What's the Dungeon Master's real role? I've asked people that before, and to my dismay, I sometimes get back answers like, "He rolls for the monsters." I say "dismay" because the DM is so much more than that.
Others would argue that the DM's role is to act as a sort of mechanic, tending to the machinery of the game. The game system codifies and systematizes so much that there is little need for adjudication on the DM's part, only the occasional interpretation. This has been true for so long that the D&D culture has changed slightly, to the point where many think of DM arbitration as a bad thing. If the DM needs to make a judgment call, either something has gone terribly wrong with the game or the DM is overstepping his bounds.
Still others might claim that the DM is a storyteller. While being a Dungeon Master is a wildly creative enterprise, the idea of "DM as storyteller" gives me pause because, in truth, the entire group is the storyteller. The DM creates a world and characters and plots, but the story doesn't get told until everyone at the table gets involved.
I've always liked to look at the DM as the conduit between the players and the fantasy world. He is their eyes and ears, describing what they see, and he is the arbiter of what they can and cannot do to affect the (unreal) world around them.
Maybe the DM is all of these things.
I share Monte’s dismay that the idea the DM simply “rolls for the monsters”, or that RPGs are about story-telling. Neither of those conceptions fit my experiences of what RPGs are. It’s true that the DM rolls for the monsters and maintains the mechanics of the game, but this doesn’t begin to approach the creativity of everything a DM actually does: from building the history of the world, to deciding what NPCs will say and do, or even selecting the monsters and obstacles ahead. Only the most rigorous, by-the-word-of-the-module DM could be considered a ‘game mechanic’ in the sense that Monte means.
Storytelling has also seemed to me a partial definition of what an RPG is. Yes, there are stories in RPGs, but compared to traditional literature, their plots and language aren’t particularly compelling or well developed. There’s a reason why hell is being trapped next to a nerd who won’t stop telling you about his D&D campaign. People do shared storytelling all the time; look at campers telling ghost stories around a campfire, or just a group of friends sharing anecdotes. But compare that to how action and narrative (who’s talking, what are they talking about) work at a campfire and at a game table, and there’s very little overlap. The biggest difference is that RPGs have rules. Even “Narrative” games, like Sorcerer and Dogs in the Vineyard, include a conflict resolution system based on the nature of the characters, and what is important in the story.
So now that I’ve laid out what RPGs aren’t, what are they? Anthropologist Annemarie Mol suggests that we should look at what actually happens at the game table to determine what games are. “It is possible to say that in practices objects are enacted. This suggests that activities take place—but leaves actors vague. It also suggests that in the act, and only then and there, something is—being enacted” (Mol, 2002, The Body Multiple). What follows is a fictional, but representative, transcription of a game session. (a better scholar would have actual data, but I’m several hundred miles from my game group.)
DM: The cavern path ends suddenly at a crevasse. The pit crosses the entire cave, plunging down into the inky depths below. You think you hear water running at the bottom, but it might just be echoes from the deep. What do you do?
Rogue: Can I jump across?
DM: The distance is a bit over 15’. You could probably make this long-jump, if you got a running start on a level field, weren’t carrying anything, and had a good night’s rest before. As it stands, with the uneven footing and the way your muscles ache after a day of exploring, it’s rather chancy. ((The GM privately knows that the Rogue needs to roll a 12 or above to succeed)).
Rogue: No thanks, I’m not jumping over a bottomless bit on anything other than a certainty.
Wizard: Can I use the Levitate Spell to float across?
DM: Did you prepare it?
Wizard: No, but you’ve let me use rare utility spells before without preparing them.
DM: True, but without that Water Breathing spell, you would’ve had to wait all day to check out the sunken wreck. Besides, you could have bought a scroll of Levitate back in town. The Mage’s Guild is there for a reason.
Wizard: Okay, fine.
Fighter: What do the stones on either side of the crevasse look like?
DM: They’re the eroded limestone of most of this cave, rough, and somewhat slick with moisture and
Fighter: So, lots of little holes and bits jutting out?
