Who’s Really In Control At Your Gaming Table?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 9, 2010

The common belief is that the DM is in charge, but the more I’ve been looking at things objectively the more I’m inclined to disagree. It seems to me that the players have a lot more power and influence over the campaign than anyone may realize.

At the very beginning of any game the DM is indeed in charge. He’s in control of the overall setting, the campaign objective, the party’s motivation and the monsters. The very first time the players sit down at the gaming table the DM is firmly in control. But as we all know, no plan survives contact with the enemy (the enemy being the players).

The DM in Control

Whenever the party is balanced and contains at least 5 PCs the DM is firmly in control. He can design any kind of encounter he sees fit assuming he follows the guidelines set out in the DMG. A little bit of tweaking here and there is perfectly acceptable. He still challenges the party, but unless the players do something incredibly stupid they should have a solid shot and completing the encounter and having a pretty good time doing it along the way.

When I talk about a balanced party, I’m not just talking about representation of all four roles, although that is part of it. A balanced party will have both strong melee and ranged attackers. And no matter what skill is required for a given situation, at least one PC is trained. As the party gets more powerful, they will have the ability to deal most energy types of damage and will likely have similar resistances.

The more balanced the party, the more they cover off every eventuality as a group, and the more firmly the DM remains in control. The DM becomes even more confident in his decisions as he creates new encounters because he knows that the party has the right tools for the job.

It’s a lot easier to be the DM when you’re in control. You can work in a vacuum and create the adventure you envision. You don’t need to second guess yourself or worry about pulling punches. Follow the guidelines in the DMG and you’ll be fine. In the end everyone should be challenged but not overwhelmed. This is the making of a great adventure.

The Players in Control

I love creating new characters. It’s always been one of the most enjoyable experiences of playing any RPG. What bugs me is when I have a character concept and I’m asked (or forced) to change my build to meet a gaping hole in the party make-up. Whether it’s the lack of a healer, the need for a heavily armored tank-like character, or just a PC who is trained in Diplomacy, I want to make the character I’ve envisioned without pressure to balance the party.

I’m not saying that I won’t consider filling a hole, but I hate it when there’s an expectation by the group that someone will fill the gap. As described above there are plenty of good reasons to ensure that here is balance in the party, but I find that stifling creativity to meet this need is not the answer.

Some of the most interesting characters I’ve ever seen were created in total isolation. The player showed up and said this is my guy. The first time we discover whose playing what is when we come together, ready to play. There’s no attempt to ensure all roles are filled each player just plays what he feels like playing. There is absolutely no consideration for balance and filling the holes.

And the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I see value in not filling those holes. The more lop-sided the party, and the more unbalanced it becomes, the more control the players have over the game – for better or worse.

When the party is missing a role, the DM has to carefully consider how he sets up every encounter. When the party lacks a striker, the DM will likely use fewer brutes and solos. After all if a monster has hundreds of hit points and the party’s best attacks only deal 1W plus a marginal bonus the combat will take forever and get really boring really fast. When the party lacks a controller the DM should limit the number of minions in each encounter and likely remove them all together for at least half of the encounters.

The players aren’t intentionally forcing the DM to modify his encounters, but they are in control. When the players realize they’ve got gaps in the party balance and choose not to do anything about addressing them they force the DM to adjust his encounters. The DM will likely exploit the party’s weaknesses and holes a little bit, but I believe that most DMs faced with this kind of situation eventually bend to the party’s control and adjust tactics to keep things fun and exciting.

I recently ran a campaign in which three of the five characters were ranged attackers (two of them being strikers). I had to adjust my encounters to ensure that terrain features provided areas for those attackers to gain cover and good vantage points. Likewise I created places for the enemies to hide from the PCs. Some terrain features, like pits were inconsequential since these obstacles didn’t affect the majority of the party.

The more lop-sided the party, the more control they have (even if they don’t realize it) in how the DM creates encounters. The only time this isn’t true is when you get a DM who feels that D&D is nothing more than the DM vs. the players. This kind of DM refuses to bend to the situations I’ve described above. He’s going to take advantage of the party’s weaknesses all the time and likely kill PCs to emphasize that he’s in control. If your DM is like this then I think you have bigger problems than an unbalanced party.

Does Control Matter?

Being in control shouldn’t be anyone’s primary objective. Having fun should be the ultimate goal. I’m merely pointing out that players have a lot of influence on the way their DM creates the adventure based on choices the players make. D&D is a collaborative game and I think a lot of players forget, or just don’t realize, how collaborative. Players understand that they run their PC and the DM runs everything else, but the next time you’re playing in an unbalanced party, pay attention to the way the DM has set up the encounter.

Note how many things seem curtailed to meet the party make-up. The DM has adjusted thing to better suit the adventuring party at the table, bending to the control exerted by the players in the choices they’ve made. The encounters are still exciting and completing them is still satisfying. In fact, a DM who understands that the players are in control under these circumstances has everything to gain by letting them force his hand. Once you know the party’s limits you can easily work within that framework and still tell the story you want to tell, it might just need a few additional twists and turns to get there in the end.

Who’s in charge of your campaign? If you’re the DM, how strongly are your decisions influenced by the party’s make up? How many players have a DM that runs things with an iron fist? Is it more important to have balance then play the character you want to play? Are you willing to accept the repercussions of not playing in a balanced party?

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1 Anarkeith November 9, 2010 at 11:46 am

Great post! As a DM, I always encourage my players to play characters they’re passionate about. As a 4e DM, I do have to tailor my encounters to avoid stagnation and other 4e pitfalls. Some might point fingers at the system, and call it weak, but I believe good encounter design is a matter of experience and creativity. It takes time to master the system. The flux in 4e makes that challenging, but in the end it is worth it. The modular nature of 4e makes the basics of encounter building easier. I hope that WotC are able to resolve their challenges with digital tools, as they are critical to my continued use of their system.

