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© 1998-2001 Dru Pagliassotti
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Ask Not for Whom the Die Rolls...


When the Dungeonmaster sits across from the players and starts a game, s/he becomes, simultaneously, cooperative storyteller, impartial judge, and ruthless opponent. The DM must tell an entertaining story, make fair decisions about the characters' actions, and present the characters with challenge and danger. These three duties often conflict, and never more so than when a character's life hangs in the balance.
AD&D was designed first as a war game and second as a roleplaying game. Although its war-game roots are often forgotten, that war-gaming legacy remains—for better or for worse—in the game's emphasis on combat. AD&D's supplementary books are filled with rules for combat and new monsters to fight, and its printed modules always contain a climactic battle at the end of the adventure. And, of course, where there is combat, there is death. A good DM doesn't like to kill off characters, but realizes that the threat of death is one of the primary things that makes players' hearts pound and keeps the game exciting and challenging. If that threat is removed, the game often becomes less interesting, the victories less valuable. But how can a DM strike a balance between making the dungeon a cakewalk and making it a deathtrap?


Setting the Stage: What the DM Can Control. When a DM plans a dungeon, s/he should always carefully study the NPCs' abilities, possessions, and spells. Nothing should be included in the dungeon if the DM isn't willing to accept the potential results of its inclusion. Does a monster have a save-or-die poison? Very well—is the DM ready to potentially kill off one or more characters with that poison? If the answer is no, then the DM should get rid of the monster or reduce the potency of the poison to cause an effect other than death (e.g., damage, paralysis, or incapacitation). Does the mage have a Disintegrate spell? Very well—is the DM ready to disintegrate a character, realizing that it will take something along the lines of a Resurrection or a Wish to bring the character back into the game? If the answer is no, then the DM should cross out the spell and substitute it with something less devastating. It's not wrong to keep the threat of instant death in the dungeon, but it is wrong to keep it in the dungeon without weighing its potential effect on the game. As a general rule of thumb, the monsters should not be able to kill the characters any faster than the characters can kill the monsters—especially when there are more monsters than there are characters (and isn't that always the case?).
Moreover, traps, spells, or abilities that will cause instant death or some other permanently debilitating effect should usually be foreshadowed. The characters should be able to learn about the danger by doing preliminary research before entering the dungeon ("Rumors have it that there's a basilisk living in the area"); by talking to a denizen inside the dungeon ("Goblins afraid of bad mage, bad mage turns goblins to dust!"); or by recognizing the monster before it has a chance to use its deadly attack ("The ugly swamp-creature has a long neck and smells awful—it could be the legendary catoblepas you have heard about, whose gaze can strike a man dead"). Alternatively, the adventurers could be given somewhat less warning by seeing the ability used in combat against the villain's unruly minion ("You made me miss! Taste the edge of my mighty Vorpal Blade, you miserable lackey!"), an NPC ("Augh, my henchman is turning into green slime!"), or a PC who has the best chance of surviving the attack ("Well, your magical protections helped you resist, but for a moment it felt like your soul was being drawn out of your flesh."). Give the characters a glimpse of what horrible fate lies in store for them if they fail—it will build suspense and make the players sweat a little. Once fair warning has been given, however, don't hesitate to use the ability against the characters. After all, they were warned—it's up to them to decide whether to face the threat or run away!
Although it's best to plan for most contingencies before running the dungeon, sometimes the DM needs to make adjustments on the fly to keep the adventure interesting. After all, only the DM knows the layout of the dungeon, the number of opponents in an area, and those opponents' hit points, spells, and abilities. Is a combat going too easily for the characters? Bring in a few more monsters or give the villain an extra Potion of Healing. Is a combat going too hard for them? Avoid bringing in the reserves or mentally cut a few spells from the evil mage's repertoire. Most DMs have, at one point or another, altered a dungeon or a monster to present a greater challenge to characters who are getting off too easily; less common but equally as important is to alter a dungeon or a monster to keep from killing the characters off, if one or more have fallen and the party as a whole is at risk of being obliterated. The goal is to make adventures challenging but fun.

