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D&D General The mentality of being a DM

Stormonu

Legend
I feel like my job is gamekeeper. I’m keeping track of the campaign world, the setting and the passage of time. I am the one who sets the scene before the players and then decide how the environment reacts to their presence to the best of my ability. If how something will turn in is in doubt, I reach for the dice to help determine which way things go.

The dice are a tool to neutrally determine the outcome of the character’s actions and interactions so it isn’t me unfairly choosing. However, sometimes they simply produce stupid results, and I may need to change, rethink or otherwise alter their results.

I’m not the friend of the players when I DM, but I’m not their enemy either. If I realize I’ve misconveyed information, I may provide additional clarification to rectify my mistake, or remind them of information their characters may know (often information from previous sessions).

I don’t hold back on character death - if a combat or other situation progresses to the point a character dies, sorry, but them‘s the breaks. Time to make a new one or save up the gold to find a way to bring them back if you care about them that much (most of the time, players have just moved on to a new character).

However, I’m not much of a clinical person. If during play players come up with an interesting idea or action, I’m not against changing the state of the game to inject a bit of fun into the game - whether it’s a player’s misread of two unrelated facts, a bit of untoherefore known piece of lore or something otherwise interesting, I just might add it to the game.
 

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S'mon

Legend
In recent years I think my DMing has evolved a lot by virtue of developing a willingness to let go of the reins and let the game play itself when appropriate. As a result many amazing moments have happened that would have been missed had I over-curated the story to “make sure it went right.”

I generally try as far as possible to be a 'neutral arbiter' with the aim of creating an immersive fantasy world where PCs have the opportunity to become heroes (or villains), do great deeds and have a lasting impact. I'm not responsible for the players having fun, but I'm responsible for creating an environment conducive to their fun and mine. I aim to be fair to the players without removing challenge - and fear, especially at low level. The experience of being low level buffeted by events and having to flee makes reaching high level and pushing back against the world much sweeter.

I try to avoid having a pre-set 'story', so I tend to avoid running APs which have something resembling a pre-written plot; I like sandboxy campaigns with an emergent story.
Some things I emphasise include geography & NPC characterisation. I don't use traps much, and I actively dislike puzzles so will avoid those. Whereas navigating a web of political intrigue or strategising over the war map is right up my alley. I'm good with hack & slash too, so heavy roleplay types, combat-as-war strategists, and hack-n-slashers all tend to enjoy my games. Problem solvers may enjoy dealing with the interpersonal/political stuff. Players who don't like talking with NPCs and who get bored when others do, probably won't enjoy my game. Players who want every encounter to be balanced & winnable tend to grumble. :)
 

S'mon

Legend
Of course you should play according to what's most fun for you and your group.

As a counterpoint, though, I would say that I am currently in a campaign (as a player) that has four players who each put a lot of thought and heart into backstories, personal goals, etc and were really invested. In session three, one character, due to resource exhaustion and a string of hideously bad rolls on the part of the whole party, was killed during a not-random, but very much not-climatic or "key" encounter - a fight with four skeletons in a totally avoidable dead-end room in a dungeon.

My initial reaction was "this completely sucks that this player lost this character he really cared about in this pretty arbitrary way simply because we should have maybe rested one encounter sooner, and everyone just plain rolled badly (including the player himself failing three death saves in a row while the rest of us were blowing medicine checks right and left)." However, the aftermath of this "lame" death ended up being a huge character moment for the party and in some ways an unexpectedly pivotal early turning point in the campaign. That would never have happened had the DM prevented the character from dying in an "unsatisfying" way.

Yes, this happened to me when a ghast killed a PC early on - the coolest most developed most active PC in the group. :) It was a shocking moment but I think it was good overall, and the player came back with another really cool PC. The player said she knew I'd kill her eventually :D - I'm a pretty tough GM by modern standards, but mind you I'd been GMing her for 10 years (we met Feb 2011) and this was her first permanent PC death so I don't think I'm that bad. :D

Edit: I don't have any trouble finishing off downed PCs if I think that's what the monster would do. Most undead IMCs will finish off the fallen, part of what makes them so scary, where beasts may try to drag/carry one victim away for later consumption. Intelligent humanoids will probably ignore the fallen initially, but if they see them being healed and re-entering battle they will then start finishing them off.
I allow Gentle Repose to work with Revivify so a level 3+ party ought to have the resources to save a 'mostly dead' PC.
 
