Dankelzahn the Gamemaster

I’m not going to pretend I’m an amazing gamemaster. I’m usually told my games are fun, but there’s a lot of things that I see myself do that I wish I would do or had done differently. The blarg that follows probably shouldn’t be taken as advice that should necessarily be followed – it’s collection of my thoughts on my own gamemastering style inspired by some of the discussion that took place in the comments of my introduction blarg.

In my opinion, nailing down a gamemastering style is more difficult than a playing style due to the different nature of gamemastering. This isn’t true in all cases – some gamemasters run games completely transparently, where the players are aware of most of the decisions, difficulties, and stats surrounding everything he does. But I’ve noticed I don’t run games like this, which can give players one perspective based on what they see while giving myself a different perspective knowing why I’m doing what I’m doing. This probably needs some clarification.

A player in my traditional fantasy game decides he wants to climb a tree to find a spot to hide so he can ambush an NPC. The player tells me of his intent and I ask for a Climbing check. He rolls the check, I think about the results, and then tell him he finds a tree with thick enough branches to conceal himself and makes his way about fifteen feet up without difficulty. This player sees me relying pretty heavily on the rules of the game which date if you want to climb a tree, you make a climbing check and need to beat a given difficulty. But is that all that’s going on?

From my perspective, the player’s asking to make a climbing check that really isn’t necessary to the game. In fact if he wanted he could make his ambush from the ground by hiding well enough. So by the time I’ve asked for the climbing check, I’ve already decided to myself “if he doesn’t botch he’ll make it, and if he rolls well enough he’ll get some bonus on top of normal surprise rules when he makes his attack.” But most of the time the players never see this decision.

I’ve read advice columns where other gamemasters have written “if the outcome’s not in question, don’t roll the dice.” I can see the merit in that approach – I use that general rule in some situations. But in the groups I’ve run for lately there’s been at least some people who really like to roll the dice. For these players simply declaring “ok, you succeed” saps some of the fun out of the game. I understand there’s a narrative player base who may cringe at this sort of thing. Personally I don’t want to have to roll the dice for every action I as a player undertake either, but a fair number of the players I’ve been running games have preferred that method so I’ve tried to accommodate them.

Obviously I can’t use this method for every task or it would get predictable. So for some tests there is a set difficulty that has to be overcome. Otherwise characters with different skill levels would have identical chances of success. This would basically make skill ranks pointless, which isn’t what I want to accomplish. In addition I don’t require a roll for every test. If a character wants to tie his shoe or climb a tree to get a better look of the valley, then that’s not going to require a roll. Those really are situations where the threat of failure is neither measurable nor dramatic, so is ignored.

In addition I’ve found that die rolling tends to build tension. That’s not to say tension can’t or shouldn’t be built in the narrative. The narrative is the best place to set tension and shouldn’t be glossed over, but die rolling adds a sense of the anticipation to the game. Will you get the value you need, or will you botch the check? A character’s skill plays a large part of their chance of success, but there’s always the random die roll that can make or break you. And knowing that your success or failure boils down to the roll of the die can be exciting. From the groans that emanate from the players when a roll is botched to the cheers on a critical success, these experiences can make a game more enjoyable for the players.

I’ve talked a while about why I rely on die rolls in my games, but my aim isn’t to ignore the narrative portions. Obviously the descriptions I give are the best vehicles to convey the feel of the game, and that’s probably why I’ve talked so much more about the dice – the emphasis on the story seems like a given. I do like to use dice, but the rules themselves will take a backseat if it furthers the gaming experience. This is actually part of the reason for my “don’t botch and you succeed” mentality. I don’t care if you need to roll a 12 go climb the tree, a 6 is good enough this time.

I feel it’s my job as a gamemaster to cheat to make the story more fun. If knowing a particular piece of information that he normally wouldn’t will make an NPC a more interesting encounter, I’ll have him know it and figure out how he learned it after the fact. I feel free to do whatever hand waving behind the screen as I need to as long as the story is believable.

So how’s this work out at the table? I think the best way to explain would be to provide an example. In an Earthdawn game I was running a while back started with the group was fighting a flying creature from a drakkar – a small type of airship. On the creature’s turn it sprayed the deck with fire, trying to burn the sails and the characters. One character took a fair amount of damage from the blast, so I thought there might be a chance of the force of the blast knocking him down. I could have just narrated him being shaken by the flame and almost falling and that would have been fine. But that’s not what I did. Instead, I decided to call for a roll:

Me: Ok, roll Dexterity (thinking: Don’t botch)

Aaron: Uh, I botched.

