The DM’s Role/Rule in 4E, Organized Play, and Beyond


As a D&D child of the 70’s and 80’s, I’d never questioned the rule of the DM.  It’s our shared game, but the DM is the glue that holds it together.  The DM makes up the adventures (or prepares the published modules) and runs them, adjudicating both the players’ actions and what response the adventure has in store for them.  Players know the rules, but don’t have perfect knowledge of how those rules are applied in the game world for any particular situation.  In other words, the role of the DM is to rule.

But that’s not necessarily true these days.

Much has been said about the empowerment of players in 3.X and especially 4th edition D&D.  While not as obviously player-over-GM biased as some modern games are, the expansion of codified rules in 3.X, and the emphasis on exception-based rules in 4E, calls out for the players to take an actve role in both understanding and applying the rules specific to their characters.  Nowhere is this more evident in 4E than in Organized Play games.

For the weekly Encounters program, DMs are expected to help teach the rules to new players who may have never touched D&D before, as well as keep on top of the latest twist in races and classes brought to the table by perhaps more experienced players who wish to try out the newest toys Wizard’s has published for the game.  And the fact that the last several seasons of Encounters have included the same pre-generated characters, rather than new ones based on the product of the month being touted (and listed as legal for the current season), haven’t helped matters.  Though the Essentials-formatted characters are streamlined, there is enough variation that, in conjunction with the new book that season, makes it difficult for a DM who isn’t spending a lot of prep time to know the ins and outs of each class and race.  So many DMs will need to rely on the players to know how their character’s powers work, making judgment calls when things aren’t clear, or as circumstances warrant them.

Those who come with their character powers printed out from the online Character Builder make life a little easier (and as DDI subscribers, make Wizards a little happier), assuming the power text is complete and legible.  Otherwise if questions come up, it’s likely a visit to lookup land in the appropriate book.  Even then, unless one has access to the compendium, or had memorized errata, the answer might not be clear.  And who wants to stop play during a short (2 hr give or take) session to try and cast Comprehend Rule with maybe the right components on hand?

The situation is only exacerbated in the Lair Assault program which, while touted as 2-3 hrs of play, can easily drag out to 4-6 if players and DM are not up on the capabilites of the characters and situation therein.  Add to that the fact the entire breadth and depth of 4E is available and legal to use (with a few ground rules) as opposed to just Essentials plus the latest book in Encounters, and the additional complexity in Dragon magazine feats alone make up for the addional play time.  There is a (justifiably?) smug Glory award for the latest Lair Assault entitled Player Bait, which rewards players who do something unexpected, and cause the DM to look up something in the Rules Compendium or Player’s Handbook as a result.  That award by itself indicates that the designers are expecting the players to know certain aspects of the game better than the DM.  As they should – by now there is a hell of a lot to keep track of.  And Lair Assault, of all the varieties of D&D available to play, is the one most geared toward being run exactly by the rules.  So having the players challenge the DM’s knowledge of them might seem like a good idea.

It certainly points out, as well, how the role of the DM has come to be viewed in 4E. Having run 4E since the start, and Encounters since season 4 (about a year as of this date), I feel comfortable enough with the rules to make decisions on the spot when things are not clear, and I don’t always look things up.  I’m not always right, by the rules-as-written, but I generally am for the fun of the game at that moment, and in many cases calling a halt to look things up wouldn’t lead to a better result – just a slower one.  If I am uncertain as to a decision, I might look things up, of course, to give me guidance, or make a snap decision to keep the flow going, acknowledging that I am taking this position now for the sake of the current game, and will revisit it if need be for use in the future, when I’ve had a chance to review the details later.  But I view the decision as mine as a DM, and I see this as in line with the role of DMs in editions past, and with the oft-discussed Rule 0 – the DM may change rules as needed for the fun of the game (at least that’s how I interpret it).

