Monday, May 16, 2011

The Future of Dungeons & Dragons - What if D&D 5e Had No DM?


My brain is still humming after last Friday's Twitter conversation. I had caught wind of, in my feed, of some discussion of what WotC (Wizards of the Coast) was or was not doing to market Dungeons & Dragons as a gaming experience. In addition, there was a great deal of speculation on how the brand could be better leveraged to increase interest in the game, and as an aside, increase general interest in role-playing games (of all types) as a hobby. After lurking the feed for a bit, this question popped into my head:

"If Dungeons & Dragons were as popular as say, Scrabble or Monopoly (but not be a board game), what would that look like and how would you get there?" I expanded the question by adding, "So the question becomes: How do you make Dungeons & Dragons a "pastime" instead of a niche game? What social machinery has to be activated to make it so?"

Twitter then "blew up" (but in a good way).  In fact, my friend Mad Brew (from Mad Brew Labs - an excellent RPG web site, by the way) was motivated to provide his own answers to this question. Check out his blog (I believe Tuesday and Wednesday of this week) to check out how he answers. Hopefully, this post (which preempts his just a bit), won't step on his toes. To prevent that, I want to take the question in a more specific direction.

If Dungeons & Dragons were played like more traditional social games, it would almost have to drop the role of the Dungeon Master .  If that actually happened, what would the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons look like? Would it even be recognizable as the same game? Is that even possible?

Well, I have to admit, as a Dungeon Master myself, I find the thought both intriguing and a little scary.  However, there's a lot more research to be done before I can make a fair assessment of the idea. Games like Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon go a long way to bridge the gap between the Dungeons & Dragons in a board game format, and Dungeons & Dragons the RPG.

I hope to be acquiring a copy of Wrath of Ashardalon soon, in hopes it can give me insight in how a group of folks could play Dungeons & Dragons without a DM. Thanks to DMSamuel over at RPG Musings, for sending me his copy to experiment with. You'll be getting some dinner, my friend, come Gen Con.

In the meantime, I'm working on answering this question. I don't have answers today, but maybe you have some input for the question?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.


  1. The second it dropped the DM is the second it stops being a traditional RPG and becomes dead as what we call Dungeons and Dragons. Want a DM'less game? Play a board game. You will not get any story telling without a DM unless you make it a choose your own adventure then the replay value goes away. Add in cards and you are playing that MtG RPG variant people are talking about.

  2. I think it might be possible given that I have fun playing Wrath of Ashlardon with my friends. The monsters in WoA are each controlled by the player that triggered them. There are clear instructions for precisely what the monster will do, so the other players shouldn't feel persecuted if someone's monster attacks them as the card "told them" to do it.

    So combat wise, I think it could certainly be done. The roleplaying side is where I would see the potential for problems. I guess players could take it in turns to read out dialogue but roleplay is a bit more than just that.

    On the plus side, you could sell a box of a complete adventure, containing maps, tokens and the adventure booklet and you and some friends would have everything you'd need to play an adventure.

  3. You're not stepping on my toes (and my first post is scheduled for tomorrow morning).

    It would be interesting to see a DMless solution for D&D (without, as you said, becoming a board game).

    There are a few GMless games out there (thinking of Fiasco right now), but I wonder how shared control could elegantly supplant the single DM role.

    Of course, it's difficult to tread in this territory without upsetting the hornets' nest where toxic fandom lurks.

  4. There are GMless true RPGs (Capes, Remember Tommorow, etc) Where GM type tasks are distributed among the players in various ways. It's possible that something along those lines could be done.

  5. "If Dungeons & Dragons were played like more traditional social games, it would almost have to drop the role of the Dungeon Master ."

    Right... because most sports have no need for a referee.

  6. I twittered this but I will say it here, Mad Brew hinted at it as well. If the edition wars that still wage today are any indication, if 5e went this route. The complaints would be even louder.

    I am not saying this to derail it, but why call it D&D then? This would be such a niche style of play for D&D few groups would adopt to it. You would have to also have a pretty bit turn over of talent over at WotC to see this kind of thing happen.

    It would not be D&D it would be a Fantasy RPG.

  7. I doubt there will ever be a flagship D&D product that doesn't require a GM. I can imagine a re-launch of "D&D Basic" that would function like a board game, using tables or even a "Choose Your Own Adventure" style format for shared adventuring.

    I won't even say I wouldn't play it.

