The dungeon master has the power to make or break a game. Good dungeon masters can transport you to a land of fantasy, and make even the clunkiest of game mechanics fun and engaging. Bad dungeon masters, on the other hand, can take what looks like a great game on paper and make it into the kind of experience that will drive you to drink.
If you have yet to be visited by any of the dungeon masters on this list, then beware! For in your future you may yet have to contend with…
1) The Naked Emperor
Every dungeon master was once new. There was a time when you didn’t know where the monster stats were, when you bungled a plot twist, or when you messed up rules calls more often than you got them right. But most dungeon masters learn from these mistakes, re-read the text, and eventually find their groove.
Not the Naked Emperor.
No, for you see, the Emperor has no need of such plebeian things like books or lore with which to make their decisions. Clothed in the invisible garments of their own brilliance, it’s uncommon for the Emperor to even know the mechanics of the game they’re running beyond the very basics. Convinced that the stories they have to tell transcend such things, questions about damage, resistances, or even class features are met with a dismissive wave of the hand.
In short, the Naked Emperor is the know-nothing DM who has no interest in getting into the mechanics of how the game runs, because that isn’t their concern. They rarely keep players for long, and when those players find other groups it can take some time to forget the behavior they learned in the Emperor’s Court.
2) The Author
In an ideal game setting, the dungeon master runs the non-player characters, the plot, and the world physics. The players are in control of their characters, and the actions those characters take. The dungeon master sets up the situation, the players react to it, and collaboratively they tell a story.
Not at the Author’s table.
The Author sees themselves more as a director of all the action taking place at the table. While the players might be the ones behind the characters, they’re treated more like actors on a set. They can improvise, and put their own spin on things, but the Author insists on certain paths being taken, and certain actions not being taken. Their games are characterized by problems with one-and-only-one solution, by constant interruptions explaining to players why their current actions will not work, and at times literal divine intervention pointing an arrow down a specific path.
No matter how beautiful the setting, how flowery the words, or how attentive to mechanical detail an author is, their games tend to feel more like a police state where you are attempting to guess the dungeon master’s desires rather than playing. Because without freedom, you’re not playing a game… you’re just part of a play where only one of you has the script, and he won’t share it with everyone else.
3) The Schoolmaster
A good gaming group has its share of messing around, in-jokes, and silliness. After all, you’re getting together around a table with your friends pretending to be elves, dwarves, wizards, and assassins… it’s kind of a silly thing to be doing, and taking yourself too seriously can backfire.
No one seems to have told the Schoolmaster this, though.
The Schoolmaster has underlying rules to how a game table should be managed. Players should be attentive, listening to all of the information they relate before taking the baton back so they can begin roleplaying again. The Schoolmaster expects you to listen when they talk, and to follow their lead. In short, they treat their players more like children who need to be corralled, and less like adults who are here to have fun together.
When the dungeon master tries to get everyone’s attention, it’s a good idea to listen. But when they start threatening to give players detention, and lecturing instead of being part of the game, it’s time to move on to a table run by someone who isn’t possessed by the spirit of Ichabod Crane.
4) The Adversary
RPGs are full of uphill battles, ambushes, tense negotiations, and hard-fought skirmishes. These are the challenges the characters have to overcome in order to reach their goal, and to bring the story to its completion. And while no dungeon master wants to make it easy on the players, most of them don’t want to kill the party.
The Adversary does.
For the Adversary, the story is a secondary concern. The game has a binary outcome, and for them to win, the party has to die. Adversaries tend to have enemies that are noticeably outside the party’s weight class, but they are also the first to cry foul if a tactic or power proves particularly successful against their villains. They will out-and-out strip abilities from player characters, stating that they no longer work, or switch tactics entirely to ensure that strategy is nullified completely. Worst of all, though, Adversaries have no empathy for the players’ goals. They may pay lip service to the idea that you’re all here to tell a story, but the Adversary won’t consider the game a victory if they haven’t made the players bleed for every inch of ground they cover.
Adversaries breed mistrust, but even worse, they can lead to players grabbing every advantage they can possibly find. This often leads to dungeon masters who aren’t adversarial thinking these players are just power-gaming munchkins, more concerned with bonuses than with the story. Adversaries leave scars and habits that can be hard to unlearn.
5) The Punisher
A good dungeon master lets the laws of cause and effect play out in the world. They arbitrate things neutrally, and allow complications and solutions to arise naturally from the actions of the player characters. In short, their actions have consequences, but those consequences fall into the “what comes up must come down” school of mechanics.
This is not the case for the Punisher.
For the Punisher, any act that fails is an excuse to inflict upon that character an Old Testament level of pain or humiliation. A Punisher’s critical fumble deck is well-thumbed and dog-eared from use, and they’ve never once asked players if they even wanted to use that optional mechanic. They simply take it as a given. The Punisher takes glee in natural 1’s, and may even attach consequences to regular failed rolls, as well. Broken weapons, injuring yourself, feedback from spells that failed to penetrate an enemy’s defenses, and even slipping on random banana peels and falling prone in the middle of a fight are all commonplace for the Punisher’s games. Some Punishers play it straight, giving the same drawbacks to the monsters, but they fail to see that a monster breaking its weapon has a much smaller impact overall than a PC who has lost their primary weapon in the middle of a dungeon.
Punishers tend to suck the fun out of a game, particularly if the table is on a good run of bad luck. Adding insult to injury may be done in the name of “realism,” but the result is more often a game that feels like it actively wants you to stop playing.
There are certain challenges we all have to face in life as gamers. Remember that if you’re ever faced with one of these dread DMs, remember that if you survive you get XP… and you’ll learn to recognize the signs the next time you see one of these game masters across a table.
For more from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive along with his blog Improved Initiative!
Picture Reference: https://dungeondutchess.com/tag/gm/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.