I know not all DMs have used their power wisely, and that some spawn the horror stories of killer DMs that see their role as adversarial to the players, and the object is to “win” against them.  My view is the role of the DM is to not only have fun myself, but to see that the players have fun as well.  Even in a Lair Assault game, where the players are trying to defeat the design, I don’t see it as my goal to kill their characters, but rather to present them with the hardest tactical challenge I can muster with the tools Wizards has provided.  If they succeed, cool!  But if not, hopefully they’ve had fun pitting their best against the odds!  Lair Assault is the closest thing to, but in no ways the equivalent of, the killer dungeon of editions past in 4E (other than the updates of those same killer dungeons, of course!).

Still, it’s tempting to use those tales of games gone wrong, and view the ever increasing complexity and depth of the ruleset as a check on DM fiat and power.  It seems that many of the players in the 3.x and 4E versions of the game, and some of the designers among them, have taken the increasing detail of the rules as a sign that the DM is no longer the final say on the game, but rather the interpreter and referee – an authority of course, but one open to argument and to be refuted.  As indicated, it is extremely likely that many a player may know certain aspects of the game better than the DM, and this is empowering to the player.  But it doesn’t have to superceed the power of the DM.

In some cases, especially involving experienced players with inexperienced DMs, it can.  We’ve had issues with new DMs stepping in to run the Encounters program at our FLGS.  First off, it’s really a sign of the success of the program that former players who have never DMed a game before want to step up and run the game themselves!  And having run most of the weekly sessions since last February, I certainly looked forward to a chance to either play, or even take the week off.  And the Encounters program, being 4E adventures built up from single scenes each week that build to a larger story over a few months, seems ideal for the new DM.  usually it is, but the recent season, Beyond the Crystal Cave, was an exception.  Unlike almost every Encounters scenario before it, this one had a very complex plot that required heavy NPC interaction and some heavy duty fights with multiple higher-than-average level opponents with complex power sets.  And combat was not always the only or even the best solution to the problem at hand.

For a new DM, who had previously experienced the straightforward weekly fights of the early seasons of the program, it’s quite understandable that things could get out of control.  Especially with the current seasons incentivizing the use of the latest class combinations, leading to character types being seen and played for the first time.  With unfamiliar powers and races (hello Mr. Pixie!) running around, and a new set of powerful NPCs introduced nearly every week, it would be easy for an experienced DM spending the minimum of time to prepare to get lost.  And while no one can be expected to know all the ins and outs of these options, the reliance on player knowledge, and the push to ‘say yes’ makes it hard for a new DM to ‘say no’ when it is justified, or required.

Once a new DM has discovered a game has gotten out of his control, it can be nearly impossible to get back on the right track. And unfortunately that is just what was reported to have happened more than once with the just finished season.  While I never observed the worst of it, I did see a DM struggling to keep on top of the situation in the wake of players who were each rushing in different directions to do their own cool thing.

Once players sense some uncertainty, or hesitation, that ‘taste of blood’ can lead to pushing for more leeway, or even questioning the DM’s rulings,  further rattling him.  That sense of ‘the DM is in charge’ just isn’t there as much these days.  the DM is more of a guide than the final authority.  In many ways this is good, of course.  I love some narrative-ly driven games.  But in a tactical game like 4E, that can lead to a mess if the DM doesn’t have the experience to state the rules with authority and have his statements accepted.

Problems like this, as well as the natural attrition over the holidays season, reduced the number of tables we fielded for the last season.  While we’re taking steps to bring some of those players back, as well as bring new players, into the fold this season, I don’t want to leave the new DMs without guidance either.  So while we have more experienced DMs taking back the reigns this season, I’ve proposed that we start a DM ‘boot camp’ of sorts, to help them get the experience they need to deal with a variety of situations.  It’s good that WOTC is switching up the variety of encounters they present in Encounters, but that same variety makes it hard to judge what will be needed from season to season.

The idea is still in its infancy, but I propose that for those interested, they play in the weekly encounter first each Wednesday, as run by one of the more experienced DMs.  They then take some time to familiarize themselves with the scenario and setup.  And finally they take turns running the encounter for those same experienced DMs, as well as other prospective new DMs, in a setting where we aren’t rushed to finish, and everyone can take the time to stop and ask questions, or try out actions and options.

