DMs: The Swing Vote

In a Legend & Lore column a few months back Mike Mearls summarized some of the feedback gained from the playtest surveys. One of the more surprising claims was this one, made regarding players:

You aren’t edition warriors. You want the game to support a variety play styles in equal measure. You’re not attached to any specific ways of doing things as long as the game works.

Wow. That does not sound like what I’ve experience online in the slightest… Can that possibly be true? If so, what are the larger implications?


The claim certainly does not seem to match what is going on in various forums, where edition warriors engage in frenzied battles to the pain, despite continual threats of banning. The edition war is a hot war continually verging on mutually assured destruction by way of locked threads and the fallout creating a toxic environment that discourages all new life/posters.

The discongruent nature of the claim is odd. Realistically there are three possibilities: the statement is true, the statement is false because Mike Mearls/ WotC are lying to us, or the statement is false because of a result of a statistical quirks based on the respondents.

The middle option (the one involving pants on fire) is utterly depressing. I wouldn’t want to be involved in a hobby where the people in charge or the dominant brand could lie brazenly to their audience. So I reject that option and choose to believe we’re being told the truth. WotC might spin things but they’re not liars.

The last option is a possibility. There could be an anomaly between the people willing to playtest and/or read playtest documents and people who just want to play. However, Mearls has said elsewhere that the response rate for the surveys is staggeringly high; something close to 90% of people involved in the playtest fill out the surveys.  And the number of people participating in the playtest is large, growing for the entire sixteen months of active testing. It seems reasonable that it would be a representative sample of the most ardent fans. Realistically, if WotC were not confident that the playtest was providing accurate results of the preference of the playerbase then having the playtest would be a staggering waste of time.

That leaves the final option: the claim is true. If true, it does suggest edition warriors and die hard fans of particular editions are a curious minority, albeit a particularly vocal and argumentative one.

I also believe the statement is accurate based on arbitrary personal experience. I’m a pretty strong 3e fan and was a bit of an anti-4e troll at the start of the edition. (Sorry for that btw.) But despite my preference I still ran a 4e game for two years, and played in two games (plus some Encounters). Because that’s what people were playing. And I would much rather play in a game that was not my favourite than stay at home alone and not play.


Taking as true the statement that players – as a collective whole – are not edition warriors and will play whatever game or edition is available, how do we reconcile that idea with the reality that many groups never upgraded from earlier editions? Or the number of groups that tried 4e then left for Pathfinder or other systems?

I theorize then that there must be a swing vote. In groups full of indifferent people who don’t care what they play so long as they play, there must be someone with a firm opinion who drives the choice of game system.

This echoes the theory of Type A and Type B personalities: you have the Type B players who just want to hang with friends and roll dice, and the Type A players that want the same but with a particular ruleset.

What would be the common characteristics this swing vote? More than likely they’d own the books of the prefered game: if books and accessories are lacking it’s hard to play. This would include players providing the rulebook(s) used by the entire group, thus making the choice of edition when purchasing the initial product. Or, alternatively, declining to buy new books.

For groups that have books for multiple editions available, the player making the choice would need to hold opinions on both editions. This means being informed enough to develop an opinion, and learning the differences between editions.

Therefore, the swing vote is someone invested in the hobby, who is informed on editions, and might be providing the books. Quite often this describes the Dungeon Master.

A DM’s Game

It does seem most likely that if anyone at the table is likely to have an opinion of what game to play, it will be the person running the game. This adds other factors that support the theory of the DM being the deciding factor of edition.

If one player in a group doesn’t want to play a particular edition the rest of the group can still play, but if the DM hates the game then someone else has to step up or no one plays.

Dungeon Masters in new groups tend to be the ones who discover the game; as they are the ones with the books and know the rules, by default they become the ones running the game. Thus they also choose the edition.

And as the person who has to run the games, if the DM is not having fun or does not enjoy the edition or system then they’re not going to create an environment that allows everyone else to enjoy themselves. Fun is infectious; if the DM is enjoying themself then it’s easier for the players to enjoy themselves.

Dungeon Masters are required to have knowledge of the rules. You cannot adjudicate on rules you do not know or tell a story using unfamiliar mechanics. Changing systems means learning an entirely new system, which can be quite challenging if things are very different (and even more challenging if things are different in subtle ways). System mastery helps, as elements of a system become almost instinctual. An experienced DM just knows how much damage an improvised attack should inflict, the DCs for checks, and the numerical bonus they can hand out for a situational perk. As such, DMs are likely to push for a system they feel comfortable running. Learning a new system is extra preparatory work.

