Here’s how your dungeon master is fooling you

I’m looking a dungeon crawler board game a bit and one thing that strike to me about “being the dungeon master” (in board games, and I guess in pen & paper RPGs as well) is that the dungeon master sometimes plays for totally different victory conditions.

When I was hosting Hero Quest sessions, it was my goal to “kill the heroes” (something like that said in the rulebook I think) but actually, I think I never played according to meet that goal. My goal was different.

My goal was to [i]provide a challenging (where players felt they could get killed), but something that players can barely beat[/i]. When I could provide such gaming experience, I knew I did a great job.

Dungeon master (or storyteller) is there to kill the chaps if they do really stupid stuff, but biggest factor was in noticing every player’s playing style (some folks preferred combat, some wanted puzzles/exploring, some liked to negotiate) and meet those challenges.

Funny that when computer “balances the game”, it’s sometimes considered cheating or stupid (and players start exploiting the AI – such as playing worse to get past really difficult zones)… but when human person (the dungeon master) does balancing, it’s perfectly okay.

Or do you really think that your own dungeon master never secretly helped your heroes, thinking: “oh shit, heroes are badly wounded already and there’s that ogre behind the corner… maybe I make it a dead ogre instead and let them get the treasure now.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. This becomes an even bigger problem for indie developers because they don’t have the fund to hire this out to be done, and they usually don’t have a wide enough circle of friends or contacts to try and do this type of testing on the cheap. You want the 15yrs, 18yrs, 23yrs, 30yrs and the 40+ years old gamers in both male and female and then you want them in hardcore gamers and casual gamers who only play a few hours a week. The problem is finding that variety and most game companies just don’t bother. So you end up with situations where the AI doesn’t balance correct for those styles of play and so the players get pissed and look for ways around the difficulty they are having, which brings it right back to being a failure of adaptive game balancing. For example how do you deal with a hardcore player who wants to feel like he is risking something by having to play an hour before he can save his progress and then the 40 year old guy who wants to be able to save every 15 minutes because the wife or kids interrupt him and he can’t play for an hour before being allowed to save his progress. There is no good answer as to how to deal with it, but it is issues like this that must be balance to cover all players or you have just cut yourself out of that demographic market because it doesn’t appeal to them. For some games and companies that is ok, but I would think for indie developers they want to appeal to the largest audience possible so they can try and make a sale with every person who learns about their product given that getting noticed as an indie developer is the hardest part, and when you are noticed you don’t want to throw a chance at a sale.

    Something to definately think about as an indie developer. It can also help to actively seek out beta testers who aren’t the hardcore fans and try and find those who aren’t the ones who can solve most issues on their own and give you really complex and detailed bug reports. You could get better feedback from those who are just trying to enjoy playing the game rather than just looking for bugs. Something for you to think about.

  2. I might mention one comment you made “players start exploiting the AI – such as playing worse to get past really difficult zones”. That statement right there tells me that the AI balancing is a failure. If it was not so difficult then players would not even thing to resort to those methods. The second players get so pissed off that they can’t get through something and look for a “cheat” to get around it or past it is the second that your AI balancing has become a failure. If you want to catch these things you really have to do live in person testing with gamers of all different skill levels to make sure the AI does in fact balance across a wide range of playing abilities. It is much like usability testing. You don’t help them figure it out you watch what they do to see what they try to do to figure it out so you see how their mind works so you can incorporate a reaction to that style of play in the next revision of the game. The problem is, just like for usability, is that this type of testing is expensive to do and most are not set-up to do this type of testing, but instead just look for bugs and general play balance. Developing truly adaptive AI and AI balancing is never easy. In fact I would bet that very very few game developing companies actually do this type of testing. Most in house QA guys are just there to see if they can break the game. QA testers are the worst types to do usability balancing testing with because they are all hardcore gamers so you only get a small segment and style of testing from them.

    This becomes an even bigger problem for indie developers because they don’t have th

  3. Yeah, as a DM for well over a decade, I’ve done this countless times. From simple ones, like fudging a close hit to a miss, or more drastic rescues. I always followed the rules of “Save the player from the dice, but never save them from themselves. Punish them, scare them, entertain them, but never make them bored or disempowered.”

    Of course, the hard thing is always balancing applying the consequences of their actions against the need to present a great game. Both too little and too much challenge are bad, and sometimes it’s a fine line.

  4. OK, first I must mention I never got the chance to get into D&D. But I do appreciate it.
    I think a ‘real’ dm would almost always adjust the difficulty of the game as they want their players to get as far as they can in this world they’ve spent so much time putting together. True?
    And they players would appreciate this as long as is wasn’t obvious the dm is ‘adjusting’ it for them.

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