(This is part of the series ‘D&D: Chasing the Dragon.’ Read more from the home page.)
There’s a stereotype of the relationship between D&D players and their DMs, and anyone with any access to the cultural cache of the game knows it. DMs labor thanklessly to work out long, involved plans and stories for the benefit of their players. Players are headstrong, clueless, even diabolical, and will find a way to derail all those plans at the earliest opportunity, whether through inexplicable stupidity or even willful and sinister delight. It’s so well-recognized that it’s become more or less a permanent fixture of play.
Why is this so familiar? Do all D&D players suffer from some kind of dumb-virus? Is foiling your DM some kind of cultural meme that players learn from each other? Would that even explain it when they do it by accident? No, as in previous articles, the pattern of play emerges from the dynamics of the rules. In this case it stems from an oft-overlooked aspect of the format: the power dynamic between player and DM.
Page eighteen of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for edition 3.5 tells DMs: “You’re the arbiter of everything that happens in the game. Period.” And with a name like “master,” it’s pretty unmistakable who’s in charge. The DM is empowered to narrate the entire world, the events of that world, and the results of any action in unlimited fashion. Anything is subject to change to the DM’s liking at any time: local weather patterns, who and what can be found at any given location, the thoughts and feelings of rulers and subjects, the actions and whims of the pantheon of gods – even history and causality bend to a DM’s convenience. That power extends even to the other players – a DM can narrate what they do and do not know, what they do and do not perceive, how they are feeling, what they are thinking – even what they would or would not do is on the table, usually couched in appeals to alignment.
When players want to do something, they roll a die for permission – if the DM lets them.
Now let’s compare that to another activity, one that supposedly resembles D&D closely: improvisational theater. Several people take on the roles of characters to narrate a story together. Nominally it’s a one-to-one overlap with games like D&D. But in contrast to D&D, improv theater has a golden rule, encapsulated in just two words: “Yes, and…” It’s a rule that enforces a shared ownership of narrative authority and agency. No one is allowed to cancel out or walk back what anyone else has established. The show must go on.
The paradigm of a DM with unlimited authority is a sharp divergence from this golden rule, and yet it’s a fundamental part of playing D&D. There are inevitable consequences to this paradigm, some obvious, some less so, and I’ll talk about them all. And for all the excuses made for why the game needs to be this way, there’s also some uncomfortable reasons why some might just want it to be that way.
Because it definitely doesn’t have to be. It’s not required that tabletop RPGs have one person in charge of the story, the world, and everything. That authority and autonomy can be shared, sometimes equally with no DM at all. If improv theater actors can manage it, why can’t we?
Why Say Yes?
Let’s get to the heart of that golden rule. Improv theater is about building stories from the collaboration of disparate minds. Everyone has ideas on where the story should go, but the story can only go one way. How do we negotiate what happens in the story? Improv theater is pretty merciless, especially before an audience, in that you only get one shot to “get it right.” You can’t redo things, you can’t take a time-out. There is no backwards, only forward.
And yet a skilled troupe of improv actors get the scene right every time. It carries a logical progression of events that keeps the audience engaged and allows them to easily understand what’s going on. The secret is saying “Yes, and…” to each other. Take what your partner has established, and build on it. When a player makes an implicit offer of what the scene is going to be about (“Can you hurry it up, buddy? The rest of us gotta use the ATM machine, too!”), the other player instantly accepts it (“It’s still my turn. And it’s just ‘ATM,’ dumbass. No need to say ‘machine’ at the end.”).
Saying yes does a lot of good for the scene. Primarily, it means that players are all pulling in the same direction. Scenes are much more cohesive when people all contribute toward a single idea that no one person truly owns. It’s much easier to follow a narrative about one shared concept rather than one where everyone is trying to share their own isolated concept simultaneously. A unified idea constantly reinforces itself, where isolated ideas often compete for attention.
Saying yes also means that the burden of creative energy isn’t placed solely on one player’s shoulders. No matter how creative you might be, it’s easy to run dry when everyone always looks to you for what’s happening. Often times another player making another offer is just the catalyst needed to get a flagging player back in the game. Creative energy pointed in the same direction creates a feedback loop that stimulates the whole group and keeps things moving.
