Saturday, July 28, 2012

Threat Level and Masturbatory Dice Rolling

Question -- am I (as the DM) responsible for my player's fun?

Answer -- I don't think I am.  I don't think I can handle that kind of pressure.

There was a time when I would have said the answer was "Yes."  Now, I just don't feel that way.

Why did I bring this up?  Well, a dear friend and I were talking about gaming.  Just in passing.  He was over for a gathering and on his way out we talked about our respective game tables.

He plays Burning Wheel (I don't).  I run Labyrinth Lord.

I think it's fair to say that there are a lot of differences between our game nights.  :)

Anyway, he was talking about how difficult it is to balance "threat level" in my game.  If the challenge is too hard, the PCs die.  Too easy and it's just "masturbatory dice throwing."

Please know, I have nothing but respect and positive feelings toward my friend.  We just feel differently about our games.

I can't be responsible for my player's fun. 

Does that sound bad?  I hope not.  

Each game night, I am prepared to referee, GM and otherwise impartially arbitrate their explorations, adventures and battles.

If they choose to battle kobolds on level 1, who am I to judge.  Go for it.  Enjoy.

If they choose to fight vampires, demons, golems and all manner of horrifying traps.  Go for it.  Enjoy.

If things are too easy, I'll do my best to keep things lively.  I'll try to move through the tedious parts as quickly as possible.  I'll try to optimize the experience so that things don't drag too much.  But I'm gonna roll those dice.  Do you remember that 20's always hit?  Little by little I might just weaken you with those pathetic kobolds and then, well, who knows...

If you're in over your head, I'll do my best to kill you quickly.  I'll try to optimize my attacks to be as lethal as possible.  If you get incapacitated, your fellow adventurers can drag you out of the dungeon (if they'd like).  You can always run...

The bottom line for me is, the world is out there.  Some stuff is easy.  Some stuff is really hard.  Some is "just right."

Decide what and where you want to adventure.  Be prepared for anything.  

I try to be.


Daddy Grognard said...

No DM is responsible for the players' fun. As you've said, it's just another source of pressure on top of all the other pressures associated with DMing. Consider; if you were holding a party, you'd be responsible for the drinks, the snacks, the music, but if Steve arrives just having had a bust-up with his girlfriend, does that mean you have to work to cheer him up otherwise the party will be a failure? Of course not. The responsibility to enjoy (or not) the party lies entirely with Steve. You've done your best.

Similarly, as you've said, a player enters into a kind of informal contract with the DM when they sit down at the table. They bring their brains, their dice and their mini (if applicable) to the table and they trust you to run a fair game. Fair, not fun. The fun is the product of the interaction between the DM and the players. As long as the DM has supplied a lively, well-structured and fair milieu, all should be well. If it's not, then the lack is on the part of the player and that's something for which the DM can't plan. Everybody has down days and bad evenings and if a player is off their game one night, they may be back on the following week and having fun again. The DM hasn't changed the game, the player's attitude has altered.

Of course, the above only applies where the group gets together primarily to game, rather than to socialise. If the gamers are buddies first and the gaming is an aspect of their identity, then anything that spoils the social aspect of the evening is going to suck; that's when the DM ceases to be an impartial arbitrator and has to keep Steve happy because otherwise Steve isn't going to come back next week and will stop being friends with everybody.

I've had to perhaps go a little easier on the members of my kids' group because they don't have the emotional maturity to handle the vicissitudes of the dice; I don't fudge but I do perhaps let the hand of fate come down that little bit lighter. As they grow up, they may realise that these things happen and it's not the end of the world.

Jim said...

@Daddy Grognard -- Thank you for the comment. It's nice to know I'm not totally off base here. I agree that with kids (I sometimes play with my grandkids) you have to go a bit easier. I even accept the fact that I might need to be a bit more of the "fun maker" on these occasions, because they are new to the whole game. :)

Alex Schroeder said...

I think the attitude arose out of the fact that with newer editions of the game, the mechanical aspects of prep started to build up, and at the same time modules ended up very linear, and even if they were not obviously linear (like Red Hand of Doom) then the significant power increase from level to level and thus the increased difficulty of swerving off the planned track all led dungeon masters like me to believe that we were responsible for providing the right threat level. It took some exposure to dungeon design, sandbox design, a return to threat levels chosen by players based on conventions (dungeon level) or information provided by the referee (rumors for the wilderness) before I understood that I could leave the decision about the threat level of the session up to the players. What a relief it was!

Alex Schroeder said...

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Anonymous said...

I read your initial Q and A and... I have to say I find the question odd, and the answer you give surprising.

Personally, I've always felt a level of responsibility to the table for their enjoyment. But, then, I've never really held DnD as "Serious Business", and it's always been a social activity for me and the groups I've been in. So in that party example, I /would/ feel the need to comfort a friend who just broke up with his girlfriend, and would think anyone who didn't feel that way was a pretty crappy friend.

Which isn't to say I think the onus is entirely on the Gm side of the table. The players bear a certain responsibility for their own (and the other players too) enjoyment of the game.

Anonymous said...

I often think about threat level in my games and player enjoyment and I think to a large extent players are not that concerned and enjoy masturbatory dice a DM it plucks my strings a bit if things are way too easy but I am learning to deal with it better ;) I have been experimenting with adding challenge to encounters that doesn't involve increasing the threat level of the monsters through having alternative goals for either the players or monsters to accomplish that doesn't necessarily involve reducing a side to 0 hp