[D&D Next] Players, Trust Your DMs. DMs, Be Worthy Of That Trust

Today’s Legends & Lore article from Mike Mearls delves into the DMing Guidelines document in the recently released Playtest Packet, and I have to admit that I’m more than pleased to hear of the approach that they’re coming from with regards to how D&D Next will be handling DMing.

One of the most encouraging lines in the article was this particular choice quote:

The most interesting parts of D&D, at least in my experience, come into play when a DM must make a ruling rather than follow the rules to the letter. So, here’s our goal: We want to make it easy for a DM to improvise and use the rules as guidelines.

What this says to me is that Mearls and the D&D Next design team is moving towards the assumption that the DM is someone who can be trusted. Certainly there will still be rules, but the game itself acknowledges that DMs can be rational, fair and trustworthy individuals that are out to have fun with the group, rather than at the player’s expense. Furthermore, DMs can and will do this even without the presence of a whole slew of immutable rules that cover any and all possible outcomes.

It’s a simple thing really, but one that I think is an issue that’s been rearing its head in all of the D&D Next discussion as of late. Some players don’t like D&D Next having too much GM Fiat because they don’t trust the GM to make a fair or fun ruling. In fact, two of the most prevalent complaints I’ve seen so far say the same thing:

  • Fighters can’t do ANYTHING unless without going through “GM-may-I?” = “I don’t trust my DM to allow me to do something fun.”
  • Save-or-Die is TERRIBLE and UNFUN! = “I don’t trust my DM to use this rule responsibly and in a manner that makes the story better or more interesting.”

The players that are most worried about the way D&D Next works now, are the ones who don’t (or can’t) trust their DMs.

I guess a lot of people have suffered from painful experiences of power-tripping DMs at one point or another in their past (I know I have, remind me to tell you guys about my Four Minute Cleric one time) and have since then come to the conclusion that D&D is ultimately an “Us vs. the DM” game by default.

That said, I think it’s also time for a lot of us DMs to stop and pay attention to the kind of feedback we’re getting in these discussions. Are you actually one of those DMs that players can’t and won’t trust? Maybe it’s time to do a bit of soul-searching and find ways to win their trust again and live up to the unwritten expectation that everyone in the group is meant to be having a good time in your games.

21 thoughts on “[D&D Next] Players, Trust Your DMs. DMs, Be Worthy Of That Trust

  1. There’s a big difference between ““I don’t trust my DM to allow me to do something fun” and “I, the DM, am not sure how to adjudicate this.” There’s a huge gap between “I don’t trust my DM to use this rule responsibly and in a manner that makes the story better or more interesting” and “I, the DM, am at a loss on how to deal with this mechanic without either insta-negating the player or wasting this mechanic in the first place”… or even worse, “I, the DM, am not a ‘good’ DM, and lack the creative juices necessary to handle the situation.” Or worst of all: “If I use this, the party might get screwed… but if I don’t use this, it’ll break versimilitude, what do I do?”

    Rules are there for three reasons:
    1. To help the DM.
    2. To help the players.
    3. To help the story.

    I already run a rules-empty play-by-post on Facebook that allows you to play absolutely any concept you want so long as it’s within reason and allowed by me, the DM. But even if it’s supposedly rules-empty, I still utilize what I experienced in playing/running other systems, so in a way there are still rules embedded within that rules-empty mini-campaign. Without that background, I would likely have been at a loss on how to adjudicate various scenarios.

    Rules help the players because while they restrict them, they also empower them. System mastery exists in every RPG for the sole reason that the rules empower them, almost regardless of how tight the DM’s control over the system rules are.

    Rules help the story because it allows the DM to focus less on trying to figure out how to resolve various scenarios. The less the DM has to worry about mechanics, the more he can worry about making an awesome campaign.

    Rules are vastly important in D&D, much more than most people realize.

    Alignment? Rules on morality.
    Vancian spellcasting? Rules on magic.
    Ritual spellcasting? Another set of rules on magic.
    Ability scores? Rules on mechanically representing characters.
    Measurements? Rules on determining distance, area of effect, cover, etc.
    Attacks? Rules on combat.
    Armor? Rules on combat.
    Saving throws? Rules on effects, primarily magic.
    Hit points? Rules on mechanically representing characters, typically during combat.

    Yes the DM can ignore the rules and even run a campaign with zero rules in it, relying 100% on the trust of the players as well as his creativity (again, I’ve done it, and I don’t even consider myself a ‘good’ DM at that, just a particularly bored one at times). But when I utilize a system, there is also a matter of trust between the DMs and the game developers, in that by buying the product the game developers have made, the DM’s job of creating an entire living, breathing campaign and immersing his players in it is made a whole lot easier, primarily by giving the DM material he can work with.