And that’s why a player who says NO brings the scene to a screeching halt. Suddenly the continuity of the scene falls apart. The audience breaks their engagement as they adjust to the speed bump. All the players, who’ve been feeding off one another and using all the momentum of the scene to propel forward, no longer have the supporting structure of all the assumptions they’ve all been building in this scene. It all falls flat, and it’s hard to recover the momentum, especially if that player continues to say no.
Improv circles have a term they call “chivalry.” As defined by the Improv Encyclopedia:
“Chivalry means not clinging to your own ideas, your own Status , or even your own life (as a character). Chivalry is daring to give up control. As Keith Johnstone teaches, players should allow themselves to be changed by other players. Be happy to be forced to change, and change.”
Improv chivalry is critically important to being able to participate in the collaborative process. It’s one part humility, one part trust, and one big, fat part empathy. A skilled player is constantly listening above all else, actively searching out the promptings of other players. When they find one, the assumption of automatic acceptance greases the wheels and keeps the scene moving. It takes real discipline to suppress selfish urges and to put the group first. And when the group comes together that way, it’s like magic.
This concept of chivalry may seem familiar to some players of D&D. There’s no shortage of D&D blog articles, advice columns, and forum posts that talk about the virtues of saying “Yes,” of listening, of going with the flow. Even D&D source books from later editions wax eloquently about them. Story-focused players, upon reading them, can eventually learn the value of these practices.
But there’s a reason why so many words have been written about this topic: D&D players desperately need them! Because if there could exist a system more antithetical to improv chivalry than D&D, I don’t know what it is. Everything about it, from the structure of the game to the relationship between the players, sets them up for breaking this golden rule of improv, and even highly disciplined players are liable to crack often enough.
Let’s start with the obvious: the severe imbalance of narrative power. The DM/player paradigm concentrates all narrative agency into one person. And I really mean all. It’s hard to overstate just how much the DM is in charge of every single thing. Obviously a DM can speak for NPCs, narrate things into existence, announce a surprise attack, all the things one commonly associates with the DM’s role. But this narrative power runs much deeper than most people imagine.
See, DMs aren’t just in charge of what happens. They are the conduit for how the players perceive the world as well. The sum total of what they know of their situation is only what you tell them. Controlling what they know is a pretty powerful way to indirectly control what they do – they can’t act on crucial information if you don’t tell them! For all intents and purposes, aspects of the world are invisible to players until you choose otherwise at your whim.
And that’s just the start. This informational asymmetry also gives DMs significant capacity to circumvent players in order to do as they please and not get caught. If the actions of players are about to reveal information or cause a situation that a DM doesn’t want to happen, no problem: just quietly alter the circumstances to ensure that their attempt fails! The less that you concretely tell players about what’s going on, the more leeway you have to silently narrate reasons why things have to go your way, and still come out looking like it was all planned out ahead of time.
It’s really impossible to know how many DMs do this and how often – the whole point is that the players never know it happened! But it’s supremely easy to pull off, and even easier to justify it to yourself (perhaps we’ll even see some of these justifications in the comments below). All you have to do is tell yourself that you’re changing things for the sake of the story, and suddenly you’re doing it for the greater good.
Hold it right there, Dungeon Master/Mistress! For whose greater good, exactly? Because last I checked, the players had some input to the story, and you just blocked them. Did you consult them on how this makes the story better for them? Of course not – you did this without them even knowing! So to be clear, one person with unlimited authority unilaterally made an secret executive decision, enacted it, audited it, and then asked themselves whether or not they made the right decision. I think I know what the answer is going to be.
The DM/Player Struggle
But don’t feel too bad, all you DMs out there – the players aren’t really in a good place to determine what’s best for the story either. The relationship that the game has set between you has a way of putting players on the defensive. Their lack of information makes them fear consequences. Their lack of narrative power makes the threat of death more keen. So in a typical D&D campaign, the players do everything they can to circumvent the DM and the conflict presented.
