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It was occasional but substantial bumps in play after adopting the 3rd Edition rules which led me to realize that players are not always operating on the same page as their DM even if they’ve played together for years. All DM’s face similar problems but it’s so easy to eliminate a lot of them with simple communication.
Everyone has different ideas of what the approach of a DM or player should be to the game. No matter how many years you’ve been discussing little bits of philosophy regarding how or why you should do this or that, what you have specifically in mind and what your players understand to be the case are two very different beasts. In my case what I thought I'd said, and what certain players thought they heard were quite different.
So, I initially was going to write an essay merely re-stating the specific things that got misunderstood but decided against that. I figured it would be far more useful to formally set out some general principles that everyone could use reference to. It’s what I think should be not just the expectations but the “rights and obligations” of everyone at my table, indeed at every table. It’s the difference between what players and the DM can do, should do, and are obligated to do, and it's stuff nobody should have an excuse NOT to know.
I certainly haven’t personally experienced everything discussed below and don't expect to, but everybody has undoubtedly seen some part of it in their games and faced resolving the issues created. I think most of those issues could have been prevented ahead of time with a document like this.
The first job of everyone playing the game,
the point of the exercise, is to enjoy it. If you're not having fun why are
you here? If you're not having fun, try to do something
constructive about it. Don’t be disruptive in the name of finding
something to do, but don’t expect someone else to come along and inflict
fun upon you either. Your participation is a desired, even necessary
component and you're not here just to be passively entertained. The worst
thing a player can do is to do nothing.
Communicate! Even though you may think
it's very obvious the DM might not know you aren't having fun unless you say
something. DM's also don’t have to put up with not enjoying the experience
either. Nobody can force you to run a game, and if players are unappreciative of the
sacrifices a DM makes they don’t deserve to be rewarded with the fruit of
your efforts. If you have a problem then say so. You can read online
every week about another campaign blowing up (or about to) which can ALWAYS
be traced to the fact that nobody spoke up before it festered into a truly
The day a DM can't deal with a helpful
suggestion or sincere criticism from players about the campaign is the day
the DM needs to give up the chair. The game does not revolve around stroking
the DM's ego.
A campaign is not absolutely under a
DM's control but there’s a reason he’s in The Chair. The PC's have to live
and function with some fantasy approximation of a life. That means that when
characters take actions within the campaign, the campaign needs to take
those actions into account. Through their characters the players make
changes to the campaign. Therefore the DM cannot and should not attempt to
force the campaign to progress ONLY in predestined directions. The freedom
of action that is necessary for player characters can and will foil
Since things do not always go as the DM plans
(see #5) the DM should really not be seeking to tell a story with
predetermined results. The only way to do that would be to force
them into it. Campaigns are supposed to be about the Player Characters,
not the NPC’s. If the PC's are plugged into a story whose details are
preordained by the DM, if the PC’s are mere witnesses to more important
events being decided by a cast of NPC’s rather than being influential
participants themselves then players will frequently and rightfully chafe.
You must provide opportunity for the characters to do things, but not
dictate what they do.
The most satisfying combats are usually the
ones that take characters right to the dangerous edge of death yet without
actually crossing that threshold unnecessarily. The game is random
and contains so many variables that it is impossible to plan perfectly.
Combat encounters are never a sure thing regardless of how meticulously
designed they are. Playing at the edge of disaster it is the most exciting
place to be but it is also more likely for events to slip out of control.
This is just something that needs to be kept in mind by everyone.
A DM who truly sets out to deliberately kill
the PC's has no business being a DM. The DM has at all times and in all ways
the ability to kill the PC's whenever he bloody well feels like it. Simply
having the next encounter be intentionally lethal is as easy as breathing.
Intending to kill the PC's... what kind of fun is that for anybody? A
DM who acts that way doesn't deserve the patience that players undoubtedly
have to give him.
Even given #’s 7 and 8 above it is still in
everybody's interest for a campaign to have plenty of places, creatures, or
encounters that the PC's are not actually able to defeat. It gives a
campaign world a needed aura that it does not exist purely for the benefit
of the PC's advancement but has a life of it's own. I believe this is
necessary for having any kind of verisimilitude and willing suspension of
disbelief. Without that the game world and its dangers always scale
precisely to the PC's capabilities which feels fake when it doesn't need to
If the characters ignore in-game or
out-of-game warnings about dangers to their characters then the DM is then
justified in applying what he actually knows to be lethal force in an
encounter. Still doesn't mean he should, but it can’t really be held
against him if he does. It also means that players are doing themselves no
favors by never retreating or backing down and always pushing
mindlessly for victory in a fight, because this leaves the DM with no
options except mindlessly pushing back.
