the scenario on the fly.

Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), one of D&D’s early imitators, spells out this ideal. The rules advised the GM to set out a dungeon’s details in advance so he could “prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.”

That style didn’t last. In most D&D games, no competing team watches for favoritism, so if the DM changes unseen parts of the dungeon, the players never know.

Dungeon masters differ from referees in other ways.

Unlike wargames with multiple sides, dungeon masters control the foes who battle the players. Now, DMs sometimes struggle to suppress a will to beat the players. In the 1980s, when people still struggled to understand a game that never declared a winner, competitive urges more often proved irresistible.

RULE NUMBER ONE in Chivalry & Sorcery is that it is a game, not an arena for ‘ego-trippers’ to commit mayhem with impunity on the defenseless or near defenseless characters of others. Games have to be FUN, with just enough risk to get the adrenalin pumping. The moment that an adventure degenerates into a butchering session is the time to call a halt and ask the would-be ‘god’ running the show just what he thinks he is doing, anyway.

All of the early fantasy RPGs came as reactions to D&D. For example, Tunnels and Trolls (1975) aimed to make D&D accessible to non-grognards—to players who didn’t know a combat results table from a cathode ray tube. C&S follows the pattern. It reads as a response the shortcomings of D&D and the play style it tended to encourage.

C&S reveals much about how folks played D&D in the early years.

Before I entered the DM deep freeze, my players would sometimes discuss their plans of action out of my earshot. In their talks, as they speculated on the potential threats ahead, they imagined worst-case scenarios. To avoid giving me ideas, they kept me from overhearing. After all, their worst-case scenario might be harsher than anything I planned. (Obviously, I never borrowed the players ideas. My worst cases were always worse.)

D&D has changed since then, so I asked current players on Twitter for their feelings:

How do you feel about GMs who eavesdrop on your conversations, and then incorporate your speculations in the game?

  • Love it. Let’s tell stories together.
  • Hate it. The DM shouldn’t steal my ideas to complicate my character’s life.

In the responses, the lovers overwhelmed the haters to a degree that surprised me.

Players see RPGs are structured, collaborative storytelling and they enjoy seeing their ideas shape the tale. “D&D is a collaborative storytelling activity,@TraylorAlan explains. “I imagine it as a writer’s room for a TV show, with a head writer who has a plan that is modified by the other writers. A good DM riffs off what players do, uses that to build. Players then feel invested because their choices matter.

I agree, but my sense of the answers is that folks don’t often imagine their DM overhearing a worst-case scenario, and then wielding it against characters. If players only wanted compelling stories, DMs should sometimes adopt players’ cruelest ideas and use them. Stories feature characters facing obstacles. Countless sources of writing advice tell writers to torture their beloved characters. But how many players want to participate in the torture of their alter egos?

For my money, the answer to my question depends on the part a DM plays in the game, moment by moment.

Are you the adversary, with a Team Evil button?

Better to keep your eyes on your own paper, even if the players’ worst-case scenario fills you with glee. Never adopt killer strategies or dream up countermeasures for tactics you overhear.

Are you the collaborative story-teller, looking to help the players reveal their characters?

When players speculate at the table, they’re making connections based on what they know about the game world—connections that the DM may not see. Adopt the speculations that link the characters to the game world in unexpected ways. They reveal they characters and tie them to the shared fantasy. Making connections real makes the D&D world seem deeper and more meaningful. It adds a sense of order that we humans enjoy in the game world, especially at times when the real world shows too little order and too little sense.

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21 Responses to The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master

  1. Dragonboy84 says:

    I’m a baby dm, so essentially the polar opposite of an unfrozen dm (see what I did there? 😉 ), so my take is definitely coming from a place of less and/or different experience, but I am inclined to disagree with the eavesdropping commentary.
    If used as a device to ONLY thwart your party, then, yes, it can be a bad thing. But often, I’ve found that it’s also given me the chance to peer into my players’ hopes and dreams for their characters as well, and thanks to that less-than-intentional collaboration, I’ve been able to work with my players in weaving sideplots and motives with tangible goals for them that keep them engaged on am individual level where sometimes the broader goal of the central plot falls short.
    Case in point, one of my players wants to find love and start a family. Said character is on track for that to happen. Sure, there is quite a bit of hell amd suffering he’ll endure to get that (I am the dm, after all….), but the goal isn’t to break him. I want him to feel that by the time he gets his wish, he/his character has earned it.
    And well, frankly, if it weren’t for this collaborative eavesdropping, I may have never been inspired to facilitate what has turned into a very compelling B-plot that inspires one of my newest, yet most engaged players at my table.

  2. Jib Job says:

    I tend to roll with the “rule of cool”. If a player encounters a scenario that I have created, and envisions an awesome scenario, like a pushing match on the top of a tower, or a wizarding duel, I allow it. The world can wait while players risk their characters to reach for greatness. They can succeed or fail from the dice, but they always get the opportunity to try. I find this sets up memorable fights, and turning hour long encounters to a few epic dice rolls that has the table completly engrossed

  3. Edgewise says:

    I get the impression you’re totally unfamiliar with OSR. One thing everyone needs to learn is that there are many different legit styles of GMing. There is no single new and current approach, and if there was, it wouldn’t be “better.” Look into the Old School Primer by Matt Finch to get caught up on this conversation.

    • Rayce says:

      Why? I’m glad someone is talking about this and not talking about ‘The OSR.’ Let’s have some new voices be heard without the curmudgeons going ”Hrumpf’ again and again.

