Hello and welcome to Only On Tuesdays! This past week I had the chance to play in a game, and something interesting came up. Our DM introduced a potion to us that was a mystery to us. It had a strange swirling liquid in it, and any checks made to discern what it was were too low to determine what it could do. We tried tasting it, and the DM described a burning sensation, and then nothing. Finally, the time came for battle, I pulled out the potion, drank the entire thing anticipating great power… and nothing happened. The potion was meant to be thrown instead of quaffed. Today I would like to talk about the idea of when to be flexible or rigid with your descriptions, and how this can be another tool you can use to improve your sessions.
Disclaimer: This is the way I Dungeon Master. The way my DM handled this situation with the potion was just fine, but it did remind me of how I play, and how not everyone might not be aware of this playstyle. This playstyle isn’t for everyone, but I find it to be an incredibly important tool in my arsenal. Hopefully this article can help you decide what is best for your game.
The Split of Knowledge
Dnd is a unique game, because of the way knowledge is split. The DM is considered all-knowing and powerful, while the players only know what the DM tells them. This gap in knowledge can lead to interesting scenarios where the players may believe that the DM had everything all planned out when really they had to improvise the entire session. Part of DMing is learning how to hide the man behind the curtain, and you can achieve this by knowing the difference between player knowledge and DM knowledge.
Player knowledge is simply anything that is told to the players. Player knowledge is concrete and static provided it came from a reputable source. If you tell the players they have a flaming sword, they have a flaming sword and only in-game actions can remove that from them. Once you describe something it remains that way until something changes it. Player knowledge is also something that can be misinterpreted. While you as the DM may have meant one thing, if all of your players understood it differently, you are going to be in a position where your players believe a reality that is different than what you expected.
DM knowledge is different. While the players may perceive it to be all-knowing power, the truth of the matter is that DM knowledge is something that can and does change all the time. For example, going back to the potion, if I hand my players a potion there are many instances where I have no idea what the potion does when I give it to them. As they interact with it, I’ll describe a few things and eventually decide what it does when the players go to use it. As far as the players know I knew exactly what it could do the entire time. As long as the effect is consistent with the previous descriptions then I can get away with anything.
Another great example of flexible DMing is many paths one dungeon. What this means is that before the session I will plan out one dungeon that I intend for the players to explore. Then when the players begin exploring my world, no matter where they head eventually they will end up at the dungeon. If they travel through the desert, the dungeon becomes desert themed, Underdark travel, Underdark theme etc. etc. This may sound like railroading, but the difference is I’m not forcing my players to travel down a certain path to get to the dungeon. The world around them is constantly changing as long as the players don’t know what is there, and this gives the flexibility to allow for the dungeon to be placed anywhere. The only time knowledge becomes rigid is when it becomes player knowledge.
When to be Rigid
Rigidity in knowledge isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It creates a stable game environment and doesn’t have the players guessing about everything. When you declare that the dungeon is located on the hill up north, that knowledge should become rigid and unchanging unless something happens to change that. A general rule of thumb to follow is that if the players know about it, then that knowledge should not change. As long as the players don’t know about something, that thing can change as much as you want until the players learn about it.
However, rigidity can be bad for the players when they don’t know enough about the subject at hand. In the example with the potion, we did not know what the potion did, and our attempts to learn about it gleaned no information. The potion was firmly in the camp of DM knowledge and could have been in a state of constant flux. When I went to drink the potion, I was working off of my preconceived notions that the potion would be beneficial to drink. Nothing had indicated to me that the potion was supposed to be thrown. However, because the DM had decided that that is what the potion should do, he believed that it couldn’t be changed.
He had intended the potion to be beneficial for us. When I drank the potion instead of throwing, he was worried that it might have offset the balance of the encounter because he thought that we would have thrown it at the bad guy. By having the potion be in a state of rigidity, he painted himself into a corner and told me that the potion did nothing. However, the potion was still DM knowledge up to that point and was still in a state of flux. The only thing set into rigidity was that the potion had a burning sensation when you drank it.
If you want to be rigid in your playstyle, one of the main things you need to do is be clear in your communication to the players. If you want your players to come to a specific conclusion, it is up to you to give that information to the players. Rigidity can lead to fun moments where the players expect one thing only to get something completely different, but you must be aware that some players will feel frustrated by this style when there is improper communication. The more the players know, the better. If that information is misunderstood that is acceptable, as long as there was a sufficient amount of information that makes sense in hindsight.
One of the main benefits of a flexible DMing style is the ability to change things on the fly. If you have something planned out in your notes but realize that it’s not appropriate for the situation at hand, flexibility allows you to better sculpt the environment to fit your player’s needs. Being flexible isn’t always right, and sometimes you may tell your players something, forget, and end up changing it without the players knowing. But the benefits of being flexible lie in being able to craft whatever story is appropriate for the situation at hand. This style isn’t for everyone, but when it works it allows for a very fun and dynamic style of play. Thank you all for reading I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!