by Mike Shea on 17 January 2017
As part of the 2016 D&D Dungeon Master Survey, I asked DMs to describe their favorite trick for running a great D&D game. I wrangled the answers a bunch of different ways, all of which you can read about in the survey results article. As part of this, I clustered the text for the tips into eight different clusters, all built algorithmically. I didn't define what the clusters were. Nearly all of the clusters had something interesting to say but two of them caught my attention. These two clusters focused on two specific contradictory words: "make" and "let".
At first this clustering stuff sounds like a bunch of technobabbling tealeaf-reading bullshit, but when we think about it for a minute, "make" and "let" represents an interesting split in attitudes.
"Make", for example, is very active. We make things. We make the story do things. We make monsters do things. We make sure the game is fun. We make the monsters challenging.
"Let" is the opposite. We sit back and let things happen. We let the characters drive the story. We let major villains die in surprising ways. We let the story flow naturally. We say yes and let ourselves lose control of the narrative.
There's no right answer between "make" and "let". Both of these attitudes serve our game. Circumstances sometimes dictate that we're better off making things happen. In other circumstances, we're better off letting things go as they will. There's a careful balance between "make" and "let", one we must constantly and continually gauge as we run our games.
Are things slowing down and players are starting to reach for their phones? Maybe it's time to make something happen. Are the players fully engaged in discussing their plans to disarm the huge dwarven vault door? Maybe we should sit back and let the discussion unfold.
In Weird Discoveries, Monte Cook describes the importance of pacing. Knowing when to make things happen and when to let things happen is the pulse of pacing. It's the clock cycle of our game that we must continually monitor.
Ok, enough philosophy. What are some things we might "make" and what are some things we might "let" happen? Let's jot down some ideas. A few of these I stole directly from the tips people submitted in the survey.
We DMs must maintain both strength and flexibility. We have to be fluid enough to let a world grow from our minds and the minds of our players and solid enough to make that world move, breathe, and live. We need to make our game fun so they keep coming back. We need to let the game go so it becomes something greater than ourselves. Sometimes we must let these two contrary ideas live in our minds and manifest at the table if we want the game to turn into something wonderful. What will you make happen? What will you let happen?