DM May I?

A term I keep hearing around the interwebs and on the message boards is “DM May I?” It’s based around rules lite systems where there is less baked in PC options, and player must ask if they can do something. This is seen as a bad thing because of the risk of rigid DMs who won’t let players do anything and will shoot down ideas. This is also because some players don’t want to have to ask if they can do something – or have to think of actions – they just want to act.

I’ve also heard this referred to as “mother may I?” A term that seems deliberately inflammatory, designed to provoke a negative emotional reaction and thus establish without argument that the style is bad. So I’m sticking to “DM”.

No two gaming groups play D&D exactly alike. There is a wide range of play styles, a wide range of involvement of the rules. Some groups challenge the player, while other groups challenge the character. Some rely on dice as the primary determining factor of success or failure, while others rely more on creative thought and problem solving. Some groups have a focus on combat, while others have a focus on storytelling or on role-playing. And many groups move between extremes on a session-by-session basis (or campaign-by-campaign basis), lacking a single defining overriding play style.

DMMI falls a little into a group’s play style, although it definitely has some influence on the system and from the system. Games and editions can be designed to encourage or discourage DMMI play.

Player Perspective

One of the arguments against DMMI is the limited options provided in open systems: typically for fighter and rogue classes, but also in regards to interactions with the environment. Both 3e and 4e had firm rules for interactions with terrain, NPCs, monsters, and the like. 3e especially tried to have a rule for every situation. There were firm rules for climbing walls, opening doors, attacking objects, and like.

There’s the concern that without firm rules, a DMs might prevent ideas from working: NPCs will be unswayed regardless of the argument (or Diplomacy check result), PCs will be unable to batter down doors, and creative options in combat will not work.

In a DMMI game, the players can ask to do anything. There’s an infinite amount of actions. Even if half the suggestions are rejected, half of infinity is still infinity. There is a finite number of actions in a closed system that discourages improvisation or does not encourage DM fiat. So, even without the rule mandated baked-in options, a DMMI game provides far more options than the restrictive game, especially almost every option and attack provided by the baked-in rules might be equally attempted in an improvisational setting. In 2e, there’s nothing but creativity and an open DM standing between a player and a cleave or a trip attempt.

Games with baked in options arguably restrict creativity. This is too large of a topic to enter into here (I’ll do a blog on it later), but in short, a large number of options discourage breaking from those options. If there’s a fighter power that knocks an enemy prone or immobilizes or blinds then it’s harder to justifying imposing that effect or condition: if the player wanted to they’d need that power. It suggests special training is required. “Page 42” only discusses adding skill checks to attack rolls to deal improvised damage (and sub-optimal damage compared to powers), and doesn’t discuss imposing conditions. And there’s no untrained Trip attack in the combat section, only Bull Rush and Grab (and the later likely only included so 4e could say how much better it’s grab system was than 3e’s grapple).

I’m using 4e for this example as the power system and the sheer amount of option creep makes ad hoc ruling difficult (“Can you do that? I don’t know, let me trawl through the Compendium and see if there’s a feat, power, class feature, or paragon feature that does that.”) But the exact same comments could be used when discussing 3e or Pathfinder. (“Gee, I would let your rogue do that, but there’s a rogue trick designed around that.”)

As a player, I tend to like DMMI as it rewards creative thought. I enjoy doing weird things and using the environment. I always had the most fun with D&D when it allowed me to be crazy and employing out-of-the-box solutions.  The game should enable and encourage the DM to reward creative thinking and original ideas.

DM Perspective

The basis of the game is through the lens of the DM. Regardless of DMMI, all actions require the DM’s permission, or at least his enabling. Have a melee fighter? Gee, this fight features a bunch of hovering harpies. Pyromancer? Meet an elder fire elemental immune to fire who deals fire damage in an aura when hit by attacks that deal fire damage. The DM is always enabling or disabling a party’s ability to function.

Whenever a party enters a room, they rely on the DM to describe the room and the terrain and play fair, not omitting traps or obvious hazards. Forgetting to mention the pool of acid or the statues that come alive and attack.

