Monday, February 29, 2016

When Did We Stop Trusting Our Dungeon Masters?

As some of you no doubt know, I was at Capricon on Valentine's Day weekend. I've been on that convention's programming schedule for a few years now, but this was the first year I was on panels about roleplaying games. I was surprised to find them at a sci-fi convention, more surprised by how well-attended they were, and even further surprised by the attitudes of the audiences.

Specifically I noticed a trend which, now that I'm looking at it, I should have seen before. Simply put, the older the edition a gamer started with, the more likely that player is to trust the DM. The newer an edition, the less likely a gamer was to just take the DM's word for it.

You triggered the trap. No I'm not showing you the die. Take 25 damage.

The Issue of Player Trust

I'll give you an example. A little less than a year ago, I wrote a post titled Should You Use A DM Screen? There were two types of responses to that post, with almost nothing in between. The people in the first group said, "of course you should, the screen is there to help you keep the story going." The second group said, "no, any DM who tries to hide his die rolls from you isn't someone you should play with."

So much fear, over such a little thing.
This break down in trust, I think, comes from how the DM's role has altered over time. In older editions, the rules were pretty fast and loose, which meant that the DM was a much more hands-on influence in the game. As games evolved, though, they became more codified. While there are a lot of games out there which are light on the crunch, games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons chose to spell out the rules for practically everything in specific terms.

That means if a player wants to tumble past an enemy to get on his weak side, he doesn't have to ask the DM to randomly set a difficulty; it's already in the book. If a player wants to climb a wall, intimidate a foe, or craft a specific magic item, those things are all in place already. While the DM still has the power to make things harder, or to do things differently, the mechanics in the book have already been carefully balanced and tested. In many situations, it would be like building your own bike from scratch when there's a perfectly functional BMX already sitting in your garage.

Because players know so much of how the game functions (if they read the manual, at least), there's also this idea that they're on a more even footing with the DM. Sure, the DM can still choose the monsters, the weather, and the terrain, but there's a sense that the rules apply to every character on the board, and that everyone should be held to the same standard. So, when the DM rolls dice behind a screen, there's no guarantee that the DM isn't just making up numbers. When a player puts in the crunch time to build a powerful character by the rules, there's something galling about the idea that the DM can just say "no, it hits you," or, "no, you miss," regardless of your efforts as a player.

The Advantages of The Unknown

On the other hand, the DM screen is a valuable tool for creating tension, and for keeping a story going. Even something as simple as making the rogue's Perception checks behind the screen can keep the party guessing. Even if you never once fudge the dice, either for or against your party, not letting the party see the number on the die takes away their ability to extrapolate what a monster's AC really is, and it cuts off any metagaming when they roll a natural 1 on the die, and are told they don't see any traps.

I check again... for no particular reason.
The same is true of almost any situation. If you're in the middle of combat, and you roll a die behind the screen, your players are focused on how the dragon's claw slammed into the ground bare inches in front of the fighter, glancing off his shield. The implication there is that the fighter's shield bonus to his AC is all that saved him from the beast's claws. Even better, there's no 5 on the D20 for players to see and think "oh god, it nearly hit our tank on a 5... we're so screwed!"

And, while not required, there is the ability for a DM screen to change the way the story is going. If, for instance, random orc #4 rolls a natural 20 against the party wizard, then the DM can just say it was a regular hit. Or, if he's feeling generous, that it was a near hit, but the ax tore through the mage's robe, glancing off his protective barrier of magical force at the last second. That isn't an option you have available when the entire table saw you roll that natural 20, and you're at a "let the dice fall where they may," sort of table.

Can You Get Your Players To Trust You?

All too often a DM's attitude is, "it's my game, so it's my way or the highway," but if there's a trust issue between the players and the DM, that's just going to throw kerosene on the blaze. So, instead, it's important to discuss how you want to do it in your game during your Session 0.

If you're unfamiliar with this idea, Session 0 is basically where you lay out what you want to do as a DM, including the game you're playing, house rules you're putting into play, restrictions you want, and of course, how you intend to roll your dice. For more about this, in case you haven't been doing it at your table, check out The Importance of "Session 0" in Your Tabletop Games.

