Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Player & DM Empowerment

Today on the Wizards's of the Coast site, Legends & Lore, Monte Cook was comparing the "direct and overt" ways that 3rd and 4th editions provide rules, compared to earlier editions where the DM was, moment by moment, the arbiter of when and how and why... 

I grew up on those older editions, and I remember in college, when playing some of the first Forgotten Realms adventures, post-1986, at least one of my players complaining when I decided one way for one situation, and another way for the very same (according to him) event at another time.

Now, years later, sometimes in oh-so-totally-rules-heavy 3.5, we'd bog down, because (as DM) I forgot, or remembered incorrectly/imprecisely, or my vision of how X, Y, and Z work was different than (an) other player(s).  In 3.5, it was most often the spell lists, followed by a few combat maneuvers (oh, like "Grab")...

In 4e, I've hit that with the wording on the auto-hit Magic Missile spell, the way I won't let anything teleport, shadow-walk, feystep, etc., into/onto squares they can't see the "floor" of (like up onto a roof) and so on.  I've smiled when a player called me a "dictator" DM who wants to sink his claws into the game and control it, suffocating storytelling and creative, cool moves by players because I didn't see the rules quite the same way.

I remember a Game Day, where I watched a child play a rogue, bouncing off walls and climbing everywhere and having an absolutely grand adventure, until he tried to climb up and backstab the black dragon at the end, and was told "there's no rule for that"...

Anyone seen that pesky halfling rogue...?  Rrraaarrr...!!

Yeah, most of you probably would have said "Well, the DM could make one up, surely..."  Yes, he could.  Except, most of us would also (these days) not encourage DMs to make up rules.  If the DM makes up rules and isn't consistent in his made-up, heat-of-the-moment improv decisions, well... how will we know what to expect the next time?

This is a slippery slope, to my eyes.  I feel like we want it both ways.  We want the DMs to be the best at improv theater, in every case and situation, to always rule in the players' favor, and to remember what they pulled out of their butt, two years from now when the campaign is at upper Paragon level.  That doesn't even address whether or not the DM can every decide in his own favor, since he likely knows more about the monsters, environment, setting of the story, overall plot, etc.  Somehow, in a world of "gimme, gimme", where we are all taught empowerment and entitlement, it's like pulling our teeth to "surrender" control of the game to a DM.

...Except, the whole premise and position of the DM is about a guy who controls the whole world, and 99% of everything else.  We, as players, mostly are reactive, not proactive.  How many D&D players do you really know who drive the plot & storyline and just watch the DM react?  Except for maybe Chris Perkins and his campaign made up of players who work in D&D.

I throw this out for discussion, because I know I'm not right, or perfect.  I know I can't please every player, and I'm probably a bigger pain when I am the player, on the other side of the DM screen.  I don't like to hear "No, you can't do that...". 

Yet, I think the whole "it plays like a video game" criticism of 4e actually came from an attempt, a well-meaning attempt, to codify the game for players and DMs to always agree.  On the rules.  All this balanced-classes, everyone-is-equally useful sounds politically correct; sounds like a basically good concept--but is it?  Do we spend quadrillions on the Super Bowl (especially the ads) every year, so that both teams can go home as "winners"?  No, we don't. 

Clip Art Ref
D&D may not be about winning or losing, but always having fun "our way" is about the same self-centric thing.  In football, yes, there are rules (and there are victors), but the guy who we surrender control to is a fellow wearing a somewhat revealing, black & white striped get-up who can throw a yellow flag thingie and freeze the whole dern game.  Hmm...wonder if I dress as a ref and get a penalty flag, if my D&D players would respect me any more or less...?

Here's my conclusion:  I don't know.  Really, I don't.  Each gaming group I run (2 of them, currently) require a day-by-day shift in how much, or how little, I control the game.  We make some house-rule agreements.  We sometimes ignore the books and decide "for the moment" so the game keeps moving.  Sometimes we Android-phone the DDI Compendium.  Then we may discuss, out loud, breaking immersion for a few moments, and come to a consensus...which means the DMs give his strong opinion and has veto power, but the players still get to make part of the call.

Sometimes the WotC site has a lot of loud, angry people who need to vent.  I'd rather hear some of your ideas here.  Please feel free to comment as "Anonymous" from the pop-down below...


  1. I think that there should be a reasonable line, rules should exist for the usual circumstances and then the DM should be allowed to create and arbitrate as needed. To mind is a recent post in a LFR group about whether "awakened animal babies are awakened or not" - and the best answer - whatever the DM decides as furthering the plot... I find that 4th edition allows the players to do imposible/illogical things at times (you can always attack anyone and move freely when blinded) while not allowing others which make sense (if I know there is an empty square behind that wall because I just walked there a round ago, how come I cannot fey step there - the gaming group need to allow GMs to make logical calls both ways, and live with the consequences.

  2. I love games where I don't have to question the DM rulings, but a large part of that surrender is having the faith and confidence that said DM knows the rules, applies them consistently, and has the same ideas about what makes a "good game".