Why DMs Love Their World – Part 2 of a Leadership Series

Posted: March 16, 2011 by Raparth in Uncategorized

The Dungeon Master, Game Master, Storyteller, Story Guide, Hand of Fate… Whatever you call the position, it’s an important and powerful one.  You are, in effect, the world.

This position, subsequently called “DM” for shortness though it does not exclusively indicate Dungeons & Dragons, is the one that is the hardest to fill.  It’s the one many people will never fill.  It’s the one that many of us end up filling permanently, never truly returning to being a normal player.  There are many ways that one becomes a DM and many ways on acts while a DM.  I will try to talk about a few brief examples I’ve seen before, and then end up with what I think is what I do (or what I’d like to think I d0).

The Rules-and-always-Rules DM:  This is DM has a counterpart in players as well.  This has been in mostly D&D from my experience, but can happen in nearly any system.  This DM, and the same type of player, know everything about the rules and how to exploit them, without breaking them, to the fullest.  They are the masters of min-maxing and power-gaming.  I am not fundamentally against this sort of play, I just don’t enjoy it.  This can, in fact, be very challenging, since it  is two parties utilizing the rules as best (and creatively) as they can to get things done.  The world is (often) as canonically close to the game setting as possible, within the rules.  All parties always understand what sorts of things to expect.

The “Rule Zero” DM:  For the games run by this DM, Rule Zero is supreme.  For those of you who haven’t heard of it, “Rule Zero” is either “the DM is always right” or “the only rule is the DM’s will.”  This is a very autocratic sort of game where things cannot be expected to go according to the system’s rules.  To give an example, I had a DM in several games of D&D that would have extremely difficult puzzles.  That the DM had no solution for.  Oh, and often themselves had no solution.  After so long of floundering around trying to do things, we’d get the saving graces of Plot Device to get us out of the situation.  Some players are fine with this, but I don’t like not having any vague stability.

The “for the lulz” DM:  This is really popular among some “roleplayers.”  They do any and everything that seems funny at the time.  There is a significant, if not a majority, player base for this sort of game.

The Canon DM:  A DM who plays by the rules of the setting, but in a lore-based rather than mechanics-based way.  They know a ton about the lore and want everything to fit.  They probably even know how to make everything fit.  They don’t often look kindly on those who slaughter lore.  I will admit to occasionally being part of this category.

The Co-Author DM:  The DM who does what the players enjoy, adapting to the changing nature of the party.  They really like when players help create parts of the story, and facilitate roleplaying between players.   I try to be in this group, but I’ll admit I don’t always do it perfectly.

DMs have to do a lot of work (some more than others) to get things ready for a game session.  They generally love it when players are willing to take an active part in the story and making the world a living, breathing, evolving thing.  Players are co-writers of the narrative of the game, giving significant parts of the direction of the story.  A DM, as much as anyone else, is there to have fun.  In a very real way (though many players and DMs will disagree with me), DMs are also players.  They just happen to play the part of NPCs, of Fate, and Story.  The DM does a lot of the heavy lifting of story-planning and world logistics, but that doesn’t mean they want to bear all of the weight.  Players who create characters, towns, plots with their history and (desired) future are great to have.  Everyone gets to throw something into the world/story and everyone gets something out of it.

Game play is, to beat the dead horse, a collaborative effort.  A DM should thus think of everyone in those terms.  The DM may do more logistics than anyone else, but everyone is doing some work.  Everyone should be respected for it.  As the DM, you have to be the arbitrator for disagreements and for chance.  It is important to keep valuing player contribution.  If players aren’t feeling engaged, they’ll not enjoy the game.  Talking with players outside of group sessions is great for this.  Figure out what their past/family/dreams/hopes/aspirations are like.  Reward roleplaying even outside the session.  I give XP for character backstories (at least one page) and little bits of XP for what amounts to in-character journal entries.  Both get players thinking of the game in a broader sense.  They also provide great sources of continuing inspiration.

In effect: Foster the sorts of behavior you want by offering people carrots, and resort to the stick only in extreme cases.  Make players love to come and roleplay.  Make it so they love to talk about their characters and the sessions outside of those sessions.  Have fun with the party and the party will have fun with you.

Next week I’ll talk about gaming leadership in relation to being a friend/member in a group and being a significant other of someone in the group.  This latter will be more from the “member/member” or “GM/member” and “DM/member” side of the relationship.  Check out Cynthia’s next post for the “member/GM” and “member/DM” side.  I might talk about PAX a little next week, too.  We’ll see.


Always remember to roll for SAN.

~ Mr. Pacman



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