The DM is not the Bad Guy. It’s a little bit of a rant, so if you’re not in the mood, consider this fair warning. I’ve been considering this post for a while now, but I try (I do) to avoid ranting when possible. It just doesn’t seem fair to toss a grenade like that and expect others to jump on it…
But I’m so tired of reading DM stories or DM advice that basically comes down to one of two conclusions – the DM is stupid, or the DM is a jerk. Of course, I could sub-categorize this to say, “the DM isn’t fair, the DM metagames, the DM is working against us, the DM… insert your favorite complaint about your DM here.”
Now I realize – and let me say this up front – that most people only bother posting about DMs when they do something (subjectively) bad. Take this story*, for example. I’m not sure that the party in question really had any right to expect the result to be any different – but hey, I don’t sit at their table, so maybe I’m wrong? It is possible that the players had an expectation that this would work. I don’t know.
I also realize that DMs have always – since the earliest days – probably been accused of abusing their players… maybe I just don’t remember it that way. I was always really grateful (and seemingly very lucky) in the DMs I worked with. I’ve quit a lot more games over the years due to other players at the table than I have the DM.
Can DMs make mistakes? Absolutely. We/They are human. DMs who willfully ignore their players goals, motivations, desires or fun are wasting everyone’s time. DMs who make their games NPC parades are probably not doing anyone a service either.
But. Here’s my list of things DMs are just plain allowed to do, and I think most players out there are mature and reasonable enough to accept them – because, you know, the DM is at the table to have fun too.
1. From time to time, a DM will probably fudge a roll. Sometimes in favor of the characters, sometimes in favor of the ‘bad guys’ but always in service to the betterment of the play experience for everyone.
2. A DM might, on occasion push the PCs in a direction in the story. This could be a subtle nudge, like finding a clue – or a shove, like getting arrested. It doesn’t mean that your PCs don’t matter or that the story is all-powerful. It means your DM is invested and trying to create a good experience.
3. A DM might also, on occasion, try to encourage or discourage certain behavior by the party. A DM can be heavy-handed about this, and should be careful… but a time may come when the party is cramping the fun for the DM. A DM can talk to the players outside of game, but that doesn’t mean PCs shouldn’t have to face consequences for actions taken in-game.
4. A DM might decide to say No. I don’t have a clever or deep explanation. Deal with it.
Probably my favorite game system in the world, the one I’ve had the most luck running over the years and the one that players have responded to most favorably – again and again – is Amber, the DRPG. It has no dice, it has little in the way of balance or ‘fairness.’ It is (arguably) the most DM-centric game I’ve ever seen if you choose to think of it that way. But I’ve run it (a lot) and played in other people’s Amber games (a lot) and I never feel freer (or more creative) on either side of the screen than I have when running/playing Amber.
My ultimate point here is this. The DM can be a jerk. Anyone can be a jerk. But if the DM does something you don’t like, don’t be deflated, don’t be angry, don’t respond by being a jerk too… Ask the DM what’s up, in a respectful manner, and suss out what you all, at your table, want out of the play experience. If your DM is worth playing with (and some aren’t) then you need to get in touch with that DMs style and see where it meshes with how you play.
Then again, maybe it’s just me?
Thanks for reading.
*Please note, I’m not trying to pick on this one example. I don’t sit at their table so I can’t judge the situation fairly. It just happened to be the most recent example I’d seen and so was accessible.