Rolling the Dice: What the DM Can't Control. AD&D, unlike some newer roleplaying systems, is a game in which chance plays as big a role as skill. More often than not a character's fate hangs on the roll of the dice—does the monster hit? Does the character make a saving throw? Does the spell cause too much damage? Although DMs can't control their players' rolls, they can choose to roll their own dice in a way that will either maintain or mediate the element of chance. The most important thing is that the DM choose a die-rolling style and remain consistent throughout the game.
Some DMs believe that after they have set up a fair adventure everything should depend on the characters' actions and the luck of the dice. These DMs may make some or all of their rolls in front of the players. The most critical rolls to make public are combat rolls, saving throws, and damage dice—the rolls that will determine the characters' or villains' fates. Less important rolls, like proficiency rolls and morale checks, can be kept hidden. The advantage to public die-rolling is that the players know that everything is being run impartially—that to a great extent their fates have been left to Fate. The disadvantage to public die-rolling is that the dice don't care about the storyline. If the archvillain fails a saving throw against instant death in the first round of combat, so be it—his sudden demise may be anticlimactic, but it's honest. Similarly, if the damage from the fireball is going to kill the spotlighted character moments before she rescues her imprisoned father, then it does—the DM can't drop a few pips from the die to spare the character's life and increase the drama.
Other DMs prefer to give themselves a chance to put the storyline over the die roll; they hide their rolls behind a screen of some sort. Doing this permits the DM to hide the level of an opponent by keeping its THAC0 or saving throws secret and to fudge a roll that might otherwise ruin the storyline—perhaps by turning a miss into a hit, a failed save into a success, or a deadly amount of damage into something simply crippling. On the other hand, the disadvantage to rolling behind a screen is that players may feel that either they or the monsters are "getting away with something"—that the game is rigged. Of course the game is rigged—it's roleplaying, not roulette—but when the characters start feeling concerned about it, the DM should consider making at least the most critical rolls public.


Dealing with Stupidity: What the DM Shouldn't Control. Players are ultimately responsible for their characters' actions. They must decide whether their characters stick around or run away, develop new strategies to deal with a dangerous opponent or stick with their tried-and-true methods. If the adventurers have found themselves in a deadly situation yet ignore the chance to run away—well, there's a limit to how much the DM should do to preserve their lives. Trying to maintain an entertaining storyline is one thing—allowing oneself to be a pushover is another.
If the DM thinks a player hasn't quite thought through all of the ramifications of an action, s/he should issue a warning ("You realize that if you misjudge that spell's area of effect, you're going to catch all your friends in it, right?") or a clarification ("So what you're telling me is that you're going to try to broad-jump across that 60-foot-wide chasm with the stream of molten lava flowing through it at the bottom?"). Of course the DM shouldn't give away information that the character would have no way of knowing (e.g., that there's an invisible Wall of Force in the middle of the chasm that will deflect the character's jump), but double-checking a patently dangerous or idiotic manuever gives the player some benefit of the doubt and helps avoid after-the-fact arguments ("Well, if I'd known the chasm was 60 feet wide...."). If the player insists on taking the course of action, the DM should shrug and roll the dice, letting the character suffer the consequences. Killing a character because s/he did something stupid is never a violation of one's responsibilities as a DM. Fudging the rules to let a character survive such a manuever, however, may be.


What all of this leads up to is one of the dark secrets of DMing: Sometimes DMs fudge. The game is not always objective. The rules are not always followed. The DM is not always impartial.
Many DMs don't like to admit that they fudge, because they feel like it's a form of cheating. However, calling it cheating is akin to saying that an author is cheating because s/he manipulates a novel's storyline to challenge or reward the characters. The author is expected to keep the story entertaining for the reader—just like the DM is expected to keep the adventure entertaining for the players. Sometimes this just takes a little creative plot manipulation.
Manipulating the adventure—fudging—is part of the DM's job. The trick is to do it as swiftly and as discreetly as possible and to maintain a convincing semblance of objectivity while it's happening. The DM who has learned how to fudge well will find it much easier to keep his or her three roles—storyteller, judge, and opponent—comfortably in balance.

originally written July 26, 1998

 

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