Some groups will simply never agree.
If you have players who want you to roll your dice out in the open, and as a DM you'd rather keep them to yourself, that's something you should talk out. Ask, for instance, why your players want that. Is it just during combat they want to see the dice? Or is it all the time? And is it just because that's the way they've always played, or because they don't trust you to give them the straight dope on what actually happened?

There's a lot of ways that conversation can go, but it's something you need to have settled before you start your campaign. Additionally, there's nothing that says you can't start one way, and then change it if the table agrees they don't like it.

And if you're the sort of DM who can't get his or her groove on with/without a screen in front of you? Well, then make sure your players know that's part of the deal when you extend the invitation. That way you know, up-front, whether it's going to become an issue.

As always, thanks for stopping in to see what I have to say. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Even a pledge of $1 a month can make a big difference. Lastly, if you want to keep up to date on my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.


  1. Neal, you're talking about something that is more systematic than you may realize. Modern games relegate the Game Master to the position of CPU, running the program represented by the rules. Players in such games feel it is entirely within their rights to call out the GM for cheating, and the rules are written to support that.

    In the Old School, the GM's word is law. You know that, of course. As a consequence, the GM has the power to really screw up the game (think "killer GM"). Modern games, by limiting the GM's role to merely a kind of, well hey, let's say referee, effectively prevents the GM from being bad in that way.

    A modern "killer" GM could and would be called out as a cheater.

    Those who say the modern way is better are basing their position, at least in part, on this fact. The GM just can't be as bad when he or she is so limited in decision-making.

    But I submit that, just as a bad GM is limited, so is a good one. A GM capable of running a really, really interesting game needs leeway... needs to be able to present challenges that are too much, for example, with the knowledge that the player characters will either choose an alternative to direct confrontation, or die.

    I know a lot of people like modern games, and that's fine. But what I want from an RPG is, in my opinion, not possible with rules that behave like a straitjacket on the GM.

  2. I have had players cheat at initiative. I did not notice it but my other players pointed it out to me. After recording initiatives for eight weeks, not one time did this person get below a 20. I then addressed it but it beyond silly for a player to act this way.

  3. I have always said my job as a DM is not to "play fair" but rather is to tell interesting stories which my players will enjoy and keep coming back for!

  4. The key distinction isn't about whether a GM "cheats" or not, but rather what the inter-social aspects between/among those involved is. The GM can -- and more importantly *should* -- course-correct as needed to keep a game/story interesting, challenging and rewarding for the players; if, however, he is generally being an asshat, that has less to do with how often (if at all) he fudges the dice or alters the meta-narratives involved so as to keep things interesting for the players and more so to do with the fact that he's *an asshat*. There's "good cheating" and "bad cheating", when it comes to being a GM: if the GM decides to alter a mechanic (with or without player knowledge) for the purpose of maintaining a certain level of game stability/integrity (that is, so that there is enjoyment/challenge vs. boredom/too-much-or-little difficulty), then he's cheating-on-the-good; if he sets himself up for a "me vs. them" setting, or has NPCs that he runs as GM-PCs that overshadow the main stars of the show -- the PCs -- then any mechanical cheating on his part is bad. It's not so much old-school vs. new-school, but rather the difference -- as it's always been, both in RPGs and in Real Life(tm) -- between being an asshat versus being a cool dude. As Wil Wheaton says: Don't be a dick. Follow that guideline and the "cheating" won't be an issue -- the players will come to trust your judgement. Those that don't... well... not all groups are destined to play out together. Let them find a different GM.

  5. Yeah I dunno, I'm kinda on the same page as tideoftime about this subject. It seems like every time I read an about an article about GM mistrust, the writer treats it an issue of miscommunication between the players and the GM, when really sometimes the GM you're stuck with is just a total dick. Sometimes they completely embrace the idea that the GM is the antagonist to the player's characters (an idea wholly endorsed by 1st edition AD&D, iirc).

