Do Dungeon Masters Roll Magic Dice?

By Robert P. Kruger

[Originally published by Baen Books in 2016]

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay for Baen called “Dungeons & Dragons: The 40-Year Quest for a Game that Breaks All the Rules.” I covered a lot of ground, from the history of the game through its acquisition and revision by Wizards of the Coast, and explored the psychological hooks that may explain its popularity. One thing I touched on a couple of times was the DM’s angsty role as both judge and participant. I wanted to explore that some more, but I was already three times over my suggested word count, and, frankly, I had more thinking to do.

The DM role is both the core oddity and strength of D&D or any tabletop roleplaying game. Dungeons & Dragons cocreator Dave Arneson hit on the concept when he assumed the role of all the monsters in a tabletop miniatures game while serving as judge. Being both player and judge represents a clear conflict of interest in most games, but here the goal changed from beating the other players, to facilitating their good time. The way it works is that the DM tells a story and presents hazards for the players to confront. The players tell the DM what their characters attempt to do, and the DM objectively determines the outcomes, using dice to resolve uncertainties.

“Objectively determines the outcomes”? What a trick that would be! How can a Dungeon Master objectively determine the actions of creatures that don’t even exist, like dragons or orcs? How can the dice model any kind of reality? Dungeons & Dragons is an exercise in suspending disbelief. To collaborate on the story, everyone, even the Dungeon Master, provisionally accepts the DM’s bogus objectivity. This is pretty clear, but I think it goes even further in a superior game. The DM doesn’t just pretend he’s objective. At some level, to make the game work, he needs actually to believe it.

Expert gamer and Baen writer Ryk E. Spoor disagrees. Ryk ably presents a counterargument to my point. (Ryk, by the way, is the author of the Grand Central Arena series, the Balanced Sword series, and coauthor with Eric Flint of the Boundary series.)

“The GM’s job is to facilitate the PLAYERS maintaining the self-delusion that the game rules and dice rolls are unbiased, fair generators of the story they’re telling,” Ryk says. “You, as Lord God Almighty, CANNOT afford to be deceived by yourself (though being surprised by the PLAYERS is, hopefully, one of the things you look forward to). It is your job to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses, not just of the game system you use, but of the players and the characters they have chosen to play, and the various monsters, NPCs, objects, and conditions that influence play.

“In short, I am not ‘running a game.’ I am running a WORLD, in which the game rules are simply there to facilitate me helping people interact WITH the world. I am aware that the rules and the dice are highly imperfect tools in this interaction, and is my job to find ways to minimize their failures—or to utterly disregard them if they clash with the world. The world comes first—the consistency and logic that is the foundation of the world must be maintained so that the players have faith that it WORKS like a world, that they can explore it, understand it, be a part of it and not have it betray them at its foundations.”

I certainly agree with Ryk that it’s imperative to prepare your materials and bone up on the rules so you have a plan and don’t constantly have to look stuff up during play. But creating a consistent and logical world is a tall order. Can it ever be really consistent? Or is does it only seem to be because a DM of Ryk’s quality can make it appear to be so? In my experience, the best DMs are confident and don’t betray that they are making stuff up. That’s much easier if you actually believe what you’re saying—that is, if you are engaged in a sort of artistic two-mindedness, or, to put it plainly, self-deception.

In his book The Folly of Fools, renowned evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers explains this function of self-deception where those who deceive best, first deceive themselves. Having consciously to formulate a lie and make it both consistent and amenable to your audience is much more difficult than just speaking the truth as you perceive it. Trivers identifies “tells” like sweaty skin and shifty eyes that give liars away. He argues that we have evolved an arms race of improved cheating and cheating detection that culminated in our lying to ourselves to get what we want.

As an example, the NPR RadioLab segment called, appropriately enough, “Lying to Ourselves describes a series of clever experiments that connect self-deception to achievement and happiness. Psychologist Joanna Starek claims that self-deception involves two contradictory beliefs that you actually hold but only one of which you allow into consciousness because you have a motivation for allowing it into consciousness.

