What is a DM, really?

Over and above all the hats a DM wears, a DM is someone who provides D&D players with an immersion into an adventure. Various editions of D&D have tried to explain in a nutshell what a DM is, often within the confines of three or more DMGs per edition, but I believe that the absolute essence of DMing a D&D game boils down to those two words: immersion and adventure.

With regards to immersion, the 3e DMG distinguished kick-the-door-down dungeon delving from deep immersion storytelling. I get what they were trying to say, but I think that the whole spectrum of possible games should involve some sense of player immersion. When I used to watch a TV show called The Shield, or just when I heard the opening credits, I immediately wanted to go out and kick someone’s rear end. I don’t normally go out and punch random people in the face, and I’ve achieved mixed results at best in real fights, but man, did that show get me amped up. The point is that I would get so engaged with the vibe of the show – which was to kick a lot of butt – that I sometimes forgot myself. That’s what the best D&D games are all about – making players forget themselves and immerse themselves in their characters and in the adventures they are undertaking. Whether they are immersing from a story perspective or from a combat-tactical perspective, it all counts.

As the days roll by and the countdown to D&D Next keeps ticking, I’m hearing a lot about how this new edition will take advantage of something that no board game or online game can ever duplicate – the DM. I’m hoping that the new edition gives a lot more support to DMs than 4e did. In particular, as The Jester very eloquently put it in his 12 things 5e needs to do blog, the new edition needs to not just be open to roleplaying and story, but needs to actively encourage it.

From a big picture perspective, active encouragement means repeatedly emphasizing in the printed materials that the DM’s main job is to provide an immersive adventuring experience for his or her players. Ask any teacher – people learn by repetition, whether the repetition comes from practice or from hearing and seeing it over and over again. The 4e printed materials said all of the stuff that I’m saying about immersion, but it didn’t repeat it. In fact, 4e’s presentation inferred the opposite – there were so many rules that both players and DMs were afraid to touch any of it for fear of throwing other stuff out of whack. Besides learning how to DM, therefore, I think that there needs to be some direct engagement, deconstruction, and “un-learning” of some lessons that DMs and players got from 4e in the new printed materials.

From a nitty-gritty tools perspective, that means giving DMs specific resources and advice to tinker with their games as they see fit. Even for games that are 80% kick-in-the-door combat or above, there are ways to weave small details and storytelling elements into combats in such a way that the players forget themselves and become immersed in the experience. It could be through the skill challenge combat (kill the orcs while saving the princess), or through narrative descriptions of the action, or through rewarding players who want to do outside-the-box stuff (“My friend is about to die! Let me use my action point to jump in front of him and absorb the blow as an interrupt, please?” “Sure!”). Again, 4e never actively discouraged this stuff, and experienced DMs were able to do it naturally. But the education of new DMs as well as older ones is always ongoing, and a steady stream of tools, advice, and ideas are always welcome.

It seems like this is the direction in which the new edition is going to be, which is a good thing. I write this in the spirit of someone who wants to emphasize and continue the message so that it never gets lost in what I’m sure will be a barrage of new stuff to buy. D&D Next will welcome all players, from Shakespeare to Ceasar, and DMs everywhere should have the tools to dunk them all into out-of-body, escapist adventures that they (hopefully) won’t forget.

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