Monday, November 3, 2014

It's A Thankless Job...

But someone, apparently, has to do it.
What job, you ask.
Dungeon Master, that's what job.

We gamers have been told for years that the DM is not our enemy.  The DM's job is to craft the game in which we, the players, will enjoy ourselves.  The DM is not a player.  The very name Dungeon Master separates the role from the players.  The DM has the hardest job of all as it is the DM's responsibility to create the setting, populate the adventure with monsters, traps, encounters of all kinds, and to adjudicate the rules.  The DM is also all the NPCs in the game.  Yet for all of that the DM is not a player.  It is, we are told, not a "me versus them" game and if the players feel that it is, the DM is supposed to accommodate the players such that such feelings are not disruptive to the enjoyment of the group as a whole.  All of which leads me to ask a simple question:  What's in it for the DM?

If the DM has a burning desire to tell some epic story then the DM should just go write a novel.  Epic fantasy tales as RPG adventures are, inevitably, railroad adventures and players usually don't like that.  Indeed they will quickly wreck that train, and given the attitudes and skills of most players that is easily done.  It has been my experience that about 50% of the time the DM ends up shouldering an unfair amount of the game burden in terms of the creature comforts: DM hosts; DM ends up supplying the Mt. Dew and Cheetos;  DM still has to kick in for the pizza even though the DM is going to end up having to wash plates at the end of the night.  That one player clogs up the DM's toilet every time and somebody always forgets the essentials of gaming gear like dice, character sheets or a players handbook, thus the DM's copy ends up stained with Cheeto dust and pizza grease.  All of this for the joy of being verbally abused because some player made a series of lousy decisions that led to a well-deserved and timely death.

Again I ask: What's in it for the DM?

Now as I see it you have three basic types of games:  Co-operative, Passive Competitive and Active Competitive.
Co-operative games are games where players work together to achieve a common goal.  RPG is supposedly co-operative.
Passive Competitive are games where each player is trying to win but is not allowed to interfere with their opponents in any way.  Golf is such a game.  In geek gaming terms these are games like the original Dungeon, where each player is trying to beat the others but can't attack or otherwise mess with opponents and may occasionally help each other when there is a reward.
Active Competitive games are like football or chess.  There can only be one winner and the way to win is to do your utmost to defeat the other player(s).
RPG is supposed to be co-operative and to varying degrees it is (there is always that one guy, however, that asshole who gets his jollies from "beating" the other people on the team).  A classic dungeon crawl involves a group of players delving into a labyrinth of some kind that seems designed for no other purpose than killing player character explorers.  They need to work together, but as the DM is rolling for all the monsters and traps and such he would seem to oppose them.  He is the Dungeon Master and they are in a dungeon.  But the rule books keep telling us that the DM is not the enemy.
In 1989 Games Workshop and Milton Bradley joined forces to create Heroquest.  A game for 2-5 players, Heroquest was a reconfigurable dungeon crawl boardgame with RPG elements.  The party consisted of 4 classic hero archetypes: barbarian, wizard, dwarf and elf.  The remaining player was the evil sorcerer (DM really) Morcar (I prefer that to the American name Zargon).  It was Morcar's job to set up the board, read the adventure, read out the descriptive text, move all the monsters and attack the heroes.  The game made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the heroes were trying to WIN and to do this they had to complete the quest goal.  Morcar too was trying to WIN, by killing all the heroes.  Competition is fun.  The rule book gave advice to Morcar players on how to kill the heroes.  Advice to WIN, because essentially this is a home invasion and Morcar needs to do everything in his power to defend his property.  Those orcs and goblins and mummies the heroes are fighting were not doing anything wrong.  They weren't marauding around the countryside looting peasant villages.  They were in their home and these ruffians that should probably get a real job burst in and started smashing the furniture.
The ruffians in question.
Now if we look back to the 1981 D&D Basic Set (the Tom Moldvay edition) we can read how the dungeons that are to be explored are ACTIVELY TRYING TO KILL THE PCs.  Actively.  Doors are always locked and once the lock is picked the door still must be forced open.  Open doors will close of their own volition if not spiked open but will always open for monsters unless spiked closed.  That dungeon is trying to kill you.  A DM that spends the time and effort to craft an exciting dungeon worthy of your talents is in a bit of a tight spot, isn't he?  If you beat the dungeon, and I say BEAT THE DUNGEON because as we have just established, it is "alive" and trying to kill you, then you can feel proud and say to the DM, "good game".  How is the DM to feel?
If you don't beat his dungeon he "wins" because he designed a hellakilla dungeon.  If you do he wonders if it was too easy and he still has to clean up after your Cheeto and pizza munching ass.

Where is the reward?

The solution is not, however, to become a killer DM.  You can kill player characters fair and square, but putting 463 orcs into a cavern, then having a dragon be in the very next room is not the sort of thing that allows good tactical play on the heroes' part.  Ah, I said it, didn't I?  I said "heroes".  Everybody wants to be the hero instead of being a hero that is part of a group of heroes.  So even if the DM is not the enemy when a player's dice go cold and the game just seems to be abusing the character and then the player does something really stupid and fails, the DM just became the enemy.  He's the face behind the screen.  It doesn't matter if it was the fall that killed the hero.  "You're not supposed to let a guy fall down a 146' shaft, man!"  Well I didn't tell the guy to jump off the edge of said shaft, did I?
Not the point, really.  You built the dungeon so you put the shaft there so it was your fault, screen Nazi.  You just became the enemy.

I'll ask one more time: where's the reward in being the DM?

I've done it and I don't much like it.  As DM you end up trying to run the game you want to play.  That's a very telling thing.  It's not that you weren't enjoying some other DM's vision, it's just that maybe that guy wasn't doing the pirate adventure the right way and you are going to show him how it's supposed to be done.  Ultimately I've found that to be a poor motivation.  Those times I have run a game and enjoyed running it I've divested myself of having a stake in the game itself.  I've got a decent little plot, fairly clever execution, and let the players do their thing, but I don't really enjoy the grind of it.  Near as I can tell there is just no reward in running the game, but somebody has to do it.

Just so long as that somebody is not me.


  1. I only ever ran a superhero game or two, but I, too, prefer playing to running. In our youths, I recall that we were finicky with our characters and what we wanted out of a game. However, in my defense, I hosted most of the time, was eaten out of house and home and paid for 25-50% of the DM's gaming books, which I think was more than fair of me. Otherwise, no, I don't see much reward in DMing for most people. The DM's expectations and the player's expectations with always disappoint each other. Better to go into it with low expectations, so you don't get disappointed by the grand schemes you might otherwise have had for that character that you min/maxed to perfection with dreams of being a great hero.

  2. I suppose for a good DM, the satisfaction could be in seeing the players solve the puzzle you set up for them, cooperating and finding a solution to your challenge that you hadn't thought of, or just going nuts and having a blast with the dungeon scenario.

    1. Well put and indeed for a good DM with a pleasing disposition that could be the way of it. I had one DM, good DM, but had a thing for springing ogres on you at all the worst times.