Gygax's Seven Principals of the DM's Function

There has been some online complaints made by dungeon masters who feel that they had already played their best game. This thought is one that I do not find acceptable; in fact, by entertaining thoughts like that we are allowing ourselves to become complacent. If this happens, than it is probably time to sit on the other side of the screen for a while. The DM has many many functions, and it is his duty to never stop working on improving his ability to become better; true mastery, I feel, is unattainable. If we lose the ability to critique our work, we cannot grow. We must be critical of ourselves, but what is it exactly that we actually do? According to the games co-creator, Gary Gygax, he identified seven principal functions which we are responsiblefor; while it is very easy to become good at each, a true level of mastery is not actually possible, we can always improve our skills.


This skill does not mean that you railroad the players: that is simply providing the function, but it is a very weak attempt at doing so. To become a proper mover one has to plant seeds as one goes. This does not mean that you go out and buy the latest and greatest module and force your players to sit through it. There are many layers of storytelling that we are seeding, small ones as well as large ones. Most of this can be provided by identifying plausible and unexpected consequences. As soon as the game starts, and the players are making decisions there are consequences for these decisions, some good, and some not so good. We must also seek to become unpredictable, we offer many options as the game flows and the players chose which options that they want to pursue, this alone probably removes most modules from play. Your players will also be unpredictable, but if they get stuck than it is our job to move them before this even happens. We have to be aware of what seeds we are planting, and what unresolved plots are doing; if the players chose to ignore something today, it could spiral out of control and we have to let it do this.

We still want the players in control of their own destinies, however they still need us to guide them. If we offer no options then we are offering too many options. Decisions must be made, but in order for the players to make decisions they must be offered questions. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, we don’t want to lead the party, but we also want to keep everybody engaged. The party moves as one, but they should also move as individuals as well, meaning that some of the seeds that we are planting are for specific players, they are the stars of the show, they are calling the shots.

If you had spent three weeks designing a mine, and the players decide to not go into this mine, we’ve got to figure out a way to either encourage them to enter through encounters, else put it away and save it for later. Under no circumstances should they be trusting you. A good rule of thumb for me is that if you feel that you are being railroaded into something, then you’d best get off the tracks because you are being manipulated. Becoming a proper moving force takes years of practice, you don’t want to get caughtdoing it, but you don’t want to leave your players unaware of what there is to do. They must feel that they are agents of free will, because they are, but there is a balance to doing it well that is not static in any way. Finding quiet and different ways to nudge the party along when they need it is a subtle skill, and one can always do it with more creativity and tact than we’d done previously. We must never allow something to become passé.


Even if we use a published setting, we are still responsible for creating everything in this world. We do so because of necessity, but we are also exploring creativity.  This is more than just imagination; we must also be organized to properly catalog our world when it is required. This is a non-stop learning process, just because we have a map and a brief synopsis of what an area is like does not mean that we are ready to play there. We create on paper, as well as create at the table while playing the game; this goes back to adventure seeds and becoming a moving force. We must be inspired to create, and allow ourselves to enjoy doing it. Not only do we create basic necessities, we can always go just a little bit further, add just a little bit more detail. Create thoughtfully and with intent to move things along.


Paying someone to design stuff for you is boring. While it is fine to steal and twist established ideas, if one does nothing but use the designs of others, what is it that you are really accomplishing here? Designing and Creating are linked together, but they aren’t the same thing. We create an orcish war party, but we must design how this war party will try and attack. We create a dungeon, but first we must design it.

I don’t care who you are, you aren’t an expert designer, things can always be tighter, we want everything different, there are also many play styles to try, and they all haven’t been invented yet. It is okay to open every game out with a goblin war, as long as you can design it to flow and function differently each time. Becoming repetitive and complacent go hand in hand, if an encounter falls apart, you’ve got to identify why and how you can design it better next time. Even if the design worked perfectly, it will never be repeated, no matter what, this is a major part of our job.


We must be aware of our rules; our chosen system represents the physics of our realm. Some people feel that they get bored of a system; this typically means that they are not focusing on the other principle functions. The rules are there to make our lives easier, and they allow us to do things consistently, that is all. One need not be an expert of the rules, but they do have to be aware of them. We depend upon our rules to help us design. We create new rules to either improve our base system or to speed up play. It doesn’t matter what this system is, you must master it and once you’ve got a system mastered do not switch systems. Have we ever got a system mastered? Probably not, and it would be a waste of time to try and memorize every chart and rule in it. Mastery, in this sense, is knowing your way around the books, being able to find something fast, or better yet, before play. The rules are tools which you can depend upon. They help us design by filling in all of the gaps so we can work on other elements of the design.


