The Power You Have is the Power You’re Given

I have a grade school memory – I was probably 12 – of a dungeon master penalizing a set of player characters for acts of hubris.  On the surface this may not seem so terrible.  However, the DM and player weren’t actually playing D&D at the time.  Rather, the player was talking about what his characters were up to.  I still remember his argument: not only does a DM have absolute power over his game, any DM has complete power over any PC or set of PCs.  I wasn’t directly involved in this campaign, but it seemed clear even to me that a DM has no extra authority when the game is not being played.  Hopefully this point is not controversial among enlightened gamers such as us.

This points at a more fundamental point that applies beyond the playground.  The power of the DM is exactly equal to the power given by the players.  It is often assumed that the DM has absolute control over the campaign, after all the word ‘master’ is there in the name.  While Dungeons and Dragons certainly works best when the DM is granted autonomy and decision making control, the details should be made explicit.

In the game I play in, our DM was once accused of ‘cheating’ when he interpreted a rule in a monster’s favor, contrary to a precedent published by Wizards of the Coast.  We were winning the battle handily, this was a major boss, and he was adding some challenge in order to enhance the fun.

The majority at the table supported his decision.  However, we had never explicitly talked about what we thought of a DMs power to adjust things on the fly.

That second example should illustrate the other end of the spectrum.  Considering that instructions to create monsters are in the DM’s guide, it can be assumed that he can make a tweak here and there to make a game more exciting.

Not everyone will answer power dynamics questions the same way.  This especially applies to questions related to house rules and PC options.  While there’s no magic answer, clarity up front is always the best policy.  As a player, ask the group what they (including the DM) think.  As a DM, do the same, preferably before the heated moments come.

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2 Comments

Filed under Group dynamics, life meets game

2 responses to “The Power You Have is the Power You’re Given

  1. Chad A

    This is a great blog, btw. Thanks for starting it.

    My first thought is that I do not believe that the rules of the game are written to be a legal code. Its up to the group to set the balance between storytelling (which sometimes includes arbitrary decisions) and adhering strictly to the rules. I personally see the rules as a structure with which to keep the game internally consistent.

    I also feel that the DM should have the opportunity to alter the rules as they see fit in order to promote the telling of a story. For some DMs, this might mean fudging rolls (something I dont like) and for others this might mean granting a monster an extra attack to keep the battle fun (I am +/- about this). It can also be something as innocuous as having a creature surrender or die before its hp are spent because the battle is essentially won. I see all of these as resting on a spectrum. The commonality is that they all involve the DM exercising their “absolute control” in order to make the game more fun. (as a side note, wotc seems to have deliberately left morale rolls out of the rules as well as many other rules with the intention of making them storytelling decisions).

    In other words, a DM cannot “cheat” really because they are wielding the rules as a tool to tell the story. If they do not follow the rules in the manner that some or all of the players prefer then that is a style issue that should be discussed amongst the group. Matching a DM’s style to the players styles is what this is all about, I suppose.

    • Well said. The rules also provide the random element that’s a big part of D&D. Not knowing what will happen, and, as a result, having ever present risk for the player characters is part of the fun. This is where it gets into the gray zone of the spectrum when it comes to fudging dice or tinkering mid encounter.

      I agree with everything you said, and our current group (Chad A is the DM for my weekly game) seems aligned on your power as a DM to keep the game fun and the story moving.

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