Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Faux-Adversarial Dungeon Master


               I have seen many a discussion on Facebook groups, YouTube, and Blogs that there are different styles of being a Dungeon Master. One style that is often looked upon negatively is the Adversarial Dungeon Master. This is a Dungeon Master that feels they are in competition with the players and one of their objectives is to “beat the players” often resulting in a total party kill. It is often stated that the Dungeon Master must be a fan of the characters and be there as a supporter of the characters. Some with an older mindset might feel that the Dungeon Master is a neutral arbiter basically calling “balls and strikes” in the fantasy world that is created. But what if you project the aura of an Adversarial Dungeon Master, while really supporting the players in the long run?

                Let us be clear from the get-go that if a Dungeon Master wants to kill a party, they will have not an ounce of difficultly in doing so. No amount of clever play will save you or amazing build for a character will survive. If the DM is out to get you, you are going to die. For all intents and purposes the DM is god in the game, and that give them the ability to interject deadlier challenges until the PCs die, they cannot be defeated. I think this fear exists in every player that the DM at some point could turn against them and it is all over. As Dungeon Masters, we can use this to make a more exciting game.

                We can take on the mantle of the Faux-Adversarial Dungeon Master. What do I mean by this? Oftentimes in my game I will state things like, “Oh, you are going to die now.” Or maybe, “I am going to kill your character.” I FULLY have no intention on doing so, but this makes the player fell there is a viable threat. I become the makeshift “enemy” and they then become the team that is opposing me. This bonds them together. When I then make the proclamation, “You guys are not walking away from this fight!” They have that slight moment of fear, but when they overcome that obstacle, that the all-powerful DM said they could not win, they feel like they really accomplished something.

Give the players this look and make them think twice.

                I first noticed this phenomenon when I was playing dungeon crawl-like board games that have a competitive edge to the game. I am talking about games like HeroQuest, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, and Descent. These games mimic the Dungeon Master and player relationship of an RPG, but the difference is that the Dungeon Master is on their own side and out to win. In these games I was almost always the DM figure role. I noticed that players started calling me names, like “Dirty Imperial Scum” or “Bastard Sorcerer”. I became the personification of their enemy in the game because I was it. I was there to try and win, because if I won, I got cool stuff in the game too. This led to me playing hard to win and really pushing the players if they wanted to win. I remember playing Imperial Assault and I won the first 3 missions; I was killing it. The fourth mission they managed to win with only one character left on the board. The Rebel players literally jumped out of their seats they were so excited. High fiving each other and rubbing it in my face.

                The difference between these two situations though is that the power of the Dungeon Master role in the board games is limited by the rules. The power that is afforded a Dungeon Master in an RPG is virtually unlimited. The idea of the board game is that it is an equal playing field between the two groups whereas in a traditional RPG there is a clear imbalance in the way the power dynamic is structured. Thus, some kid gloves need to be applied. You cannot use this tactic when the players are already almost down and out. You cannot use this tactic on a player that has already had a string of terrible luck. You can use this tactic when the players are fully rested and ready-to-go. You can use this tactic when the players have a string of good luck. A basic guideline is to not pile-on the player or group but antagonize them a bit when they feel superior or immune from harm.

                Bottom line is that I want my players to be successful and I want their characters to do well and grow. I do not want it to be easy for them, because the struggle is the fun. I want my players to have ups and downs, but always feel like their character’s life could be in danger. If I must tease them a bit to make the win feel good, I will. Remember that a dramatic statement like, “I going after you, because I want you to die,” and a roll to hit out from behind the DM’s screen will add tons of tension to the game. Push on your players a bit, but do not push too hard.

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  1. Bingo. Make them worried for their lives, otherwise, what's the point?

    1. Yes, and this doesn't mean coddle them either. Sometimes characters die, but with that always be fair.