The edition 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide also says on page 18: “It’s important to the game that they believe their characters are always in danger.” While it isn’t a binding rule of play, this idea is instructive about the intentions of the overall design and why it’s made the way it is. D&D exists in a strange space: while the game claims not to be a competitive game, it also claims that the game functions best when players think that it is. Mind that these are the same players who, when not in the player seat, accept the premise that D&D isn’t competitive. But once they sit down as a player, suddenly it’s the DM’s job to convince them otherwise.
How might a DM do this? The informational asymmetry I outlined earlier certainly helps. Creatures the players fight always seem harder when the DM doesn’t say how many hit points those creatures have, and players can’t tell who’s winning. Why do you suppose traps exist? Their function is to engender mistrust between player and DM, eroding player confidence with each one they blunder into. When players are kept in the dark about even their immediate circumstances, whether it be about traps or clues or ambushes or what have you, the players start to get into the mindset of “What isn’t the DM telling us?” They start to see the DM as an adversary. Even if the DM isn’t actively trying to kill the players, they often imagine the opposite. And this relationship is shored up by the players’ meta-knowledge: in the back of their minds, they know that every single aspect of the world can be changed on a whim at any time for any reason.
Beset by this semi-rational fear, a player’s only defense, the only way to assert agency over the imagined adversity, is to lean on game rules to back them up. The DM may be authorized by the game to cut down a player who tries to narrate an action not covered by any rules, but if a player can point at their character sheet and a page in the rulebook that says their action has to work, that carries significant weight. Technically such an action can still be vetoed, but it’s weight enough that a DM can’t freely override a player’s declaration without mounting social repercussions. Are we here to play D&D or aren’t we? A DM who callously dismisses the rules runs the risk of appearing overly controlling and disrespectful of the players.
In this way, game rules become a refuge from what players perceive to be the source of all strife. And what’s the purview for the vast majority of rules that players can access? Combat. I wrote in Part Three that the things on which rules stipulate become the things the game is about, and it’s especially true here because killing seems to be the players’ most reliable form of narrative power. So long as players roll well enough, the rules act as a defense attorney for player agency, and it’s little wonder that the phrase “rules lawyer” has become commonplace in the culture. In the great struggle for narrative power, rules are often the only chance players have got.
But this struggle also puts players in a bad place for acting in the story’s interests. Players are fighting so hard to get everything they want that it doesn’t usually cross their minds how boring it would be if they actually got it. See, a good story’s dramatic arc is a long and protracted affair. The unresolved conflict is what keeps the story interesting, and aspects of the conflict are often of the protagonist’s own making. Taking risks, making bad choices, or even just coming up short – these are the kinds of things that drive the tension through to the end. Characters are defined by moments when they can’t get everything they want and are forced to choose, or even just to cope when they don’t get anything they want. Without conflict, it isn’t much of a story.
But a D&D player’s first instinct isn’t to instigate or prolong conflict – it’s to cut it short. Remember, the goal of the DM is to make players feel a sense of danger and risk. With the DM already pushing conflict on them, why would they want to make it any worse? No, a player’s instinct is to minimize conflict and mitigate risk. This is especially true of a player whose DM is intent on punishing players for careless or risky actions – behavior definitely in keeping with fostering a sense of danger, after all. With that kind of pressure applied, players tend to want to act in their own interests, often at the expense of story interests. If they can resolve a situation here and now before it develops into anything, then they’re safe – and boring.
That’s not to say that no player has ever intentionally made a bad decision. In fact, D&D source books talk about the importance of doing just that. Even in the midst of the D&D Strategy Guide for 4th edition, a book supposedly dedicated to optimal play and risk aversion, Wil Wheaton floridly calls upon the reader to make bad choices when true to character. But in all the words written on the topic, nobody ever thinks to ask why players so rarely do so, other than to simply chalk it up to “insufficiently mature roleplayers.”
Really, value judgments are the last thing such D&D players need – what they need is agency. Not character agency, where they’re free to attempt anything they want – players already have that. No, players need narrative agency. They need some level of incontestable control over what’s happening in the story. And the fact that they don’t have it is a large part of what makes D&D so scary. Whatever the DM decides happens to your character, there’s no way to overrule that decision. Whatever your story ideas are for what should happen to your character, good or bad, there’s no way to force them to happen. And with all the secrets your DM is constantly keeping from you, there’s no way to know the extent of the consequences a bad decision will have.
