D&D Philosophy: Can the Dungeon Master Win?

My Dad got me into Dungeons and Dragons. He had first started playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons whilst at university, working on a Chemistry PhD. He and his friends ran campaign after campaign, developing their own adventures along the Sword Coast, as well as creating their own scenarios along the way. He was a gamer in the 70s and 80s, and in 1999, that love he had for AD&D (or just D&D for short) was passed onto me. Yes, I was a 7 year old D&D Player and it was amazing.

I still remember my half-orc cleric now, and my halfling rogue…good times.

This Father’s Day (so last Sunday) I actually got talking to my Dad again about D&D. We still play a few times a year, and those are some of the best days of the year as well. He said something to me that got me thinking. He said to me:

The role of the DM is like a crossword designer – you want the player to succeed; however, you don’t want to make it too easy for them. This is because, even as a player, you never win D&D…you survive it.

He then went on to explain that, in a way:

The DM is a natural born loser.

You can take that in several ways; however, the way he meant was that the DM can’t ever win. A good DM’s role is that of a storyteller, not an antagonist, and this is where so many Dungeon Masters can go wrong. The job for the DM is to take the players on a journey and not to tread them into oblivion. It’s to nurture rather than destroy.

The whole idea of the DM as a nurturer comes back to the whole nature of a co-operative game, which Dungeons & Dragons is in its own way. It is not just the players against the world, but rather those players with the world. The DM is everything: enemies yes, but also the sound of the breeze, the sight of the castles, and smell in the air (sometimes literally, but that’s beyond the point).

If the players lose, so does the DM in a way. If they die then so does a large part of the campaign, as it will never be played. That can be gutting. That being said, the DM also doesn’t win if the players don’t make it through the campaign. If he (or she) has created a Lich King, who gets destroyed by the players, then technically he hasn’t won, right?

So When Does The Dungeon Master Win?

This brings us to question the very nature of the DM. The DM is ultimately an enabler or story teller. He/she is a facilitator to the players, symbiotic in their relationship. You can’t have a player without a Dungeon Master, and you can’t have a Dungeon Master without a player.

So can the DM win? Well, yes, kind of, but only if they see themselves as an extension of the world rather than as purely the opposition. If the DM sees themselves as only the enemy then, to quote South Park, “you’re going to have a bad time”. That is a bad time all round, and not just for the DM, but rather something which applies to both the DM and players. If the DM is too competitive or too ferocious (yeah, ferocious, I said it) then the players won’t want to play with that DM too often.

Instead the DM wins when the players do. As said previously, his, or her, goal is not to destroy the players but rather to enable them. If the DM has enabled them to complete the scenario then he has won. If the players have a great time then the DM has won. If the Black Dragon has been defeated, the Lich King turned to dust, and the Beholder beheld then the Dungeon Master wins.

Thus is the very nature of Co-op games. The DM, like the Ghost in Mysterium, is a part of the team. He wins when everyone else does.

So there we have it – a simple thought.

4 thoughts on “D&D Philosophy: Can the Dungeon Master Win?

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  1. Agreed: the DM is the facilitator of the game. She needs to present a coherent, consistent, logical world – and all the challenges that come with that world – but ultimately, she “wins” when the players win.

    Although… I don’t see her role as a storyteller. It’s a small quibble, to be sure, but “story” isn’t something that happens during the game. It comes together – coalesces, if you will – after the events of a game, when the players recall what happened, and start telling stories to themselves and their friends.

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    1. That is a fair point. I suppose one way of thinking of it is a kind of train analogy. The DM decides the track will go from A to B, but the players are the ones who pick the journey. Yes, fair shout.

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  2. It depends on a player(and DM’s) reasons for play, which is very much covered in a blog that it due to post on my site in about 3 hours… I basically agree with most of your post. I think the DM wins if they have the right objective, for me that is to tell a good story. I can tell a good story. I have spent years of practice and learning on the craft. But I play Vampire the Masquerade, Vampire the Dark Ages, Marvel Heroic and DnD (Often as GM) because stories are living things – and a roleplay game is a perfect metaphor for how storytelling works. Narrative – a sequence of events. Plot – How the writer assembles those events and presents them. Story – What happens when plot meets reader. In an rpg, Narrative is replaced by Scenario, the GM replaces the plot (in the metaphor as he is the presenter) and the Story happens when characters encounter the GM’s world. The GM wins when they get story they weren’t expecting. For me, that was when my players used their abilities to make someone accept suppository as perfectly normal. I have a historic post that touches on this https://itsmorethanjustgaming.com/2017/02/20/how-roleplay-games-have-helped-me-be-a-better-writer/ that you might like, if you haven’t seen already and as I say today’s post also touches on it

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