On Being Forced Against Your Will

What is best in Dungeon Mastering?

One navel gazing post on Friday is the deal, but Nooooooo. Stupid (but really brilliant and incredibly smart) Beedo (of Dreams in the Liche House) and Ckutalik (of Hill Cantons) want to ask questions about GM "Best Practices". Apparently someone works in corporate.

Also: This just happens to be something I know all the hell about.

Three "Best Practices"

1) The most important thing you can do as any kind of game master or designer is to NOT REMOVE PLAYER AGENCY.

Player agency is the single most important factor of a satisfying game.

I should point out that games that have little player agency (Cosmic Encounter for instance) can be quite fun. What they do not support is long term memorable campaigns.

What is player agency? Two things. Does the player have choices? and more importantly do those choices matter?

Walking down the hall and popped by a trap? No player agency if the trap was just checked for by some roll the players had no control over. Minimal player agency if the player could put points into a find traps/perception/spot skill. Great player agency, if all traps are visible, and the players have to make choices on how to bypass the traps. Examples of how to use player agency in play.

Things that remove player agency. Fudging dice rolls. Using a magician's switch. Engaging in palette shifting. (see comments)

2) Remember that the point is to have fun. There are two key critical factors to this.
  • A) Fun does not mean that everything goes the party's way - sometimes it means bad things (including TPK's) happen, because things that are not guaranteed, like success, are important. And having the choice you make matter is fun.
  • B) Pay attention to what your party is asking, and do not shut them down. Don't say no, explain what that's going to take to do, or who they will have to talk with to find out what to do.

Again for emphasis.

Don't Say No.

Pay Attention to what your players are really asking for.

Give them everything they ask for, and three things they don't.

3) Have some fun with the game. Ham up your NPC's. Speak in funny accents. Remember to not expect your players to treat the NPC's like real people, but have them react like real people and comment on the craziness of the players. Remember that all these comments are for entertainment value, to make everyone laugh, and enjoy the NPC - not be difficult or obtuse for the sake of teaching lessons.Have them provide some post modern commentary on events.

Have the NPC's have wildly differing character traits, like the Kuo-Toa, who are really cool, like frat dudes, who have some non-specific plan for taking over the surface world. When the party attacks, they scream and ask, "BLUBWHHY ARE-GARBLE YOU GUYS SUCH DICKS?!!"

Beedo covered several important logistical things in his post - Describing the most important thing down to the least important, and keeping things vague until they are examined. Track time.

What is important to remember, is that the point is to have fun. If you find yourself ever trying to do anything next other than make it more entertaining, then you're wrong for that. It is important never to forget you are guys hanging out in a room, just because you're a DM, doesn't mean you're the boss of them - just responsible for their enjoyment.


  1. Fudging Dice Rolls: Changing the result of any dice rolls, either with or without player knowledge. You're free to disregard a treasure that is illogical, or or any rolls in prep. But once at the table, if a monster does 14 damage, and the character has 7 hit points - it happened move on.

    Magician's Switch: There is a lever. If they leave it alone, the trap isn't disarmed. If they pull it, the trap becomes armed. If it doesn't matter what they do, then why are you wasting their time? Go play a video game.

    Pallet Shifting: There are bandit's to the west of town. The players go east. They run into orcs (who have just the same stats as the bandits and lead to the same adventure) This is a crafty form of illusionism. Note: The players went east because they wanted to do something else. Give them something else to do.

  2. I like it - I can get behind agency, don't say no, ham it up. Good stuff.

  3. If you only have 1 idea of what to do with a party, running the game isn't for you. And it's not just the little decisions of player agency. If said party goes east instead of dealing with what was in the west/north/south, then what was in the west is probably going to get MUCH worse by ignoring the situation.


  4. I agree, player agency is important and pallet shifting is lame.

  5. On pallet shifting: I had one of my players--a GM in a 3.5 game-- in yesterday's EPT game when encountering some symmetry in one of my room complexes proudly say that he always uses that very thing all the time. He routinely switches the rooms around to lead players to the "right areas".

    IMO this really undermines player agency to a high degree. If choices are just illusions, why bother with the illusion?

  6. Ckutalik: What is this, I don't even. . .

    Does he even know how wrong he is? Can he tell you what the "Right Areas" are? What does that even mean?

    My mind has just been blown. . . full of ignorant.

  7. Can you give an example of a magician's switch? I don't understand. How would you like them to try to disarm a trap if not with a skill?

  8. Yes. A magician's switch is a switch that does nothing. For example.

    There is a lever. There is a trap. If the players pull the lever, it arms the trap. If the players don't pull the lever, the trap isn't disarmed. Either way, the trap is set off.

    It's a specific form of illusionism where a false choice (a magician's switch) is presented, to misdirect the participants attention from the fact that they have no control over the outcome.

    "Pick a card, any card"

  9. Also: Claytonian - in my games, finding and removing traps are not done with 'skills'.

    Rolling a die has nothing to do with how a trap is detected. If they don't want to explain how they are disabling the mechanism, or if the trigger is magical and they are a thief (not a subclass that can disarm traps) they may roll to disable traps. Those with the find traps skill treat that skill as a bonus saving throw to avoid setting off the trap.

    I have a weekly trap (and a nice tricks, traps, and empty rooms document) where I discuss various traps and how to make sure that they rely on player agency.

  10. Heck, some of the best adventure ideas come from listening to the players.

  11. This was kind of glossed over above. When the players ask for something, what they are doing is giving you the adventure. You give them exactly what they want, and tie two or three problems along with it. This creates depth in the campaign (it seems more like a living world) and creates gameplay that is entirely player driven.

  12. Hey, I know this is an old post but I'm bored at work, digging through the archives and I wanted to say thanks! This gave me the reality check I needed in terms of how I'm going wrong with my players. I guess after 17 years there is still a lot to learn, hard as it may be to admit.


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