2 Lahrs November 9, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Good post, and a point I never really thought about.

As a DM, I feel more like a guide. The players say what they want to do, and I explain the outcome of the situation or action. If I were in control, I would have to be able to decide every aspect, including every PC action. I always felt like I was a narrator of a choose your own adventure book, I have the overall story, but they choose and control how they get to the end.

I do have to admit though, it can sometimes be hard not to have a more direct hand, or control, over some situations. I have to remind myself that I am the book, not the page turner.

3 OnlineDM November 9, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Good points, but only if you have a good DM. A mediocre DM might run an unmodified published adventure that assumes a balanced party and thus inadvertantly throw unfun encounters at the players.

4 The Red DM November 9, 2010 at 10:46 pm

While I certainly agree with you that the DM loses options (and by extension control) when the party is lop-sided, is it really fair to say that the players gained control? Yes its player actions that are boxing the DM in, but many players wouldn’t even be aware of the box, much less be able to use it to control the game.

To answer your questions at the end. I like to make characters as a group, so I am never completely without input into character choices, but I try my best to not push players into roles they don’t want. We have had lop sided parties a number of times in the past, and are about to embark on a new campaign with a very lop sided party. (all defenders)

5 mbeacom November 9, 2010 at 11:13 pm

Lars and Online pretty much stole my comments.

I was going to say that as a DM, I’m more a facilitator of fun/excitement/tension/whatever than I am “in control”. Then I was going to go on to say, that the truth of your statement is mostly dependent on a DM being there for the players, rather than against them.

As for me, i would say, that regardless of “balance”, the players are always in control as you define it. This is because I am careful not to simply design balanced encounters, but encounters specifically designed to allow certain members, in turn, to shine. Sure, we have a defender, but that defender happens to be a Paladin. Therefore, I’ll make sure he gets to see some undead, even if the adventure doesn’t specifically call for it. I’ll tweak the narrative to make it make sense. Likewise, I have a rogue in one of my group who absolutely LOVES to do assassinations. Therefore, I’ll make sure to have at least one encounter where they can sneak up on a snoozing guard, or someone otherwise occupied so the rogue can work his magic. So, yeah, our party is pretty well balanced, but my players are still in control since I make sure the encounters are specifically tailored to the elements that they find enjoyable. And while I do take into consideration their weakness, it isn’t so much to exploit them, as it is to help present challenges that force them to think outside the base abilities of their characters.

6 Captain DM November 10, 2010 at 7:18 am

I like how this article outlines the responsibilities of the players and the DM. I have found it to be a lot more give and take than one side ruling over another. I always do my best to let the players know it is on them to move the narrative forward, but at the same time I have had to remind them of their boundaries at times.

For example, the paladin asked if he could fashion a sword that would count as an axe as well. I know he’s just looking for power bonuses in his attacks. I want him to feel like he’s having fun, but at some point their needs to be some limits on what a player is able to do. I just reminded him of the focus of the campaign and the game I was running, and he begrudgingly agreed to comply with the weapon restrictions.

7 Brian November 13, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Good article, but you didn’t go where I thought you were going to go with it. I didn’t play OD&D, but from what I’ve read, it was a very DM controlled game. If the DM said you could or couldn’t do something, his word was law. Now we have rules and miniatures and battlemaps that let the characters call a lot of the shots. I do see what you’re saying about how party makeup can influence encounter design though. That’s one of the challenges to writing for LFR or any living campaign – you’re writing for a group of gamers without knowing them or their party makeup.
Finally, there is something to be said for “improvisational” gaming where the players and DM are creating the story together, totally freeform – there’s a great book called “Play Unsafe” that we’ll be reviewing in depth on our blog very soon. Keep an eye out for it!

8 Ameron November 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm

I too have found that the building blocks for creating 4e encounters are quite simple, but finding the right balance for your group takes time and experience. Realizing the role that players have in shaping the encounter is a lesson I learned quickly. Once I realized that, I had a much easier time creating suitable encounters.

I like the comparison to a “choose your own adventure” book. As the DM I’m not railroading the players to do what I want, rather I set the scenario and let them choose the path they want to walk down. Good DMs will always have a few options ready.

The closer the DM follows any pre-written adventure without adjusting the finer points for the party make-up, the hard it is for those players to enjoy the game. It’s still possible, but it’s a lot more difficult.

DMs that create and run their own games need to remain flexible.

@The Red DM
You’re correct in that any control the player has in this circumstance is not readily apparent. In fact, the more the DM adjusts their adventure to the needs of an atypical party the more control the players have actually exerted, even though they have absolutely no idea that this was the case. I’m not saying it a good or bad thing, rather this is just the way things tend to work out.

The best DMs will provide circumstances for each player to feel powerful and heroic. To take it a step further I always try to incorporate monsters that use attacks that some PCs have resistance to and use monsters with vulnerabilities to the player’s most common energy attack (much like the Paladin scenario you describe).

@Captain DM
Many players, especially those new to D&D, don’t understand just how much responsibility is on them to make decisions and help shape the adventure. The DM and the other more experienced players should remind everyone at the game table just how collaborative D&D really is. The more that players decide their own fate the more vested they become in the story and their characters.

The 4e D&D “Say Yes” rule has given players a lot more control then they ever had in previous editions. DMs who played in previous editions need to remember to let go and say yes more often (I’m guilty of this too).

I’ve only tried the improvisational gaming that you’ve describe a couple of times and it was a total disaster. The people I’ve played with needed structure to keep things moving. But I think for some groups this would be a great way to play D&D. If the players are strong role-players then this is a lot more likely to work then if the group just wanted to roll dice.

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