D&D General How much control do DMs need?

Oofta

Legend
Short version: I don't know enough details about the tower scenario so I'll discuss one that happened when I was DM and why it turned into a near TPK.

Long version:
Long, long ago, I would bend over backwards to save all the PCs. That PC that chased after a chest of gold about to fall off the edge of the crashing airship? Give 'em saving throws and options until they make it out alive. That TPK when the group decided everyone in the group should play some variation of wizard? The bandits just sold them into slavery. Been there, done that, got the lousy t-shirt.

Eventually I realized that it never really sat right with me or the group. So we discussed it and I adjusted. I wouldn't go out of my way to kill PCs, but death is never off the table either. Have your PC try to steal something when it's been explicitly stated that the shop owner is watching you like a hawk? The guard is called. Try to fight the guard when they arrive (and you're a first level PC) well, you haven't been playing that PC too long so write up a new one.

Then came the orc encampment. The group had been hired to find out information, try to find more information on the orcish raiders. They found a large encampment with more orcs than they could reasonably take on themselves. They knew they could go back and ask for reinforcements, or perhaps they could have started ambushing patrols to whittle down the numbers. It looked like a direct assault was not a good idea.

One of the PCs decided to sneak into the camp to see what they could steal. They find a big chest mostly full of copper and junk, but quite a bit of treasure. Too heavy to carry off, they start dragging the chest away, alerting the guards. Instead of running when the alarm went off the PC continued to attempt to drag the chest. Hearing the alarms, the other PCs also ran into the camp to save their friend.

In that scenario? The only one who survived was the wizard who ran away. What exactly was supposed to happen here other than the orcs attack the intruders? They didn't know the exact number of orcs, but the PCs were fairly low level and outnumbered. I don't control the actions of the PCs and the orcs were not the forgiving kind.

So now when we start a new campaign we discuss the options in the group's session 0. I tend to run a fairly low lethality game but death, even TPK, is never off the table. Come across a large orcish encampment or seek out a tower simply because you heard it's dangerous? Charge into that encampment without a plan or try to sneak past a demonic guard? You face the logical consequences of what I, as DM have already place there.

There are very dangerous places in my campaign world. Places that will be a threat to even high level PCs. Decide to go into those places without further investigation, without prep? Just try to sneak in past the guard that's way above your pay grade for no other reason than curiosity or greed? You get what you get. Maybe the rumors were just rumors and the demon is an illusion or maybe it's a meat grinder. What it won't be is automatically adjusted to be an appropriate threat level for your group.

The game world doesn't revolve around or morph to suit the needs of the PCs. Because it's a game I'll dangle threads about things they can handle. But I won't give them info I don't think their PCs would not have. If they go off on a tangent and don't pause to assess the danger but go in blindly or ignore the fact that the doorman is a demon? Let the chips fall where they may.
 

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Enrahim2

Adventurer
It's not really that different if only 1-2 people survived. Doubly so if, after the second or third run, no one of the original crew is still around.

You can extol the virtues of the group self as much as you like, but it won't make me feel more invested when everyone I've befriended has died in six months or less and I'm on my third character that probably won't get any more character development than any of the previous ones did.
I think this touches on a crucial point. You talking about people befriended dying as something to avoid, or getting character development as something you desire. This is a common mode of play today, but not the only. In the purest form of this mode of play it can be argued that perma death should be completely off the table.

However if the mode of play is rather focusing on befriending the other players, and develop the party together, the death of a character is a completely different matter. To what extent lethality should be telegraphed and attempted avoided is highly dependent on mode of play.

One thing granting DM high degree of autonomy rather than binding their hands to avoid "mistakes" alows for is the DM to read the table. That a designer cannot do. From how the lich tower incident is described it is a fond memory for the players, and they angle the talk about it as the players messed up, not the DM. That indicates to me that this was a case the DM read the table correctly, no matter how much warning or signaling the DM might have given in advance.

If playing a system with for instance player known budgets of what a DM could introduce of monsters, that group would have been one fond story poorer. I am also sceptical if the suggested have the characters "auto evade" the monsters, and have a creepy dungeon exploration would have been anywhere near as memorable despite potentially being more "fun" at the moment. In this story the DMs ability to crush half the party based on reading the table was what made this story valuable. This is one of the flexibilities an empowered DM can give the game.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
It's not really that different if only 1-2 people survived.
To me, it's very different: if there's always at least one survivor, even if it's not always the same character, the party can regrow and its story can continue.
Doubly so if, after the second or third run, no one of the original crew is still around.
Nobody who played for the New York Yankees in 1960 plays for them today - at a guess I'd posit the player lineup has completely turned over at least five times since then, maybe more - but the franchise has been in continuous operation throughout and is still just as recognizable today as it was then.
You can extol the virtues of the group self as much as you like, but it won't make me feel more invested when everyone I've befriended has died in six months or less and I'm on my third character that probably won't get any more character development than any of the previous ones did.
Something I see more and more of late - not picking specifically on you here - is people saying they can't or won't get invested in the story of the party as a whole in addition to that of their own character(s). Which seems a bit self-defeating; in that when (not if) something happens to your character that takes it out of play either long-term or forever you don't have that party-level investment to fall back on until your replacement PC can join.
 