I’m not sure how this will play out in action, but I’m hoping the newer DMs will be able to get some more experience in a less threatening setup than being responsible for everyone’s enjoyment on the first run through each Wednesday.  Depending on how well things go, and if the weekly scenario is appropriate, we could switch things around later in the season, or next season.  Have the experienced DMs run the training session before the regular Wednesday session, to get the new DMs up to speed and having them run during the regular session.  Or perhaps we will expand this to non-Encounters games, perhaps earlier (or later) versions of D&D, or even other games entirely, based on the interest of the participants (and my own experience and enthusiasm for the other games).

Anyone who has an options or idea along these lines, please chime in, I’d be grateful for the input.  This is obviously still just in the formative stages, but I’ve had interest expressed from potential new DMs as well as from experienced DMs who would also participate in the ‘training’.


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7 Responses to “The DM’s Role/Rule in 4E, Organized Play, and Beyond”

  1. Susan Carlson Says:

    That’s really interesting. I’m a relatively new DM usually surrounded by (and sometimes DMing for) really experienced players with years of DMing experience. It gets intimidating!

    I have noticed that “blood in the water” effect at Living Forgotten Realms games, especially when the players and DM don’t necessarily know each other (and when I’m one of only two women in the room, as is often the case).

    I have a couple of strategies to keep from getting flustered. I’ll have someone else look up the actual rule, so I can keep going and the momentum of the fight or skill challenge isn’t lost. If a fight is especially complex, I may have one of the players assist me in keeping track of damage done to the monsters. I make heaaavy use of color-coded status markers, because otherwise I will forget who is dazed and my brain will break!

    Really, I don’t expect that I’m the expert on the PCs’ powers and abilities; they are. I may say, “Show me the card?” or “Show me the book?” but my usual response is going to be, “That is awesome.”

    Boot camp sounds like a great idea!

    • Jack Kessler Says:

      Some great suggestions there! We’ve used the one of having the players track damage on the big bads in the scene, but the simple act of having a player look up a rule reinforces the DM’s authority at the same time as it silences any naysayers. I like it! Thanks for the suggestions!

      We use a combination of the colored rings from the tops of soda bottles and colored hair bands to help us mark conditions. They are just the right size for miniatures, and are very useful in visually calling out the status of the character.

      • Susan Carlson Says:

        The other bit of advice I found really helpful (and I can’t credit it, boo; it was just a practice I saw a DM using at an east coast LFR con) was to say some polite and cheerful variation of, “Once your turn is over, it’s over.”

        I know at an Encounters level it isn’t that big a deal, but at one of my first Paragon DMing experiences, I kept having people say — 15 minutes and two players after the fact — “Oh, I need to add 2d8 damage to monsters X, Y, and Q!” or “That monster was slid two turns ago!” If it’s my mistake, gosh, I’m glad to be corrected, but if it’s the player just forgetting something, I can’t retroactively deal with them tossing information at me willy-nilly once their turn is done.

        (Heh, note that I don’t treat saving throws that way; who always remembers to take their saving throw? Not this girl.)

        • Susan Carlson Says:

          *cough* Sorry, I keep /typing/.

          To add something I should have put in my last comment: of course, I hold /myself/ to that standard too. If I forget the slide or the damage, I’m not going to retroactively add that either. And I tell the players that too, because we’re all in it together.

        • Jack Kessler Says:

          Good point. I allow those things to jump out of order rarely if it’s a really cool effect, but for newer DMs a hard and fast rule is for the best. Another thing I’ve done is if I miss an important rider to a power, I’ll apply it the next time I hit (if the monster lasts that long!).

  2. inspired minds Says:

    inspired minds…

    […]The DM’s Role/Rule in 4E, Organized Play, and Beyond « Claw/Claw/Peck[…]…

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