Help:A Good DM

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TL;DR
If you are already aware of and understand the Oberoni Fallacy, feel free to skip this page.

Otherwise known as the No True Scotsman fallacy

Welcome to the wonderful world of game balance! It's a pretty complex topic, with a lot of subtleties and nuances. It can take years to develop a good enough understanding of a system to be able to spot an imbalance in its content at a glance. But that is not what we are talking about here today. This page deals exclusively with the mud-pit of balance. We're talking about the murky grey-areas, where flame wars are born on internet forums around the world. We are talking about those debates over balance that just never seem to go away, and have been around since Gygax and Arneson went around selling a box full of pamphlets as a full game. Maybe you've never encountered these kinds of issues. Maybe you have, but you're unsure how to identify them. This page will help you develop a stronger understanding of what actually counts as a balance argument, and by exclusion, what does not. Luckily, it's actually pretty simple to navigate the nuances if this confusing subject! You just need a guide, someone who can point you in the right direction! Well here I am, and here's your direction:

The phrase "Well, a good DM could handle it..." or any variation thereof is not a valid argument. It is a logical fallacy. Follow the link in the section header if you have not done so already. Any time you see someone start pulling out different versions of that sentiment, you know you aren't really talking about balance any more. There's a lot of ways to say it.

  • A good DM would never...
  • A good DM could houserule it
  • An experienced DM wouldn't have a problem with it
  • I guess you just aren't that great of a DM
  • A mature DM would know what to do
  • It's the DM's responsibility to know and understand the full implications of...
  • etc.

So why isn't this a valid argument to justify something as being balanced? Because there is no one clear definition of what constitutes a good DM! Ultimately, D&D is a collaborative social game, so the greatest DM is one who is most socially compatible with all of the people at his table. In the absence of that context, there is no such thing as a "good" DM. Note also that being socially compatible with a bunch of people has absolutely nothing to do with the rules of the game or any particular issues of balance! Sometimes people like to make themselves sound smart and disguise this fake-out by using words like "mature" or "experienced" in the place of "good". The problem is that, in this context, those words are just as ill-defined, they just have more syllables. What does "mature" mean in the context of being a dungeon master? Being old? Being experienced with running the game? Being an adult? None of these things have anything to do with whether or not you're any good at running the game, even though the argument implies that they do. Let's hit some examples.

"Yeah, this class gives your character a pet dragon. A good DM can handle roleplaying a dragon on the party's side"
R: Well what about a bad DM? What about a mediocre DM? Obviously your standards are too high, considering we're even having a conversation about this.
"A good DM would never create an adventure where an at-will, unrestricted shapeshifting PC could derail the game entirely."
R: So your definition of a good DM is one who doesn't make adventures or run games, then? Because that's what it would take.
"A good DM could houserule around my race's warp factor speed and time dilation aura."
R: Oh really? What a shock. Any halfwit can houserule their way around any ridiculous nonsense. Solving problems, for the DM, can be as simple as breathing the words, "get out of my house". But if you know your content needs houserules in order to even be used, why are you presenting it as a finished work? If houserules are necessary, that means your creation is a problem to be solved, or it is incomplete, or it is part of a houserule system which should be posted and linked for clarity.
"An experienced DM would have no problem dealing with a flying character."
R: What about a beginner DM who has no idea what he's doing? Why would you design something that can only be used by a master of the art, and then present it as perfectly normal?
"I guess you just aren't that great of a DM."
R: Seriously?! Go $%&# yourself.
"A mature DM would know what to do when one of the PCs can read the minds of everyone within 100 miles simultaneously."
R: ...If only because he's more mature than the sort of person who would even invent such a thing! And just so you know, the mature thing for him to do would be to politely disallow it!
"So what if my race isn't balanced the same as the core material? It's the DM's responsibility to read and understand all of the material he allows into his game!"
R: Well why the @*%# should the DM have to review every last thing down to the finest detail like some sort of strip-search bouncer just to run a stable game? Also, some game elements take months of playtesting to get a really good feel for how it works!

Ultimately, this is just a form of scapegoating. The designer, now caught with his drawers down about his busted homebrew, doesn't want to admit that his ideas aren't perfect. So he runs. He blames someone else. In a sense, he is trying to blame you for your inability to see how the existence of the DM validates everything he creates as being perfectly fine! He is saying it's your fault that you think his creation is broken! Some really creative people have even found a way to spin this on its head and sound completely different, without changing any of its substance. They do this by simply choosing another scapegoat! Typically, if blaming the DM doesn't work, they just turn around and blame the players! Example: Well, a mature player would only use class features when they are dramatically appropriate, regardless of their power! You know what else a mature player would do? Read and understand a class well enough to choose one that is built correctly so they don't have to constantly metagame just to make it work. It's the same argument all over again, just a different victim.

