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Evaluative DMing  @psychohistorian.org

Evaluative DMing

posted: 4395 days ago, on Sunday, 2006 Mar 12 at 01:05
tags: Dungeons and Dragons.


I'm not a games theorist or games designer, so if the following is old hat or nonsense, please accept my apologies upfront.


Since forever, I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons, starting with the red Basic D&D rulebook (featuring an awesome dragon about to eat a fighter) and later the AD&D version (with the other-worldly mage on the cover of the DM's guide).

Then one day I was introduced to Rolemaster. At that stage, I'd already read the MERP rules, and was running a long-standing (AD&D) campaign (in which C'Mir went from a goody-goody cleric to Archpriest of Arawn and was ruler of the Citadel of the Heel of Anachron, Ulmo went from Lord of the Waters to Lord of the Elements and had his secluded tower, Lenceus the Gray went from elf to human and had his dragon, and Oberon the Blue lived in an underwater realm where he admired his holographic "flash-photographs" of the Drow city and Llolth's temple).

As impressive as all this was, I was more impressed by Rolemaster. In particular, by the extensive use of skills to define a character. (OK, and also by the fact that each player needed to own a calculator.)

I was looking into Rolemaster because, as a "simulationist", I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the AD&D rule system. Rules-tweaking, and heck, major re-writing, was the order of the day.

Character building

The restrictive character classes fighter, mage, cleric, thief was one of the bugbears I struggled with. When Skills and Powers was introduced much later I thought it was a great addition to an already flawed system.

Don't misunderstand me the fighter/mage/cleric/thief division isn't all bad. In fact, it provides a great framework from within which to work a cognitive schema for role-playing a character. These four character types are, in fact, archetypes which players can relate to (see, for example, Ronnick, M.V. (1997) 'Classical Mythology in the "dungeon"', The Classical Bulletin, 73(2), 111-118).

From a DM's point of view, this crude characterization is often welcome. Minor NPCs need only casual definition sometimes all you need to know about the leader of the random band of thugs about to ambush your party is that, well, he's big and strong and mean. However, PCs and important NPCs deserve better treatment.

One method often used to flesh out a casual NPC is to roll up or select one or more random attributes (say, ugly, petulant, macho, arty, or what have you) to use as a role-playing hook. Expanding on this is the useful trick of basing an NPC on someone you know, or a familiar character from a book or movie/tv show. In this case, the DM (perhaps subconsciously) selects salient traits of the character and runs with them. Of course, not only attributes and traits can be selected in this way, but skills too.

This approach is formalised in Rolemaster (and in Skills & Powers) resulting in a character being defined along many dimensions. It also converts the player's character sheet into a multi-page inventory only slightly less cumbersome than a telephone directory.

A new approach to character building

Character building takes time. Just as minor NPCs are vaguely defined, it's been my experience that PCs created for a short adventure are equally cardboard. I'm heavily biased toward campaign-style play, with a detailed setting as backdrop for characters to evolve in. As such, it makes sense to spend more time in "formally" creating the character before play.

The style of game you play, and the nature of the campaign setting, will strongly influence which attributes, traits and skills are emphasized during character creation and during play.

This suggests that it isn't practical (or even possible) to compile a comprehensive list of attributes, traits and skills, simply because these are labels representing emergent properties of human behaviour. A spade isn't always a spade and may even be a rose. In turn, this suggests that no such lists should be compiled at all.

During character creation, the player should be concerned with character, not numbers. No jargon (i.e. game-mechanical terminology) should be used. Instead, adopt a narrative approach, describing the PC in terms of characteristic behaviours, motivations, thoughts and feelings. Write a description, don't fill out a character sheet.

In addition to this "inner-world" description, pay attention to the past. Think about the pc's earlier interaction with the "outside world" and what was learnt from this interaction. This "outside world" is both the non-living environment (which includes the natural, geographical, climatic, man/elf/dwarf/whatever-made and "magical" elements) and the living environment (including plants, animals & "monsters", and also social and interpersonal dynamics).

Finally, think about and describe the PC's expectations of the future, things they want to achieve, and incentives they would need to reach their (currently perceived) goals.

Having written what amounts to a biography (with perhaps a hint of an obituary), the player's job is done. In practice, several rounds of writing, with player and DM interacting, usually take place.

A new approach to DMing

At this point, the title of this essay asserts itself. The DM now uses the character document in effect, the character sheet to summarize, in whatever game-mechanical terms he prefers, the character. Depending on style of play and campaign setting, the DM evaluates the character on as many dimensions as necessary, be they skills, attributes, motives or personality traits whatever it is that needs to be operationalized. The dm's job is to translate or evaluate the character's narrative into numbers.

The same applies during game play. The DM listens carefully to what the player says the character does, and evaluates the outcome the "old-fashioned" way with a probabilistic-determining action (a.k.a. A dice roll) the outcome of which modifies the value of one or more of the dimensions focussed on in the game.

But beyond this, the DM creates new dimensions on the fly, evaluating and noting them as the player lets the character perform the action. The outcome is that character actions (even small ones) have consequences, gradually accumulating to create a larger effect. Froin the Forceful never chose "diplomacy" as a skill, but lately he's been engaging in lots of banter with an insanely powerful wizard (who he calls 'wizzy' and gets away with) and it seems he's found a taste for this kind of tom-foolery. The DM notes this and a new skill is added dynamically, one that wasn't present at character creation. By the same token, Olin, who started off as a combat-oriented paladin but has been spending more and more time at court and in church involved in political machinations, may find his sword-swinging skills begin to atrophy somewhat.


To summarize, a character's actions (and in-actions) and the consequent outcomes define who they are and how, usually over a period of time, they change. It is these changes that are noticed and evaluated by the dm, operationalized along pertinent dimensions to reflect the growth (along existing lines, and of new facets) of the character and the character's influence on the "outside world".

The player's task is to weave narrative, and the DM's is to evaluate, calculate the odds, and describe the outcome.

The characters act in a world that follows laws and rules, most eloquently expressed in numbers, which judge their actions and determine the results. Yet C'Mir, Ulmo, Lenceus and Froin are tall tales, and not collections of statistics. They live as stories of adventure, excitement and peanut butter in the minds of the DM and players alike.

nothing more to see. please move along.

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