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As a DM I see it not only as my responsibility to facilitate 'fun', because fun is a very subjective thing, and merely the intended goal. What I do to achieve fun is far more important:

I craft a believable evocative world, inhabited with interesting, memorable characters. And I give them the freedom to explore that world freely, with very few boundaries.

I craft a story filled with adventure, suspense, surprise and humor, that responds to the actions taken by the players.

I give my players the freedom to play their characters the way they want, and facilitate the type of gameplay they enjoy.

I challenge them strategically, with combat encounters that have plenty of tactical opportunities, and with diverse opponents.

I challenge them also through non-combat encounters, by throwing them into situations that demand resourcefulness and roleplaying.

At the end of the day, I want my players to remember names, events and places. I want to give them stories to tell.
 

pming

Hero
Hiya!
I feel like my job is gamekeeper. I’m keeping track of the campaign world, the setting and the passage of time. I am the one who sets the scene before the players and then decide how the environment reacts to their presence to the best of my ability. If how something will turn in is in doubt, I reach for the dice to help determine which way things go.

The dice are a tool to neutrally determine the outcome of the character’s actions and interactions so it isn’t me unfairly choosing. However, sometimes they simply produce stupid results, and I may need to change, rethink or otherwise alter their results.

I’m not the friend of the players when I DM, but I’m not their enemy either. If I realize I’ve misconveyed information, I may provide additional clarification to rectify my mistake, or remind them of information their characters may know (often information from previous sessions).

I don’t hold back on character death - if a combat or other situation progresses to the point a character dies, sorry, but them‘s the breaks. Time to make a new one or save up the gold to find a way to bring them back if you care about them that much (most of the time, players have just moved on to a new character).

However, I’m not much of a clinical person. If during play players come up with an interesting idea or action, I’m not against changing the state of the game to inject a bit of fun into the game - whether it’s a player’s misread of two unrelated facts, a bit of untoherefore known piece of lore or something otherwise interesting, I just might add it to the game.
Pretty much this, in a nutshell. :)

I'm "everything that isn't the PC's"...and because of that it is not my place to "help them" or "harm them". I am the uncaring 'reality' that their PC's find themselves in.

It's my job to maintain internal campaign consistency. This includes all those "niggly little bits n' bobs" that soooo many modern-day DM's think is "boring" or "pointless" (ex: weather, seasons, time keeping, and how much an unlaidened sparrow can carry...both European AND African, etc). But I also get to maintain the "campaign world story"...from how the cobblers daughter is secretly seeing the mayor's son against their parents wishes, to the machinations of the kings of two warring countries, to the grand schemes of gods, goddesses, demons and devils. Of course, much of that the PC's will never discover or know about....but it's there, in the background, unfolding as appropriate to the meddling's (or lack thereof) of the PC's.

That's the grand overview. :) Well, plus what @Stormonu said!

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Hussar

Legend
/snip
Personally, I view myself as a "Warden of Fun." If you have taken on the responsibility of running a game, you have made yourself responsible for others having a good time. Now, I'm not saying that you are responsible for EVERYTHING that happens (you can't control what other players do), but you at least should create a situation for your players to play characters they enjoy and be part of a story where THEY are the main characters. It's the story of THEIR heroism, and it should make them feel special.
/snip
I used to feel this way. Now, not so much. I find that if I'm the "Warden of Fun", then the players become passive consumers, simply waiting for me to roll up the plot wagon and spoon feed them the next bit of the adventure. I did that for far too frustratingly long and I find I can't do it anymore. I insist that the players be wardens of their own fun. I'll provide a situation, get the ball rolling as it were, but, I want everyone at the table contributing to rolling that ball in different directions. I am not there to dance for the players. I am not there to satisfy their whims.

Players, for me to enjoy the game, must contribute and contribute all the time. They are just as responsible for everyone at the table having a good time as I am. And, once you get players who understand that, the game practically runs itself. Virtually every problem at any gaming table is due to players forgetting that they are just as responsible for everyone having a good time as everyone else is. A DM who comes to the table, and is practically completely unresponsive, answers only in mono-syllables and refuses to engage is a terrible DM. Well, guess what, players who do that are terrible players. Show me that you're willing to expend a bit of effort and I'll move the world to accommodate you. Sit there like a lump, waiting for the next combat encounter so you throw a bunch of dice? Bugger that. Let's break out the Battletech or Warhammer if that's what you want.
 

