If you’ve been tempted by these articles to get together and play, you’ve probably hit a point in a session where either the players or DM didn’t know how to make something “work”. Maybe someone wants their character to do some crazy move, maybe the DM is trying to formulate the mechanics of a trap, or maybe 2 players are arguing about a rule. This sort of thing happens, so don’t be discouraged. D&D has a rule for just about everything, but no one memorizes every rule. Sometimes a rule doesn’t work for the situation, or you just don’t think a rule is fair for the situation. Not a problem! Luckily, your group has the most powerful artifact in the game: The DM! When a group of people sit down to play D&D, there has to be an understanding that the DM has final authority on EVERYTHING.
One of the jobs of the DM is to lay down the law. It’s also one of the reasons it’s not a job for everyone. You have to be willing to make decisions, sometimes the players won’t like it. Sometimes you as the DM won’t like it. You have to balance things and be as fair as possible. It’s not as hard or stressful as it sounds but it’s one of the things you’ll need to do. One of the best ways to navigate this skill is to keep the players involved. Let them know the decision you’re trying to make, mention some pros/cons and open the table to suggestions. Pretty soon, you’ll have your own process for these sorts of things. You’ll be making small decisions constantly during each session, so as time passes patterns will reveal themselves.
Another area DMs have to make rulings involves the player characters. D&D has been around a long time, and there is an entire culture online based around character builds. It is very easy to put a character together that is way too powerful. It really breaks the narrative, especially if everyone else is playing with a balanced character and this one PC is out of control. This is where the DM needs to make the call. Some DMs (myself included), at the start of a game or campaign make “house rules”. These can come in many forms. I for one, don’t allow multi-classing. My reasoning is, basically, 90% of overpowered builds rely on it to mix/combine class abilities in unfair ways. I use the rule to control combat difficulty, and I find it works very well. Some house rules are a lot less impactful. The DM in my current game has a house rule about saving throws that equally benefits and terrifies us all. It all depends on the DM, their style and their desire to balance the game. Talk things over with your group BEFORE the game begins, and listen to what they have to say. Don’t be afraid to set some boundaries, keep the players informed and as long as they allow you to make these decisions you can make the best game you possibly can.
An example of this came up in the game I DM a few months ago. After a serious battle with some dragons, two team members died. The group’s cleric, the super awesome dwarf Kelt, wanted to use the spell Raise Dead to bring them back. I had a decision to make. Up until this point, the group was totally overwhelming the creatures/individuals they were fighting. I wanted that fight with the dragons to symbolize that I was going to be a lot harder on them, and at least one character death would do that. I didn’t WANT any of their characters to die as they were all terrific, and the two that died weren’t singled out or anything it’s just how it went down. Anyway, as Kelt was a war priest, and the gods of war would be ok with someone dying in battle I turned the spell into a skill based ritual. I know it didn’t make the players happy, as the spell is just supposed to “work”. I structured it in a way that every living member of the team had to appeal to the gods in some way to convince them to bring their friends back. In between their “turns”, I spoke to the player being raised and narrated what they were experiencing in the afterlife. It was a celebration of the character, just in case the ritual didn’t work. Neither were able to come back, but they got a great send off and their new characters are just as memorable and fun.
To the players out there, don’t give the DM hard time. There’s a lot to juggle in even the simplest game session, and believe it or not your DM is constantly making decisions. From shifting enemy stats on the fly if a battle is too difficult (or too easy) to deciding the DC of a skill check. Understand that sometimes things won’t go your way, but the DM isn’t the enemy. The DM, and by the way you’re lucky to have him/her, is trying to have a good time just like you. The DM enjoys your successes and sympathises with your failures. Making rulings, implementing house rules and settling disagreements are all part of the job. Respecting that keeps the game flowing, and the story can only benefit from cooperation between everyone. Besides, you might even benefit from the old “Man, that rule sucks. Forget about it, you succeed!”. It’s moments like that that make up for that minor thing you couldn’t do, or that skill check DC you felt was too high.
Next month, I’ll discuss my style of building a campaign, and some great resources for putting a game together. Have any questions? Ideas for article topics? Need advice on playing/DMing? Drop a comment below and I’ll provide my 2 cents. Until next time, bribe your D20s (no good crooked bastards) and enjoy your next session!