The DM Is The Key

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on August 13, 2010

GenCon has come and gone. In its absence is the burning desire to play D&D 24/7. Since that isn’t a reality that is going to come into being any time soon, I want to look at the one element that every D&D session needs in order to progress. The DM is the key essential ingredient that all D&D games need. There may be plenty of players but without the DM they have nothing to do.

With this said, my thanks to all the DMs, not only the ones who ran sessions I attended at GenCon. You made the experience great. This isn’t to say each gaming experience was perfect or that each DM was perfect. For the record I am actively looking for blue lightning as I write this article.

The DM Makes Or Breaks The Experience

I had no bad DMs during any adventure I played at GenCon. Each had their own strengths and weaknesses. Some were great at laying out the scene, others at keeping combat rolling quickly. Still others ran encounters in a way that was fair, yet still very challenging and satisfying.

Even the ‘Queen of Death’ running the convention delve was fair. She killed 69 characters over the course of the convention. Yet, she ran the encounter fairly and as written and gave players, many of whom were newer to the game, a fair chance to beat the encounter. I did not beat the encounter and I, along with the five other players at my table, were part of the 69 characters she killed. It was still a great experience.

This experience and many others reinforces the notion that the DM is key to ensuring that all players at the table, themselves included, have a good time.

Saying Yes

I’ve written about saying yes before in Eight Rules That Will Make You A Better DM, but I believe it is such a core philosophy of being a DM that I want to highlight some instances of saying yes that I experienced at GenCon.

The first is an instance where saying yes wasn’t used and the player received a no response. The player was clearly frustrated as I gather he had received a yes response from other DMs about the application of a particular item. The adventure was already running long, instead of just saying yes and allowing 2d6 extra damage on one attack the DM needed to read the power, think about it and respond. In all respects everything the DM did at the table that day was great, except for this. Just say yes, how much difference would 2d6 make in the long run? Not much, but the player would enjoy his character that much more.

The final two instances the DMs responded yes. While running through The Curse of the Gray Hag the PCs are able to make Acrobatics checks to avoid taking poison damage while running through a forest full of deadly flora. My character had a terrible Acrobatics check, but he was a Dwarf with a very high Endurance check. So I asked if I could make an Endurance check to shrug off some of the damage? The DM looked at the adventure, read the notes and responded no. He then cocked his head thought about it and said yes.

The final instance was during the Open Championship. It was our first encounter and we had only moments to spare. The party came up with a plan of attack to accomplish the objective. A rule clarification was called for, rather than stop time and check the DM allowed us to complete the action. This allowed us to finish under the clock, with seconds to spare. The DM did a rule look-up afterwards, if we were correct in our interpretation we would advance to the next encounter. If we were wrong, then we were done as time had run out. As it turns out we were correct and we advanced to the next encounter. This in my mind was a great example of the DM saying yes, especially given it was a timed event were every second counted.

DMs, remember to say yes.

Pacing and Immersion

Players are at the mercy of the DM for everything that they learn about an adventure. The DM holds the key to the pacing of the game and the level of immersion players receive. Not every DM is strong in both areas, often a DM who keeps a game moving doesn’t provide the most immersive experience and vice versa. Worse is the DM who does neither and is simply reading from a sheet.

As a DM it’s important to know your strengths and play to them. This is especially true during play at a convention when you aren’t dealing with your normal group of players. Setting expectations early helps to make the next four hours of playing enjoyable.

Of course, players should be patient with their DMs. Especially if it is the first slot during the convention and the DMs have just been given the adventure.

At the end of the day D&D is a collaborative game, but it is the DM who does the lion’s share of the work. It is also the DM who sets the tone and pace for the game. The players place their trust in the DM for an enjoyable experience. The DM is the key.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ladybam August 13, 2010 at 10:51 pm

I guess next time i get to DM you, I will have to add you to my body count… lol I’m glad you enjoyed my delve game. I have to admit, its not that much fun killing off PCs. My first concern is to make sure player have fun. In the end, as long as you laughed so did I. Next time I DM you I will offer you a free resurrection spell.

P.S. I’m looking for a new nickname. I think I have out grown “Queen of Death” lol

2 Shawn August 16, 2010 at 7:09 pm

I disagree ladybam, You are and always shall be Queen of Death! As I recall you looked on evil and smiled at the con when ever you shared with me the rising death toll! LOL.
I do agree with you for the most part wimwik. However, there are going to be times when no is necessary. Especially if the DM feels that something a player has is unbalancing. Remember, the RPGA no longer has strict record keeping of the LFR characters and thus the chore of keeping things balanced rests with the DM even more. There are still guidelines that need to be followed. I would like to know more about the DM who said no to 2d6 extra damage if you have time. I’m glad you all enjoyed your time.

3 Wimwick August 16, 2010 at 8:32 pm

@ ladybam
You can try!

@ Shawn
Of course there is always room for a no response and often it is justified. In this case the DM may or may not have been correct in his ruling. However, with the module running long and 2d6 extra damage not making a big impact in the long run I think the time spent discussing whether the extra damage would be allowed was wasted.

4 Shawn August 16, 2010 at 11:40 pm

As I was not at the table at that time I’ll defer to your wisdom in that matter and will agree, especially in tournament play, that in most cases arguing over a pittance of damage should not have occured.

5 Philip Reed August 21, 2010 at 7:56 am

“At the end of the day D&D is a collaborative game, but it is the DM who does the lion’s share of the work. It is also the DM who sets the tone and pace for the game. The players place their trust in the DM for an enjoyable experience. The DM is the key.”

And this is why I think it’s best if a game group encourages players to take turns as DM. Changing out the DM each session, or even every level, helps the entire group better direct the overall campaign and trains everyone on how to both be a better player and a better DM.

I’ve noticed that some bad player behavior — constantly chattering off-topic, being difficult and actively disrupting flow of play, etc. — can be eliminated after a player has a session or two on the other side of the screen.

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