Ever heard of the Viking Hat? It describes a DMing style where basically what the DM says, goes, end of story. It’s not (thankfully) as prevalent these days as it was back in the early days of the hobby. There’s a few reasons for that. First, games are different now, the indie game scene being a prime example. Second, people are less inclined to play with twats. Third, and the point of this post, modern games are more transparent.
Early iterations of D&D were full of holes. You had to house rule them in order to play. That put a lot of onus on the DM to make the game work. Not only did they have to learn all the rules, but they had to implement them in their own customised way. Given that players from other campaigns might have been used to very different interpretations, it could be a source of friction. This is where the Rules Lawyer was born too. I think the Viking Hat may even have been a reaction to the Rules Lawyer, but either way there was definitely a feeling of there being two sides at the table with the DM screen running down the middle. They weren’t necessarily in opposition, they just had very different responsibilities and expectations.
Some of this came from the books themselves. Despite talking about the teamwork and the cooperation in the early pages, there has always been books for DMs and books for players. The DM gets to read them all, but there has often been a sense of some books being off limits to the players. That’s still true to an extent today with 4e. The balance has shifted though. Now, there is much more info available to the player, there are magic items in the Players Handbook, a first for D&D. In fact, there is so much content that the player can no longer rely on the DM to be the font of all knowledge.
This came up in our game recently with the release of PHB II. There’s some very new stuff in there, not just a reboot of classic ideas. I had a lot of trouble getting my head round some of the new divine classes, I just couldn’t visualise them at all for a while. It was like I was back in my very first game. Normally the DM would step up to the descriptive plate and set the scene for everyones benefit. Our DM has less idea about the contents of PHB II than the players do, so that wasn’t going to work. It seems that nowadays everyone has to carry a little bit of the weight of the rules. This was always true of the story part of the game, but there was a time where story was almost the sole responsibility of the player. Now, more than ever before, you can’t just be a casual player. You need to know the rules, and you absolutely have to know your characters rules. This comes with the exception based design of the powers, you’ve got to be prepped, and you’ve got to be organised.
I’ve just reorganised my books to reflect that split. I now have a box full of player material, and another full of DM material. When I show up at DJKs game, I only worry about bringing my players box with me. When it’s my characters turn, I become like a little mini DM for 2 minutes as I play out my actions. When my invoker uses avenging strike, the other players don’t look to the DM for the resolution they look to me. When Danurai’s shaman summons his spirit companion, he becomes the rules ref on it’s abilities. We then tend to use the DM as a court of appeal, or to clear up rules interpretations.
That kind of power might to be hard to let go of if you’ve been DMing for any length of time. Me? I’m enjoying the freedom to give more time to the world, the story and to the opposition. I have learned it’s better to trust the players with their own characters, even if they make mistakes every now and again. It’s not Rules Lawyering to point out an opportunity attack that the DM missed, it’s sharing the responsibility. Good DMs will welcome the help. The game has to be fun for everyone at the table, and everyone is responsible for making that happen.
The Viking Hat has no place in 4e, and it’s a better game for that.