An experiment performed by scientists Harold Sackheim and Ruben Gur supports her contention. They made a recording of each subject speaking a certain phrase and included it randomly in the sequential playback of other people saying the same phrase. Many people had a hard time telling the researcher which voice was theirs, but they nevertheless showed measurable physical signs of recognizing it. The researchers coupled this experiment with another, in which they asked people whether they’d ever had certain embarrassing thoughts that they knew people commonly have. Those very people who did worst at detecting their own voice tended also to deny ever having these common provocative thoughts. They were also the most unusually successful and happy people, while those who were the most honest had a greater tendency toward depression.

If DMs are self-deluded, they’re in very good company. Apparently self-deception helps us not only to lie but also to improve our performance, to up our game.

Having the players drive a story from the setting you’ve prepared is a fraught task. You run a tight gauntlet between railroading the players with the dice and script on the one hand and appearing to just make stuff up on the other, destroying the illusion of a living world. Agreeing on rules with your players and making pivotal die rolls “in the open,” that is, where everyone can see them, may give your players a sense of playing the odds in a logical way, but if the adventure is going to develop a real story, you’re really always improvising and using the dice as dramatic props.

In my recent guest blog entry for The Busybody, Loren Rosson’s blog that hosts his popular essays on classic D&D adventure modules, I suggested a productive bit of self-deception. The dice, you see, are magic and always tell a good story. If they threaten to tell a boring story or prematurely to end a character’s career, maybe you’re measuring the dice against the wrong thing, or maybe you even rolled them wrong and need to reroll. If the dice suggest a setback, then maybe you should look for interesting story complications in that setback. After all, these are magic dice. They don’t tell bad stories. Pay no attention to the Dungeon Master behind the curtain.

I put this idea to game designer Jonathan Tweet, architect and author of D&D 3rd Edition, and my good friend. Should the DM take direction from the dice while making the attitude adjustment that keeps him or her from dictating the story? Jonathan says no. “In the most rewarding game I ever ran, I had the players roll their dice in the open and made it clear what numbers they needed. If they failed a roll doing something dangerous, what happened at that point happened.”

Sigh. Do you see now how frustrating it is to broach the topic of self-deception with experts? Even if you’re convinced they’re sincere, you can’t trust them. Because, if I’m right, then part of their expertise lies in self-deception!

Okay, fine, letting the dice tell the story can be a good way of keeping the players timid. And if you’re running a survival-horror game, where nihilism is part of the spice, then meaningless random death goes with the territory. But really, the dice never dominate even in survival horror. You just use them less or work out the math ahead of time so that the encounters don’t short-circuit the game before it even gets going. You heavily foreshadow consequences. You encourage planning, which can be exciting for the players as they collaborate to beat the odds. And often, you encourage retreat.

Jonathan conceded that even rolling dice in the open is artifice. You gauge the dramatic possibilities and decide what activities to put at hazard. But originally Jonathan seemed to be suggesting that the dice tell the story, which would make them, well, magic dice. I submit that to use the dice like Jonathan claims to have done and have it pay off is impressive. It requires a sympathy with dice magic amounting to wizardly skill.

Let’s say I’m correct and good DMs deceive themselves. That’s only half the battle, right? Being confident is one thing, but surely self-deception needs to be matched by storytelling skill. Maybe self-deception convinces players you’re sincere. But you need to back that up with skill to overcome their inherent skepticism. Experienced—and often jaded—players can be a tough audience even when they want to believe.

Jonathan said that the default attitude of human beings to new information is not skepticism but gullibility, especially if they’re distracted (say, by dice rolls?). He pointed me to a study by Dr. Daniel Gilbert titled You Can’t Not Believe Everything You Read summarized here. Two sets of people were told to evaluate a list of statements to pronounce sentence on a crime. The statement list had true statements in green ink and false statements in red, and participants were told to pay attention to the difference. One group read the statements without interference; the other group was interrupted. Some of the false statements made the crime seem less serious; others, more serious. The interrupted group, which did not have time to really think about the statements, was more easily swayed by the false information and handed down more lenient or harsher sentences accordingly.