TheSword

Legend
It’s easier to write this as a list. There’s a lot of stuff...

  • Pitch a campaign that I think will entertain the table. Including the boundaries of that campaign.
  • Describe the game world in vivid colours.
  • Set up the online system and make the props, maps, handouts, art etc to support this.
  • Bring the NPCs to life in a memorable and entertaining way.
  • Create a plausible setting that maintains internal consistency.
  • Provide interesting events and NPCs with plots and plans that will bring them into conflict with the players.
  • Try to run with the ball when a player throws it to you rather than shutting it down. Within the bounds of the campaign.
  • Maintain balance between players by acting as a curator of game options. Deciding what is in and what is out.
  • Maintain balance in encounters by pushing the buttons needed to make the game challenging but fun.
  • Reward success with advancement and treasure.
  • Never adversarial, I write encounters to give people chances to show what they can do, not stop them being able to do it.

I appreciate lots of people will do things differently but that’s just how I find it works.
 
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MGibster

Legend
As a DM I see it not only as my responsibility to facilitate 'fun', because fun is a very subjective thing, and merely the intended goal. What I do to achieve fun is far more important:
That's not entirely unfair. There have been many occasions where a player has actively worked against me trying to give their character the spotlight or otherwise try to engage them.

I used to feel this way. Now, not so much. I find that if I'm the "Warden of Fun", then the players become passive consumers, simply waiting for me to roll up the plot wagon and spoon feed them the next bit of the adventure. I did that for far too frustratingly long and I find I can't do it anymore.
I gave up on scenarios with mysteries for a while after giving my players written in-game documentation highlighting all the important key words and phrases and they failed to follow up on any of them.
Players, for me to enjoy the game, must contribute and contribute all the time. They are just as responsible for everyone at the table having a good time as I am.
And this is important. Let's not forget that the DM needs to have fun too and I can't have fun if players aren't engaged. (And it's entirely possible that at any given time I've failed to engage the players but they need to try to meet me halfway at least.)
 

I used to feel this way. Now, not so much. I find that if I'm the "Warden of Fun", then the players become passive consumers, simply waiting for me to roll up the plot wagon and spoon feed them the next bit of the adventure. I did that for far too frustratingly long and I find I can't do it anymore. I insist that the players be wardens of their own fun. I'll provide a situation, get the ball rolling as it were, but, I want everyone at the table contributing to rolling that ball in different directions. I am not there to dance for the players. I am not there to satisfy their whims.

Players, for me to enjoy the game, must contribute and contribute all the time. They are just as responsible for everyone at the table having a good time as I am. And, once you get players who understand that, the game practically runs itself. Virtually every problem at any gaming table is due to players forgetting that they are just as responsible for everyone having a good time as everyone else is. A DM who comes to the table, and is practically completely unresponsive, answers only in mono-syllables and refuses to engage is a terrible DM. Well, guess what, players who do that are terrible players. Show me that you're willing to expend a bit of effort and I'll move the world to accommodate you. Sit there like a lump, waiting for the next combat encounter so you throw a bunch of dice? Bugger that. Let's break out the Battletech or Warhammer if that's what you want.
I've come across the behaviour you're describing from players, but here's the thing, I've had the same main group of players for 30+ years right, so they're not really a variable. They're a constant. The same for me, I'm pretty much a constant. Maybe I've got better at DMing, maybe I haven't, who knows, but still, pretty much a constant. I've also been a player with other DMs in the group, so that's a variable, and I can see the results of it.

So when I've seen this behaviour - "roll up the plot wagon" - and I have, I've noted three things:

1) It tends to happen much more with certain systems than other systems. 3.XE/PF and Shadowrun (all editions I've played, but esp. 2E/3E) were the systems I saw that were worst for this, and I tend to think I know why. I think it's because both systems robbed the players of confidence, due in large part to the complexity of the systems, combined with the apparent unreliability of getting good results, especially out of combat (as you note, combat isn't really where this manifests). Systems where the players did feel confident, where they understood how non-combat stuff worked and could reliably expect good results without huge investment, tend not to have this happen. With 3.XE I think the high failure chance of a lot of stuff (as well as more explicit and often harsher consequences for failure) made some players extremely risk-averse and suddenly the wild plans of 2E or other systems started to dry up.

