In my last post, I explained how challenging myself to say yes to players made me a better dungeon master, even though I sometimes said no.
Sometime in the 90s, I returned gaming conventions after more than a decade away. Some folks played Dungeons & Dragons differently than I remembered. I played with a DM who said yes to more gifts than Santa Claus. Any time a player wanted to try some lame scheme, the DM would permit it—and grant a big bonus for creative thinking. His game held no challenges. It only existed for his players to show off.
My DM’s habit of saying yes should have created a collaborative story that enchanted me, but instead I felt bored.
Some folks equate saying yes with good storytelling. From this perspective, characters are the foundation of story. Players control the characters. Only bad DMs keep the storytelling to themselves. Saying yes to the players lets them contribute to a shared story.
Except good storytelling rests on characters who face obstacles. If you make obstacles that just enable characters to demonstrate how great they are, then you create a certain, notoriously dull sort of story. Your story features a Mary Sue who can only impress everyone by being wonderful.
In D&D, players never ask a DM to say yes to something that adds obstacles. Players ask for advantages. Players see a high Performance skill on their character sheet, and then ask to sing a cave-in away because maybe the right note starts a landslide. Saying yes isn’t the route to compelling stories.
But D&D isn’t really a storytelling game. Nobody wants to hear a story about your D&D character. The fun of D&D comes from playing the game. For most of us a big part of that fun comes from a chance to feel wonderful and impressive in our character’s shoes.
I often meet players who want to win D&D when they devise a superior character. The play at the table, for them, just offers a victory lap.
So does my desire for a game that challenges me and my characters make me an oddity?
For most players, credible obstacles help make role-playing games compelling. Call of Cthulhu typically ends in insanity or death, but you still get to thwart a dark god against overwhelming odds. Your characters’ losses make them more heroic than the D&D characters who always come out of scrapes better than before.
Nobody sits at a D&D table for vicarious insanity or death. In D&D, characters improve by gaining experience and magical gear. That steady improvement makes the game addictive. D&D players relish chances to show off.
I suspect most players crave a mix of challenges, chances to show off, and chances to feel powerful by overcoming real challenges.
Case in point: My friend Tom is a by-the-book DM with stronger mastery of the rules than anyone I know. Some have called him a dick DM, and he wears that label with a note of pride. He doesn’t try to win against players, but he won’t say yes to a brazen attempt to use Performance. Tom is an expert at running monsters so they make tough, canny foes. Sometimes Tom kills characters. He killed one of mine. If D&D players favored DMs who simply let characters show off, then Tom would rate as a bad DM. Not Tom. As a DM, he reached an elite, level-4 ranking in the Heralds Guild of DMs. This means Tom served a DM at conventions for table after table of strangers, and earned nearly perfect scores on their feedback forms. In his games, when characters show off, they earned it.
D&D works best when DMs find a balance between credible challenges and letting each player feel like a bad ass.
Sometimes finding the right mix just requires the players and DM to focus on their roles: Players work to make their characters awesome, while their DM takes charge of posing challenges. In this role, the DM acts as the characters’ biggest fan. As a fan, I want the characters to triumph against real tests. I want a 6’5” 250 pound NFL quarterback to face elite athletes rather than pee-wee football players. Let the Fantastic Four beat Doctor Doom rather than Paste-Pot Pete.
So as a DM, when the players ask you to say yes to something that ruins a challenge, you can say no without feeling like a bad DM who refuses to share the game with players. They have their part, you have yours.
Sometimes, your role as fan of the characters might call for a yes. I can think of three perfect occasions:
1. Say yes to inventive solutions.
When I started as a DM, I followed Gary Gygax’s model. I pitted my players against the most devious deathtraps I could invent. I would build in ways for the players to surmount the obstacles, but the players’ solutions rarely matched mine. The 6 or more brains across the table always proved more clever than me. Soon I stopped including solutions to the predicaments. The players across the table still escaped every impossible pinch. Their invention surprised me and I relished it.
I don’t recommend pitting players against impossible situations, but I do recommend learning to love an ingenious solution. Some DMs grow so attached to a “correct” solution to a predicament, that they reject their players’ ingenuity.
For more, see Player Skill Without Player Frustration.
2. Say yes to stunts and exploits that go outside the rules.
A few years ago I ran the Confrontation in Candlekeep delve at Gen Con. At the end, a dragon flies from Candlekeep tower to tower, table to table, exchanging attacks. At one stop, a character jumped atop the dragon and rode it table to table. After the event, the player giddily recounted the tale to anyone who would listen. He wasn’t alone. Players loved riding the dragon so much that DMs made it part of the adventure. Designer Teos Abadia remembers, “The result was great fun, a nice mechanic for players ending up at other tables, and some really spectacular falls!”
In Mike Shea’s post, A Collection of Awesome Events, he asks players to recount an awesome D&D moment, and then reaches a surprising conclusion: Players love it when they get to break the game. Riding the dragon steps outside the usual exchange of blows in a D&D battle. The Player’s Handbook offer no rules for it. But for players of Candlekeep, it created unforgettable moments.
When players suggest a bold or clever idea that ends a big encounter or that wrecks a major villain, I feel tempted to reject it. I worked to set the stage and a sudden end feels like a waste of effort. But for players, an ordinary battle can’t match the excitement of that one time when they broke the game.
3. Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique qualities.
At a convention, I ran an adventure where a pack of wolves confronted the characters. One player tried to make friends with the beasts and I asked for an Animal Handling check.
The player showed his character sheet. “My background happens to be Raised by Wolves.”
“Turns out, you know these wolves.”
Obviously, if some unique quality grants an advantage that threatens to regularly upstage the other characters, you can still say yes, once. After that, the wolves the player meets might be rivals.