Open Discussion: The changing role of the DM

Posted on December 20, 2011 by


Monte Cook’s “Legends and Lore” columns at have been interesting.  In them, he seems to be painting a picture of a theoretical future version of D&D, and while I can’t say for sure that he is, it makes sense if you assume he’s been rehired by WOTC to help design 5e.  I’m a believer in that he’s there for that. But that’s not what this is about.

In his column, he tends to ask questions regarding rules in the game, and about how much or how little they are needed.  The following quote comes to mind, it appeared in this column.

Since the launch of 3rd edition and continuing on into 4th edition, the game has focused more on providing rules directly and overtly. This approach also made it easier to adjudicate situations that the rules didn’t cover explicitly. Prior to 3rd edition, however, “the DM decides” wasn’t just a fallback position; it often was the rule.

Now, as I’ve read the columns, I can’t help shake the feeling that a decade later, Monte may be wondering if the direction that he helped take D&D in the year 2000 was the right one or not.  I’m not saying if it was or not, I’m saying that I get the feeling that he himself is wondering, but he hasn’t found an answer yet.

One thing that I’ve thought about a lot lately is the role of the DM through the years, and it came back to me because I am currently running two very distinct fantasy role playing games, with two very different roles for the DM (apart from crafting the story, of course).

image courtesy Mike Shea

Dragon Age is a game with a different approach than modern D&D.  It’s fairly rules light, and a lot of calls are left for the Dm to decide on using his judgement.  Fairly similar to the experience that AD&D, or the D&D boxed sets  provided.  The DM is a judge and arbiter, his rules are the law at the table.  “Do I have cover from the archer?” “Sure, you have light cover, provided by the boulders, he attacks at a -2”

4e D&D, which I still run weekly, is a different animal.  There are plenty of rules for both the players and the DM to learn and memorize.  The DM’s job changes a bit then, he has to remember the rules, rather than judge the situation and make a call.   “Do I have cover from the archer?” “Lets trace a line from the corner of your square to a corner on the archer’s square.”

Two very different ways of judging cover.  One is in the DM’s hands, the other really isn’t.

So the open question I want to ask is the following:  How much do you think the role of the DM has changed throughout D&D’s lifespan, if at all?  And if that’s a good thing or a bad thing?  What do you prefer? Am I completely off base? Lets discuss.

Posted in: 4e D&D, Dragon Age, Gaming