Balancing the DM's role as movie director vs living game engine

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I have a mostly board gaming background and being relatively new to D&D, I have been surprised just how philosophically different it is from board games. Board games are fundamentally about providing a fun and replayable way to fairly declare a winner. This tends to lead towards strict adherence to the rules as written and games are shunned/considered "broken" if balance issues give one player an advantage over another. D&D is perhaps more aptly compared to co-op board games where the players work together to beat the game but again, it's about declaring a winner and the players are fundamentally playing against an algorithm, or perhaps one player represents the "game".

D&D on the other hand seems to be more about richness of experience. The win/lose aspect of combat appears to be more about providing a risk/reward framework to encourage player investment in the character(s) they are playing than about actual winning or losing.

In D&D, the DM seems to have (at least) these roles:

  1. Bureaucrat - The DM is effectively responsible for turning the crank on the game engine, to ensure the rules adherence and procedural correctness of the game's progression.

  2. Director - The DM also has a role - that doesn't exist in board games - that is highly creative and seems almost like a movie director. They are responsible for the pacing and general cinematic experience of the player's experience in the overall story arc/path/campaign/adventure.

As a DM, how do you balance these roles? In your experience, when is it important to adhere to D&D rules and when is it ok to be flexible? Are some areas of the rules more important than others?
D&D is perhaps more aptly compared to co-op board games where the players work together to beat the game but again, it's about declaring a winner and the players are fundamentally playing against an algorithm, or perhaps one player represents the "game".

Cooperative boardgames are a good example. Unless they're utterly unbeatable, they're usually fun even when the players are losing.

D&D on the other hand seems to be more about richness of experience. The win/lose aspect of combat appears to be more about providing a risk/reward framework to encourage player investment in the character(s) they are playing than about actual winning or losing.

Maybe that was the intent, but I've never seen it do a good job of that. If there's much actual risk, players react by divesting themselves, and treating the character as a disposable playing piece.

In D&D, the DM seems to have (at least) these roles:

    Bureaucrat - The DM is effectively responsible for turning the crank on the game engine, to ensure the rules adherence and procedural correctness of the game's progression.

The DM is not a computer plugged into the rules. That's what some players want, but those players should just play a video game instead.

    Director - The DM also has a role - that doesn't exist in board games - that is highly creative and seems almost like a movie director. They are responsible for the pacing and general cinematic experience of the player's experience in the overall story arc/path/campaign/adventure.

Everyone is responsible for those things. The DM is not a director, because the DM does not have a cast.

As a DM, how do you balance these roles? In your experience, when is it important to adhere to D&D rules and when is it ok to be flexible? Are some areas of the rules more important than others?

It is absolutely necessary to be flexible at all times. The rules are only necessary when no one has any idea how something should turn out or when no one can agree on how something should turn out. I hesitate to say, as I've seen others do, that the "story" is more important than the "rules," but the rules are definitely not the laws of physics and if something can be determined without reference to them, it might as well be.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

As a DM, how do you balance these roles? In your experience, when is it important to adhere to D&D rules and when is it ok to be flexible? Are some areas of the rules more important than others?



When it would create an experience that is more fun than if you didn't.  Everything I do as a DM is done in order to create, or lead to, either directly or indirectly, the most fun experience possible for everyone at my table.  Imo that's all anyone should care about.

I wouldn't even say there's a balance.  You need to be flexible all the time, because it gives you the freedom to adapt in a game of arguably infinite possibilities.  But if you're unsure, feed off your players, theyll quickly give you an idea if they strongly prefer one method over another.



We need Waffles...  Lots of Waffles...

The DM is not a computer plugged into the rules. That's what some players want, but those players should just play a video game instead.



Just because I am a big advocate of pointing this out...

"There is no wrong way to play D&D..." Unless you want this thing, in which case, get out of the hobby, right? Awesome.

What a wonderful message. Thanks for that, Centauri. Any other kind of players you'd like to single out as wrongbad and deserving of exile from D&D?

As for the OP:

I balance the two portions by realizing that the Director role need not be the director...but rather the "medium". To clarify, the two roles to me are more like "Video game" and "Monitor"...a process at work, and a means by which the results of that process is delivered. To whit, the best methodology is to have an "engine" that is well crafted, consistent and without any major glitches. The DM has to deliver the rules and the rules system in a fair, consistent and logical manner and strive to self-improve in all those categories. Stagnance will undoubtedly lead to degradation of those things (the myth of "the plateau").