2) Adventures which don't fail forwards and are finickity in design definitely help to cause this, as do adventures which railroad hard in certain parts and then stop railroading suddenly. This is mostly stuff found in pre-written adventures, but I've seen DMs who weren't me do it too. I've even seen a DM quit a campaign because the adventure required us to do some specific finickity thing and we literally couldn't work it out. The worst offenders are Shadowrun adventures, again, some of which make quite wild assumptions about what players know to do (esp. 1990s ones), and some of Pathfinder's APs - some of these latter are fine, but some have this whole railroad for weeks, then suddenly stop deal, and if players get used to getting railroaded and/or lead by the nose, it tends to deprotagonize them, so when it's time for them to step up, they don't. I've also seen it with CoC adventures which relied on finding some particular item or bit of info to go forwards, rather than failing forwards. That can leave players standing around thumbs-in-arses.

3) DMs can have an impact too. I tend not to run pre-gens and I dislike running the systems mentioned, so this hasn't happened to me a whole lot (but when it has, it's been with those systems). When I've seen it player-side (and I have), it usually breaks down to either really inexperienced DMs who don't know how to get the players moving, or how to inject failing forward into stuff that doesn't have it, or DMs who have a very specific idea on how the campaign is going to run, and when it isn't going that way, kind of "cease cooperating", which can lead to a sort of mutual impasse which again, certainly looks akin to players sitting around doing nowt.

I've also seen DMs successfully fix this, simply by warming the players up - i.e. the players are being a bit useless, the DM breaks down some of the obvious options they have, they take one, things start happening, and before you know it, the players have a "just crazy enough to work" plan involving posing as wine merchants or something. Sometimes they just need a shove, esp. if they've not played for a while.

EDIT - What I think I forgot to mention is that whilst I've seen individual players be "bumps on a log" as you describe Hussar, sometimes even most of them, I've never seen it happen to every single player in a group (of at least 4 people) unless at least one (usually multiple) of the above factors was also in play.
 
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I try to avoid situations that are frustrating (in a bad way, not like puzzles or mysteries, which can be fun) or just annoying. I also tend to not let the dice kill players (but I'll let them come close). Honestly, I don't have many players deaths unless A) they do something foolish, B) it's a boss fight, C) the death would be meaningful/memorable.

So, how do you view the job of a DM?
Mostly in the same manner. The big difference is that I am a “Let the dice fall where they lay” DM. As much as it sucks to lose a character, I feel that if the DM is unwilling to kill a character when the dice say so, tension drains from the session.
 

The analogy I use is: it's like cooking a meal for your friends.

The reward is the satisfaction and pride of making something and having others enjoy it. I want to enjoy it too, but the goal is for everyone to enjoy it.

To that end, that means some compromised may need to be made. If someone has a food allergy, I will not use that food, even if the recipe normally calls for it. If people have different tolerances for spiciness, I'll factor that in, maybe doing spicy and sweet versions of side dishes to accommodate multiple people.

But I'm not going to overwork myself by making a unique menu for each guest, nor am I going to make foods I'm not comfortable/competent in. I won't be serving my first attempt at homemade pie crust - I'll store-buy that component or do something other than pie.

But dming is more about crafting a thing than playing a game, to me. If everyone has a good time, I am glad I did a great job.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Killer Referee. I run the adventure mostly as written with the players causing the changes in the script. I roll out in the open with dead being on the line depending on the encounter and INT of the monster. Dead is dead and is resolved with Adventure League rules.
While homebrewing dead is dead. And generally just required the party to pay the cost of the raise dead/resurrection spell. Aka Drop another quarter in the slot for an additional life.
I do use props, handouts, and other activities to get the player and pc involved in the adventure path.
 

So, how do you view the job of a DM?

