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Back Behind the Screen
Dungeon Editorial
by Bart Carroll

This 10x20 room has two exits, at the north and south ends. A long wooden table extends down the middle of the room, with a half-dozen humanoids seated around it, planning out some sort of mission with detailed maps and small figurines representing the participants and their potential adversaries.

The above describes an encounter set to take place shortly here in the halls of Wizards of the Coast, specifically Fridays 12-2 in the Lost Temple meeting room. I’m about to sit behind the DM screen after an edition-long absence and try my hand running the Scales of War Adventure Path.

First, let me disclose—and this should come as little surprise—that I am a satisfied convert to 4th Edition. I find this edition to be the most playable I’ve experienced, and I began my love affair with D&D back in 1982. Of course, back then I was in the second grade, and playing D&D meant my friends and I sitting around emulating what we could remember of the older kids’ actual D&D games, using dice borrowed from the family Monopoly set. It wasn’t until the great and glorious Christmas of 1983 when my parents bought me a D&D Basic set that I could actually claim to be playing a legitimate version of the game.

In the years since, I’ve been the most intrigued by the job of DM. In my mind, being a player meant having access to whatever magic items, spells, and monsters the DM introduced. On the other hand, being a DM essentially meant having access to all of the magic items, spells, and monsters—who wouldn’t want all that fun?

That said, here’s my confession. Throughout 3rd Edition (including 3.5), I played the game solely in the player’s seat. Throughout numerous campaigns, I was content to limit my D&D experience to just my character.

Why? I can boil my thinking down to the following.

First Edition, in many ways, placed the power of the game in the hands of the DM. “Can I do this…?” and “What happens if I…” were essentially questions posited by the players to be answered by the DM. Not quite sure how a rule worked? Wondering what actions your character can perform? In the First (and largely Second) Edition campaigns I played, these were all questions that often needed answers from the DM. That was the relationship. You tell the DM what you want to do, the DM tells you if you can, you roll some dice, and the DM provides the result.

This is not the worst relationship in the world—and it was one I found myself comfortable with. That said, it’s a relationship that depends very much on your DM. Someone who ran a fair game could expect a long-lived campaign. A DM who abused his position could expect a campaign whose only players would eventually become the younger brothers he forced to sit at the table (a memory of the worst DM I ever experienced as a player).

Third Edition shifted this relationship, in my opinion, into the players’ hands. The DM still ran the game and mediated the story. But as far as the rules went, the players had much greater power in how they built their characters and what they could pull off. Pun-Pun is an example taken to the extreme, but min-maxing characters was commonplace, often limited only by the players themselves. In several campaigns, I witnessed the tension this caused between experienced players looking to build the most powerful character they could, and newer players using the character they were most comfortable with—usually, a simpler, less tricked-out character.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with min-maxed PCs. The players were simply using the tools they were given—exactly what we’d been encouraging them to do. But in a campaign of mixed-experience players, what’s a DM to do? Insist that “stronger” characters handicap themselves Harrison Bergeron-style? Find a group of players that were all of the same playing experience? This last option is terrible; we want friends around the table, and we want D&D to be enjoyable for all of them.

These relationships (between the players and DM, and between players themselves) largely kept me away from the DM screen throughout 3rd Edition. To me, 4th Edition strikes a tremendous balance between the players and the DM. In my Adventure Path campaign, some players will have already experienced 4th Edition, some with previous editions, and some are relatively new to the game—and that difference in experience doesn’t worry me in the least.

In fact, I’m already looking forward to having the ogre bombardier lob that first cask of burning pitch….