Monday, February 13, 2012

Moldvay - Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art

If you flip to the back of Moldvay's Basic book, p.B60, you get a nice 3/4 page detailing "Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art".

It covers the following:

"That's not in the Rules!"

"There's always a chance."

"The DM is the boss."

"Everyone is here to have fun."

"Everything is balanced."

"Your character doesn't know that."

Seeing as Moldvay managed to produce, in my opinion at least, the most concise and user-friendly version of the D&D ruleset, I feel it's worthwhile taking a look at his opinions on the more ephemeral and arbitrary elements of running a good session. So I'll be writing a bit about the above elements over the next few posts.

Introducing this section, Tom says:

"It is important that the DM be fair, judging everything without favoring one side or the other (BtBG - something I like, and talk about a bit more here). The DM is there to see that the adventure is interesting and that everyone enjoys the game. D&D is not a contest between the DM and the players! The DM should do his best to act impartially when taking the part of the monsters or handling disputes between characters."

The bolded portion above (and this is bolded in the actual text, not by me), is deservedly so. Again, as Tom does so well in every aspect of his little corner of the D&D library, he sums this up very concisely. Its a little like dropping two scorpions into a jar and letting them duke it out, only one scorpion is the players, the other is the adventure you've designed, and the jar is your campaign setting. Fudging/cheating in either party's favor defeats the purpose. The reward for the DM is not "beating" (or coaching, or assisting) the players, but rather the pleasure of watching all the variables and challenges the players bring to the table unfold as they react to your creations. As Tom mentions, there are many players, and only one DM!

I behooves those of us who are DMs to take this advice to heart.


  1. Ugh. The game is NOT a contest between players and DM (the deck is stacked in the DMs favor, after all, and any such contest would be unfair), but I would still call the DM's role an antagonistic one in relation to the players, and the player's are charged with "overcoming" the challenges set by the DM (de facto winning if they do so, "losing" if they don't).

    And if the players lose, doesn't the DM "win?"

  2. Fundamentally, the players and the GM are competing at two different things.

    The players are competing with the GM's scenario...trying to overcome the challenges that the GM presents.

    But the GM is NOT competing against the players with those challenges. His ability to set those challenges is an obviously moot point; he just puts Cthulu in the room against the 1st level PCs and the game is over. Rather, the GM is competing to provide as much enjoyment to the game as possible. In this he competes both against his previous efforts, and sometimes (some might say often) against the resistance of the players. He has to convince them that it is worth their while to surrender control and allow him to run the game.

    Hence, the game works as a covenant between players and GM, with the players agreeing that the DM gets to set up the board (and, no matter how much input your players have, unless you are letting them pick the monsters, the treasures, and the map, you are setting up the board), determine what rules are in force and how they will be interpreted, etc. And, in return, the GM agrees to do the best job he can, to try to make an enjoyable game, and not abuse the power granted him by the players.

  3. I always felt that "There's always a chance" was one of the most underrated paragraphs in that whole book. It's almost the rule for almost everything else that could come up.

    1. Based on that one paragrtaph, The Troll Lords owe Moldvay royalties for their vaunted SIEGE Engine.

  4. I always thought the DM was winning if the players wanted to come back next week at the same bat-time, same bat-channel.



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