Me: The heat of the flame is disorientating, and you start to loose your balance. Unfortunately you’re near the edge of the ship… better make another Dexterity check (thinking: don’t botch and he just falls to the deck).

Aaron: Crap! Another one!

Me: As the flames die down you see Talon staggering by the edge of the railing. Suddenly, he begins to tumble over the edge!

Laura: I’ll kick one of the oars, sliding it through its casing over the edge so he can grab on!

Me: Good idea; Laura, you and Aaron make Dex checks.

Aaron: I got a 5.

Laura: Um… I botched.

Me: Talon manages to twist and grab on to the oar, but his weight causes it to keep sliding… looks like it’s going to slip out completely!

Nate: I’ll drop my sword and grab it! ::rolls Dexterity, botching:: What?!

Me: You swipe at the oar, but only succeed in knocking it the rest of the way out of the casing!

Laura: That’s it! I grab the nearby rope and dive over the edge after her!

Jim: With our luck I bet it’s not secured.

Me: (thinking: Hah! They need to rescue him, but they can probably manage. And it’s funnier if they call it.) ::rolls some dice behind the screen:: Looking down you notice you’re right – it’s not. I’m guessing you want to do something about that?

Jim: I’ll tie it off quickly before the coil plays all the way out!

At this point I have Jim tie off the rope and Aaron and Laura don’t botch their Strength checks to grab on to each other, ending the fiasco with them dangling over the jungle below. With the characters in such a compromising situation, another character decided to jump heroically from the drakkar to the creature’s back, keeping it busy so it wouldn’t eat his friends.

I knew right away I wasn’t going to let Talon die in the first scene but by having it seem like the possibility existed got everyone in to the game immediately. I could have simply narrated Talon’s disorientation in the first place but by calling for die rolls and reacting to the botches we created one of the most memorable scenes in the whole campaign.

So what kind of gamemaster does that make me? To tell you the truth I don’t really know. Do I roll dice too often to be considered a narrativist? Is there too much dramatic storytelling to be a gamist? Then again, like any other label… does it really matter? 🙂


  1. First, damn dude…your posts are hard to comment on when you go through so many points. I will try though.

    I think nailing your ‘GNS’ style or whatever as a GM is much harder than nailing it as a player, because of what you mentioned. The GM has power to make things cooler or to make things suck (like if you are playing CoC). A simulationist GM might want to slip over to narrative just so the dice don’t destroy the game.

    I think the best point in your post is the “if the outcome’s not in question, don’t roll the dice†-idea, or as I have always heard it “say yes or roll the dice.”

    I think the latter “rule” is a little clearer because it accounts for situations where the game system has rules for the action, and the player knows it. Like climbing, or “doing rangerly things.” So while the outcome of climbing the tree really doesn’t matter in the GM’s mind, the player knew that if he climbed, he would likely have to use his climbing skill…so most likely both are on the same page which results in better gaming anyway. Anyway, I hope in a single post you go back and discuss those “rules,” because there is much more to expound on.

    The stickler I have is your pre-determination. I personally don’t see it as healthy GM’ing, because the dangers of railroading are ever present. I know the examples you gave were small, but playing under you in a few of your games…pre-determination seems ever present. It might be amplified by the type of games we have played (sword and sorcery) which are more reliant on such things as dungeons, bosses and “random” encounters. But hopefully that is more material for another post or two.

  2. For this topic in particular I felt the need to hit a number of points to try to fully describe my style. Even so I still think I wasn’t able to fully capture it here. Hopefully readers can follow it enough to understand what I was trying to say.

    I think I see what you’re shooting for with your first article idea, but could you clarify just to be sure? You can shoot me an email if you prefer. Once I’m sure I know what you mean I’ll add it to my list. I probably need to create a draft post that I just use to list article ideas at this point.

    Predetermination is just a fancy word for railroading, and that’s certainly something I’ve been guilty of in the past. It’s especially hard in games where I’m running pre-written adventures which are pretty much written that way to begin with. Especially in our earlier Earthdawn campaign, the only real adventures that I didn’t use from books were ones that were kear delving or clearing a mine of creatures, which unfortunately turned in to dungeon crawls. I think I’m continuing to improve on that front, but mine is a biased opinion and you’ll be able to form your own after the First Dawn game. 🙂

  3. Mostly just that you could write a whole post on when to use the “say yes or roll the dice”-rule and when not, including dramatic moments, mundane moments, etc.

  4. I’ll keep that in mind. I don’t think I want to do another role-playing topic right away since it’s already the dominant category here but I’ll add that one to the list of topics.

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