    An early example for me was a epic level d20 Star Wars game (yeah this game doesn't actually have epic rules, don't ask). This was actually my first RPG campaign ever (a level 20 Jedi was the first character I ever made), but so many players were involved the GM just kinda neglected people in turn. Also he made these troopers that were specifically supposed to be hard for Jedi to allow non-Jedi players to have a chance, but they were hard for the non-Jedi players to deal with anyway, and annoyingly impossible for the Jedi to even scratch. Since this was d20, all the Jedi players spent long periods of some sessions just dodging attacks. More specifically was the time I critically fumbled against one of these enemies and the GM pulled out a splat book with sadistic glee since I was his first victim for a limb loss table. I lost a foot and couldn't do much of anything for the next few sessions.

    The "codification" of newer rulesets don't help much either. In one of the first D&D campaigns I ever played, the DM told everyone this would be core only. Fair enough, the game evolved out of a starter box game he bought on a whim (with players who joined and left on a whim as well), so I guess he wanted to continue that simplicity, except he wasn't above using splat books to make things on his side more interesting (we're talking story things players weren't privy to, and making interesting NPCs, not just adventure ideas). Trying to make untrained skill checks felt like a chore. My own (kinda comedic) character was supposed to incite others to fight goblins, but in order to do said inciting I had to make at least 4 different skill checks, 3 of which weren't even class skills so I never did get to play the character how I wanted. One time a new player wanted to make a character who would dance with a spiked chain. He asked what skill would that be, but instead of just saying Perform, he asked two nearby veteran players about it, and one of them mentioned Perform (Weapon Drill) in some non-core book. The DM decided that because this was a core only campaign the character wouldn't be allowed to dance with a spiked chain. Ugh...

    Eventually my boss at the game store I worked at became my GM and that was life changing. The other party members weren't my favorites, but the GM was all for making us have fun and roleplay. More importantly he was willing to compromise. You don't have proficiency with your god's favored weapon? Don't blow a feat on it, you can have that proficiency. The party is in a rut and you wanna leave town? The mayor will give you some of your payment now if you go to the enemy's stronghold now. Sometimes I'd have to point out how a rule actually was in the book, and instead of acting like a high and mighty gamemaster he would admit his mistake and move on with the game.

    I honestly don't care about whether or not the GM uses a screen, I care about whether they realize this is a game we're playing where we're telling a story.

    1. Looking back at some old posts and comments.

      I think one of Panda's points here is worth reiterating: Sometimes, yes, you find you're playing with a bad GM. Communication is important not just for warning good GMs about an issue, but for detecting bad GMs who aren't interested in adjusting their play style. Those who are merely inexperienced get a chance to learn.

    2. Looking back at some old posts and comments.

      I think one of Panda's points here is worth reiterating: Sometimes, yes, you find you're playing with a bad GM. Communication is important not just for warning good GMs about an issue, but for detecting bad GMs who aren't interested in adjusting their play style. Those who are merely inexperienced get a chance to learn.

  6. I'm not sure I have a ton to add here, except to say, simply, the best GMs understand that it is not her/his story. It is the story of the players, and the players are the central characters.

    Just as you don't usually focus your television show on the off-screen narrator, you don't focus your game on the GM. The job of the GM is to make your players feel awesome. Set them up to make themselves into big damn heroes (ain't we just?) and keep the action centered around them.

    Sure, your worlds can move and breathe on their own, from trade routes, to battles that the players aren't involved in, to political maneuverings to growing seasons, assassinations, demon uprisings and weather. But at the center of your godstorm of writhing narrative, make sure that your players' characters are right in the thick of it.

    This is not your story. This is the story of your players.

    The number of times I've met with GMs who need this explained to them staggers me, sometimes. This is your players' story - You just get to be the one telling it. If you always keep that in mind, and look at your decisions through that lens, your table's experiences will be excellent. If you don't, then they won't, despite all the world-building, rules-wrangling, and dice-fudging that you can muster.

    Make your games great for your players, and they'll be great for you.