    That is the reason why there’s so much friction with regards to the playtest’s adventure: the mechanics are so barebones, it *requires* a ‘good’ DM to run, and *not* an ‘average’ DM.

    It was mentioned in one post in the WotC forums that it is a whole lot easier to remove elements (like save-or-die) than to add elements. If that is the case, why shouldn’t we the DMs be given ALL the options with the right to change or remove those options as desired?

    Page 189 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (4th Edition) explicitly states the following: “If you disagree with how the rules handle something, changing them is within your rights.” Between changing or removing rules, and trying to fudge too many things, I’d rather go for the former and minimize the latter, especially since the former can easily be campaign-specific and determined before the campaign, while the latter will likely have little to no consideration of the consequences of the given rulings, potentially opening a Pandora’s Box that only the most rare of DMs can close.

    1. I think you’re misunderstanding the point, my friend. (And after so many Internet exchanges, I do think that it would be cool to meet up as friends and talk about DnD over a couple of beers. Darnit, we need a convention here in Manila!) I don’t speak for pointyman, but I doubt he meant that rules should not exist. Rules are good! It’s part of what defines a system.

      What some GMs dislike is the overabundance of rules. Now I’m not saying that I’m one of those GMs – I happen to like my rules (except maybe 3.5’s grapple rules). So to illustrate my point, I will use a similar example that is a result of an overabundance of fluff from a published setting:

      DM: …So finally, the thief agrees to you plan. He tells you to meet him at midnight by the Pazihg canal, located to the South of the town…
      Player3: But DM, page 64 of the Imagined Campaign Setting Guide specifically says that the canal is to the NORTH of Namayan, not to the south!

      The same can be said of rules elements. Sometimes you make rules on the fly, and then a player cites a rulebook reference after you declare your fiat but before it is used, which frustrate the heck out of a GM who had to spend some creative juices to arbitrate the situation.

      The whole thing is a double-edged sword, admittedly. Too little rules will turn off those like you and me clamoring for more. Too much will turn off those who rather like adjudicating things on the fly. I think that, with DDN, a delicate balance is important between the two camps once the final rules are out.

      I am really hopeful for Next. I do feel like a separate basic game and combat module satisfies both camps.

      One thing I think we can all agree on, though, is that this player-vs-GM mentality is so.. so… High School. And yes, I think most DnD players have had the displeasure of a bad DM at some point in their life. @_@

      1. When I ran a short stint of 4E, I recall I allowed one of my Player’s cat familiar to perform an attack. I couldn’t remember if a Familiar could perform attacks, and I didn’t want to be bothered to look it up, and/or bog down gameplay by doing so, so I decided to simply allow a 1d4 attack and damage roll. She rolled a critical and max damage, scarring the elven mud wrestling hussie she was up against.

        After the session, I checked the books and saw that Cat familiars apparently couldn’t attack. (Who knew magical cats couldn’t attack? Meh.) But I let it go since the action added to the story anyway (dropping the elf to bloodied status and activating her Bloodied ability), and ultimately she beat her opponent — using both creativity and improvisation.

        If it was a high mortality dungeon crawl, I might have decided otherwise — or just bulked up the minions they’d be going against that a magical cat wouldn’t / couldn’t do much.

        Don’t get me wrong though, as amusing as that scenario was, it was actually an equally important, if not physically deadly encounter. There was a lot of money riding on it, as well as the subsequent outcome would change the outlook of a large portion of high-rolling patrons in a world-renown tavern.

      2. Yeah, what he said.

        I’m of the same opinion: rules are important, rules are what we pay for when we buy a game. Rules are essential to D&D, and any other game for that matter. Without rules, it will cease functioning as a game, and will simply become merely play… which while still potentially fun, isn’t the same thing.

        Thankfully D&D Next will be released as a modular ruleset, allowing GMs to tack on complexity and rules onto a basic skeleton. I’ll probably stick to as simple a game as I can, while Nosfecatu and you will probably do the whole Wendy’s Salad Bar trick and pile everything onto your trays. 😀

        However, that wasn’t the point I was trying to make with my post.

        All I wanted to say was:

        “Any game can be made more fun the moment Players and GMs trust each other.”

        There, is that better?

      3. I’ll have to agree with you in part, but I think that’s less of a rules issue and more of a campaign issue. The DM can always say “but in my world…” but that means he’s deviating from the existing lore and running a custom campaign based on that lore.

        Actually it’s one of the biggest hurdles I face as a DM when preparing for my Star Wars: Saga Edition campaign, because Star Wars has such a rich, diverse, and SPECIFIC lore, that it would feel like both a cop-out and a short-changing of the players if I just get the Star Wars system and make my own campaign, ignorant of the available planets, the important people, the various races, etc. effectively forcing me to study up on the whole thing, as opposed to focusing on just key elements and running with it.

