D&D — Who Tells the Story?

There’s something that a lot of beginning players don’t understand about D&D, and it can cause lots of problems based on the experience of the group, especially if your dungeon master is new to the role. In fact, this was perhaps my biggest problem when I first tried my hand as a DM, and since I wouldn’t consider myself to have been fun to play with until I had learned this lesson.

In a typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign, who tells the story? For the purposes of this, it is completely irrelevant what the story is. It doesn’t matter if the dungeon master is using a campaign they bought, or downloaded online, or if they are making something up themselves. Who tells the story? I’ll give you a hint. It isn’t the DM.

This is the problem many aspiring dungeon masters have. They write out their characters, they make a map, they set up a conflict. They might as well be the author to the story, and they certainly would be if they put all of their preparation into words on a page. But there’s a variable they often misidentify: the players. New DMs consider players the audience to the epic tale of elves and wizards. Of trolls and orcs. Of dungeons, and… well, dragons.

In most D&D campaigns, there is no audience. An audience implies observation with no interaction, which certainly isn’t what the players are. The player characters aren’t, or at least they shouldn’t be, obvservers of events and occurrences they can’t influence. Influencing an open and full world is pretty much the reason to be playing D&D in the first place.

Many novice dungeon masters consider the players to be crew members of the ship, while they themselves are the captain. The DM/captain steers the ship (well, more accurately the helmsman, but you get the idea), and the players/deckhands follow orders as the DM guides them to interesting lands.

That’s not what D&D should be. Instead, the players are the entire ship. Self governed, in fact. They may declare somebody captain of the ship, or they may otherwise take turns steering it. Point is, the DM doesn’t tell the boat where to go, the players do. So, what is the dungeon master in this metaphor? Simple: they’re the entire ocean. They’re the monsters that halt their progress. They’re the ports they stop at when they reach shore. They are the storms they brave when the skies aren’t clear. The DM isn’t the narrator. They are the driving force for the characters, who are narrating their own story.

If they’re anything like me, a new DM might feel a little attacked at this idea. Dungeon masters spend time out of the game preparing ahead of time, isn’t it more their story than the rest? My answer to that is, sure, it is your story. (That’s why, when I talk about the two campaigns I’m involved in, I refer to one of them as my campaign.) But it’s also their story. The dungeon master and the players are not against one another. It’s not (necessarily) an adversarial relationship.

The DM isn’t the captain of the ship ordering the players around. The DM is the ocean a ship of players must interact with and handle in order to survive.

7 thoughts on “D&D — Who Tells the Story?

      1. Yes! Wait, NO!

        I find the nearest leak-sized object and attempt to stuff it into the hole. Is that a fellow adventurer next to me? Perfect.

        Like

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