Maybe a player is okay with a particular severity or some special circumstance of consequence for their character. Maybe they even feel like some loss or setback would be appropriate for that character’s arc! But without some assurance that the story will happen that particular way if they make the bad decision, why risk it? Why jump off that cliff when things could go so very wrong for so many reasons? Maybe the DM knows something you didn’t, which causes a harsher consequence to occur. Maybe the DM “impartially” decides the only logical thing to happen is a horrible fate. Maybe the DM thinks you’re an idiot, and squishes you as an example to the others that this is a realistic game. Either way, there’s no arguing with whatever decision is made. At the end of the day, only one opinion matters, and it ain’t yours.
Really it’s no surprise that D&D players must be told to act against their self-interest. Without systemic guidance on how to do so or any narrative agency to protect their intent, they have no incentive to contribute to a story’s conflict. And all the source book editorials in the world are but impotent finger-wagging in the face of undeniable pressure to do the opposite.
Players of D&D may outwardly agree that the game is collaborative, but in real play the relationship between player and DM turns out quite adversarial. Since the role of the DM is to keep secrets from them and make life generally difficult, the tenor of DM/player interactions is rather tense. Players can’t necessarily trust that what they see of a DM’s actions will lead to a good story or their ruin. Will picking up this ominous ring lead to an epic story arc to destroy a malevolent artifact, all the while having a contest of wills as it tempts you along the way? Or will it just damage or kill you the moment you touch it? Either is as likely as the other. Your DM knows which, and they’re not telling.
On top of that, it’s easy for a DM to justify ambiguous danger when it goes badly. Why would you pick it up? It was obviously evil! Why didn’t you run away? They’re ogres! It’s not hard to assign blame to the players when it was technically their own misguided act that led to an unsatisfying conclusion. And anyway, aren’t you just doing your job? Punishing players for being careless is necessary to maintain that sense of danger! Having a character die on you builds character and increases your immersion!
Are you sure about that? Or are you just trying to deflect narrative responsibility for an uncomfortable social faux pas? That rings pretty hollow seeing as you have ultimate narrative authority over everything. And even if it was their own misguided act, have you conveniently forgotten who’s guiding the players with the information you choose to tell or not? When you’re playing as literally everything outside the players, when you control their very senses and perceptions, you’re complicit in every last thing that happens. Such is the nature of the DM/Player struggle.
Whose Story is it Anyway?
With all this in mind, we return to the stereotype from the start – why do players so often go off the rails from the DM? But now it’s obvious: it’s because the players and the DM are having a tug of war with the story. The DM has prepared an “adventure” – a complete story preconceived in full from the beginning – that they won’t tell to the players until the group gets to that page in the campaign notes. The players don’t automatically know how to participate in a story they can’t see, and further have their own ideas for what a good story looks like as well as a world that they see as their plaything.
When the players inevitably go off the rails, the DM develops a complex of having to herd cats around – they’re not doing what I want them to do! If these players don’t get with the program, there’s nothing prepared for the session, and then what? So the DM starts dropping story hints with all the subtlety of an anvil out of the sky trying to get them back to “the story.” Meanwhile the players are happily having a story of their own right where they are, one that will continue until enough real-world social pressure mounts that the players finally accommodate the DM’s wishes. Either that or the DM unceremoniously dumps them onto the DM Railroad Expressway. I was trying to be nice and let the players find the adventure all on their own, but I worked hard on this story, and it’s going to happen, dammit.
Even once the players are on the “right” track, the DM still feels it necessary to withhold information about what to do next. It’ll be more fun if that have to figure it out! Of course, this often means that the game grinds to a halt until the DM makes players pass enough rolls to justify giving out the oh-so-clever answer outright. Either that or the players do something the DM didn’t think of, throw the game off-script, and skip to a place they “shouldn’t” be. And the DM sighs and crinkles up his paper, annoyed. They’re not having fun the right way.
