Friday, February 17, 2012

It’s All About the GM

I had a great discussion on Wednesday night after D&D Encounters at my FLGS with Brooks and Krupal. We talked about D&DNext, and what we thought 4e D&D got right, and what it did wrong. Krupal runs some Pathfinder, Brooks plays in a hybrid home-brew based on Champions. Both of them have years of experience with a variety of game rules.

My takeaway from the discussion was that 4e was too player-centric, and didn’t have enough tools for the game master. I suspect that, in trying to make a game that they could sell to all the players at the table (instead of the traditional “GM has copies of all the books, and players just borrow them”), WotC lost touch with what differentiates tabletop RPGs from CRPGs. Specifically, the GM. A human GM can present more responses to player input than a computer or console. And that variety is what makes the game world feel real to the player.

Between the three Players Handbooks, the online Character Builder, and the character optimization threads on various online forums, there are so many options for players that there is no effective balance, and no cohesive game feel. The very limitations of OD&D (some of which I loathe) are the very things that make it appealing to many players and GMs. It’s simply easier to create a cohesive, immersive world using those rules than it is with 4e.

Why a Sandbox Has a Box
A “sandbox” game is viewed as one in which the players are free to explore in any direction. It’s a term generally reserved for a campaign style. But, beneath “sandbox” there are usually other tiers that define the campaign style. Maybe it’s a Middle Earth sandbox, or a Miskatonic Valley sandbox, or a Barsoomian sandbox. These “boxes” set the scene for the players. Rules can have the same function. When the campaign is limited to specific classes, equipment, powers, or other game-mechanical aspects, it helps the players become immersed in that setting. Dark Sun is a good example of this.

Unfortunately, as written, the 4e rules provide very little guidance for GMs on how to create settings using such game-mechanical limitations. Some attempt was made to address the issue with the Essentials line of products, which was marketed to new players, but while it provides limitations, it makes no connection as to why these limitations exist. (Beyond simplifying the mechanics of the game.) So, Essentials doesn’t help players become more immersed in a setting.

D&DNext is being described as a “modular” system. One in which GMs and players can combine game-mechanical elements to create the gaming experience that they prefer. My hope is that WotC will include templates and/or detailed guidelines for GMs on assembling these modules. To go back to my favorite LEGO analogy, kits that you buy usually come with a “theme”. The model that is intended to be constructed is pictured on the box, and step-by-step plans are included. But the “player” is free to construct whatever they would like with the pieces included. In some LEGO kits, plans for alternative models are included as well. That’s what I’d like to see happen with D&DNext.

How to Play a GM
One of the signature flaws of 4e, and other character-centric systems, is the use of skills. Too often in such games a player will say something like, “I roll a 12 plus my 17 bonus. 29 Nature. What do I find out?” The activity of exploring the game world has been reduced to the equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure page reference. Turn to page 29 to find out what happens.

One of the game mechanics being discussed for D&DNext is the way in which GMs can use a character’s ability scores to help determine possible success without needing a die roll. The GM knows that an iron-bound wooden door has a difficulty class of 15 to break down. The character has a strength ability score of 17. The player announces that, “My character tries to break down the door.” And the GM, after confirming that the ability exceeds the DC, simply describes the resolution of the door being broken down. There are two key elements to this mechanic. The one being touted is that it speeds gameplay by not requiring a die roll. More interesting to me though is the idea that the player is encouraged to describe an action, rather than to cite a number. It’s up to the GM to describe the resolution given the framing provided by the player.

It is simply easier for a GM to describe a resolution given a player’s action than it is if the GM has only a number to work with. In the nature example above, a player might be trying to determine attributes of a creature, properties of a plant, or detect a camouflaged pixie. A better RPG not only gives players tools to create their characters, it gives GMs tools to adjudicate actions.

In Wednesday’s discussion Brooks pointed out that the 4e skill list was too general. What is “Nature” skill? The 4e Dungeon Masters Guides (especially the DMG 2) give some good guidelines on how to work with these skills to answer knowledge questions, perception questions, and other types of queries that might fall under the general skill categories. The information is in the rules, yet too often players will resort to the “I got a 29 Nature. What do I find out?” method of play. Not enough attention is paid to how the GM should “play” skill check resolutions.

Confronted with a locked door that the players want to open, there are a limited number of options. So, how do you teach GMs to describe other obstacles in ways that frame options for players? Are there ways to describe an outdoor scene that encourage players to describe actions they might take? The key is getting players to describe actions first, and then let the GM decide what skills would be appropriate to check. Teaching GMs the art of framing scenes in this way should be part of any GM handbook, and part of any published module-adventures.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the GM, examples of tools or game mechanics that are useful to GMs, or what makes one RPG better than another. Thanks for reading!


  1. I can't speak to the evolution of the DM role in D&D, but to me, a DM/GM/ST whatever is, in a way, the equivalent of a project manager or a team leader. You have a group of people who are working together on a project (a game, an audit, a report, whatever). You need a leader, someone to keep things on track and provide a vision. It's just common sense. If you lead a team, it's a balancing act like being a GM. Too much control (i.e. micromanagement) and your team has no initiative, no creativity no feeling of accomplishment and nothing getting done. Too little control and you have chaos, frustration, and an unsuccessful project with everyone complaining and nothing getting done. Sounds like 4e was set up to lean towards the latter. But you have to have a leader in any group endeavor. Of course, the best leaders are the ones that don't need to emphasize they are the leader.

  2. Great analogy, Anna. I absolutely agree. I've been both the micromanager and the hands-off manager at various times in my GMing career, with the results you describe.

  3. Great analogy, Anna. I absolutely agree. I've been both the micromanager and the hands-off manager at various times in my GMing career, with the results you describe.