I view the job as fun. But, like most fun things, it has rules to help the fun along. These are the rules I use to help make sure it is fun, for both sides of the table:

  • If I have a great scene in mind, it is most often built prior to the PC's making decisions. An example would be them seeing the dragon enter the cave. Once their motives and actions are involved, it is all up to impromptu and letting the dice make the decisions. (There are exceptions, such as having a small script for when a PC succeeds on their persuasion roll or when a boss creature reaches bloodied and something morphic happens.)
  • The dice decide. I have found this is one of the key pillars to having the player's care about their characters.
  • Always err on the side of the players when they are being creative (and often, even when they are not).
  • Make sure each PC has a chance to shine when designing scene, adventure, or campaign plot lines.
  • Help players help themselves. Take time after the game to talk, explain or listen.
  • Be prepared. This is, by far, the biggest one I have found that adds fun to both sides of the table. The other rules can often leave one side with a restricted (example: DM making a plot line that needs to include everyone) or bummed out (example: letting the dice kill the one player at the table that actually has a problem with dying) feeling. But, I have never had the experience of this rule altering any one's judgement of the session in a negative way. It is always positive. The players have a tendency to like the pace, fluidity and exactness of a well prepared DM. The DM is happy to not scrambling to find an answer, mini, map, stats, etc.

I have not read the other answers, but am looking forward to. The thing I am struggling with in this question is how everyone doesn't simply answer: The DM's job is to help facilitate fun. In the end, that is the job. And in doing so, have fun ourselves.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I have not read the other answers, but am looking forward to. The thing I am struggling with in this question is how everyone doesn't simply answer: The DM's job is to help facilitate fun. In the end, that is the job. And in doing so, have fun ourselves.
Mostly because there are about 50 zillion variations on helping to facilitate fun.
 

Mostly because there are about 50 zillion variations on helping to facilitate fun.
I understand there are different categories DMs prefer to focus on. But, they are all the same: crafting challenges for players, rewarding players, describing settings, etc. These are always the same for any DM with experience. And the preferred outcome of these focuses is to have fun. That was the reason for my last comment. Hope that clarifies.
I wrote that last paragraph because It seems to me the better question is:
How do you prioritize the jobs of a DM?

But we all speak colloquially, including my paragraph you responded to. And the OP's question is easily understood. Sorry if there was any miscommunication in mine.
 



Emerikol

Adventurer
Another comment on being a cheerleader of the players. I run the rules fairly and consistantly, but I would never descibe an important part of my job as being a "neutral arbiter". A referee in a sports match needs to be neutral and not favor either team. However, as hobbyists sitting around the table we are all on the same team. With only one team, we should all be on each other's side working for fun. The characters are working to overcome challenges, and there I will be fair, and often what I design is mean or deadly. But that's nto because I want the players to not have fun, it's because I want the players to have loads of fun trying to overcome them. Character failure just leads to another branch of the story, and all of the branchs - with character success or character failure - should be fun for the players and the DM.
I would have argued that being a neutral arbiter or referee as you say is a key component of making it fun for the players. Overcoming real challenges is more satisfying than having the DM fudge things so you always end up winning.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I would have argued that being a neutral arbiter or referee as you say is a key component of making it fun for the players. Overcoming real challenges is more satisfying than having the DM fudge things so you always end up winning.
You cut out important bits in what you quoted that addresses exactly that.

I am fair and consistent in my rulings, and provide real tensions and fear of death without fudging so that rewards are well earned and they have epic stories because that's what gives fun to my players. It also provides fun for me. Providing that real challenge to the characters is one of the ways that I provide fun to the players. If I was teaching young children to play, I would have different parameters, since that is what would be the most fun around that table. There is only one team - the people sitting around the table (which includes the DM). They all want to make that team win (everyone around the table have fun).

It is only by falsely conflating character success with player success that the misguided idea that a DM should be impartial has any traction. DMs fell for it as well, with the old adversarial DM idea. The DM should NEVER be impartial - they should be actively working for more fun at the table for everyone (including themselves). By the flip side, the players should never be impartial either. They should also be actively working for more fun at the table for everyone (including themselves).

In a game with multiple sides, it provides fun to have a neutral arbiter to provide fairness. The idea that the players are a side, the DM is a neutral arbiter, then leaves who to oppose the players? (Note: not to oppose the characters.) No one. Without that, the idea of a neutral person makes no sense. I know it's been one of those ideas that's been around for ages, but it really needs to be reexamined instead of just accepted.

Just like players and characters are different, the challenges, setting and foes the DM sets up and controls in the world are separate from the DM themself. The DM and players are on the same side. The characters and the challenges are not. Or maybe, through clever play, they are.
 

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