Perform (dungeon master)

So what is DMing with Charisma?

There are three skills in D&D that represent the ability to make money in a non-adventuring role (and it’s telling that all of them were in my last post, which means that 4th Edition doesn’t have them at all). Craft is Intelligence-based and is used to create something physical. Profession is Wisdom-based and is more service-oriented, representing broader but less deep knowledge. Perform is Charisma-based and is used for artistic expression. Each of them has limited application in, say, a dungeon crawl, but I think it’s safe to say that every non-adventuring NPC in every setting has some ranks in at least one of them.

I think that Wizards’ intent is that DMing is a Profession check, but DMing doesn’t fall perfectly into any of these buckets. A dungeon master really needs to use all of them to build an interesting session or campaign, so I feel like it’s not right to say for sure that DMing is one or another. Rather than looking at it from a Craft-Profession-Perform perspective, I think it’s best to consider it from the standpoint of the relevant ability scores.

I think of a Wisdom-based DM as a fairly typical DM. They have some knowledge of the system, but they’re not rules lawyers. They have NPCs with personality, but they aren’t method actors. A Wis-based DMing treats DMing like a service, where they have to balance a number of aspects of running a game. They feel kind of like an ascended version of a typical player, though I think the Wisdom style is better tapped into the players than other styles. Any DM has to respond to the players, but Wisdom DMs put even more weight into what the players want. Usually this is a great thing, but a DM too reliant on public opinion can get pulled in too many directions or become subject to only the loudest or most upset players. I’ve seen many sessions and more than one campaign be shanghaied by a particularity emphatic player and a sufficiently permissive DM.

Intelligence-based DMs are a step or two more comfortable with the hardest parts of the game. They treat a campaign as a thing to be built by one person more than a thing to be generated by a group, and they stick much closer to official rules and mathematical integrity than Wisdom-based DMs. It’s easy to think of them as uptight and distant, but my Int-based DMs always have a startling amount of internal story consistency, and they make sure that the gameplay is as fair as possible. Intelligence DMs treat the story as the most important thing; bad ones crush player opinion for the sake of the plot, but good ones integrate the players so they’re as involved as the DM is.

Charisma-based DMs are the opposite. They’re the DMs most likely to ignore the rules, dice rolls, and continuity for the sake of doing something great right now. In retrospect, the campaign may not have make the most sense, but the point is that everybody’s having fun. If you can get past the idea that Cha-based DMs are willing to blithely throw out things about the system that you’ve been using for years, the biggest issue is that the world around the players can take on a life of its own, far bigger than they can hope to manage.

For example, let’s say a player wants to incapacitate an opponent from far away by shooting their clothing and pinning it to the wall. It’s not an uncommon trope, and the target certainly has some loose clothing to pin. An Int-based DM might disallow it, on the ground that there’s a feat for this (Ranged Pin, Complete Warrior) and letting a player duplicate the feat without having it means the feat is meaningless. Clearly, the designers wants this to require some extra character investment. A Wis-based DM might allow it, but only on a sufficiently good roll, like a critical hit or the target’s AC with a bonus, and even then the target can remove the error on their own turn. Clearly, this is something that should be possible and it doesn’t break the game with these additional restrictions. A Cha-based DM might allow it outright as long as the player can make the shot, perhaps even the target’s AC with a penalty. Clearly, it’s easier to hit a wizard’s robe than the one bit of exposed skin on a fighter, and what the player wants to to is dynamic and cinematic.

None of these DMs are wrong. There is a feat that allows ranged pinning, and generally players shouldn’t be able to ignore restrictions like that at will (or else you probably want a more freeform system). A character should have to be a very good archer to pull off a shot like this, or else players and NPCs would be doing it all the time. Cinematic play is fun, and usually out-of-the-box thinking should be rewarded to encourage creativity. And all of the DMs would probably agree that an arrow that does 1d6-1 damage is going to have a hard time penetrating a steel wall deep enough to trap an enemy’s stray fabric. Each response leads to a different style of game and encourages a different type of player and a different style of thinking, but D&D is built to handle all of them, often in the same room.

In fact, the system is usually more robust than the people who use it. All of these styles have one significant downside, and it’s that they’re each most comfortable with players that act the same way. An Int-based DM doesn’t really want a thespian trying to rewrite base classes and spin the story in hilarious ways, and a Cha-based DM doesn’t want a strict player who gets upset whenever the rules are violated and doesn’t have the patience for nonessential quests and NPCs. And any Wis-based DM who has had both a performer and a rules lawyer in the same party knows exactly how hard it is to balance the two. The easy solution is to make sure that your players act the same way you do, but that’s about as stupid as it is lazy. Not only is it nearly impossible to cherry-pick players that way, but you end up depriving yourself of the experience of dealing with other personalities and the fun differing styles being to the table.

I actually started as an Int-based DM, and I retain a lot of my rules knowledge from then. By the time I finished my third campaign, I was Wis-based, and somewhere during my current campaign I moved to Cha-based, which is where I’m pretty happy. Over the years, I’ve managed to hit the highs and lows of each style of DMing before settling on what I’m currently doing. The good part is that I can DM in the moment, often pointedly planning as little as possible for a session, but with some sort of consistent overarching story and the understanding (or, if I can manage it, cooperation) of my players. I also still have all of the information I gathered from when information mattered more to me, do I don’t have to consult a reference table or make a wild guess when asked about the hardness of wood (it’s 5). The bad part is that my Cha-based method of designing and acting out NPCs has actually exacerbated my Int-based issues with players failing to remember them, and at this point I expect (almost require) my players to at least try some performance as well.

For reference, I would let the player take the shot. I would however remind them that the enemies function under the same rules and can do anything the players can, then let another player make their own impassioned plea on why giving enemies the ability to trap half the party from a hundred feet away is a terrible idea. Little diverts a player’s aim more effectively than the threat of reciprocity.

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One Response to Perform (dungeon master)

  1. Dave Fried says:

    I think you’ve summed up why I, as a Wis-based DM, don’t like running simulation-heavy games. When a player comes up with an awesome idea, like pinning a foe to a wall with an arrow, I wanna just say, “yeah! that’s frickin’ awesome – you totally do that!” I don’t wanna have to worry about whether it’s balanced, or whether it’s fair, or if there’s a feat, or what the DC should be.

    Games like D&D create a whole bunch of serious, potentially unsolvable problems for me. Obviously: what happens when the rules get in the way of something awesome in the narrative? But also: What happens when one player is more creative than another, or knows how to leverage the rules to do whatever s/he wants? What happens when an unexpected mechanical outcome derails the story, or wipes out the party (or worse, makes the Big Bad a walkover)? How do you keep player buy-in when things go pear-shaped?

    Int-based DMs are okay in those situations. Their worlds are internally consistent; either it happens or it doesn’t; the rules define the world and the players understand exactly how things work. Cha-based DMs are also okay; they can think on their feet and play fast and loose with the mechanics without breaking the illusion of a consistent fiction.

    But either way, a lot of the responsibility is on the DM to hold sh*t together.

    Me? I can hold it together, but it’s real hard work. I’d rather have the players do their share of the heavy lifting. And that’s a much harder thing to do in D&D than other systems.

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