All the while, the game rules help or hinder either the DM or the players at random. They’re designed as a neutral physics engine instead of a narrative guide, so they care very little what happens. Unlucky dice rolls can kill a character the DM had plans for. Lucky rolls on longshot odds can bypass pivotal conflicts. This is made especially acute by the way players use the rules as weapons to try to narrate unequivocally successful outcomes for themselves. Maybe they’re understandably wary of the DM, or maybe they just have their own ideas on where they want the story to go instead. Either way, it’s oftentimes an effort to yank the story back the other way.
It’s moments like these when Rule Zero is most tempting by far. And while I stipulated in Part One that we wouldn’t be falling back on Rule Zero, I will point out that invoking Rule Zero doesn’t even help us when it comes to narrative power. In this case, it only makes things worse. Because only one person at the table is sanctioned with the ultimate power to ignore the rules: the DM.
Any time a dice roll comes up that ignores an outcome that the DM wanted, the DM is free to ignore it and narrate a preferred outcome. Players that attempt to seize narrative power through dice rolls can be circumstantially ignored as well. Not only does the DM rule the table, but with Rule Zero in play, there are no rules. Note that often enough the DM will ignore a failed roll and give players success anyway if desired. In fact, a DM may allow a player to forgo rolling altogether if they like what the player is doing enough. But while that may seem like a positive moment, it still contributes to the dynamic that players must be supplicants to the DM’s will. In that way, D&D’s definition of good stories is more like “stories the DM approves of.”
Let’s just be honest, all of us DMs: we’ve all done it. It’s a play pattern that comes up so often that there’s no shortage of memes and cartoons highlighting this universal inside-joke. It’s just what the game system makes us do. Some might say it’s the “skill” of DMing to avoid this pattern. But it really says something about the game if it’s best played by trying to resist where it naturally leads.
There are other directions games can lead, and much like I’ve written previously in this series, it involves a significant departure from the D&D paradigm. In this case, let’s consider Fiasco by Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit Games. Fiasco tells the story of impulsive people driven to ill-advised behavior by their all-consuming needs. These imprudent plans are exacerbated by truly unfortunate circumstance that careens the story toward quite a messy outcome – a true fiasco! The game accomplishes this without an “adventure” publication, prepackaged story beats, campaign notes, explicit world lore, or even any prep time at all.
How does it do this? For starters, there is no DM. Everyone in Fiasco is a player with the same level of narrative agency. But if there is no DM, where does the story come from? Right away, the game has you working on that. The players draw up the plot and characters collaboratively. Before the first moment of roleplaying even happens, players take turns adding elements to characters and the overall plot, guided into genre-appropriate selections by the system. Often a player won’t fully determine everything about even their own character – if someone determines that you have a failing romantic relationship with the person next to you, then you do! Each element serves as inspiration to the next person, and already the story starts to emerge as the players identify more story possibilities.
By the end of the setup, all characters have a defined relationship with at least two other characters. Some of them will have a motivation that they share with one another. A few important locations and objects are established, as well as what they mean to who. And as players look out at the table, everyone is clear on what this story is specifically going to be about. The action is unambiguously cocked and pointed in a particular direction.
As the story begins, players take turns being highlighted in scenes, thus sharing the spotlight. Each scene requires a conflict which will be resolved – positively or negatively – by the end. The person featured in the scene gets to decide what the scene is going to be about or how the scene is going to end – not both! Whatever the player decides to control – the situation or the outcome – the other players get to control the other. It’s a curious dichotomy: either the player gets to determine what the character wants, but leaves success or failure to the mercy of the other players; or the player gets to straight-up narrate their character succeeding – but not at what. On top of this, there’s only so many positive outcomes to go around. Sooner or later, characters start to fail.
The events of the story are determined by everyone, often with an eye toward mayhem and mishaps – this is a fiasco, after all. Half-way through, the game interjects “the tilt,” a twist to the story designed to make everything go (even more) pear-shaped. Again, players determine what it is in collaboration. The story belongs to all of them, and by now they’re going to know just what sort of tilt is perfect for what they’ve got on their hands. And with the tilt clearly visible on the table, everyone is dying to use it!
