Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On DM Notes, Character Death and Ad-Libbing

I've been listening to the Fear the Boot podcasts a lot lately, starting from the very beginning (because I always get into stuff late). They're entertaining and a lot of fun, but I find that I disagree with just about everything they have to say about role-playing games.

In one podcast they get into the topic of how many notes a DM ought to bring to the table. One guy (Chad) ad-libs everything with pretty much no notes at all, and another guy (Dan) has notes that are more like a brief outline. They also talk a lot about character death, and how it derails the 'story'. They even go so far as to fudge results so that characters don't die.

Now here's something I'll admit to straight up - my current campaign is story-driven. Since I started that game some four years ago I've re-examined many of my thoughts about RPGs and D&D especially. I think (at least on a theoretical level, because I haven't tested it in practice yet) that D&D is at its best when used as a sandbox game. That is to say, the DM creates a setting (be it dungeon, wilderness or city) with a wide scope for adventure, and the players drive that adventure in whatever way they see fit. The story is what happens during play, not what the DM comes up with in his head beforehand.

Needless to say, I'm not in favour of the DM fudging results so that characters can't die. For me, meaningful consequence are the primary reasons I prefer tabletop RPGs to computer RPGs and MMORPGs. When something happens to a PC or NPC in a game of D&D, it stays happened. If you die, you're dead, and there's no instant respawn or save game to fall back on. Sure you can be raised, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen, and there are often consequences to that as well. Without the fear of death I find many RPGs quite fruitless, D&D chief among them.

And now to the question of DM notes, which is what I really wanted to write about. I am definitely not an ad-libber, though I can do it when the need arises. I show up to my games with a good ream of notes, and I'm even anal enough to type them out in a format that looks like an issue of Dungeon (R.I.P.). I'm not a fan of DM ad-libbing from either side of the screen, and here's why.

As a player, I've had a lot a lot of fun in ad-libbed games. Some DMs have a knack for it, and those who can do it invariably run a very good game. But here's the thing - whenever I find out that the DM ad-libbed a whole adventure I feel a bit cheated. Any triumphs I had were hollow, and any treasure I found without meaning, because everything that happened did so because the DM wanted it to. I feel like I didn't beat a tough dungeon, or survive a tough battle, because the DM could have had that fight go any way he wanted on a whim. Sure, I probably had fun, but it's tarnished. I feel like I didn't really earn that fun.

And now we come to my point.

When players show up to a game, they bring their character sheet (hopefully). Everything that is written on that sheet is a fact - it's either a concrete representation of what that character can do, or what he or she owns. The player can point to that, show it to the DM, and it's there. Needless to say there are players who totally cheat on this, but I can tolerate that within reason. It's usually more hassle than it's worth to call them on it, and it's a tangent. My point is that the player gets one guy to control, and everything about him is governed by what's written on an A4 sheet.

The DM, on the other hand, has a lot more power and control. Every single thing that isn't a player character is under their purview, so naturally they can exert much more influence on the game. I think that every gamer has played under an arsehole DM at some point or another, and that a lot of the trends in modern gaming are there to curb the influence of these guys.

So if the player is beholden to their character sheet, what is it that governs the DM? Not a lot, to be honest, but here are the three things I think the DM should adhere to - the game rules, the dice, and his notes.

The game rules are the baseline, they are the common understanding that player and DM have before they enter a game. The DM should follow them as much as is humanly possible, and when he changes them, it should be upfront and in consultation with the players. Of course, a fun game is paramount. If the DM spends half an hour looking up the Grapple rules, that's crap - make a ruling and move on. But make that ruling within the boundaries of the ruleset. Don't call for percentile rolls in a game of d20, or start having the PCs roll under their score for Ability Checks.

The dice come in here as well, because whatever they roll should be law. Otherwise, what's the point of playing a game? Some may accuse me of being a roll-player (and christ I hate that term) but I point to the very name of our hobby - role-playing game. If the dice don't matter, we might as well just sit around and tell each other what happens.

And now to DM notes. I'm a firm believer of the following - if it's in your notes, that's how it runs. A DM should run a game exactly as he set out beforehand, no fudging, no shaving encounters because things are going against the PCs, and conversely no beefing up of monsters because the PCs are winning too easily.

That's not to say that ad-libbing should be cut out entirely - there are always going to be details that you didn't prepare for. You probably won't have the barkeep's eye colour handy, but if a player asks for it, make it up. And if the players go off on a random wilderness expedition when you really want to get them into the Caves of Chaos? Then you have to make it up on the fly. But I only encourage that when there's no option available.

I'm also not saying that adventure modules should all be run as-is. Chop those babies to pieces all you like, it's your campaign after all. Just make all your changes before the game starts. Once the dice hit the table, the notes rule all.

But what to do when the PCs get stomped by monsters that are obviously too tough for them, and you can't change things in their favour? My general advice here is suck it up, and talk to your players about it after the game. But there are a couple of game-style considerations here. In a sandbox style campaign the above should be acceptable - the PCs drive the action and decide where to go, and as long as they are given a good indication of the most dangerous areas then all's fair in the dungeon. In a story-driven game, where certain encounters must be defeated for the game to progress? Yeah, that needs a rethink, and should probably have been toned down before the game started. But you know what? Sometimes the players just aren't in favour with The Dice Gods, and they should learn to deal with it.

One last thing I must mention is that I'm guilty of everything I've disparaged above. I've fudged dice, and I've changed my adventures on the fly. I won't be doing that any more. My players will have their character sheets, and I will have my campaign notes, and we will all be held to them. I'll report back after my next game to let you all know how it went.

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