Bruce and the DMG, Part 2: The Introduction

The DMG’s introduction comes after a credit’s page and table of contents. I’ll come back to them, but this three-page section lays out a grand plan for the book and says something that I want to give prominent space to up front.

First of all, here as throughout both this volume and the Player’s Handbook, the game talks very directly to the reader:

It’s good to be the Dungeon Master! Not only do you get to tell fantastic stories about heroes, villains, monsters, and magic, but you also get to create the world in which these stories live. Whether you’re running a D&D game already or you think it’s something you want to try, this book is for you.

(I’ll probably come back to assumptions and declarations about the roles of participants in D&D games later, possibly in a separate post. It’s easy for me to come across way grumpier than I intend when writing about some of the game creators’ world’s discussion of these things, so it’ll take more pondering to do right.)

I am profoundly impressed at how much this edition lives up to early promises of supporting a wide range of play styles, preferences, and needs. We begin with an explanation of adventures and campaigns, and the discussion suggests that a great single-session adventure and a great years-long campaign are both worthwhile. It expands on the thought:

Inventing, writing, storytelling, improvising, acting, refereeing – every DM handles these roles differently, and you’ll probably enjoy some more than others. It helps to remember that Dungeons & Dragons is a hobby, and being the DM should be fun. Focus on the aspects you enjoy and downplay the rest. For example, if you don’t like creating your own adventures, you can use published ones. You can also lean on the other players to help you with rules mastery and world-building.

It’s hard to describe just how much of a radical advance this is over the state of roleplaying game writing back when I discovered it in the ’70s. The early norm was a hodge-podge of would-be textbook detached narrative, would-be Vancian or Dunsanian flights of fancy, and a lot of just plain not very good prose. And it was like pulling teeth sometimes to persuade game writers that they ought to talk directly to their players, rather than couching everything in passive-voiced distancing. Heck, the argument about second person’s superiority over third for the kind of instructional writing rulebooks are was still a live issue when I started writing commercially in the ’90s, with long heated denunciations of anyone who dared to get so “casual” as to deal directly with the audience.

In some ways that was part and parcel of the larger struggle to get games written by people willing to admit that they were writing rules for a game, and that this was supposed to be enjoyable, but that it takes collaboration to make it work. Early editions of D&D and other games were loaded with multiple layers of kludge that could have been cleared up with the simple directive, “Talk with players about what you want out of this, and what they like and don’t about play.” There were whole racks of monsters that existed purely to punish players being too thorough or insufficient thorough or incorrectly thorough in their search descriptions, that could have been cleared up with a few sentences from the DM like “Let’s talk about how much game time and effort we want to dedicate to standard searching, and what level of caution seems fun for everyone.” And so forth and so on. There’s a frequently frustrated mid-teens gamer in me who relaxes at reading passages like the one quoted above, and at all they imply.

The introduction divides this book into three parts: Master of Worlds, Master of Adventures, and Master of Rules. Each gets a few paragraphs of overview. A couple highlights:

Every DM is the creator of his or her own campaign world. Whether you invent a world, adapt a world from a favorite movie or novel, or use a published setting for the D&D game, you make that world your own over the course of a campaign.

That’s entirely true, and something that it’s sometimes difficult to persuade gamers of. Certainly we had problems in White Wolf games convincing readers that we didn’t just want them to make whatever stock elements they used their own, but that we saw it as an inevitability, that their own chronicles would necessarily become their own. It’s true of every production of a play or performance of a work of music, and gaming has the potential for much deeper alteration and customization than many kinds of creative effort.

Also, there’ve always been vocal contingents of gamers who like to loudly insist that using someone else’s resources of setting, plot, etc., condemns a game group to inferior status. It makes me happy to see all the various possibilities treated with equal dignity as creators.

As a referee, the DM acts as a mediator between the rules and the players. A player tells the DM what he or she wants to do, and the DM tells the player whether it is successful or not, in some cases asking the player to make a die roll to determine success.

“Mediator between the rules and the players”….that works for me, for sure. I’ve sometimes said that I think of published rules as input into the game that the group creates in its play, and 5e seems to share the same general outlook. (When I write about the credits, I’ll have some to say about individual and collective authorship; for now, know that I generally like to refer to what the game says as opposed to what some particular author says, particularly in multi-author efforts, because the end result is a distinctive thing of its own. Sometimes I make an exception when I do know just who wrote which part, sometimes not.)

The last page of the introduction, Know Your Players, gets at something I think is crucially important, and does so in a very understated way. It discusses things players like to do in the course of a D&D game, including acting, exploring, instigating, fighting, optimizing, problem solving, and storytelling. Each one gets a few bullet points, like this:

Players who desire exploration want to experience the wonders that a fantasy world has to offer. They want to know what’s around the next corner or hill. They also like to find hidden clues and treasure.

Engage players who like exploration by….

  • dropping clues that hint at things yet to come.
  • letting them find things when they take the time to explore.
  • providing rich descriptions of exciting environments, and using interesting maps and props.
  • giving monsters secrets to uncover or cultural details to learn.

Likewise with each of the other sources of enjoyment in play.

What makes me happy is a particular kind of thing that isn’t here: there are no isms. Nobody is an explorationist; it’s just that some players really like exploration, while others don’t. The focus here is on things people do while gaming, not things they are.

My experience of gaming theory and analysis is that building categories around identities is a good way to send the whole thing straight into useless argument. People get defensive about identities, and why not? Identities matter. But poorly defined identities end up cutting their holders off from possible enjoyments, while committing them to stuff they may not like but that’s part of the identity as they understand it. This isn’t just a gaming problem, of course, it happens wherever an identity gets nailed down where it might not really be the most helpful way to think about a category.

The approach 5e takes here (and throughout the book) encourages experimentation, and allows room for changing preferences over time. It also fosters a cooperative rather than competitive spirit to the group’s shared experience – we can add some of this without necessarily ruining that or the other, because there’s no intrinsic competition. None of these preferences in terms that require them to work at the expense of another.

To sum up, this is the kind of foundation that I’d like all RPGs to have in their advice. It’s clear, flexible, encouraging, connected to inspirations in other media, and just plain good-natured.

Bruce and the DMG, Part 2: The Introduction

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