Therefore, being a good DM may not be so much a matter of overcoming resistance but simply not creating it, for example, by being slow to interpret dice rolls, or communicating through shifty eyes and flop sweat that you’re struggling to make things up.

Jonathan related how he performed an experiment of his own at the Burning Man festival a few years ago. He had a set of “fortune-deck” cards from his Everway roleplaying game. Everway uses divination rather than dice rolls and tables to help a game master adjudicate outcomes. He approached strangers and asked them to pull a fortune card, much like a tarot card, at random and asked if they thought they happened to grab their card. He said a large number of people insisted that the card they drew at random had personal significance to them.

It appears that people readily make judgments from sketchy or even meaningless information. “Self-deception” sounds like an impressively underhanded trick pulled off by the unconscious, but it probably gets a lot of help from the fact that we are hardwired to draw patterns and make associations from thin grist.

Consider the psychological state of Hyperactive Agency Detection, a well-documented cognitive bias. We tend to impute consciousness to inanimate objects, perhaps because it was safer for our ancestors to be paranoid. Did the wind stir the branches or was it a predatory spirit that sometimes took the form of a deadly animal? Those who bolted at false danger signals had far less to lose than those who failed to heed real ones. By the same mechanism, perhaps, we interpret dice rolls as carrying special meaning, blessing our endeavors or expressing disapproval. Or, for the DM’s part, helping him tell a story.

But am I blowing the con? Do we really want to know that D&D is the Emperor’s New Clothes? Actually, I don’t think it is, just like I don’t think any other kind of storytelling is. Quite the opposite. You make conscious decisions, but what really animates the story is the unconscious dimension of the exercise. Baen Books editor and author Tony Daniel concurs. “It’s about using a skill similar to what a writer and reader bring to writing and reading a good book. Using the entire mental repertoire at one’s command, both conscious and unconscious thought processes. Really this applies to any artist and art appreciator.”

To free up the unconscious, I think you need to appreciate its role, to trust it. Consciousness is just the iceberg tip of your brain processes. Exerting too much control forestalls surprise and discovery. At least, this is my experience and how I interpret the advice I get from other storytellers.

But the real clincher on the necessity of creative self-deception comes when the experts speak for themselves. In addition to interviewing Ryk E. Spoor, I asked game writer Jeff LaSala, as well as Wizards of the Coast founder Ken McGlothlen, for their general philosophy of DMing. They gave me a lot of great feedback that I may incorporate into future essays, but a few things they said spoke especially to their loose control over the exercise, and, dare I say, their willful credulity. Jeff LaSala said, “I like to think I don’t  . . . fudge or redefine rolls without justification. But as DM, I absolutely do prioritize player enjoyment above impartiality. But for randomness to mean something, for risk to be real, and for suspense to exist, I try to let most die rolls hold sway.”

Similarly, Ken McGlothen exhibited some faith in the dice.

“Good or bad die rolls,” he said, “should feel probabilistic rather than as favors doled out by the GM, even if a different outcome would seem to lead to a better story. In my experience, it rarely does; it tends to be about the GM stroking their own ego than letting the story be collaborative and malleable. “Never let a coherent, well-outlined story get in the way of a great story.”

Too much conscious control ruins potentially great stories. And this is the crux of how self-deception helps us get along, in D&D and more generally in life: we believe that luck will meet our efforts halfway. We look hard for meaning in disappointment and failure, and often we find it. It’s confirmation bias, and we make our own luck. Or maybe this is wrong, that believing our own fictions is not so much self-deception as receptivity to a deeper truth, getting in touch with a creative force that transcends us. Maybe God actually does speak through the dice if we adopt a receptive frame of mind, or through our fictional characters if we just listen hard enough to what they have to say. The processes that created us are still in motion.

Maybe we’re all just characters in a larger game.