There's Time for Winning and Losing  

Posted by Michael Donaldson in

When I first started my gaming career oh-so-many years ago, I had a particularly notorious DM who explained to me that it was his job to try and kill me, and it was my job to survive. This statement is a little wonky, and I thought so at the time as well, but it wasn't until I became the primary DM of my little group that I realized exactly why this philosophy was borked.

The first answer is obvious; the DM is not constrained by the rules and can "win" whenever he feels like it. This is neither hard nor challenging. An expanded version of my DM's thought process, I feel, was that his image of DMing is defeating the players while constraining to the proper rules of encounter building. This sort of campaign can be fun, but I feel like the focus of gaming—and roleplaying, in general—is lost. You might as well just be playing a video game with a level designer.

When we devolve into battle mode, sometimes DMs and Players alike forget that we are still constrained by what our characters know, not what we know. I wrote an article on the subject a while ago, but I'd like to delve more into how the DM can make this sort of mistake rather than the players.

Very recently I have served as a player under a new DM, who has taken it upon himself to run the Pathfinder premade Council of Thieves campaign path, and we were tasked to ambush a prisoner carriage. As first level characters, we had little in the way of tactical options at our fingertips, so I invested a third of my gold at the time into a thunderstone (an alchemical item that causes deafness when struck or thrown).

As the carriage drew itself across the ambush point, I struck. Throwing the thunderstone, I managed to hit all the soldiers in its radius and most of them failed their saves, including the commander. With that, the battle was on, and the soldiers all wordlessly engaged us. It didn't matter that most of the enemy was suddenly deaf and surprised. The commander never issued any orders to the green troops because they were all telepathically receiving orders from the DM (obviously) and my clever plan was worthless.

The problem, I think, was that when the DM thought about how the deaf soldiers would react, he could see no reason why they would act any differently. Their order of battle was not primarily complicated. One guy grabbed the small Ballista on top of the carriage - the rest fanned out while the commander shot me with a crossbow while backpedaling away from the carriage.

The problem inherently was that when you think about how low-level guards would react when random "bandits" suddenly assault them with a deafening bang. Guards would look to their commander for information. People would be confused, disoriented, and would have no direction. But instead, the guardsmen slid along like the nameless statistic blocks they were.

Part of the immersion is lost in moments like this, where the congruency between penalties and hard, cold statistics breaks. Sometimes, as a DM, it's important to just let the PCs gain an unfair advantage because they thought outside of the box. I find that this problem most often occurs in new DMs, or (more importantly) DMs who feel as if the party is too strong already, and are having a hard time dealing with them as-is.

Just like there are times where winning the fight against the PCs is useful, there is also a time where letting your NPCs get massacred is the more correct option for the fun of the campaign—especially when the encounter does not contain any plot-centric enemies. After all, my DM when I was younger was absolutely wrong about DMing—it's not about beating the players, it's about making sure they're having a blast.

And nothing is quite as fun as watching a clever plan set you up for a beautiful tactical advantage.

This entry was posted on May 28, 2010 at Friday, May 28, 2010 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


"After all, my DM when I was younger was absolutely wrong about DMing—it's not about beating the players, it's about making sure they're having a blast."

I agree 100% that the job of the DM is not about "winning" or "beating the players." Those kinds of DMs are the worst kind and, as players, tend to be munchkin powergamers. No fun.

What IS a DM's job? Well, part of it IS to ensure that the players have fun, but the whole "having fun" part is really everyone's job. The players need to buy into what is going on and contribute as well. It's a group effort.

The way I see things, the job of the DM is to represent the world to the players. That's really it. A DM will describe a scene or the initial scenario, and after that, is causing the world to react to the actions of the players.

July 30, 2010 at 1:37 PM

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