Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dungeon Master: Referee vs. Idiot

I have a bad habit about not posting to blogs unless I'm really pissed off about something. It's a lot easier to rant about a topic that annoys me than speak positively; blogging is certainly cathartic in that regard. It's been a while since my last post, so I purposefully thought of something annoying and stupid that would spurn me to write: Dungeon Mastering like an idiot.

What exactly do I mean by this...back in ye olde dayes, being the DM meant quite a bit. The DM was the final authority, tthe man with the power who described the world and told you whether or not you hit the orc or you didn't. If you hit AC 5 and the DM said the orc wasn't damaged, there wasn't any arguing. Well, okay, there might be a little bit of annoyance, but God knows you didn't complain more than half a second. Perhaps there was a reason this orc had better armor than every other orc in existence. Maybe he had a magic ring or something. Who cares, as a player you trusted the DM to not screw you over. The DM had signed an implied social contract with the players to collectively seek a common goal which was fun. If the DM arbitrated situations that were obvious hose jobs, people usually never played with that guy ever again. In every sense of the word, the DM was a referee. He applied the rules fairly, not favoring any particular side or outcome and created ad hoc rulings whenever situations came up not covered by the book. The best DMs would give clues and hints but would allow the players to succeed or fail on their own merit or stupidity. Deus ex machina wasn't in the vocabulary of a good DM. If there was a TPK, the players were to blame for being dumbasses. The DM didn't "set out" to kill them. The attitude that the DM was a referee allowed meaningful gaming to take place. Obstacles were overcome through guile and strategy, not because they had any meaning in some over-arching plot. Certainly, most DMs would tend to favor the players over the monsters in situations that were unclear, but NBA refs tend to favor superstars when calling fouls; the players are definitely the most important aspect of the game and thus are often given the benefit of the doubt.

The referee model for DMs really succeeded because it is impossible for a game, any game, to take into account every single variable unless it isn't realistic or is extremely simplistic. Chess has a rule for every situation, and bears no resemblance to real life. Some might go so far as to call chess a mathematical exercise instead of a game; I wouldn't, but that is a logical conclusion. D&D is supposed to model fantasy reality. It is ludicrous to think any set of rules would be able to take into account all aspects of such a world. No book exists that tells me how every single thing operates HERE, much less in a fictional reality. Such rules do not need to exist when a DM acting as referee is present. If a player says his character wants to get drunk, does the DM need to refer to "drinking rules"? I've seen such rules, but are they necessary? A good DM might think, well, it takes me 5 beers to get a buzz and I'm average size, the character has an 18 CON and is pretty big, so he'll be drunk after 12. Easy and reasonable. Being a referee means deciding outcomes based on reason and logical extension of known facts.

Modern versions of D&D seem to completely throw out the referee notion and treat the DM like some sort of proxy to a computer program. There are countless rules for every single task a character might take. If a rule doesn't exist that describes how to do something, the assumption is that it cannot be done. Even if the action makes perfect sense, if it's not in the rules you can't do it. Further, these same rules layout "necessities" that must be present in the game for it to operate correctly. Parties of characters must meet specific levels of challenges, gain a certain amount of treasure, level up at a linear rate based upon session length, etc. The DM's only job is to apply (if possible) the rules, not interpret them. Creating a new rule is out of the question, and ad hoc judgments are an impossibility. The DM is nothing more than an impediment, with the players having some sense of entitlement to succeeding, regardless of how they approach the game or play their characters. If they show up and roll dice, they'll be level 10 in 6 months. If a PC dies, the DM must make amends for killing him off. Magic weapon destroyed? It is the DM's responsibilty to replace it so the character can be made whole again.

Fuck that. DMs are not computers, nor are they required to coddle lazy players who need a carrot dangling over their face to have any motivation to even roll dice. Treating D&D as a contest between DM and Player is truly the worst thing that has ever happened to rpgs. The DM isn't against the players any more than he's with them; his job is to be a referee. By acting like a complete idiot, goals and accomplishments in-game are made trivial and marginalized to the point of being completely meaningless. The DM is no longer respected and is simply an impediment to getting more treasure and power. Instead of running the show, the DM is really a second class citizen in the game, with the players calling all the shots.


  1. Amen!
    I have thought the same thing about newer games.
    The amount of rules a DM has to know is staggering, as is their lowered position vis a vis the players. All trust of DM fairness and judgment seems to have been jettisoned. Pity - no wonder old school is making a comeback.