I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) since I was nine years old. I am much older now and it has progressed from a hobby to a passion. Fortunately, I found a position as a paid Dungeon Master at Adventuring Portal, a live-guided online D&D service for Kids. After so many spell castings, monsters slain, roles played and hours in the DM’s chair, I want to share with you how sharing more decisions with my group changed my games for the better.
Master of Dungeons and Storytelling.
In a game where the players are only limited by their imagination, the Dungeon Master (DM) has the unique role to focus the chaotic energies of the group and guide them through a story. Currently, in its Fifth Edition, the rules of D&D provide a great template for creating characters, worlds, and stories. Even with decades of crafting, the rules of this system are not perfect which leads to the tragic eventuality that DMs and players will clash over these rules.
These clashes happen for a variety of different reasons.
What, how, and why these in-game conflicts happen could fill a book. I summarize them here.
1. Both players and/or DM have a misunderstanding of certain rules which causes an imbalance.
2. The rules don’t discuss whatever bizarre situation the players have created in the game.
3. The players are exploiting a loophole in the rules. They are technically correct but are overpowered.
Is the Dungeon Master the sole judge, jury, and executioner of their world?
When I am talking about Dungeon Master decisions, I am speaking specifically of scenarios where the DM decides what is allowed. These would be cases where they decide which optional rules, monsters, or content to permit in the game. In the past, I have always made these decisions to define the story’s boundaries, because I have to be the one who knows what happens inside of it. Recently, I have come to involve the rest of the players in the decision-making process, so they can have a part in shaping the world and our games now have better player engagement.
Role-playing games use the term Session Zero, to describe a meeting that happens with all of the players before the game begins. The Dungeon Master talks about the story, and also lays out the boundaries of the rules, much like I described above. The players have a chance to create their characters and fabricate a backstory. This is normally where the power of the Dungeon Master is absolute, but I now share that power with the players.
Let me explain with a story. Recently, there was an issue at my table. Before Adventuring Portal starts a game, we send out an expectations email with details such as character starting level, requirements for character generation, and what content will be allowed in the game. Our games are all rated PG or PG 13. We don’t allow characters to have an evil alignment. Player vs player fighting is not allowed and the group has to work together. For this game, we specifically asked players to stick to the content that was listed in the Player's Handbook in terms of choosing their character's class and race.
When the game started, a player arrived with their homebrew character. Homebrew content is anything that a player creates outside of the official content. This becomes a problem when that content creates a power imbalance. I saw that their character was vastly more powerful than the other players even though they were the same level.
As much as I tried to explain to the player how unfair it would be, they insisted that they would only play with their homebrew content. Rather than me using my “DM authority,” I opened up the discussion to the rest of the group. The other three players were very good at expressing their hopes for the game and they came up with a great solution themselves. After that process, the dynamic of the group changed. It went from being my game to our game. As I gave away some of that Dungeon Master power, the players became more unified in how they played through the adventure.
Although this is only one example of using the group to dictate the game, I hope it gets my point across.
I want my players to win and for them to have fun. Admittedly, a Dungeon Master must sometimes rule against the wishes of the whole group in order to maintain stability. Additionally, if the DM’s feels that their authority is compromised, then it can put the whole game in jeopardy. Despite that, loosening the reigns of authority and allowing the whole group to find solutions leads to great teamwork and stronger player engagement.
Do you also deal with groups of kids? I would love to read how you deal with kids in a group setting. Of course, Dungeons and Dragons isn’t the same as trying to teach Geometry. Strangely enough, they both can involve graph paper.
Stay weird and keep on rolling,
*This book would be called, “The Players Spend More Time Fighting Me than My Monsters, A DM’s Tale.”
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