It is generally in the interest of "fair play"
for the DM to have his campaign world operating under generally the
same rules that the PC's do. But to get fanatical about “being fair” is not
in anyone’s best interests either. The DM should not be needlessly
restricted in creating new and interesting challenges for the characters.
Creating new rules, singular exceptions to rules, and even things that would
not otherwise be possible under the rules is a DM's prerogative. Only if the
DM overuses or abuses this privilege to no good purpose should
players consider it an issue. Rule #0: Don't assume that the DM has not, or
will not alter rules for his campaign. Those alterations don't have to apply
both to NPC’s and PC’s. Still, the DM may need to explain some of those
alterations up front while others remain entirely secret.
The players and their characters are not
always bound by "the rules" in what they can do (or at least in what
they can attempt.) There simply isn’t a rule for everything. One of a DM's
biggest jobs is adjudication and adaptation of rules to the many situations
that arise within a game. So, by definition PC's can at least attempt to do
things outside of the rules (and generally get a little extra credit for
such creativity, unless they make themselves a pest by constantly
trying to do things not covered by the rules). To deny the same privilege to
the DM would be silly.
The DM is not a slave to the dice. Dice don’t
run the game, the DM does. I feel that at the very least the DM should be
free to alter dice rolls that would negatively affect the PC's but, again,
just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. It is a useful tool to
have so long as the sting of PC death is not being entirely removed as a
result. To arbitrarily adjust results against the PC’s is a
questionable move because it often serves no purpose but to force the game
to play out exactly the way the DM has pictured it in his mind. Slavish
obedience to the dice and their results is often actually an attempt to
dodge the responsibilities of the DM as primary instigator of a fun,
interesting, and exciting game: “Don't blame ME, that's what the dice
dictated...” The DM already has vast latitude in deciding how many
and how often dice rolls get made as well as in applying many of the
modifiers that would affect them so to simply short-circuit the process and
dictate the die roll is functionally no different.
The DM is not required to roll his dice in the
open and I believe should even be discouraged from doing so. There are often
factors at work that the players need not – even should not – know, suspect,
or be able to infer by meta-game mathematics. It enables the occasions when dice
are rolled publicly to have inherent tension. The DM can communicate an attitude
about the outcome of a roll if it is unusual to roll it publicly without
needing to "break character" in order explain the whys and wherefores behind
the screen. Players should always roll their dice
openly, only AS needed or requested (no rolling ahead of time and saving a
good result for your "next" roll), must use dice that the DM can read and
verify results of at all times, and in general are expected to be honest and
above-board regarding dice rolls. Nothing is kept secret from the DM once it is put into play because
the DM has adjudication and veto power.
There WILL be differences of opinion about
rules between anyone at the table, player or DM's. When feasible rules-lawyering
should be kept to a minimum during the game. Players should state the
substance of objections, the DM should make a ruling after listening to all
sides, and if players take exception to the ruling it should be noted for
later consideration - but then play should proceed. If something can be
resolved by simply looking it up quickly in the rules, do it. Still, the DM
is not perfect and not every ruling in a game is a new a law graven in
Retconning or Retcon is short for Retroactive
Continuity and means making everything better by saying, "Okay, what
really happened instead was this...” It is the cousin to the deus ex
machina. It's a “Do-Over”. When bad rulings, mistakes, oversights,
meta-game complications, or bad/boring plots go really bad this is
one way to fix things. It works but it is never very satisfying, so it may
still be better to simply accept what has taken place - no matter how
stupidly or badly it was done. When a situation has degraded to where this
sort of action is even contemplated it frequently seems to involve a
character's death, making the resolution more emotionally charged for a
player than would normally be the case.
The DM is not there to oppose the
players. A DM should want to see the PC's succeed, but that success should
be earned. The DM provides the world for the characters, things for them to
do within it, and adjudicates their actions. If the DM sees himself as the
opponent for the players he cannot help but win because that is the power
given to the DM – but it wasn't given so that he could use it to win. It
is given so that he can use it to make the game more fun for the players; to
create or override rules when necessary in doing that.
Characters die, and occasionally should
die permanently. It is my firm belief that resurrection magic is in the game
only because it is so easy for characters to die. Playing on the edge
of disaster is more fun and exciting (see #7), but if permanent character
death never really occurs then playing “on the edge” is actually
meaningless. Players easily forget and become reckless; they always
seem to push an encounter to its limits with their characters and even
moreso when they know resurrection is available. This leads to an
unsatisfying fearlessness in all characters and prevents the DM from
planning any sort of fight other than Last Man Standing. The DM can’t
predict who will die or when. Players must be willing to have their
characters flee to survive and the DM must accept that when that happens he
should almost certainly let them go.
Players must then not attempt to turn THAT against the DM: fight goes
bad, PC’s run, DM lets them pull back, PC’s take advantage of the DM not
wanting to massacre the entire party to simply recover and deceitfully renew
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