ast week, I wrote about the role of the rules: to help enforce the sort of player behaviors that make D&D more enjoyable for the entire group. There are few specific rules to encourage good play, but mostly the rules help ensure that players can portray their characters, use their spells and magic items, and engage in the game without worry of accidentally making it a miserable experience.
This week, I'd like to take the same approach with the DM. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of using good advice to guide DMs. Rules can't replace good advice, and it's important to keep that in mind when working on the game. However, that does not mean that rules can't help the DM. If we think about the qualities of a good DM, we can look at rules that encourage the DM to "do right" by the players and the campaign.
To start with, what makes a good DM? Here are the traits that I think make the difference between an average DM and a good one:
- A good DM brings the action to life with narration, acting, and dialogue
- A good DM pulls no punches when it comes to challenging the players
- A good DM builds problems and lets the players create solutions to them. (In other words, the DM avoids rigid, single-solution challenges.)
- A good DM balances risks versus rewards
- A good DM reacts to the players and allows their decisions to affect the world, alter an NPC's course of action, or otherwise matter to the game
Some of these traits fall almost entirely in the realm of good DM advice. Rules can't help you spice up the orc cleric of Yurtrus by describing its rotting teeth, leprous skin, and oozing sores. Rules don't make interesting NPCs; the DM makes interesting NPCs.
However, there are still a few areas where the rules can help a good DM. Most of these come down to balance. With a well-balanced system, the DM can build an adventure or a world with a good idea of how things work. I've brought this point up before, and I'll repeat it here. If the DM wants the red dragon guarding Longfang Pass to be a threat, he needs to know how that dragon matches up to an adventuring party. There's nothing lamer than building up the dragon as this tough foe, only to watch a party of 2nd-level characters stomp it into the ground with no special effort.
In some ways, balance speaks to verisimilitude. It makes sense that a red dragon can feast on neophyte adventurers, so the rules should back that up. A well-balanced system ensures that the dragon is as tough as advertised.
By the same token, a good system for generating treasures helps balance the risk and reward in the game. A monster is well balanced if the DM has a good idea of its relative power. A magic item or treasure hoard is well balanced if the DM easily understands its worth relative to the challenge that must be overcome to obtain it. In the typical game, it's lame if a single, unarmed kobold totes a +5 holy avenger and 10,000 gp. On the other hand, an ancient black dragon with a treasure of five rusty spoons and a broken accordion is out of place (barring a good story for it).
To my mind, the rules are at their best when I can create the basic outline of an adventure or dungeon map, pick a few key monsters, drop them into rooms, and fill in the rest at random. Some of the random stuff might be especially dangerous or weak. The same might apply to randomly generated treasures. The key is that once I understand the system, I can spot outliers and create explanations and stories around them, or smooth out those spots as I see fit.
There's another area where the rules can help the DM. A good DM needs an action resolution mechanic that's easy to use and quick to apply to new situations. It's much harder to run games that encourage immersion, improvisation, and creative play if the DM has to stop for five minutes to figure out how to do something. The best mechanics are simple, intuitive, and easy to remember, allowing DMs and players to learn them by heart and keep the game moving.
And Now for Some Exciting News
It's funny to look back and realize that I've written this column once a week for over eight months. Alas, as with all things, it's time for my involvement with this column to end. However, that does not mean that Legends & Lore is going away. We've been very happy with the response to the series, the interest it has created, and the feedback we've received.
Starting next week, I'm turning this column over to acclaimed game designer Monte Cook. Monte should be familiar to D&D fans for his work on the Planescape campaign setting, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Arcana Unearthed, the mammoth Ptolus city sourcebook, and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition.
I've spent the past several months talking about D&D's past and how that relates to its future. It's now time to focus much more on the future of the game. Monte has an unmatched design pedigree in the RPG field, and for that reason we've brought him on board to work with R&D in making D&D the greatest RPG the world has seen. Over the next few weeks, Monte will use this column to share his thoughts about the game. As we look to chart D&D's future course, this column will continue to be a place where we share our ideas and listen to yours, and we hope you'll keep reading, discussing the contents, and sharing your feedback and thoughts with us and the larger D&D community. That's what makes Legends & Lore a conversation that we can all participate in.