The DM’s Dirty Secret

I’ve repeatedly touted the importance of making the player characters feel badass. It’s important they feel like heroes—people of renown who are great at slaying gnolls, disabling traps, solving puzzles, locating lost farm animals, and solving crises of all types. Ok, well maybe not that farm animals thing, though even mini-quests have their place!

Yet the DM has a secret. Some of your players might suspect it. I they’ve run a few games, they might even know it. After all, it’s kind of a big deal.

The DM’s Dirty Secret is that no matter how awesome the player characters are—no matter how much the players optimize, hatch devious plots, or plan for every contingency—the challenges the characters face are always going to be, well, challenges. Sir Isaac Newton can help me out a little here: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You build an army, I build a castle. You build siege engines, I build thicker walls. You invent canons, I cry because my castle now sucks, and I go back to building earthen walls with pointy sticks.

This fact might be intuitive to most DMs, but I’m not sure it’s something that everyone is consciously aware of. If you’re a DM, and you have a group full of optimizers, you have a responsibility to find new ways to challenge them. You might add more monsters to an encounter. You might double the damage, or increase the accuracy of all monsters by 5. You don’t have to follow the rules. Yes, even in Living Forgotten Realms or Encounters or similar formats. If the players are stomping through the adventure, make it harder. The players might realize it—they might even suspect you’re doctoring the numbers and call you on it, but you have two things on your side. One—you’re the DM, and what you say goes. Two—they won’t realize it at the time, necessarily, but they’re going to have a lot more fun if they feel challenged.

Now one caveat about the first rule. Even as DM, you have to obey certain social contracts in D&D and other roleplaying games. You can’t crush the characters without good reason, and you shouldn’t create encounters or scenarios that challenge one player while annihilating everyone else. The worst problems start when you go into a skill challenge or a combat encounter with a specific set of conditions or challenges in mind, and you’re unwilling to compromise your ideas. I never play an encounter the way I design it when I’m preparing for a game. Throughout an encounter, I’m constantly gauging the tension, the pace, and the drama, and I’m pulling strings to make adjustments. If the players are getting bored, I make up something interesting for a monster to do. If the battle seems to be dragging, a monster might get bloodied sooner only to have it trigger a trait (one that’s not in the monster stat block) which causes the monster to make two attacks instead of one while its bloodied.

In the final session of the last season of Encounters, I was constantly adjusting powers, dice rolls, and whatever else to make victory seem to swing back and forth between the players and the monsters. As a result, we had a very tense and climactic session. I realize one of the criticisms to this approach to DMing is that you lose the trust of your players if they know you fudge the numbers too often. It’s true, and certainly it takes some finesse to fudge the numbers without being overt about it. Every game needs rules. But D&D, since the beginning, has been a game where story trumps rules (partly because the early rules were too confusing for anyone to understand). DMs should have the confidence to run a game based on the needs of the narrative and not the strictures of the rules.

So, the DM’s Dirty Secret? No matter how awesome you are, you’re always going to be challenged. There’s always going to be someone tougher than you. And if you’re a player reading this—next time your DM does something that seems to make the battle harder, don’t call foul right away. Think about whether the DM is purposefully adjusting the narrative, the tension, or the pace, and trust your DM. Believe it or not, they probably know what’s best for the game.

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17 thoughts on “The DM’s Dirty Secret

  1. “One—you’re the DM, and what you say goes. Two—they won’t realize it at the time, necessarily, but they’re going to have a lot more fun if they feel challenged”

    As i player i had a really hard time with this at times, the way some monsters just seem to magically have the thing to counter exactly what i did. Then again as a DM I came to understand that this is not only fair, but desirable in many cases; yes it was a little (lot) annoying when it happened, but it rally just help me get compelled to the argument of the battle, to hate the enemies even more and made victory a lot more significant.

    Excellent post, really great things to consider for all noob DMs out there like me 🙂

    1. There’s definitely a fine line between what’s challenging and what’s frustrating. I’ve seen it before in many games I’ve been in. It helps to have understanding players, but it also requires some responsibility from the DM to listen to their players and read their moods. It’s sometimes easy to just think the DM runs the game and that’s it, but I think a good D&D game requires communication between the players and the DM, and that’s often overlooked.

  2. About a year in and I’m finally getting to the point where I’m comfortable doing this, largely thanks to you. For the longest time, I was afraid of changing things too much; I hadn’t seen enough different monsters and powers to feel confident in my ability to create things on the fly. My biggest fear was killing a PC with an inadvertently overpowered attack and having my player call foul.

    However, now my fear is that the game is getting too grindy and not challenging. My players are much better at working together as a team and at picking out the right target to hit with particular powers. So now I’m much more focused on making sure my monsters have interesting recharge powers and bringing in terrain and traps.

    Thanks so much for the post!

    1. There are definitely different problems that arise as play progresses. The tricks I’ve used to adjust my game on-the-fly have changed as the characters have advanced. Also, once you’ve played with the same characters enough times, you have a sense of how hard you can push them, how good their defenses are, and how many hit points they have. That gives you better control at the table, allowing you to control the tension and flow of the game.

