What is the role of the DM?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 June 2013, 8:28 am
Most tabletop games have some sort of symmetry where all players have the same role and resources in the game. Pen & paper roleplaying games (and some board games who borrowed the concept) work differently in that one of the "players" has a very different role, that of "game master", or in D&D parlance "dungeon master" (DM). And in the 39 years of D&D's existence the exact role of this DM has been permanently an object of change and discussion. What exactly is a DM supposed to do, especially if he wants to be a "good DM"?

I'm writing about this because the subject popped up in relation to several new games. Neverwinter, Cryptic's new MMORPG, has a "foundry", where players can create content, and thus take on at least partially the role of a DM. And in Card Hunter the story line of the campaign involves a conflict between DM Gary and his older brother Melvin, who have very different views on the role of a DM.

Simplified there are three major parts to the role of a DM:
  • He creates content, both in preparation of the game and on the fly when necessary.
  • He plays everybody in the world who isn't a player, including acting as adversary in combat.
  • He is the referee of the game, the ultimate instance of decision whether something is possible or not.
The endless discussion arises from the fact that the different parts of the role of a DM can be in conflict with each other. Most obviously if you regard a combat in a RPG as a tactical sub-game, the DM is both a player in that game and its referee. Not only that, it is also the DM who decides how powerful the player's opponents are, as it is him who puts the monsters in the dungeon in the content creation role. Some people consider being adversary to the players as the main role of the DM (very nicely portrayed by Melvin in Card Hunter). But as the DM has unlimited resources in this tactical game, plus acts as referee, this is a game the players could never win. It is not a fair game, and so when a DM goes on a power trip like that, the most likely thing to happen is that his players just quit.

The other extreme involves the inherent conflict between content creation and the tactical sub-game which is based on dice rolls: The outcome of combat isn't necessarily predictable, because the DM controls neither player actions nor dice rolls. And thus unforeseen events like a character's death can throw a wrench into a carefully planned story. Again the DM can use his near unlimited power to fudge rolls, deliberately play monsters badly, or create deus ex machina miracles to save the players. But ultimately a combat which the players can't lose is as bad as a combat the players can't win, because neither extreme makes for an interesting tactical game.

Ultimately the DM's main responsibility is to do his utmost to guarantee that everybody at the table is having fun, and his performance will mostly be judged on that fun. And what players want can well differ from one group to another. There is no universal rule about how much combat a role-playing game should have, and how hard that combat should be, or how likely it should be for a character to die. Personally I found that for my group a 50:50 distribution between combat and non-combat elements work best, and that combat should be no pushover, but not be likely to kill somebody who doesn't insist on doing something very stupid. But your mileage may vary on this. Just be aware that there is a wide range of possibilities, and try to get feedback from your players how they feel about combat, and whether they enjoyed the session.
Tobold's Blog

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