As DMing is equal parts storytelling & rules adjudication and requiring the most prep work; you cannot plan an adventure that will entertain three to five people for four if you are unwilling to put in any time between sessions. It makes sense to have a non-casual player serve as Dungeon Master. Someone who is willing to sacrifice personal planning a campaign and not just forget about D&D between sessions like many players can. This means being particularly invested in the hobby, so gaming is not something thought about four hours every other week during play but something regularly considered every few days. Being invested in the hobby often means having an opinion on editions, an emotional stake in the game.

DMs often also act as hosts for the game. It’s also far easier to play at the home of the most invested player, as books are heavy and hard to transport. Playing elsewhere is more difficult on a DM, as they have to bring all their potential accessories (maps, terrain, minis) or arrive early to find said accessories. As host they might also expect a little more say in the game.

It’s an interesting idea: Dungeon Masters drive the hobby despite being outnumbered at the table four-to-one. This means an edition can appeal to a minority of players and still be a success so long as it targets and appeals to Dungeon Masters.

4th Editioned

Before considering how a new edition might cater to DMs, it’s worth looking some of the complaints and problems DMs had with 4th Edition. If DMs are a swing vote and were not wowed by 4e, that might be one of the reasons that edition did not do as well as it could have. (I doubt very, very much DMs would be the sole reason 4e didn’t do so well as I’ve discussed in earlier blogs).

Curiously, 4e was touted as being easier to DM. So how does this theory mesh with that theory that DMs might not have liked 4e?

Personally, I often found 4e’s claimed easier DMing to not always be the case. Certain bits were. Customizing monsters was easier, especially levelling monsters up and down. And Skill Challenges made planning non-combat encounters far easier. But building encounters was trickier as you couldn’t just pull a single monster from a book but had to pull 4-8, ensuring their powers and roles worked together. (Referencing 5 monsters on 5 different pages of a Monster Manual was not much fun either.) Encounter areas had to be designed with enough room for 10+ mobile combatants and enough interesting terrain to encourage tactical play. And I hated tracking treasure parcels and finding ways of cramming ten of them in each level without having huge dumps of treasure.

4th Edition, like 3e before it, was a player’s game: the power was moved into the hands of the players and player characters were emphasised as the focus of the game. This interacts poorly when you apply the theory that DMs are the swing vote: if the players want to play 4e but the DM onlys wants to play 3e or 1e then the table will fall apart or comprimise with something other than D&D.

4th Edition was very codified and designed to mitigate the impact of bad DMs, so that good DMs lost quite a bit of authority. This certainly made it easier to “rules lawyer”, defeating encounters not by creative thinking or character skill but by knowledge of the system. (Although, 3e was certainly worse in regards lawyering.)

Similarly, the bulk of the mechanics and content were aimed at players, being of use PCs with no use for DMs. Unlike 3e, where DMs could at least give monsters feats and classes , there was no reason for DMs to buy any of the ____ Power or Heroes of Adjective Noun books. The DM, potentially being the most invested player at the table, is the person most likely to buy books. But if there’s less usable content then there’s much less incentive to purchase the books.

To DMs, earlier editions had one big advantages over 4e: ease of customization. The 4e ruleset was actually pretty darn hackable, as shown by Gamma World. However, D&D itself was a little tougher as the majority of the rules were held in player powers. The base rules were simple but there were dozens of options that modified those simple rules. Removing an unwanted rules element (say martial healing) was not as simple as banning a class as a myriad of powers, feats, and items might allow similar results. Something as simple as making a new class (or subclass) suddenly meant making twenty-five powers.

Balance is also a factor in customization. Balance makes it easier to design encounter and defuses inter-player tension at the table. However, imbalance makes it easier to add both house rules and design your custom content. Inherent imbalances reduces the penalty for creating broken options and, as classes might not be perfectly balanced anyway; it’s more permissible to nerf or buff a class for story or world reasons.

Customization was not entirely enabled by 4th Edition. House rules were only briefly touched upon in the DMG and slightly discouraged. There were monster creation rules, but these were never updated to reflect the changing math and no advice was given on creating monster powers. There was no advice on creating PC content, such as powers, Paragon Paths, and the like. The online tools, which became a big part of the game, were also not friendly to custom content. The math of the game was kept quiet, as if it were a trade secret. Even WotC seemed hesitant to hack their own game; over the lifetime of the edition there were only a half-dozen optional rules for 4e, and most of those were additive and did not change the game.