If not balance, then what are we arguing about?

Now, remember how I said that, when you see arguments like that bouncing around, you aren't talking about balance any more? Well, once you've identified that, the next step is to figure out what you are talking about. There's really only two options here.

1. You are talking about the developer's ego. In this case, it is very likely that the content really is imbalanced. There's a chance it's fine, but generally designers stand their ground a heck of a lot better if their work can stand on its own merits. More likely, the content is busted, and the creator knows it but he won't admit it- not even to himself. At this point, you don't really have much left to discuss. Unless the person can come to grips with reality, the content is going nowhere, and you're just going to get into a fight with a crazy person.

2. You are talking about philosophy, and the discussion is about to get a whole lot more interesting. If you find yourself about to use this argument, stop and think: Actually read the words of your critics, and try to imagine that they are right. Try to understand why they think they are right. Now, go over your own work and imagine what it would be like to actually play this content through their concerns. You may be surprised to discover that your work really is defective. However, there is a chance that you will discover that something about your work is just... weird. Something about it becomes imbalanced only under certain circumstances or situations outside of the game, like when certain types of players use it, or when it appears in certain types of games. You are now looking at a playstyle incompatibility.

Playstyle refers to the way people play the game. It may surprise you to discover that there really is no one way to play D&D. In fact, there are thousands of individual playstyle choices a DM and players can make which result in countless playstyle possibilities at any given table. Eventually, under one playstyle or another, everything is dysfunctional, one way or another. As such, a valid argument can be made for anything to be considered imbalanced. Each valid argument for imbalance not based on strict rules compatibility is a playstyle incompatibility. Welcome to the grey area of the balance debate.

First and foremost, if you're going to engage in a gaming philosophy discussion, you need to understand that there are no wrong philosophies. There are some misguided attitudes, to be sure, but when it comes to what people enjoy at their own table, you can't really say someone is playing the game wrong. In general, regarding design balance, a creator's goal should be to create content which remains fairly balanced in most situations, for most players, under most playstyles. This can be extremely difficult, but a good point of reference is precedent (DnD Guideline). Remember that, no matter how many playstyles exist, the vast majority of people are using the content from the core rules in their games. If your work is directly comparable to the precedent set by that material, you are very likely to create a well-balanced piece of homebrew.

When discussing the balance of a piece of homebrew, it is recommended to describe balance in terms of a spectrum, rather than absolutes. Objectively, everything can be broken or balanced, so saying it is one or the other in black-and-white terms is actually nonsense. (And, sadly, just about every gamer in existence is guilty of this mistake.) Rather, it is best to describe the balance of a thing in terms of how likely it is, by your understanding and beliefs, that something will become dysfunctional for someone. The more situations you can imagine it causing problems, the more playstyle incompatibilities it has, the more imbalanced it is. The more unusual or unlikely its dysfunctional cases may be, the more balanced it is.

So, back on the topic of "A Good DM". When you, or someone else, is using the good DM argument to defend a philosophical difference, that person is effectively saying that a "good DM" is someone who runs the game the way they themselves would run it, or would expect it to be run. They are putting their playstyle forward as the best playstyle, or the most normal playstyle. They might be right, but they rarely are, and it wouldn't even matter anyways. Even if their content is perfectly balanced by, as an example, OSR style play, and even if OSR became the most popular playstyle in the hobby, if their creation was ONLY functional in OSR and totally broken in every single other playstyle, that would mean it is incredibly imbalanced. No playstyle is any better or worse than any other, there is no "right" way to play, and to defend one as being so, or to deride another playstyle as inferior, is immature, rude, and ignorant.

I hope this article gave you a stronger understanding of the nature of balance, and how to go about discussing the issue in a mature and responsible way. Always start off giving a person the benefit of a doubt. Never assume someone is being intentionally malicious in their designs or words unless they act upon their apparent unpleasantness. If you do find yourself in a discussion that is turning into an argument, or find someone is being abusive or otherwise intentionally unkind, ( Please see Help:Behavioral Policy) do not hesitate to call for help. Feel free to use {{needsadmin}} to call attention to a problematic main article. User talk:Admin is a generic discussion page which gives you access to the entire management team at once, if you are worried a template would take too long for a response. You can, of course, also contact an admin directly, from this directory as well. While we respect and value healthy discussion and debate on the subjective experience of game balance, inappropriate and abusive behavior is unacceptable here. No matter how passionate you are about a given subject, D&D is just a game, and we're all fellow gamers and wiki community members. Please respect one another.


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