    And to those who say "But it wouldn't be D&D!" It would be if the holder of the trademark says it is! The thriving OSR community shows us that a new version of the D&D game doesn't kill old versions... in fact, I'm guessing it makes them stronger. If the people in marketing deem that they can expand the game to new horizons by fundamentally changing it, more power to them. They'll introduce more people to the hobby, which should be good for all of us.

  8. Sounds like Ars Magica and it's "troupe" system:

  9. I could see (and would welcome, even) a version of D&D where one of the players takes on the role of "Banker" for the game whose job it is to give out XP and rewards - much like the Banker in Monopoly manages the money. Monster attacks could be managed by the player to the right each round, or follow a preset path of actions.

    This would mean all of the Players have a character and the story could take on more of a collaborative nature. I'd like that.

    But would it be what's needed to make it a casual game? Nah. That would require a whole different marketing and presentation model, not necessarily a change in the system itself. The upcoming mass combat boardgame set is more of a step in the right direction in that regard.

  10. Anonymous6:16 PM

    I have to imagine that unless you do something very freeform and thus hard to conceptualize for the masses that it will be very structured. Much like those boardgames you mentioned. This is all of course overlooking the stigma associated with dungeons and dragons. Either way I think you alienate the audience you already have. Not that its not worth doing one way or another because Wizards clearly needs to do something.

  11. Anonymous7:10 PM

    Though there are GM-less RPGs, they provide an entirely different experience than D&D (and most RPGs) throughout the ages have provided. It's not entirely unthinkable they would go in this direction; a lot of stuff in 4e was clearly inspired by the current Forge/Indie games movement and both a gamist/narrativst paradigm and reducing/removing the GM are major tendencies there. And while "there's nothing wrong with that," a lot of people still do not prefer that kind of play and instead prefer the core conceit D&D has provided in previous editions.

    For what it's worth, I think it would be a misguided grab at "popularity" - as if changing to a collaborative storytelling game about orcs is really what is going to get D&D back into Joe Sixpack's hands?

  12. D&D can be run with the Mythic GM Emulator. I've done it with 3.5... not sure how it would work with newer version(s), but my group had a great time with it.

    In the end, though, it didn't really FEEL like D&D... so I guess that kinda defeats the purpose of selling the experience.

  13. Greetings, All. Thank you to everyone leaving respectful input. I know the idea of D&D without a DM is not without an element of controversy, as is clear from many of the comments. :-)

    Perhaps this is just my way of exploring ways to shake off the stigma of D&D (and role-playing games in general) being such an insular game and making it approachable for a more general public. I posit the question of a DM less game as one possible (but not the only possible) path to doing that.

    I'll be exploring this idea further, so stay tuned for further posts as I gain exposure to other game systems. Thanks again!

  14. Isn't that what MMOs are for?

    Games without a DM!?! What a foul concept!

  15. I would be sad, very sad if the DM went away. Would there be some form of DM unemployment available under these extraordinary circumstances? Would the government offer a DM bailout to help keep them all employed????? OH THE HORROR!!!!

    1. Anonymous2:57 AM

      Me and a couple of friends have played some three weeks ago a "one-off" session of 5th edition D&D. Since there were only three of us (and I didn't want to be the DM due to all the strain, and preparation needed) we opted for Mythic Game Master Emulator.
      What can I say? Not only it felt like D&D.... but (probably thanks to the new edition "theatre of the mind" approach) it WAS better than most D&D games I care to remember. As a plus I would like to add that the adventure "scales" according to the players needs, desires and fears.... something that only the very best of the "pre-created" adventures really achieve.
      I strongly suggest to anybody who is inclined to try DMless D&D (or any other rpg, of course) to have a look at Mythic D.M.E.
      You know what? You could even play SOLO. Gives you the chills, eh?


    2. Anonymous3:09 AM

      I forgot to mention that our "one-off game" left us wanting for more and since our session opened up all kinds of possible future developments (we were roleplaying a cityscape intrigue-full adventure based in Waterdeep, Forgotten Realms) we continued to play once per week or so, and our PCs are now 2nd level, and life looks bright and full of promise (both on earth and in Waterdeep). Not bad for three "old" dudes (32-39 yo) who haven't touched D&D in the last 15-20 years :)

    3. Anonymous3:22 AM last thing (no more babbling, I promise). I have "The Legend of Drizzt" boardgame. I play it when I can and find it fun and lovely. But it's clear that it is NOT D&D. It's NOT even "D&D light" or "D&D wothout the DM", as someone called it. It's a well thought-out and brilliant boardgame set in the D&D universe, and its smooth and fun.
      True D&D is a whole different kind of ball... and I assure you it CAN be played without DM (see my babbling posts just over here).