Tobold's Blog
Monday, April 13, 2015
On the role of the DM in a tabletop role-playing game

I've been reading a blog post about whether a DM in a pen & paper role-playing game should be an impartial arbiter, friendly guide, or deadly foe. None of those options struck me as particularly fitting, at least not for my style of Dungeons & Dragons gaming. So this is a post about what in my opinion the role of the DM is.

What I didn't like about the three options described above is that they have one thing in common: They set the DM apart from the players. Yes, pen & paper role-playing games which use a DM are asymmetrical and the role of the DM isn't exactly the same as the role of the players. But more often than not a tabletop role-playing group is otherwise homogeneous, a group of friends or people with similar interests. So in my opinion the DM is first and foremost a player too. That means that fundamentally everybody at the table, DM included, is working towards a common goal, telling an interesting interactive story and having fun in the process.

Think of it like the actors in a play that revolves around a strong main character, let's say Hamlet. Everybody is an actor in that play, including the person playing Hamlet. But the person playing Hamlet gets more time on stage. In a game of Dungeons & Dragons the DM also gets the most stage time, because everything anybody else does happens somewhat in interaction with the DM. But the goal, to make "the play" a success, is the same for all actors / players.

Whether the DM should be the arbiter depends a bit on what system you are playing. There are systems where the rules are deliberately vague and the DM is always required to judge any action of the players. Personally I dislike the "mother, may I?" style of play, and prefer systems with strong rules, like 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. If a situation can be played by following the rules as written, it isn't even necessary that it is the DM who has the best rules knowledge. Although if another player takes that role, the DM has to make certain that this player is impartial about it, and not a "rules lawyer".

Friendly guide is still the closest option of the three presented, but it isn't so much guide as the DM simply having a different view of the story, and a different set of information. There are many aspects in the fantasy world that the DM knows, but the players haven't discovered yet. That doesn't mean that the DM's view is absolute. It is *because* many parts of the world are unknown to the players, that the DM has the freedom to change the world on the spot. If your group enters a town and the cleric says "I am looking for a temple of Selune", I as the DM will either create such a temple on the spot, or if that doesn't fit reply with some other information about religion in this place, even if I hadn't thought of that before and hadn't prepared anything. If the players have a great idea to resolve a situation, the DM should play along, even if that wasn't what he planned. Thus the players can create new elements in the world by suggesting them and having that suggestion accepted.

What the DM should never be is deadly foe. He shouldn't use his infinite power over the world to basically cheat in combat against the players. It is best to design the challenge in advance, and then treat combat like a game of chess: The DM is the adversary, controlling all the monsters against the group of the players, but he is also a player in a tactical game which resembles a board game. Thus like any other player he should cheat on the dice rolls or conjure up new monsters on the fly when he feels he is losing. The DM sets the challenge level in advance, and then lets the dice fall as they may. Random results, whether that results in an easy win or in a player character death, are part of the story in a tabletop role-playing game.

DM isn't an easy job, and it involves more work than the other players have. But ultimately the DM should also have fun, interact with the others to tell a story, and be part of the group. Somebody *has to* be the DM in most pen & paper systems, and it is best not to set that role too far apart from the players. You never know, maybe another day you and your group will decide that somebody else is going to be DM for the next campaign.

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