Option heavy games are trickier to run, as the DM needs to be aware of all the options and abilities their players have access to, to properly challenge and engage their players. The more abilities characters have, the more the DM needs to be aware of. The prep is harder. In a more option-lite game, or one where only certain classes have more options, the prep is easier as there are fewer variables. But it can become harder to run at the table, having to adjudicate creative thinking and DMMI play. It’s certainly easier for the DM to say no. But it’s also easier to design adventures without thinking of a party’s abilities and strengths/weaknesses, which can lead to a very unsatisfying and impersonal game.

DMs need to be taught to allow actions, or if PC cannot do something, there must be a very valid reason. DMs need to be taught and encouraged and given advice on how to make DMMI work. It’s not instinctive.

No Bad DMs?

In my time gaming, I’ve played with over twenty-eight different DMs. Possibly as many as 30 or even 35. So I’ve seen my fair share of bad DMs.

The vast majority of the terrible ones were in Organized Play (Living Greyhawk, Xen’Drick Expeditions, Living Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder Society, etc). Some of them were “terrible” due to differing play styles, which makes it unfair to say they’re “bad”, but rather “bad for me”. Others were bad because they were not organized, or good speakers. Organized Play seems to attract a disproportionate number of stutterers, stammerers, and mumblers (including me). And, because Organized Play is less of a DMing commitment than a full home game, I think many players opt to run to test themselves as a DM, to see if they like it before committing to full DM status.

Regardless, I’ve seen the most rigid DMs in organized play, than in other play. Typically, they tend to feel bound to the published module, causing even those solutions backed by rules to fail because it’s beyond the limits of the mod. As such, hard rules and player empowerment just led to rules lawyering and arguments, or the DM freezing as something was not covered and they had no idea how to handle it. And the strict rules of play really tend to discourage creative thought, to maintain the game’s comparable and consistent play.

In home play I’ve seen less of a range. Some DMs stuck firmly to the rules, but most were open to “stunting” and creative though, and were even willing to bend the rules to accommodate a cool idea. The “Rule of Cool” trumping other laws, as it were. Most of the terrible ones were bad because they were young and often inexperienced. So in terms of my homegames, the difference between all my bad DMs and my good DMs was experience and education.

Removed from Organized Play, the DM’s knowledge of the rules decreased. Organized Play DMs really seem to learn all the rules – which is needed to adjudicate without bias – and, of course, cannot vary from them. In home play I’ve seen many, many more DMs with only a passing knowledge of the rules, and very little knowledge of how classes work or some spells work. Many more home DMs rely on the players for the rules, and the DM power only comes into play for adjudication or resolving non-standard actions.

From personal experience, ignorance of the rules really seems to enable creative play. The fewer rules a DM knows, the more they seem willing to say “that seems cool, why not?” or “sure, make a check.”

Final Thoughts

As there is such a range of play styles, there should always be classes with baked-in options. Not everyone want to stunt, or think creatively. Some people want to just relax and play the game with their brains on neutral. That’s a fair and as valid a play style as any other. Somedays I’ve not been fully there at the table, being off my game, and I was very thankful for the options my 4e psion provided. That said, there should be a range, with some classes having more onus on creative though and enabling of imaginative players. Symmetry of design leads to a symmetry of play, which can be boring.

The only real advantage baked in options has over DMMI is for people who don’t want to improvise. While that is a fair play style, improv and creative thinking is such a huge part of what makes D&D and RPGs a unique game, downplaying them or working around them seems to take away from what makes the game special.

However, it is always easier to ignore a rule than it is to create a fair and balanced rule on the spot. So the book should do its best to be simple yet comprehensive, with firm guidelines when adjudication is needed. But, at the same point, there needs to be solid advice on when to stick to the rules and when to ignore the rules, suggestions on when to rule against the players and rule in favour of the players. Telling the DMs to “say yes” is excellent advice, but it is only the first step.