  3. Is that why you always roll a 25? As a DM, I knew something was up. I just thought it was that we were facing a TPK and you helped us a little. I usually help my PCs out a little bit if they are facing a TPK just because I feel like maybe I designed an unbalanced encounter. In the past, PCs have just felt way to strong, forcing me to overcompensate in my encounters then quickly dial back when I realize in the first 2 rounds that I went too far.

    1. I’ve definitely adjusted things when the PCs are facing a TPK, and as a result, I’ve never had a TPK. Some DMs might think that without the TPK, there is no risk, but I find that the risk of failure can still be present without constantly putting the PCs in mortal peril. The best fights I’ve hard are the ones where the PCs initially feel completely crushed and then come back to triumph. It’s the same formula you see in a lot of action films, in fact.

  4. I don’t quite see this, at least not as something to be done on the fly with changes to what might be on paper.

    I have an eladrin wizard in my party who is on track to auto-succeed on every on-level Arcana check I put out there all the way to 30th level. If he fails an Arcana check, he’ll know something is up, and if the group only gets normal XP for that particular challenge, they could call shenannigans. However, because I’m aware of his power I believe I can still challenge him without fudging things and I take it as a personal challenge to do so. (Actually, my group is pretty forgiving about me springing harder encounters on them, bless their hearts.)

    It’s not necessary to play monsters optimally right out of the gate. The DM can hold off on their good powers and play conservatively to start and then (assuming the players haven’t locked everything down) if things are slow or boring to pop off a tougher power just when they’re getting complacent, or do a sudden end-run around the defender and chomp on the controller. The DM can use page 42 as well, so he can sprinkle stuff for stunts around the area for when the monsters “get desperate” and need to spice things up.

    But making up powers mid-fight. Nah, that’s too much. End the current fight quickly and adjust the next one with tougher monsters, more powers, and (as mentioned) advantageous terrain. Introduce some penalties in the next skill challenge, or combine several challenges (community.wizards.com/centauri/blog/2010/04/09/dealing_with_skill_modifiers).

    Also, can you explain how what you suggest is legal in LFR? I don’t play in it myself, but the conventional understanding is that everything must be played as written, almost precisely because there might not be any trust brought to the table.

    1. You make some good points, and I think it shows that there are two approaches to challenging the players. You certainly can spend time prior to the game coming up with ways to challenge a player who has optimized toward a specific build. In fact, I think that kind of thing is important. At the same time, I don’t think the DM should be subject to the tyranny of the statistics that are in front of him or her, especially if the game is dragging, is unfun, or lacks challenge. If you can still challenge your players without fudging things, that’s great. For me, I prefer a more on-the-fly approach, and that is just part of my style as a DM. Most of what happens during a session is improvised. Sometimes I don’t know what encounter area or monsters I’m going to use until the PCs arrive there.

      I’m not sure what the specific guidelines are for LFR, but I’ve heard a number of people who run LFR games say they’ve adjusted things that were problematic. The reality is that not every monster or encounter is going to be designed well, and rules or not, I’m going to do what’s fun, because that’s why everyone is there. If people start telling me that it’s not fun to play that way, I’ll stop, but until then, I’m just going to keep on doing it my way.

  5. Greg, I think this is your best post yet. Insightful and conversation provoking at the same time. I liked it so much I’m going to respond twice.
    Part I
    Like Meta, I was a player at your D&D Encounters final session (battle with Xeres.) I noticed that in this encounter, more so than previous sessions, you were pulling more strings to adjust difficulty up or down presumably to (A) keep the characters alive and (B) keep the battle challenging and dramatic. I suspect this session may have been a TPK if played aggressively by the DM. That would have been an immensely frustrating experience for the players, several who participated in most/all 12 sessions. If we couldn’t beat Xeres either by luck, skill, or downright cheating by the DM, it would’ve been lousy. So I say, well played by the DM. Now if the party had died in a previous session, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. So perhaps that is why you really stepped up the DM “influence” in the final session? To make it feel like a grand finale? I suspect that if the first three hits against Xeres had all been crits, you would have increased his hit points so that all players would have at least a couple rounds to try to deal some damage or participate in some meaningful way before the villain went down.
    Now during the course of the adventure, there were two character deaths. Not just unconscious – but dead. So all the players at the table knew there was a chance of a not-so-happy ending. You were a “nice” DM — but you would also let the chips fall where they may. So the threat of character death was always there, and it made the sessions dramatic and fun.