The lore changes hurt DMs by altering worlds. Any DM who used an established campaign setting – either homebrew or published – suddenly had to revise everything to account for the new races, classes, planes, monsters, and the like. Many DMs like adhering to the “canon” of a campaign setting and changing lore makes that hard or requires changing plotlines. New additions (like a new common race) could be particularly hard to work into games. This leads to the awkward choice of either ignoring something from the core rules (that’s on the cover of the first PHB) or forcing new content into a world. Sometimes new options fit, and other times it rings false and feels artificial.

Appealing to DMs

How do you create a game that appeals to the DMs swing vote?

Simpler rules is certainly one way: making the game unlike the hard and codified systems of 3e and 4e . Empowering DMs and not rule lawyers makes it much easier to be a DM. Simpler rules also make a game easier to run. Simplicity also makes the game easier to learn; it’s easy to play using an unfamiliar system where you do not know the nuances but it’s much harder to run. The more different a system feels the less comfortable a DM will feel adjudicating rules and handling improvisation. Comfort is a tricky thing; it is always tempting to stick with a game system you know rather than invest and swap to system that feels strange or unintuitive. It doesn’t matter if a new system is superior if it requires too much relearning.

Customization is a must. DMs should feel encouraged to make the game system their own. The game should not only enable people to play the way they want but provide the tools to further personalize the system.This means encouraging and enabling house rules, providing examples of optional systems and game design advice or a “peak behind the curtain” at why certain elements of the game were designed they way they were.

(This might actually help the longevity of the system. People are more fond of things they have customized and personalized over time and might be more willing to continue investing in a system they have a personal stake in.)

Personalization also includes content creation, being able to generate custom class options, monsters, spells, feats, and the like. There should be advice for creating classes or races, describing how those options are balanced and the equivalent power levels.

Overlapping with both of the above is worldbuilding tools. Many DMs have a homebrew world (or two or three), and the needs of their worlds might be very, very different from the needs of the assumed setting. Even looking at D&D worlds there are the psionics and metal scarcity of Dark Sun, the emerging guns and terrifying monsters of Ravenloft, and the mass combat and nations at war of Birthright. DMs won’t want to wait three of four years for certain options to be released that they need to play in their world.

Books should contain new options and subsystems, but these should not always be new mandatory or expected subsystems. A book that provides a different style of feats, an expansion on spellcasting, a variant on rituals, or different style of classes all mean the DM needs to incorporate these new subsystems into their game while learning how they work. Optional subsystems that the DM can choose to ignore or incorporate are easier. Especially if they replace existing rules rather than always adding on top.

Flexible encounter building rules also help. There’s no one-size-fits all design for encounters. Set-piece encounters are handled very differently from multi-stage boss fights which are very different from quick waves, time sensitive fights, and incidental tone setting encounters. Allowing DMs to decide what kind of encounter they want at any given time is a good idea.

Reducing mandatory DM prep is also handy. It’s impossible to completely eliminate prep as planning stories, designing worlds, and designing encounters will always need to be done in advance. Reducing what needs to be tracked between sessions helps. The system should also get out of the way of storytelling; the mechanics need to work with the stories, and the stories should seldom have to conform or change to accommodate the mechanics.

More books could also have a benefit to DMs, such as including things like world flavour, adventure hooks, characters, locales, monsters, rule options, and the like. Limiting PC rules bloat also helps; the fewer classes and rules options a DM has to learn, remember, or incorporate into their world the easier things are for the DM. Limiting power creep also helps immensely, so a DM does not need engage in an arms race to maintain a the appropriate challenge of encounters.


It’s interesting that some of the methods of a DM centric game run contrary to the common expectations of designing books, the assumptions of what makes books desirable to the fanbase:

Power creep is often seen as necessary because people won’t buy new books if the core options are better. New books always have to contain some new subsystem or different design. Player books will sell better than DM books because there’s four times as many players.

The DM Swing Vote is by no means a universal rule. But there’s no universal statement you can make when talking about people, you can only really speak in generalities and trends. I’m honestly hesitant to say something like “all people breathe oxygen” because I’m not 100% positive there’s no one out there that prefers a nice lung full of ozone.

It could be true, even if somewhat. I think there’s a nice solid number of DMs acting as the swing vote in their groups. It’s worth stopping and thinking about.