DM 101: Philosophy

Not sure exactly what happened, but it looks like my blog ate my most recent post. I’m going to break up what was originally all in part one to now be two parts as I’ve had some time to reflect on session zero a bit more.

I’ve been playing some form of D&D for more than 30 years. I’ve split time as a player and as a DM. I’ve played in just about every edition from both sides of the screens. Through the years my style of DMing has changed, just as the style of DMing presented in the game has changed. I think on a whole, this is a good thing, both for my players and for the game itself. I’ve decided to start a DM 101 series. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers or that there is “one true way”™. I’m just giving the benefit of my years of gaming, both as a player and as a DM. So this post will cover my philosophy as a DM.


I’m not sure if it was the DM’s guide to basic D&D I read first or if it was the DM’s guide to what would be the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but either way the tone of the book was that as a DM, you were the adversary of the players. You were to come up with traps and monsters that would challenge and possibly kill their characters. The idea of springing a gotcha type of situation was encouraged. There were monsters with powers that basically allowed a character to make a saving throw or die. I remember playing basic D&D with my brother DMing and my best friend Dana playing with me. We defeated goblins or orcs and had just opened up the treasure chest to find all this gold. When we reached in to grab some, my brother told us to make saving throws versus poison as we had disturbed a colony of yellow mold. We both failed and our characters died right then and there. We had a laugh, but it kind of put a damper on playing the rest of that day.

For those of us who played in this era, we developed strategies to defeat the killer DM scenarios. Parties often carried multiple 10′ poles, prodding every step and panel to make sure to trigger a trap at a safe distance. The rogue would head to the door, listen at the door, check the door for traps, and then if locked, pick the look, praying that they’d rolled well enough to have discover anything lethal. If you ever managed to get to a high enough level, you had to become a word lawyer before casting a wish spell, because the DM was encouraged to find any and all ways to twist the wish into something terrible.

Luckily, the game moved away from this model of thinking. Today’s edition instead places the game firmly as a collaborative story between the players and the DM. The game is no longer telling the DM’s story, but it is everyone telling the collective story of this group in this world. The DM is no longer the writer and director of the story, but instead is like a moderator at an improv show. Yes, we still come up with the scenarios, but we aren’t looking to guide the players down one path to get to the conclusion we want. I think it’s a better game for this change. I still want to challenge my players, make encounters tough, make enemies truly villainous, and make their deeds epic and heroic. In another game, Dungeon World, the Game Master is told to be a fan of the characters. I think that is a good place to come from as a DM.


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