There’s an economy of dice that plays out through the course of the story. Two colors of dice represent good and bad outcomes, and these are taken from the pool in response to how each scene plays out. They’re only rolled twice – once to determine which two players have final say in determining the tilt, and once at the end to determine each character’s ultimate fate. Having an even split of the two colors on that final roll is a very precarious place for a character to be as it makes rolling a positive result very difficult. And you can bet that the other players will try really hard to give you that split!
There’s a certain magic to that moment each time a color die is taken from the pool to declare if a scene ends well for a character or poorly. When it’s time to choose, often no words even need to be said – the player just holds up the color die, and that word is final. The players go about making it happen without missing a beat. That’s the power of a system designed for saying “Yes!”
The entire structure of the game points all players in the same direction where they can all pull together. It clearly delineates narrative control without concentrating that power in any one person. And the very theme of Fiasco sets an expectation for failure, liberating players to make bad choices in service to the narrative. From the perspective of improv stories, it’s the polar opposite of D&D. It carefully codifies the process and etiquette of improv theater into a game simple enough that even novice improv players can tell a good story.
The Master of Masters
Upon turning to the preface of the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D, one will find this missive, penned by the man himself Gary Gygax:
“What follows herein is strictly for the eyes of you, the campaign referee. As the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game, this work is written as one Dungeon Master equal to another… As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death… If any of your participants do read herein, it is suggested that you assess them a heavy fee for consulting “sages” and other sources of information not normally attainable by the inhabitants of your milieu. If they express knowledge which could only be garnered by consulting these pages, a magic item or two can be taken as payment – insufficient, but perhaps it will tend to discourage such actions.”
Here the intents, the values, and the biases of the very author of D&D lie exposed. Here is a book containing the very rules of play, the only tools by which players can seize narrative control unchallenged, and the author is expressly forbidding players from even knowing what they are. This authoritarian, self-important, even megalomaniacal streak runs through the very scaffolding of the game as designed by a man who jealously guarded that power. It’s his game, made the way he wants it, and you’d expect no less from the man who designed Tomb of Horrors.
And that central framework is the same one D&D players use today. Little things have changed over the years, things like converting THAC0 to AC, or revising class spell lists. But the DM/player relationship is the very foundation of that power structure, it was put there purposefully by Gary in the beginning to serve his vision, and it remains 100% intact in all versions of D&D. It’s the source of all kinds of long-standing and well-recognized problems: DMs railroad their players when they don’t like where they’re taking the story. DM-owned PCs are often privileged by the DM who is free to arrange the story to feature them while hijacking the story away from players. Players who internalize this lack of narrative power often become passive consumers of the story rather than primary actors. And even well-meaning DMs of such players eventually burn out when the responsibility of spending creative energy rests solely on them.
Many D&D players know – and gleefully quote – the Dead Alewives comedy sketch about the game (“I’m attacking the darkness!”). You’ll find no shortage of recordings, references, mash-ups, even machinima featuring the sketch. Much lesser known is their sequel sketch “Dungeons and Dragons Part 2,” in which the very same characters continue their campaign – and run aground on social turmoil resulting from a trivial disagreement. Give it a listen:
…Well, that was awkward.
It may be intended as humor, but it’s not idle humor. Remember, things are often funny because of the flash of undeniable truth in them. This sketch is the ultimate extrapolation of the structure of the game: from the DM’s sole ability to play fast and loose with the rules, to his insistence that the game be realistic rather than fun for the new player, to his sudden and capricious abandoning of said realism to punish a player doing something he doesn’t like, to the eventual understanding that the game will only be fun when the DM is having fun.
This is the DM/player relationship. And we can write as many DMing advice columns, blog posts, and convention panels as we want to, trying to steer people away from that fate. But the reason we even have to write them in the first place is because the game is not only open to that sort of abuse, but it’s actively enticing for all sorts of reasons, selfish or benign. After all, if you’re being honest with yourself, even you might very well have some mild, but uncomfortable, parallels with this sketch. To be fair, you’re surely not as extreme as all that. But you probably saw a little of yourself in all the memes above, too. Deep down, you know you’ve got some bad habits that you keep meaning to break.
It’s okay. Don’t worry. It’s not you – it’s the game.