The DM is not the Bad Guy/Girl

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.


6 responses

  1. Sometimes the DM is the bad guy. Then he loses his players, and the game loses out all round. Not every DM is made of “good stuff”. Assuming everything is true in the story in question, it would appear that the player’s are being punished for a (fairly) clever idea, while the DM has somehow lost the players along the plot line. If the players are clever enough to come up with this little device all by themselves, then I would either a) give them the benefit of the doubt, or b) develop a plot hook around the presence of the constable that would provide an evening or two of interesting gaming. Perhaps the thief and the copper are relatives, or otherwise partners…

    1. Dominic

      I had the opposite reaction to the story. I thought the players had a fairly weak plan that led to fairly natural consequences. Even beyond that though, while you certainly could have used the incident to introduce a new plot element or storyline, sometimes an NPC is just an NPC.

  2. The DM has to do the most work of anyone in the game. They have to find a way to please everyone, including the very experienced, the very green, the role players, the munchkins, the thespians and the tight-lipped. They have to plan for the many whims and wiles of their players and they have to provide a good ending that doesn’t feel too forced, faked, or unfair.

    Give me a break. Most DMs, even the good ones, are flying by the seat of their pants just to make sure everyone is having a good time. I say just be grateful that someone is actually doing you the favor. Maybe this DM thought to himself “huh… I don’t want this to be like a normal gaming rpg where you can basically just run rabid around a town and do whatever you want to the NPCs… I want them to be afraid of crime the way they would be in REAL life.”
    Maybe he misjudged his characters, but there are plenty of ways you could explain the story RG posted without just jumping to the idea that the DM was on a malicious power play.

  3. I must either be loosing my touch or you’ve hit the nail on the head.
    I can’t find a single thing in your post to argue against.

    I personally am a bit tired of somebody sidling up to the jukebox and playing another “Some DM done some Player wrong” song.

    Want to be absolutely certain the DM can’t be a jerk to you? Then your only course of action is to go sit behind the screen yourself. Besides (referencing the story linked) sometimes things just don’t go as planned. Thems the breaks.

    1. Yeah, I really, really didn’t want to seem like I was picking on the story I linked in particular — but I didn’t really see much all that bad with the DM’s decision there.

      And I certainly agree with you about the idea of, If you’re unhappy with the games being run for you, then take a turn behind the screen. It might even be instructive to others in your group.

  4. cauldronofevil | Reply

    Since that page is gone, so is a lot of the context you’re referring to, so I’m just responding to what you wrote and I can’t really comment on the particulars of that particular incident.

    1. Here’s the thing. That the GM is allowed to fudge rolls is not in question. What’s in question is what is the GM’s idea of ‘betterment’? Several times I’ve met GM’s who felt betterment was that every fight was even-steven. You could never just plain be ‘better’ than someone. Every fight had to drag on forever and bring you down to 1hp.

    2. EVERY game is a railroad. Unless you just watching the GM pull things out of his butt. Some people find that fun. I’m not one of them. The key is to make the railroad as non-obvious as you can. Another horror story. A GM wanted to capture us with City Guards. I smelled a rat and ran before they could. But the GM said ‘they catch up to you’. Well, I’d specifically spent points on an extra high Running skill. Not for this situation but just as character background. Too bad. 25 point City Guards can outrun 150 points PCs cause “The GM said so”. That’s not “THe GM being invested in trying to create a good experience.” That’s the GM being too lazy to do anything other than what he prepared.

    3. Again, it’s all a matter of degree. The best GM’s I every played with were completely neutral forces in the universe. The MOST you would ever get would be “Are you SURE you want to do that?”. The party will occassionally cramp the DM’s fun. Not sure that’s really the players problem.

    4. Isn’t the whole ‘new school’ thinking that you should really NEVER say no? Okay, maybe ‘No you can’t play a Dragonborn’, but other than that I have my doubts that a GM saying no can be a good thing.

    I honestly think – and I’ve thought this from back in the day.

    The biggest single reason our hobby isn’t a mainstream piece of entertainment virtually every boy and girl doesn’t grow up doing is crappy GMs.

    If every GM who wrote a new RPG system would write an Adventure or Setting instead.

    If every ‘lazy GM’ who improvised his way through an evening was villified and ostracised.

    The quality of gaming would be so high – and so frequent, you’d get an influx of gamers and GM’s who actually WANTED to be good at it!

    Do GM’s deserve a break today? Sure.

    But most of them….just suck ass.

    Is the GM doing you a favor? Sure!

    But the players are also doing the GM a favor too.

    There are certainly bad players, but most at least try to contribute. That’s why they’re there.

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