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Maintaining the Machine
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

L ast week's column on presenting information to the DM raises an interesting question: What's the Dungeon Master's real role? I've asked people that before, and to my dismay, I sometimes get back answers like, "He rolls for the monsters." I say "dismay" because the DM is so much more than that.

Others would argue that the DM's role is to act as a sort of mechanic, tending to the machinery of the game. The game system codifies and systematizes so much that there is little need for adjudication on the DM's part, only the occasional interpretation. This has been true for so long that the D&D culture has changed slightly, to the point where many think of DM arbitration as a bad thing. If the DM needs to make a judgment call, either something has gone terribly wrong with the game or the DM is overstepping his bounds.

Still others might claim that the DM is a storyteller. While being a Dungeon Master is a wildly creative enterprise, the idea of "DM as storyteller" gives me pause because, in truth, the entire group is the storyteller. The DM creates a world and characters and plots, but the story doesn't get told until everyone at the table gets involved.

I've always liked to look at the DM as the conduit between the players and the fantasy world. He is their eyes and ears, describing what they see, and he is the arbiter of what they can and cannot do to affect the (unreal) world around them.

Maybe the DM is all of these things.

But what if we looked at the DM and the game as partners in joint enterprise? What if we recognized that each has strengths and weaknesses and created a relationship to capitalize on their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses? For example, the game system can't possibly cover every potential action that a character will take in a game. Thus, the game system is a poor arbiter of how long it takes to do things in a round. It can provide rules for common actions (attacking, casting a spell, and so forth), but the system can't provide concrete arbitration for every action. The DM can. It's not hard at all, because the DM is a human being and can easily judge how long actions take. It's also an aspect of the game that doesn't demand absolute precision. So in this case, a DM's judgment call is fine. In fact, it's a strength.

Now consider attack rolls. Most DMs are not combat trained and probably don't know a lot about weapons, fighting styles, and so on. The rules, however, handle combat capably and with enough precision for the game's balance to remain intact.

Why not give the DM the power (and guidelines) to adjudicate actions on a turn, and let the game system handle attack rolls? The game is filled with things that the DM can do better than the rules, and the rules can do better than the DM. Figuring them out can be tricky, but it's an interesting approach to system design. I like it because it embraces what I think is a strength—maybe the primary strength—of tabletop RPGs: the existence of a living, breathing human at the table and not just a rulebook or computer. Since we've got the DM there, let's put him to work. Which is to say, let's get him to do what he does best and make sure that the game itself takes care of all the stuff that's hard, time consuming, or tedious for a DM. Embracing what it means to really be a DM is a way to ensure that it remains a fun and rewarding task.



This Week's Polls

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I agree with the following statements:

 The DM is better at handling some situations than the rules.  
1
2
3
4
5

 The rules are better at handling some situations than the DM.  
1
2
3
4
5

 The game should make room for the DM to make real decisions.  
1
2
3
4
5

 The game should make things as easy as possible for the DM.  
1
2
3
4
5

 My DM is awesome.  
1
2
3
4
5

Last Week's Polls

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I agree with the following statements about D&D rules:

The DM is the final arbiter of the rules and should feel empowered to break them as the situation warrants.
1 102 3.5%
2 173 6.0%
3 321 11.0%
4 853 29.4%
5 1456 50.1%
Total 2905 100.0%

The rules are the rules, and the DM should only break them when necessary.
1 330 11.4%
2 623 21.6%
3 821 28.4%
4 623 21.6%
5 489 16.9%
Total 2886 100.0%

The DM should feel empowered to adjudicate any situation that comes up in play, with guidance and examples rather than hard and fast rules.
1 150 5.1%
2 310 10.5%
3 667 22.6%
4 836 28.3%
5 989 33.5%
Total 2952 100.0%

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