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Master of the Game

Alexander Macris | 13 Apr 2010 21:00
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So if not storytelling, what lies at the essence of being a DM? Role playing games descended from miniature wargaming. Miniature wargames are competitive simulations, generally with two opposed teams - say, Germany and Russia in World War II. But most miniature wargames also have a participant called a "judge" or "referee". The role of the judge in a miniature wargame is:

  • To choose or create the scenario the other players will compete within
  • To help explain, teach, and enforce the rules
  • To prevent cheating and keep the players honest
  • To rule on "grey areas" not covered by the rules
  • To control the flow of information to permit "fog of war"

Note what's absent from the role of a miniature wargame judge: While today the DM is often perceived as "the adversary," a miniature wargame judge was not responsible for playing the adversary - he was, in fact, a neutral referee between the adversaries (the players).

And so it was in the first role playing games, the DM was not responsible for playing the adversaries, either. In Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, for instance, the players were initially pitted against each other - one of them was a vampire named Sir Fang, while another was a cleric - with Arneson serving as the arbiter.

Nor was the miniature wargame judge responsible for telling a story. A story might emerge over the course of a miniature wargame, but it does so by happenstance, as a result of the unfolding of the battle. When the game is over, a story - or, really, a fictional "military history" - could be written up. But the judge did not write it up in advance, or adjust the course of the game to have one side win or lose based on the plot.

Likewise, in early tabletop RPGs, the judges did not have a "story" for their game. They had a setting and a set of rules, and the outcome was left up to the players. The original RPG, Braunstein (which preceded D&D by several years), was explicitly an open-ended wargame, and ended up going in directions its creator never foresaw. (For more on the origins of D&D, see James Maliszewski's "Founding Fathers", part of our High Adventure series of old-school D&D columns.)

The foundation and first function of the DM was then, and is now, Judge. You show me a player who knows the rules, can teach them to others, is comfortable making rulings in grey areas, and can control information flow between players as necessary, and I'll show you a player who is on his way to being a great DM.

There are three other functions. The second function is World Builder, a function that arose out of wargame judging ("choose or create the scenario") and expanded over time as games became richer and more detailed. The other two I've already mentioned as ancillary to the core, but they are that of Adversary and Storyteller.

Next week we'll explore these functions in more detail, but for now your homework is to pick up your favorite rules - maybe a Starter Set if you don't have any rules yet - and start mastering them.

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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