pemerton

Legend
One thing granting DM high degree of autonomy rather than binding their hands to avoid "mistakes" alows for is the DM to read the table. That a designer cannot do.
The intended implication of this seems to be that "reading the table" is not a thing in (say) Apocalypse World or Burning Wheel play. Yet if very obviously is. So this is not something that depends on granting a high degree of autonomy in some "rule zero-ish" fashion.
 

Enrahim2

Adventurer
The intended implication of this seems to be that "reading the table" is not a thing in (say) Apocalypse World or Burning Wheel play. Yet if very obviously is. So this is not something that depends on granting a high degree of autonomy in some "rule zero-ish" fashion.
No, no, no! I can't think of any rpg where reading the table is not a thing! However some games put more restrictions on what you can do based on those readings than others. I also believe we have established earlier in the thread that the AW GM do have very high authority, just not quite as unhinged as in old D&D.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
To me, it's very different: if there's always at least one survivor, even if it's not always the same character, the party can regrow and its story can continue.
And my question remains: why should I care?

If the party is always dead in six months and nothing ever gets anywhere or has any lingering meaning other than the team jersey (to jump just a little ahead), why should I care? Any investment I put into anyone or anything is definitionally a waste of effort. All due respect to Rudyard Kipling, but within the sphere of my gaming, I have neither the time nor the patience to wager everything on a coin flip on the regular, nor to lose it all "and never breathe a word about [my] loss."

Nobody who played for the New York Yankees in 1960 plays for them today - at a guess I'd posit the player lineup has completely turned over at least five times since then, maybe more - but the franchise has been in continuous operation throughout and is still just as recognizable today as it was then.
A serious problem with the jersey analogy: People essentially never start watching a sport by following one individual player and becoming attached to a team solely because that play happened to play for it, thus transferring allegiance from person to team. They become attached to teams from the word go, usually by that team being their "home" team, and as a result show fear or favor toward players exclusively because of the jersey—never having been attached to the individuals at all, or at least only in the most rudimentary way. Essentially nobody (ignoring the vanishing % of people who are their personal friends/family/loved ones) started engaging with basketball because they were invested in (say) Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal and only after a good long time of watching Shaq or Kobe play did they become attached to the team. Shaq is especially useful as an example because he switched teams a lot, having played for six different pro teams in his career (Magic, Lakers, Heat, Suns, Cavaliers, and Celtics)—and while he might have been a household name, people would essentially never switch team allegiance solely because he did, and would probably find the very notion bizarre. Instead, Shaq switching teams would be a cause for dislike toward him, having left the team to which one's loyalties had belonged from the beginning.

With a TTRPG group, it's exactly the opposite. You start out with no investment in the group at all, being invested solely in the one thing you know, your own character. You slowly grow attachments to the individuals who happen to adventure beside you, with the (as mentioned) "group self" notion only developing well after as a neat, desirable byproduct of becoming attached to the people who constitute that group. And if a player truly leaves a group, unless it's specifically on bad terms, it's a sadness, and the focus for everyone (leaving or staying) is still on the character(s, but usually singular) that they play(ed). But if this group-self sedimentation process is continually disrupted by metaphorical catastrophic flooding (near-TPK or losing your character that anchored you to your group), it never forms in the first place; without the individual connections, durable and meaningful group attachment is impossible. It becomes a blur, and one you may as well not care any more about than you did the previous blur, nor the blur that will follow it.

For group consequences to have meaning, you must already value the group. Death ever waiting in the wings certainly reminds you that you should pick your choices carefully, but it also reminds you that, due to the vagaries of dice, it probably doesn't matter how careful you are, you'll just lose sooner or later. Defeat assured is just as lethal to investment as victory assured. Hence why I prefer to re-frame things so that "defeat" does not mean "total, absolute loss of everything about a character." Because that means you can still have defeat—indeed, you can make it much more likely!—and yet avoid the problem of statistical inevitability. Absolute defeat is not three bad rolls away, so partial-but-still-devastating defeat can be.