Fighter: Well, before I became an adventurer, I was a dwarf miner, so I know a lot about carpentry and bracing underground. That goblin outpost we took out back there had some bunk beds, so can we take the beds apart and use the plants to build a bridge?
DM: Hmm, I guess so, but that’ll take a few hours and make a lot of noise, do you want to risk it?
Cleric: I still have plenty of healing left, so we can handle a wandering encounter or two.
Group: Let’s do it!
So, what is going on here? You see a back and forth between the GM and the players, requests for information, various plans proposed, deemed unacceptable, and finally, a plan that succeeds. In essence, the shape of what is being enacted here is not a story, but a negotiation.
RPGs are a leisure activity, they’re supposed to be fun. Negotiating is often fun and exciting, but it can also be dull or frustrating. Negotiations fail when one or more of the parties are being unreasonable, and refuse to come to a compromise, and situations become boring when they are repeated ad nausea. The points of the rules in a RPG are to constrain negotiations, such that the parties are forced to be reasonable, and to provide a way to resolve common negotiations quickly.
Consider a standard RPG scenario, a hero trying to kill a monster with his or her sword. In a purely negotiated mode, the options of “you miss” and “you kill it” are not very exciting, and it’s easy for both parties to get deadlocked. The requests for further information (what kind of armor is the monster wearing), and bringing in further details to justify their position (I carry the legendary blade of my ancestors, this monster has many hearts and does not die easily) are up to the judgment calls of possibly unreasonable GMs or players, and for something that comes up frequently, reiterating all the details is time consuming, and rewards people who can spend five minutes describing how “my flashing riposte from en quarte shatters the foe’s guard, as I drive home with the ensorcelled point of my elf-crafted rapier etc. etc.” The rules condense this whole negotiation into “roll dice, compare to target number, succeed or fail.” It is fast and it gives fair and consistent results.
Now, return to what makes a game fun. This is ultimately highly subjective, but pretty much every RPG is based around a number (hitpoints), and the idea that the game is over when that number reaches zero. In every encounter, you’re wagering your character against the chance of death and the rewards of victory. It’s like roulette, or poker, but with your character as the stakes. Good games you plenty of options for changing the stakes, for deciding how much you’re willing to wager on this spin of the dice, and whether the resources you’re using now might be better saved for later. For example, in D&D 4e any given attack can be a standard At-Will, a more significant Encounter power, or an awesome Daily. The amount of offensive firepower a party uses is balanced against their willingness to take damage, and their endurance in hit points and healing surges. Yet, many powers reset at the end of the encounter or the end of the day, meaning that losing a wager doesn’t permanently weaken your character, as say, single use magic-items might. Good rules make this process of wagering resources to achieve outcomes exciting and decision-provoking.
A strong set of rules also supports negotiations outside the narrow framework of a combat encounter, by differentiating characters, and giving them narrative resources to draw upon (like our dwarf ex-miner). This kind of negotiation is often what people mean when they talk about “real roleplaying”, and what it means is the mutual enactment of a negotiation about a set of characters, their histories and personalities, and the world that they inhabit. The common GMing adage to never say no, but rather say “Yes, but…” is another facet of a negotiated world. Saying “No” closes down the negotiation, saying “Yes, but…” continues the game. Good rules allow for fun and interesting negotiations, bad rules foreclose them.
From a more distant level, the story of a given campaign is also a negotiation—defined as “the navigation of a series of obstacles” as opposed to a “dialog between two or more parties.” This is the nature of the game, of what is actually enacted at the table. Traditional games are very much about a series of victories and set-backs, indie games might have a broader set of outcomes, but a problem-solving orientation is at the core of RPGs.
And finally, there is the meta-negotiation about what a given game contains, what it is about, and what goes on at the table. Players bring their characters, with some number of ‘hooks’ to link into the game. The GM creates a world, and a plot that hopefully engages the players. Everybody must come to an agreement about what counts as acceptable table behavior, or else the game will fail.
In short, the rules of the game serve as the fulcrum between negotiating and wagering activities. The art of playing RPGs is the art of being a good negotiator; both by achieving your own ends and helping others achieve theirs. The art of game design is to create a fun system of wagering that does not infringe upon negotiation.