Balance of the Game Master

by | Jul 8, 2015 | Notes From the Dungeon Master

Storyteller.  Judge.  Actor.  These are the three bars that are forever fluctuating on the mental interface of a Game – or Dungeon – Master.  They will never be equal, nor should they be, but one should never stray too far from the others.  And allowing one to take precedence over the others for too long a time can be a dangerous path, because it’s often too late to realize that imbalance has struck and the only choice is to reset the board.

You’ve been planning for the first session for months.  Possibly even longer.  You have the backgrounds of all your main – and probably secondary – pro and antagonists written up.  Your maps are all drawn out with every city, town, village, outpost, and hidden monument labeled, and each with their own short backstory explaining their last hundred or so years of history.  You finally put the finishing touches on the maps for your first eight encounters, all in full color and scale, hours before your first session.  You haven’t fully developed the final soliloquy of the king, but you figure that you can just wing the last four or five lines anyway.  And now finally, it’s time.

You have gone around the table and had the players give brief introductions of their characters (making sure that the gnome rogue doesn’t spoil that he’s secretly working for the king, or that the paladin is actually the son of a rival duke, because those reveals aren’t supposed to happen until the fourth session), and you spend the next fifteen minutes explaining how the king has gathered these brave heroes because he is afraid that someone is attempting to assassinate him while detailing the shifty looks that the minister occasionally makes, and the tiresome look on the prince’s face while he listens to his step-father drole on.  Finally, you tell them that the king asks, “So, will you protect your king and discover who is daring enough to attempt to take my life?” (you feel fairly pleased with yourself because you did the entire speech while only looking down at your notes every three or four lines) and you expect all of the players to agree to the quest so that you can then jump into the narration of them being outfitted in the king’s colors and the head of the king’s guard giving them all of the information they have gathered about the would-be usurper.

Then, the wizard rolls some dice.  You lift your head from your notebook, locking eyes with him.  He exclaims, “I cast Lightning Bolt on the king for…” <roll, roll, roll, roll, roll> “42 damage.  Is he dead?”

You’ve been pouring over the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Official Rulebook, Supplemental Rulebook, Equipment Guide, and adventure module cover-to-cover for the better part of a month.  You have your flashcards written up with all of the conditions, maneuvers, creature stats, and character stats.  Twice a day, you’ve been testing yourself by reciting the rules chapter-by-chapter, and running mock encounters in your head whenever you have some downtime.  You are as prepared as you possibly can be now; every single rule and guideline is in your head, available at a moment’s notice.

You’ve been at the table for about a half hour now.  You managed to get through the first few parts of the narrative decently enough (only forgetting the name of the king a couple of times, and you didn’t bother adding in the bored expressions of the prince since it’s ultimately not that important anyway), and now it’s time to have the first encounter with the bandits on the roadway.  And so far, everything is going smoothly.  The wizard forgot his spell attack for Lightning Bolt, but you had it right there without missing a beat.  But then, the rogue wanders off from the battle.  “You know that I can’t give you full experience for this battle then, right?” You try to explain to him, but he simply nods and smirks.  He spends the next couple of rounds climbing up the cliff face where you cleverly bottle-nosed the group for the encounter, until finally he reaches the top.  After asking you to point out which one is the leader (which you slyly ask for an Insight check before revealing such important information), he proclaims that his rogue pulls out both daggers from his belt and leaps off the cliff, aiming his blades for the back of the bandit lord.

You go over your notes for a moment.  Fall damage?  Charge?  Sneak Attack?  There is absolutely nothing in your notes about attacking an enemy from 80 feet up.  Should he deal extra damage?  Should he take damage?  Should he make some kind of check first?  The next five minutes you spend flipping through your book while the wizard is in the bathroom, the fighter is playing Castle Crashers, and the rogue has taken to doodling penises on his notepad.

Last week you found a really great robe at a costume shop, which will match perfectly with the crown from your last session.  You still need to do some finishing touches on the insignia on the cloak that you’re planning on wearing for the reveal of the prince.  Youtube has been loaded up with videos on german accents, while you’ve watched Die Hard at least once a week just to get the conversational inflections down just right.  After all, the duke just would not be right without the villainous Hans Gruber voice.  The players had easily killed off the bandits and made some good Search checks to find the hand-written note –  which you passed out to them – that would lead them to the minister (thankfully you still have that serpent-headed staff and you just watched Aladdin the other week).  The fighter attempts to do an Intimidation check, but she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to say so instead she decides to simply stay quiet while the wizard takes the stage.  He rolls a 5 on his Diplomacy with the king, but you felt that his portrayal of the scene was good enough that he should pass anyway.  Now the king is on the side of the adventurers, and demands that the minister reveal his plot.

The next 8 minutes are spent by you whipping between your robe and staff, as the king has a very heated and heart-felt argument with his nearly life-long minister.  The druid attempted to speak up a couple of times, but one of the guards quickly interjects and silences him.  “You don’t speak out of turn in front of the king!”  The second time you tell him that the same guard places his hand upon the handle of his sword, glaring at the druid through the slit of his helm.  For the later half of this discussion, the wizard has been texting his girlfriend, the fighter has been on /r/DeepIntoYoutube, and the rogue has been drawing penises in his notepad.

Like SimCity, being a Game Master is about a careful balance of all these traits, and they are forever in flux from moment to moment.  You can let one take more importance than the others for a time, though it’s the seasoned DM that is able to pull it back into balance after that time has passed.  And it’s knowing when to allow the imbalance, when to create it, and when to bring it all back to center that takes a true Master.  You need to be able to tell a story, without dictating the narrative and allowing the other players at the table to have an equal part in creating not only the present, but the past and future as well.  While the rules are there to create a sense of order amidst the chaos of a gaming table, it’s better to divert the chaos and use the momentum rather than attempt to overpower it with structure and order, finding the space to play between the rules.  Though we are all players around the table, each of us has our own role to play, and a Game Master must know that his is to dip his toes into many different personalities and not use his seat to overshadow the other characters.

Find your balance.