We supervise and manage people. Managing people is a skill, even if these people get along, which hopefully they do, we must keep them productive. We pit players against each other, but we must also help them to resolve that issue. A role-playing session that goes on for too long leaves everybody not involved in it out in the cold, we’ve got to keep everybody engaged, and this is a dance that we are always learning and tinkering with. We make sure that the quiet people have a voice; that those who are following must lead; that those who have become complacent players in their own right must be challenged. DM’s are interactive with a group of people and we can’t forget this. If the players fail to accomplish their goals, this may be because of some fault of our own.

Many problems which happen at the table usually can be traced right to this source. A player who is a bully in an extreme situation, must be dealt with, but somebody who just gets excited, and tends to talk over everybody else probably isn’t doing it on purpose. Usually when a problem is happening it isn’t identified right away, not until it becomes an issue; thus, learning how to catch this stuff before it blows up is something that is learned over time though experience.

The Dungeon Master is the boss, and while it is our job to make the character’s lives miserable, the players depend upon us to be a good manager, to provide a safe and productive environment in which everybody can imagine and create and make something meaningful together.


Besides creating the world, we also bring it to life. Wemust be aware of our audience, what their expectations are and making sure that these expectations are being fulfilled. While we are all creating, it is our duty to bring the setting to life, and to do that we have to learn proper pacing. We seek to manipulate the emotions of the players, we speed up play, we slow it down, we don’t want to read giant text blocks to force a specific picture into the players heads, we have to draw simple and basic shapes and let their imaginations fill in the rest. This is a skill that is also learned over time. This is where your personal style and voice comes in. If you can discover these things, then you can offer your players an experience that they can’t get just anywhere.

Knowing when to break out the miniatures so that everybody is on the same page, but knowing when not to as well; knowing when to separate the party and when to keep them together, there are many tricks and formulas that you’ve got to use, and you are never going to master this, but if it isn’t there in any shape or form then everybody is going to get bored.


While a high degree of passion is required to be a Dungeon Master, we must also allow the dice to function. We have to blend rules with design. We have to make difficult calls, and we have to stick to plans. We have to bend rules, yet abide by them. We’ve got to have faith is our system to allow it to have its influence upon the game.  If the dice decide to up and kill everybody because of miserable rolls, we have to say, “Well, that wasn’t very much fun. Let’s try that again, shall we?”  However if somebody takes a risk, you also have to allow them to fail. We must be impartial, yet passionate. We must design but not become a slave to them. We are allowed to say “No.” But we are allowed to say yes too.

We must be fair, not just to the players, but to ourselves as well. If the monsters win, then they’ve won. If somebody at the table does nothing but make called shots, then you as the DM should be doing it as well. We must be able to interpret rules, and apply them as accurately as we can. We must invent rules on the fly to keep a pace going, but we must stop the game sometimes as well, just to refresh everybody on how a situation will be judged so that everybody is on the same page. Being a referee takes experience, and quick thinking. It involves making a decision and sticking to it. It involves being unpopular sometimes, keeping the players honest, allowing a system to function and knowing when it isn’t.

All of this stuff is required to be a decent Dungeon Master, if any of these functions are out of sync or ignored, your game will suffer for it every time. This is a hobby, and DMing is a craft. Anybody can DM, but when there is a craftsman at the table, then everybody knows it. My best game is not behind me, it is always the next one. You can’t be afraid to fail, but you’ve also got to pay attention when you do. If you just shrug and say oh well, instead of figuring out how to solve the problem in the future, or if you pass the buck and try to blame it on others, or even a system, you are doing a huge disservice to your players, yourself, and your game. The game is easy to play, but it will take a life-time to master. The day that I think that I have mastered it is the day that I quit playing, thankfully there are always new vistas to explore, new worlds to create, new ideas to be expanded. To this day I have no idea of what lies around the next bend, and feel compelled to keep walking just to find out what it is.


rredmond said...

Interesting blog! Happy to have just found it. BE well,

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