Something I see more and more of late - not picking specifically on you here - is people saying they can't or won't get invested in the story of the party as a whole in addition to that of their own character(s). Which seems a bit self-defeating; in that when (not if) something happens to your character that takes it out of play either long-term or forever you don't have that party-level investment to fall back on until your replacement PC can join.
That isn't what I said though. What I said was, if I know for certain that everyone will die quickly, unceremoniously, and frequently—if essentially total defeat is guaranteed, and statistically speaking it must be, especially in old-school contexts with low numbers and high lethality!—then there is no time nor opportunity for attachment to the group to form in the first place.

Attachment to the jersey can only form well after the group does. It requires becoming invested in the individual team members first, caring about who they are and why they are and what they want. It requires that the individual lines get woven together until the group has taken on transcendent meaning beyond just the individuals who comprise it: the bundle held together long enough, and through enough trials and tribulations, that the group-self identity can actually have meaning apart from the people who fill its roster.

Cut those threads early and often, and no group-self weaving can occur. You just have lots of disconnected individual threads; not a tapestry, but a pile of yarn. The group self supervenes on the bonds between the individual selves, and takes even more time to form than those bonds do.

Or, if you prefer a more visual presentation, the (genuinely!) gripping tale of Slappy the Clown.

Having 2-3 merely near-TPKs before session 40 prevents a scene like this from occurring for most groups. Both because Slappy probably died already, and because everyone else probably already died too. Some players' characters more than once. The jersey lives on, but I have no connection to it—because I never got the chance to build a connection to the people in it.
 

soviet

Hero
No, no, no! I can't think of any rpg where reading the table is not a thing! However some games put more restrictions on what you can do based on those readings than others. I also believe we have established earlier in the thread that the AW GM do have very high authority, just not quite as unhinged as in old D&D.
But if one of the uses of authority is to occasionally 'read the room', put the brakes on the system, and thus avert disaster... isn't it better to not have that ever present risk of sudden TPK in the first place? Games with no rule zero don't usually have these failure states in the first place.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
No, no, no! I can't think of any rpg where reading the table is not a thing! However some games put more restrictions on what you can do based on those readings than others. I also believe we have established earlier in the thread that the AW GM do have very high authority, just not quite as unhinged as in old D&D.
I'm not really sure what restrictions PbtA games put on "reading the table" that are so onerous. Nor any other system I've played (which would include, but may not be limited to, 3e/4e/5e/PF1, a couple of retroclones, 13A, Shadowrun 5, Werewolf 20th, and an interesting obscure one called Tavern Tales where I played as an orphan in a group of children.)

And if PbtA is considered to give "very high" authority...yeah, it's hard not to see classic D&D as giving inordinate authority. I'm not entirely sure I think PbtA does that though.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
But if one of the uses of authority is to occasionally 'read the room', put the brakes on the system, and thus avert disaster... isn't it better to not have that ever present risk of sudden TPK in the first place? Games with no rule zero don't usually have these failure states in the first place.
Exactly.

Set the bounds on failure so they include deep cuts, not (near-)TPKs, except in the most dire and climactic of events. Then, the party can fail, and fail, and fail, and fail, and yet still adventure onward. No need to wait for a group self to form; indeed, extra time for exactly that to occur, so when the deep cuts finally do include a death, not only does it hurt more, it actually matters, rather than "oh, Bob IV died. Guess we'll be seeing Bob V soon. Cousin this time, or nephew? Oh, niece, cool, cool. Wonder if she'll outlast him. Probably not."

As I said above, guaranteed failure is just as lethal to investment as guaranteed success. And ultra-lethal meat-grinder "guess you should have known better" gameplay is statistically guaranteed to result in failure sooner or later. The Grim Reaper is patient enough to let the dice come to him.
 

Oofta

Legend
But if one of the uses of authority is to occasionally 'read the room', put the brakes on the system, and thus avert disaster... isn't it better to not have that ever present risk of sudden TPK in the first place? Games with no rule zero don't usually have these failure states in the first place.

I don't think avoiding a TPK at all costs, putting on the brakes as you say, is worth it. I've only had a couple TPKs over the years but I've had far, far more close calls. Depending on the scenario, those close calls can be important turning points in the campaign, or at the very least a reminder how deadly the game can be. But I don't adjust things to be easier once the encounter starts, I don't have sudden unplanned reinforcements arrive. People can tell when you do that, especially when you do it too often. For me it takes away from the game if I know the DM is holding back.

Lack of that failure state, having no chance of a TPK would mean the game looses a lot of tension for me. That tension can be a fun part of the game.
 

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