Monday, January 9, 2017

Cowardly Dungeon Master!

Last night a friend of mine sent me a link to an article about Hearthstone, The RPG Scrollbars: Roles We Take, Roles We Choose, that he thought I would like and that might actually get me to play the damned game with him. While the article didn't get me onto the Hearthstone bandwagon it did get me to thinking about the way that I tend to run my role-playing games. In particular this section stood out:
". . . It doesn’t help that most RPGs, rightly or wrongly, don’t have much in the way of balls when it comes to restricting the player character in any way. Compare, say, Baldur’s Gate 2 with Dragon Age 2 – partly because it’s a good comparison, partly because it wouldn’t be a good week if I didn’t annoy someone on the Codex. I’m thinking in terms of magic specifically. Baldur’s Gate 2 largely takes place in the city of Amn, and one of the cardinal rules there is ‘no magic without a license’. Dragon Age 2 takes place in a city controlled by Templars, whose job it is to keep mages under control, and not without some reason. Magic isn’t just whizzy-whizzy-bang-bang, but linked to demonic possession and all kinds of other health hazards.  
Despite this, being a mage – an illegal, ‘apostate’ mage at that – doesn’t mean a damn thing. The guards will completely overlook fireballs in the street, you solving your problems with lightning bolts and all kinds of other stuff like that, even before you get to a point where you’re important enough to turn a blind eye. It’s a continuation of one of Dragon Age’s fundamental lore issues, that magic is meant to be rare and special and dangerous, but fuck that because players want to be/fight mages.  
The trouble is that in not giving magic users at least some sense of threat or actual sense of being under the thumb, who cares? Baldur’s Gate 2 meanwhile made being a spellcaster a problem. Break out the elements and some very tough wizards would show up to impolitely request you not do that, with your three options being a) apologise and stop, b) buy a damn license, or c) prove yourself too powerful for them to stop. The latter especially is one of the most satisfying things you can do in that game. Even before that though, that tiny mechanical demand to keep the metaphorical magic wand holstered made a big difference to both mages and the setting . . ." (Cobbett).
When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons I had in mind that in my game world that magic was a relatively rare thing; that to see a wizard casting a spell or cleric performing some miracle was something the average person didn't experience. But once it came time for the game to actually start I couldn't bring myself to tell my players no. I didn't even consider pushing back against their wanton use of magic in the world and as a result my idea became just as meaningless as the illegal, apostate mage in Dragon Age 2. 

What I should have done instead of allowing them to find a powerful mage every time they went looking for one was to make it difficult. I should have made finding new magical spells something that required them to actually undergo deadly challenges to find and master. I should have made being a wizard something special that they would talk about for years afterwards instead of it just being yet another thing that was.

In the years since that first campaign I've attempted to make the narrative choices I make in my games more meaningful by sticking with them even when it constrains my players. Now that doesn't mean that I eliminate their opportunities to make choices, only that if I tell them magic is rare in the world that their use of magic will be treated as something unexpected and dangerous - like when a train derails or an explosion happens unexpectedly nearby.

Works Cited

Cobbett, Richard. "The RPG Scrollbars: Roles We Take, Roles We Choose." Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Accessed January 8, 2017.


  1. I see this as a tension between what players want out of D&D and what DMs want out of DMing. Players want to break stuff, get stuff, make jokes, and have fun. Some DMs want to create unique worlds, or worlds that are meaningful to their aesthetics, or whatever, and the two goals sometimes clash. Not sure what the solution is but it certainly helps to set the expectations ahead of time! The game I'm playing in now is frustrating one other player because he has a set of expectations about the genre (Western) and system (Boot Hill) that the GM is breaking a lot with the campaign (monsters and magic, bullets don't kill everything, etc.). It's still working and there's not too much conflict over it but it definitely reinforces what I found in my last couple of D&D games where I was not meeting player expectations as a DM because of my own expectations about the setting. So is the DM who gives in to player expectations about the genre cowardly, or is the GM who wants to run a world fundamentally different from the players' expectations selfish? Probably the expectations need to be negotiated before beginning the campaign. The problem with that is as a DM I want to surprise the players too. So it's a knotty issue.

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  3. Yeah, I totally agree with what Mike Monaco just said. It's a thorny issue for sure. Finding the right players who are into what you are into as a GM is not easy. I will say that some of the most beloved GMs that I've ever played with were absolute tyrants about their worlds, though. The world was THEIRS, not yours, and when you played you were treated more like a guest than a resident, even if you had been playing for years. My friend David, for instance, was an absolute genius at creating and GMing his world. It was a vast and amazing place, and it had it's own internal logic and laws. Attempting to break those laws, or accidentally doing so, was as certain to bring calamity as lighting the fuse on a stick of dynamite. He was highly intolerant of guff, and so he received remarkably little of it. And so, over time his players learned now to navigate his world and prosper. But it wasn't easy, and player character death was always lurking around every corner. We had to play very carefully, because his monsters and villains were as smart as they should be, which is to say Orcs were stupid brutes, but a lich on the other hand was something to be truly feared: ancient, amoral-evil and brilliant strategists and tacticians. We rarely came out ahead when confronting a lich. and yet, everyone who had the luck to be a part of that game adored it immensely, and everyone showed up enthusiastically every week for many years. It was the challenge, I believe, that we craved. And challenge doesn't happen when the GM is easy going. We had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of gain. And yeah, we loved it. Just something to consider.

    1. One of my best friends in high school ran his game like that. I always considered myself a softie as a DM compared to him, but apparently at least a few of my players thought my campaigns were incredibly unforgiving.

      My gut impression is that most players want to play Skyrim, but there are a minority who prefer Nethack.

  4. I did this sort of thing once . . . just once. I lost half of my players.

    They want to play the character they want to play, even though I don't usually allow such a character as a PC in my game. No problem! They'll find a DM that does.

    They once thought -- at a mere second level -- to intimidate the Mayor, City Council and Captain of the Watch with their skills and powers. Naturally, they lost the fight and went to jail. That's when half of them quit the game. I haven't seen them since.

    This happened twice, actually. Once in a table top game -- and there aren't that many table top Gamers in my area -- and once in an online game. The online was the "quickest." They simply stopped posting and refused to return any emails.

    In short, there's nothing "cowardly" about your position, Charles. It simply boils down to this: Did you want to run a game, or didn't you?

    The DM is not, necessarily, the Overlord of his game. Not any more.

    1. It certainly helps to play with people who are already your friends. I could probably tell my group we're going to play an all-human campaign or D&D with low magic and if they hate the idea someone would probably just offer to DM instead. For us at least if a campaign dies someone else wants to DM rather than everyone scattering.
      Players who quit a campaign because they lose a fight or whatever are probably not ideal to begin with. Next they're quitting because they didn't get the magic item they want.
      The best thing about rules-light/OSR type games IMO is that you can easily recruit players from among your friends because they don't have to invest hours of study and memorization. More complex games limit you to more hardcore gamers, and they're there because they want to play in a certain type of game, not necessarily because they want to hang out with you. Who your players are is really important in determining what your options are as a DM.

  5. So apparently all of my replies to this post are posting . . . WTF blogger?