Simultaneously, video game systems boast about their graphics for a reason. For a DM, that is their ability to communicate. To bring to life the world. Through how you describe things (either verbally or even with images, props, etc) you create the medium by which the PCs experience the game. You are the graphics engine and the monitor. When this is done well enough, and the world is consistent, the players will not need a "director" they will simply need the game to keep generating and showing content. Players, when given freedom with actual support, they rarely have any problem self-motivating. Of course, a DM should help with that and help them set up their characters initially and encourage their motivations...but, after that, the DMs "help" too often becomes "direction"...and the DM is not a director. They need not "direct"...because directing is a form of control and control of actions need to remain the domain of the players.

I'm on a journey of enlightenment, learning and self-improvement. A journey towards mastery. A journey that will never end. If you challenge me, prepare to be challenged. If you have something to offer as a fellow student, I will accept it. If you call yourself a master, prepare to be humbled. If you seek me, look to the path. I will be traveling it.

 

Proudly playing in many wrong ways. I'm not afraid of playing wrong according to the rules. Why are you?

 

100 Crack Reply of the Yagamifire. You are already wrong.

But if you're unsure, feed off your players, theyll quickly give you an idea if they strongly prefer one method over another.

Yep. Every wish, guess or assumption the players make can be interpreted as a desire for the game to go a particular direction. Why not take it in that direction for them? Listen also to their fears. Are they really afraid of a particular bad thing happening? Or are they only afraid that they, as players or characters, will be the one to trigger it?

And consider not just listening, but actively asking.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

As a DM, how do you balance these roles? In your experience, when is it important to adhere to D&D rules and when is it ok to be flexible? Are some areas of the rules more important than others?



It's important to know that in an RPG context and especially with more narrativist-leaning games like 4e which I notice you play, the DM can act as a director and editor for the purposes of scene-framing and pacing. (What I don't want is for the DM to be the writer. That's when player choice is subverted and that's not my thing.) Scene-framing is about setting up the scene to be played according to the players' choices for their characters, helping to identify and develop the agenda of the scene (the dramatic question based on the characters' goals, "the stakes"), and then setting the scene in motion with some kind of compelling bang. When the dramatic question has been answered usually by way of the mechanics, the DM calls for an end to the scene. (I do this by asking if everyone feels it's time to move on.)

As an editor, you collaborate with the players on which scenes get "screen-time" and which do not. This is when you snip away any of the boring bits so you have more table time for stuff with compelling action and drama. A lot of new DMs (or old DMs with bad habits) can linger in good scenes too long, making them drag and diminishing their impact. Or they can focus too much on scenes that have little to no drama at all until a PC sets the tavern on fire. I'm sure we've all been in a shopping or "questgiver" scene that didn't need to be there and, even if it did, went on too long. Save that stuff for the director's cut of the DVD.

The nice thing about this is that the rules actually help you do this by coming into play during dramatic situations and going away when there's not a dramatic situation. Not every lie is a Bluff check, just the ones that speak to the dramatic question. Not every climb is an Athletics check, if there's no external pressure on the PCs that needs to be resolved. Not every lock requires a Thievery roll if the heroes aren't acting under fire. You're not making checks when engaged in mundane tasks like using rope or cooking - you're making checks when something's on the line that really matters to the PCs and the fantastical situation in which they find themselves.

I mention this because a lot of DMs think they're being "flexible" or "ignoring" the rules when chances are, they're not! They're doing what the system (4e, anyway) expects only they perceive that the rules are saying they should be used more than they are called for. In my experience, many DMs ask for way too many rolls pursuing simulation than in resolving meaningful conflict. I attribute this mostly to tradition and in the seeming need for mechanical justification in saying "Yes, and..." to a player's idea. When you act as a collaborative director and editor with the players, you can cut out the dead time (and the practically meaningless rolls that usually accompany it) between compelling situations and interesting, meaningful choices. This has the effect of keeping tight pacing full of action and drama which works well for a heroic fantasy game (and I don't just mean fights). Not surprisingly, it makes for a very cinematic game experience, a movie that everyone (plus dice) had a hand in creating.

Previous editions of the game do have a stronger focus on the simulation even in mundane situations and so you may find that DMs who run games with those rulesets come with a different perspective. Such games can have cinematic outcomes, but this isn't necessarily part of the game's primary agenda of exploration and immersion by simulation.

For any decision or adjudication, ask yourself, "Is this going to be fun for everyone?" and "Is this going to lead to the creation of an exciting, memorable story?"

