Instant Death, No Saving Throw

In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created Dungeons and Dragons. Sometime around 1978, I acquired a copy, and my leisure time pursuits were changed forever. I owe the both of them a debt of gratitude I can never repay (and a debt of finance as well).

They made one mistake, though, and my gamer friends and I have been dealing with that mistake since then. I don’t know how it got into the game originally; in fact, sometimes I wonder what it was like gaming with them under this philosophy. The attitude is never openly stated in the books, but the early game materials make it clear: the Game Master is the other players’ enemy.

If you read this blog, you probably aren’t new to gaming, but here’s some quick basics just in case. In a standard role-playing game session, all but one of the players create characters they will use for improvisational acting, and the remaining player serves as a referee (“Game Master”) who provides a basic plot, describes the setting, portrays all the antagonist and minor characters in the story, and applies the game rules to conflicts of character skill and luck.

The idea is for the GM to work with the players to make the story more fun and interesting for everyone. But since most games are based around stories from action and adventure movies, they generally contain plenty of combat against bad guys, and include many opportunities for random chance to disrupt the players’ plans. This is all well and good, and the players expect that.

But the old adventure outlines were full of puzzles the players couldn’t solve with the information they had, traps that could not be avoided by means other than the luckiest roll of the dice, and monsters that would have easily overpowered the player characters as well as any spare armies they’d happened to bring along. One got the idea that this was how it was supposed to work, that the GM’s job was to do their best to destroy the party of imaginary heroes with every rule in the book and a few made up on the spot.

Gaming has never completely matured from this position. In the 90s, new game systems that emphasized plot over dice appeared, and that has helped. Also, many of those 1978 gamers have matured a tiny bit and discovered that when you can make anything you want happen in a game, simply declaring characters to be instantly dead isn’t all that interesting. Deceased characters* make for boring stories, and a modern GM is just as likely to fudge things a bit to keep characters alive if it means the game will run better.

Still, last year I had one of my players – someone I’d known for two decades – object to my use of a die-roll-concealing Game Master screen, saying they didn’t trust my rolls unless I rolled the dice where the players could see them. I don’t exaggerate when I say it broke my heart just a little bit. Thanks for everything else, Gary and Dave – but no thanks for that.


*By “deceased” I mean “characters who can no longer influence the story in a meaningful way”. Undead, cloned, or otherwise still-moving-after-death characters can actually be quite interesting, and I can name at least two quite popular game settings which took the idea and ran with it: Vampire and Paranoia.

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