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The Fine Art of Dungeon Mastering
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.

L ast week, I talked about the difference between challenging a player’s skill as a D&D player and posing challenges against their character. There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach, but I believe that there is a bigger picture issue at work.

Many of the objections to including more challenges against a player’s skill come down to two camps.

First, challenging a player rather than a character means that the player’s abilities define what their character can do. This is fine to a point, but it can cause trouble if you want to play a smooth-talking character on a night when work, school, and just stress in general may have left you with the wit and insight of a drunken ogre. If the game lets me play a towering barbarian warrior who can heft a massive axe with ease, why can’t that also extend to a smart, cunning tactician or an insightful, wise prophet? The combat rules let us kick butt. Why shouldn’t the rules also let us become ace detectives or masterful diplomats?

We can solve this objection through good rules. If R&D is smart and identifies what people want to do in D&D, we can build those abilities as options into the game. That’s where the idea of the skill system as a tool to customize a character comes in. For that reason alone, I think it’s a good idea to have skills (or a mechanic that fills a similar role) in the game.

One of the things I really like about the skill system that Monte Cook created was that it allows an expert to shine. The brilliant diplomat can talk his way past the half-drunk town guards, effortlessly conning them in a situation that would leave the half-orc fighter tongue-tied. Even better, a player who wants to gain an advantage can engage with the DM, coming up with creative plans and interacting with the game in an immersive way rather than turning to the rules in search of a +2 bonus.

The second objection comes down to a DM’s approach. In some cases, the DM can turn the game into an exercise in tedium. In my example from last week, imagine a DM who insists that you cannot find the switch hidden behind the statue unless you specifically state that you look at rear of the base and tap along its length looking for a button. The game might drag on and on, forcing the players to detail with painstaking care their exact actions. Even worse, if the statue has nothing of interest hidden on it the players might still spend 10 minutes messing with it. Compounding things, such a DM might never come out and tell the players that there’s nothing there to find. The absence of any hidden element is just proof that you haven’t guessed the right phrase to unlock the secret.

We cannot solve this objection via rules. When you sit down to play a traditional, tabletop RPG, you’re accepting that the DM, GM, or whatever the game dubs the person in charge, has a lot of power over how the game works.

One of the worrying trends I see in RPGs, and D&D is equally guilty of this, is the idea of using rules to neutralize bad or mediocre DMs. Older rules gave the DM plenty of latitude to make rulings. This approach enabled some great DMing, but it also left inexperienced or simply bad DMs to flounder. Some of them improved, while some learned bad habits that drove people away from gaming.

These bad habits have emerged across all editions. The linear story that has no real player choice, the Mary Sue NPC who saves the day, the pointlessly murderous game that slaughters PCs with no rhyme or reason—these are all timeworn examples of the art of the DM gone bad. The guy who makes you guess what he’s thinking to progress through the adventure is just as bad. That archetype just happens to be one that, in theory, the rules can negate by specifying the inputs and outputs for skill checks.

The cost of insulating the game against one type of bad DM through rules, in my opinion, is too high. Instead, it’s up to the designers to provide good DMing advice, easy to understand methods that beginners can learn, and flexible rules that help DMs build great campaigns and compelling adventures. Treating the rules as padding against a bad DM is attacking the problem from the wrong angle. Bad DMs, or inexperienced DMs who could go bad, need good advice and clear instruction on how to get started. To my mind, it’s like blaming a bad writer’s keyboard rather than his or her lack of experience or exposure to skilled teachers and good, instructive texts.

On top of all that, the designers always risk taking aim at DM styles that some people actually enjoy. A killer dungeon stocked with ridiculous monsters, opaque puzzles that offer instant death, and elaborate traps that are merciless in dealing destruction to the foolhardy and rash might turn off a story oriented group. At the same time, gamers who love a good challenge or who want to pit their wits against the DM love that style of game. A well meaning designer could build rules to discourage such a game and end up alienating part of the D&D audience. Such an approach runs counter to the idea of RPG rules as tools for world building and creativity.

When looking at the game, R&D needs to make sure that it addresses mechanical problems with mechanical solutions and DM technique issues with advice and guidance. Rules built in fear of a bad DM represent a misplaced priority, effort better spent on showing a DM good techniques and useful approaches.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 08/30/2011

When you're exploring the environment in a D&D game, which of these methods do you prefer?
A combination of the two approaches, with players describing their actions and the DM rolling dice as appropriate. 78.3%
Rolling a Search check or Perception check. 11.4%
Describing to the DM what your character does, and letting the DM make a judgment call. 10.3%

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.

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