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I have a mostly board gaming background and being relatively new to D&D, I have been surprised just how philosophically different it is from board games. Board games are fundamentally about providing a fun and replayable way to fairly declare a winner. This tends to lead towards strict adherence to the rules as written and games are shunned/considered "broken" if balance issues give one player an advantage over another. D&D is perhaps more aptly compared to co-op board games where the players work together to beat the game but again, it's about declaring a winner and the players are fundamentally playing against an algorithm, or perhaps one player represents the "game".

D&D on the other hand seems to be more about richness of experience. The win/lose aspect of combat appears to be more about providing a risk/reward framework to encourage player investment in the character(s) they are playing than about actual winning or losing.

In D&D, the DM seems to have (at least) these roles:

  1. Bureaucrat - The DM is effectively responsible for turning the crank on the game engine, to ensure the rules adherence and procedural correctness of the game's progression.

  2. Director - The DM also has a role - that doesn't exist in board games - that is highly creative and seems almost like a movie director. They are responsible for the pacing and general cinematic experience of the player's experience in the overall story arc/path/campaign/adventure.

As a DM, how do you balance these roles? In your experience, when is it important to adhere to D&D rules and when is it ok to be flexible? Are some areas of the rules more important than others?



The DM is all that and more. He is adjudicator, game engine, narrator, movie director, and so on. It's important to make sure you approach things as neutrally as you can, but remember the goal is always to have fun. Flex when it keeps the game moving then correct later if need be. Adhere to rules when you know them.

I do not advocate what many others here will though. I view the shoving of the DM's responsibilities on the players as laziness on part of the DM at least and at worst a resentment at having to be the DM in the first place (if you don't enjoy it, be a player instead. If you have no choice, simply don't do it). 

When you are DM, your goal is to create a living breathing world for your players to muck around in. Sometimes the world is small and confined within certain points of time and space and others it's large and explorable. As DM, have fun learning to do every little aspect of the job as well as you can. Because you are more than a jack of all trades. For you must be a master of all trades. 
My username should actually read: Lunar Savage (damn you WotC!) *Tips top hat, adjusts monocle, and walks away with cane* and yes, that IS Mr. Peanut laying unconscious on the curb. http://asylumjournals.tumblr.com/
As a DM, how do you balance these roles? In your experience, when is it important to adhere to D&D rules and when is it ok to be flexible? Are some areas of the rules more important than others?



I'm with Centauri on this in that adhering to the rules is only important when no one at the table knows what the rules are.  That being said, I am far more inclined to make something up based on what I know and encouraging my players to input their feelings and interpretations too (extrapolating the current "rare" event rules from more common event rules) - erring on the side of the players - to keep the game moving along rather than taking the time (in session) to look up the rules.   If I feel the situation will come up again, I research the rules between sessions.  This might mean a reversal of my in session ruling, but my players are aware this might happen and accept it.

 

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The cool thing is, you don't even NEED a reason to say yes.  Just stop looking for a reason to say no.
As a DM, how do you balance these roles? In your experience, when is it important to adhere to D&D rules and when is it ok to be flexible? Are some areas of the rules more important than others?



I'm with Centauri on this in that adhering to the rules is only important when no one at the table knows what the rules are.  That being said, I am far more inclined to make something up based on what I know and encouraging my players to input their feelings and interpretations too (extrapolating the current "rare" event rules from more common event rules) - erring on the side of the players - to keep the game moving along rather than taking the time (in session) to look up the rules.   If I feel the situation will come up again, I research the rules between sessions.  This might mean a reversal of my in session ruling, but my players are aware this might happen and accept it.



agreed. This is always the best way to do it. Cracking open books during a session is rarely worth the effort.

I'm on a journey of enlightenment, learning and self-improvement. A journey towards mastery. A journey that will never end. If you challenge me, prepare to be challenged. If you have something to offer as a fellow student, I will accept it. If you call yourself a master, prepare to be humbled. If you seek me, look to the path. I will be traveling it.

 

Proudly playing in many wrong ways. I'm not afraid of playing wrong according to the rules. Why are you?

 

100 Crack Reply of the Yagamifire. You are already wrong.


I do not advocate what many others here will though. I view the shoving of the DM's responsibilities on the players as laziness on part of the DM at least and at worst a resentment at having to be the DM in the first place (if you don't enjoy it, be a player instead. If you have no choice, simply don't do it). 
 


There seems to be a thought that players can somehow automatically generate quality content, that also is of interest to the other players, while the other players are also somehow generating content that all the other players find engaging. It seems to me that this would generate a disjointed and homogenous world setting. 

Flex when it keeps the game moving then correct later if need be. Adhere to rules when you know them.



Quite possibly one of the best pieces of advice one can give a new DM in my book
Thanks everyone for all the thought provoking replies - it's greatly appreciated!
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