    • Rayce says:

      I have to say that the Matt Finch article is really good – I hadn’t read it recently – but now it seems what he is doing is pointing out what makes playing role playing games fun. I played d&d in the 70s and I wasn’t 7 at the time, however, I feel like a lot of what Matt is describing as ‘old style’ play sounds more like Dungeon World than D&D (to me.)
      Not very many of us were very good at RP, but we were really good at cooperative problem solving. It was Fighter, Cleric, Magic User, Rogue for a reason, right? There *had* to be a dwarf for underground, too.
      I think there are counter assignments to some of Matt’s assertions.

      Rulings vs Rules.
      (Agree)
      Great in a high trust game and the way it should be, but doesn’t work for all groups. Some players just don’t trust the gm.

      Player skill vs character abilities.
      (Certainly a relevant point, but I don’t agree)
      This is why d&d is seen as a game and not as a role playing game. D&D *wasn’t* a role playing game – it was a cooperative problem solving game. It has evolved. Sometimes people want to escape their mundane lives and be someone else.

      Heroic, not superhuman.
      (Agree mostly)
      Yeah, I can’t argue this one in any way, but… Conan was superhuman. Everyone wants to be Conan or Fafhrd or Spiderman or…
      Again, maybe “Sometimes people want to escape their mundane lives and be someone else” applies??

      Game balance is stupid.
      (Agree)
      This is entirely GM game management. Sure, go ahead and play with the expectation that you can defeat anything the gm throws at you. BORING!! If I can’t die, why am I playing? Is this some pansy-ass video game with save points?

      Long live The OSR!!

      • Edgewise says:

        Nice, thanks for meeting me halfway! Despite sounding like I am firmly planted in OSR, it is more accurate to say that I am influenced by it. And a more subtle truth is that few if anyone played exactly like that back in the old days. There was no orthodoxy; OSR is not a painstaking recreation, but it takes its inspiration from the past like punk rock took inspiration from the early days of rock.

        Besides, Finch’s primer is really specifically about how to play OD&D. It’s not like they didn’t have superhero games back in the old days. I see his treatise as saying “here’s a cool way to play D&D, and I like it a lot more than 4e.” Not “this is how you should always role-play.” Some OSR heads are definitely like that, but it’s always bad form to insist on The One True Way To Have Fun.

        I do like the emphasis on player skill to the extent that I avoid rolling the dice when it’s really not necessary. I split the difference; if a thief says “I search for traps,” then I roll. But if the player describes the search in detail, it may be apparent that the trap will be spotted. Same for searching for secret doors and stuff like that.

  4. LazerZ says:

    I wasn’t around for Old School D&D, coming in with third edition, but I actually prefer that style of play to newer approaches. However you have to make sure that you and the players are on the same page regarding expectations for the game.

    • Yeah, I’d like to amplify this. In particular, this bit:
      “Such changes defied the spirit of fourth edition, which aimed to limit DM meddling in favor of giving players a clear understanding of how their actions will play in the game world. Such DM fiat especially defied the spirit of a competitive challenge like Lair Assault.”
      Really set my teeth on edge. As a DM you’re running your game. Your game might be based on a particular edition of D&D, but it’s your game and the only ‘spirit’ is the one you invest in it. Now if you’re an asshole about it–if you consistently violate your players expectations–then you won’t have a game to run, because no one will be playing with you. So you should make sure everyone is on the same page. But an RPG is not a board game, the rules are guidelines and should be modified or even discarded liberally if they don’t work for you.
      Finally, I don’t like the playstyle of “DM vs. Players” personally, I much prefer the advice found in Dungeon World: “Be a fan of the players!”, but that doesn’t make it “wrong” by any stretch of the imagination. If a group wants to run that kind of game, that’s their business and they deserve to enjoy themselves.

      • Edgewise says:

        Amen x 10…the DM runs the game, the game doesn’t run the DM. The spirit of the game doesn’t sit in a rulebook, it happens at the table.

      • Jon Mattison says:

        My following example is much too literal, but I took the gist of the article is to be consistent with rules and world logic, from scene to scene, from session to session, you’re setting groundwork for how things work, like Gravity. PCs make decisions based on this. So next scene or next session you can’t just change how Gravity works in your world.

      • Marty says:

        @Christopher – I think you misunderstand the quote about Lair Assault.

        Lair Assault was an organized play event where players were challenged to optimize a party build in order to defeat a specifically designed difficult scenario.

        It was not a home game. It was not Adventurers League. It was more akin to a cooperative board game where it was the players vs. the game with the DM acting as the “AI” of the scenario.

        This means that the DM changing the Lair Assault scenario is breaking the whole concept of the Lair Assault. The whole point of Lair Assault was to stick to the rules as written to “win” the scenario. If the DM changes the scenario as written, it’s not fair to the players who signed up for that specific game mode. The DM is breaking the agreed upon play style.

  5. Beoric says:

    I am fascinated by the last line from that twitter post you quote: “A good DM riffs off what players do, uses that to build. Players then feel invested because their choices matter.”

    Assuming the context of that quote is accurate, how little agency must a player have inside the game that he or she considers a DM riffing off his or her thoughts outside of the game in order to feel a sense of agency?

    On the other hand, if you change the context and contemplate a DM riffing of the PCs actions IN GAME, that DOES give the players agency. It is what my group has been doing for over 30 years, and from what I read on OSR websites is generally advocated by a host of “unfrozen” DMs. I don’t know anyone who ever played a strictly plotted-out-in-advance scenario (tournament play excepted), in fact, generally old school players appear to reject such a premise.

    In short, your description of old-timers is at odds with my experience, and I doubt that it applies to more than a small segment of the fogey gaming community.

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