  6. Part II
    I’ve been thinking more about previous versions of D&D compared to 4E. What does this have to do with your post? A lot, actually. I’ve played all four versions of D&D. With each version, the rules get more precise for determining success/failure for basically anything a PC wants to do, either in combat or out of combat. In first edition, an immense amount of outcomes were determined by DM’s decision, as opposed to a rule or strict game mechanic. In later editions, the DM has all sorts of rules he can use to determine what happens when a PC wants to try something. The DM can, of course, adjust those rules, but in doing so he chooses to depart from the rules.
    In my opinion, players and DMs who like rules-based games are going to have more fun with a later version of D&D. 4E in particular seems to be so rule heavy that you could almost play combat encounters without a DM. (Wouldn’t be much fun – but you get my point.) The rules are complete, well thought out, balanced, tested, and thorough. In later versions, the DM seems to be 50% storyteller, 10% judge, and 40% rules administrator. And that makes it fun. Players feel like they are in a challenging situation, and if they play smart and have some luck, they will beat the monsters. Players don’t think that the mood or discretion of the DM will determine the outcome. They feel their choices, strategy, and luck within the framework of the rules will determine the outcome.
    Conversely, players and DMs who prefer a more free-form adventure without a lot of rules will appreciate earlier versions. In earlier versions, the DM seems to be 50% storyteller, 40% judge, and 10% rules administrator. Rules form only a rough framework for determining outcomes. It was largely up to the DM to determine outcomes and interpret or decide the results of both combat and non-combat actions. The benefit of this is players feel like they have unlimited freedom and opportunity. On your turn, you could run up to the monster and attack. You wouldn’t worry about counting squares to determine if you could make it in one turn. If the DM said you could make it, you’d make it. The downside of this free-form play is without a set of defined rules, at the end of the day you’re basically just a bunch of people sitting around playing make-believe since the DM’s discretion decides the outcome of actions as opposed to a rule.
    That’s why I think the DM’s most important job, regardless of play style, is being a good storyteller. Whether the dice, DM’s mood, or rules determine outcome is not as important to me as whether the DM pulls the players into the story and makes them feel like heroes. That’s what keeps us coming back for more.

  7. I think DMs need to take great care fiddling with the numbers. My group for example are sticklers for the “let the cards fall where they may” approach to combat – we roll all combat dice out in the open, and woe betide any DM caught cooking the books. We all take turns DMing too, so no doubt everyone understands a little bit of DM fiddling can increase the fun. I would not advocate constant fiddling though, as the more you change things the greater the chance PCs will catch on. And imo the golden rule is Don’t Get Caught. If you’re going to change monster stat’s mid battle, make up an on-the-fly minor action power (or whatever) to “explain” it. Cover your tracks! Because if the PCs know you’re fudging it, the tension/fun drops bigtime.

    1. I agree with Psikerlord. As a player, the very worst thing for me is when I know a DM is fudging things in my favor. It cheapens the victory if it isn’t earned. Also, I really dislike games where there is no chance of character death. This philosophy carries over into my DM’ing.

      I always roll in the open and play it where it lies. I prefer to stand behind my monsters as play unfolds, and I very occasionally tweak difficulty, but usually at the very start of the battle. Once the battle is in full swing, I’ll only add a power or adjustment if I think it’s appropriate for the monster to have it. For instance, I have given NPCs a +2 to hit and damage bonus if their friend goes down.

      The big problem with this approach is luck. I’ve had a couple encounters where due to the players rolling poorly while my dice are hot, things swing against them. A memorable encounter with a giant carrion crawler had 3/4 players completely paralyzed. To counter this, we have ‘Luck Points’. Each player (not character, player) has 3 of them. They can burn one to shrug off all effects on them, to make a miss an automatic crit, to make a monster miss, etc. This helps offset the harshness of the dice. And since they don’t replenish between characters, it keeps my players honest.

  8. Really like your blog posts, Greg. Please keep it up!

    I wish this kind of advice had been a page or two in the DMG. I think a lot of new DMs (myself included) treat everything in the world as sacrosanct, and think that changing things on the fly (or even in prep) is somehow wrong. To some extent, it’s the fear that making changes to the numbers will “mess up” the game somehow (since we didn’t design it, we are hesitant to muck with the perceived “carefully crafted and balanced” numbers).

  9. I was going to add that I could even imagine an entire chapter of a DMG devoted to how to make modifications to the game to handle a variety of different common situations. But to some extent I think the books already do that (just spread out across different sections) and I also didn’t want to tell you guys how to do your business. 🙂

  10. This is something I agree with, but only in moderation. In particular, to do this well, you need to understand the level of challenge your PCs want. If you crank up the challenge level too high, the PCs will NOT feel like badasses, they’ll feel like scrubs who are given victory they didn’t earn. Too low, and it will be boring, and they’ll wonder why there’s a combat scene anyway.

    So, um, My counter blog post

  11. I don’t see my DM role as writing a script, or telling a story. I’m running a game. The game is a challenge. I’m not going to fudge to keep PCs alive, or make an encounter harder on the fly. If the PCs’ good tactics make a hard encounter easy then great, well done them. I might run harder encounters later, in which case the PCs earn more XP and advance faster, so they are still rewarded for having done well. If they screw up or are unlucky, then they die. Otherwise, if the PCs are always going to ‘just’ win, I see no point in 4e’s extremely lengthy combats, and no point in playing the game. Surely there are better storytelling games.

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