Tag Archives: dungeon master empowerment

How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal

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

Before roleplaying games, the rules of a game specified every action players could take, and then decided the outcome of each possibility. 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—especially in the many situations the rules didn’t cover. “Prior to 3rd edition,” designer Monte Cook wrote, “‘the DM decides’ wasn’t just a fallback position; it often was the rule.”

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 curry favor by lading treasure on their girlfriend’s characters, and to win D&D by killing the rest of the party.

So the designers entered what D&D’s Creative Director Mike Mearls calls “the business of trying to ‘fix’ obnoxious people.”

“D&D’s 3.5 and 4th editions were very much driven by an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance,” Mearls explained in a Twitter thread. “The designers aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.”

So D&D’s fourth-edition designers devised rules that shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a 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, fourth edition shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules. In stark contrast to earlier editions, spells lacked effects outside of combat. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic: the Gathering cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For action outside of combat, fourth edition presents the skill challenge, where the DM only must decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance.

In Mearls’ opinion, this basic design premise suffers from a fatal flaw. “It misses out on a ton of the elements that make RPGs distinct and doesn’t speak to why people enjoy D&D in the first place.”

Fifth edition’s design returns dungeon masters to their traditional role in the game. During the design, Rodney Thompson described the goal. “We want a system that makes it easy to be the DM, and at the same time 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.”

“With fifth edition,” Mearls explained, “We assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

The design team referred to the goal as “DM empowerment.” The phrase may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle a 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.

Monte Cook touted the advantages of the approach. “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. When it comes to how much of your turn is spent opening a door, perhaps it depends on the door. A large, heavy metal door might be your action to open, while opening a simple wooden door might not be an action at all. Another door might fall in between. Do you want the rules to try to cover every aspect of this relatively insignificant situation?”

DM empowerment reduces the volume of rules a game needs. Original D&D’s rules fit into a few pages because the game relied on the DM to resolve all the areas the rules failed to cover. Rodney Thompson explained that fifth edition also “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.”

“Fewer rules coupled with DM empowerment also facilitate story-focused play, because nothing slows down an exciting narrative like consulting a book or two . . . or ten,” Monte wrote. “Giving the DM the ability to adjudicate what you can and can’t do on your turn then players to be more freeform with their actions. They don’t need to worry about action types and can just state what they want to do. A player’s crazy plan might not fit into the tightly defined rules for what you can do in a round, but a good DM can quickly determine on the fly if it sounds reasonable and keep the story and action moving.”

None of this means that D&D’s rules lack a purpose. D&D remains a game about making choices and seeing the consequences (often while in dungeons with dragons). The rules serve as the physics of the game world. As much as convenient, rules should enable players to see the likely consequences of an action, make wise or reckless choices, and then let the dice settle the outcome. Rules help span the gulf between a character’s real experience in the game world and what players learn from a DM’s description. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.) Elegant games cover most of the actions players may take with compact rules that deliver verisimilitude. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

In a roleplaying game, characters face perils, and sometimes harsh consequences. Without such possibilities, the game lacks tension and everyone grows bored. The rules help the DM avoid becoming the players’ adversary—the person to blame when something goes wrong. Monte wrote, “If the rule is printed in a book, it’s easier to assume that it’s balanced and consistent, and players are less likely to question it.” When I run a game and the players succeed, I want them to credit themselves; when something goes bad, I want them to blame the die rolls set by the rules.

The best roleplaying games strike a balance between rules and empowered game masters. D&D owes some of its recent success to elegant rules, some to DM empowerment, and some to modern dungeon masters better suited to their empowered role.

Early in the life of D&D, DMs struggled more with their role keeping the group interested, excited, and happy. Everyone came to D&D from a life seeing and playing only competitive games, so DMs tended to fall into a familiar style of playing to win. And let’s face it, the example set by co-creator Gary Gygax reinforced some of the DM-to-win archetype. After all, when his group made smart plays by listening at doors and searching rubbish for treasure, Gary struck back by creating ear seekers and rot grubs.

Until recently, if you didn’t go to conventions, you could be a dungeon master for decades and almost certainly only see a couple of other DMs in action. Today, every potential DM can stream examples of other DMs acting as fans of the characters. Plus, DMs grow up exposed to electronic roleplaying games. Today’s DMs rarely need to be tied by rules to enable a fun game.

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. When D&D’s designers worked to eliminate the DM’s judgement from the game, they threw out a key advantage. Without a DM, why bother to log off?

Related: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

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?