by Mike Shea on 1 March 2010
or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Combat Challenge.
There's a very good e-book on Lulu that describes the attitudes and philosophies of the 0e D&D Dungeon Master called "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming". In it, the author describes a concept called "Rulings, not Rules". Essentially, in old school D&D, there wasn't a lot of specific mechanics for things. This left interpretation up to the DM in conjunction with the player to decide what was possible with a limited wish or how exactly a thief can detect a pit trap.
This gave a whole lot of power to the Dungeon Master who would, ideally, use this power to make for a very exciting game. It would be clear to a player that the DM is ultimately the one to decide what does and doesn't happen.
4e doesn't eliminate this completely, but with a system as rules-heavy as this one, much of the control of a situation comes down to the statistics and powers of the player. Rather than coming up with an ingenious way to detect a pit trap using some water, the player describes what his or her character is doing and rolls a skill check. Want your big boss to go after the squishies? Well, not if he happens to be marked by your fighter!
Combat in 4e D&D has clearly moved in the direction of giving more control to the player. Players have tons of ways to control a battle field, control a monster's aggression, and inflict a rainbow of debilitating status effects upon your poor beasts.
I am not here to argue the case for giving DMs more or less control in 4e. Instead, I think its important that we understand the philosophy of 4e and enjoy the game a little more in the process. This enjoyment directly comes from one basic rule:
Relax and let the players enjoy their ability to control the battle.
It is sometimes hard to remember that D&D is as much the game of the players as it is the game of the DM. We are the ones building the framework for the world but the story ultimately surrounds the protagonists, the PCs in this case. They SHOULD control the battle because that control is something they will ultimately enjoy. They like forcing monsters to attack someone. They enjoy watching their combination of abilities work. They enjoy laying out a strategy and watching that strategy break through a difficult situation.
Now I don't like watching my big nasty boss creature get a bucket thrown over his head and a kick me sign stuck on his ass while the party begins to give him atomic wedgies for 2d4+5d8+15 damage any more than you do. I like to watch my bosses throw players to the edge of the abyss like Sauron in the beginning of Lord of the Rings. But that's not always fun.
Like a lot of things in D&D, we have to learn how to mix up the control of an encounter. In many cases, say 2 out of 3 battles, the players should have a good chance to control the battle. They should enjoy their tactics and watch them work. They shouldn't have a lot of their resistances broken or have a real hard time hitting things. They should have interesting environments that let them do what they want to do most. One out of three, however, the gloves should come off. Things should get messy and dangerous. A lot of those player tactics may still work but won't give them the total desired effect. Like overall difficulty and encounter design, we have to know when to let players enjoy themselves and when to push them to the limits.
The main thing is to remember that this game belongs as much to the players as it does to the DM, more so maybe. This is the tale of their characters in your world. It isn't a competition between you and them and your goal shouldn't be total domination over the game.
It all comes back down to the famous Rule 0: Do what is the most fun at the time. If that means letting the PCs have control over your big boss, give it to them. If it means beating the dog snot out of them with a Heroslayer Hydra and his four Slaad friends, have at it! Aim for fun and your shot will be true.
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