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.
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.
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.
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?