        Rules editing, however, has always been and will always be a DM privilege, regardless of system.

        I pretty much “get” what the point of the article is: that rules are only a DM’s guidelines, and that it’s the players’ trust in the DM that is paramount in any game. But for me if player trust + DM responsibility to care for that trust is all you need, then why bother getting any TRPG, especially D&D Next, when it basically tells me to run it as if I was running one of my play-by-post Facebook mini-campaigns?

        Trust is not required by the rules. Trust is required by the group (DM and players both). Not all DMs have the experience and traits necessary to be a ‘good’ DM, and not all DMs that fall outside the ‘good’ DM paradigm are automatically ‘bad’ DMs. For those that are caught between ‘bad’ and ‘good’, they NEED those suggestions, those guidelines, those rules, because those guidelines will help them become ‘good’ DMs.

        We trust the game developers in giving us quality gaming material (especially rules and options), with the option to waive all those options in favor of a specific playstyle. We trust the DMs with providing us the story that he would transport us to. Both game developers and DMs trust us with providing a richer gaming experience for everyone in the group, including the DM.

  2. Being able to adjudicate or houserule comes from experience though. I remember trying to figure out D&D Basic by myself and always wondering about gaps in the rules (where apparently I was supposed to house rule) but doubted that my rulings were fair.

    Ultimately, experience with both rules light systems (Over the Edge), median rules systems (D6 and Call of Cthulhu) and heavier rules systems (HERO) and ultra-hard core crunch systems (Stalking the Night Fantastic and Phoenix Command) helped me grapple with it.

  3. This is my favorite line in the article.

    “The most interesting parts of D&D, at least in my experience, come into play when a DM must make a ruling rather than follow the rules to the letter.” — Mike Mearls

    Mearls, you are doing it right.

      1. Well among other things, every edition IMO were created as a result of changing philosophies:

        * 1E was, in a nutshell, about surviving dungeons, occasionally encountering dragons, and bringing home loot.
        * In 2E, fluff was king. It became all about living in very detailed, published worlds and being part of the metaplot.
        (I could be wrong about the above two – I never played those editions)
        * 3E/3.5 was about making sure just about everything was well represented in a game world.
        * 4E was about making combat streamlined, and making sure that all classes are created equal.

        Next, it seems, will be about making sure each philosophy can exist under one system, or even under one table. I think.

        1. Wizards/Hasbro/D&D’s Marketing department did it right when they decided to call this iteration of D&D as ‘NEXT’, rather than D&D 4.5 or 5.

          It could mean that this could run tangent to the classic, number-crunching D&D. And in the future, run parallel to it if it picks up. Since there is clearly a market for its kind of gameplay.

      1. The first rules lawyer.

        And when everyone was worshiping a golden animal diety, and basically having a damn good time, he smacked them on the head with his Core book. 😀

      2. He only had ten core rules though. Then his successors started making all these extra rules to cover everything else.

        (Wait, is this hitting too close to home? <.<)

        1. I ain’t judging. I don’t have diety-carved tablets to back me up. 😀

          But being hit by, or at least being hurled at, by rocks – with intent – isn’t nice. 😦

  4. There’s one significant part of this problem that I don’t understand: When did players not trusting their GMs become a “thing”? There has never been a time in an RPG when the players weren’t pretty much forced to listen to whatever the GM told them about whatever game world or situation they found their PCs in. After all, the GM is the players’ eyes and ears into the world as the GM imagines it.

    Come to think of it, I can only recall one game which codified such stringent adherence to the rules, in terms of balance, structure, use of abilities, and so on, that used a GM and could still be labeled an RPG… and that’s D&D 4e. Could this problem be something that WotC brought upon itself?

    1. “Trust” in the GM has been an issue since the earliest days of the hobby. This is different from being forced (as you are in many RPGs) to rely on the GM’s descriptions of what’s happening.

      This trust issue is why folks like Gygax and early DMs used to ‘write down’ — even just in note form — what is in a room. So that when players would call out the DM on being unfair or capricious (which the DM, as a referee, should not be) he could point to his adventure notes and say that that’s how the adventure was prepared.

    2. Contrary to popular belief, 4E does not codify “stringent adherence to the rules”. In fact, page 189 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide explicitly states that the DM has the right to change the rules as he desired, just like in every edition before 4E. Unlike previous editions however, 4E has so many baseline good ideas that no one really bothered houseruling most of the time.

      In fact, page 189 actually TEACHES houseruling, with p.42 of the DMG enforcing quick resolution via codified “fudging”.

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