The Dungeon Master

Posted on June 3, 2016

This post was triggered by a tweet from Alberto Brandolini on The rise and fall of the Dungeon Master. This revived old memories from my youth and the desire to share this part of my story, in the hope that it might shed some light on what a “Dungeon Master” role actually should be and what team work is all about. My life revolved around Role Playing Games between the the age of fifteen to about twenty-eight and this experience shaped my way of thinking probably more than anything else.

Kill, Maim, Mutilate!

In the beginning, there was Dungeons & Dragons, the ancestor of all modern Role Playing Games. I bought a mysterious box containing all kind of booklets, sheets and dices when I was fourteen. I have already been exposed to wargaming thanks to Jeux et Stratégies, a specialized newspaper that died somewhere in the 90s, and D&D was a kind of logical follow-up to wargames. My proficiency level in English at that time was barely sufficient to allow me to understand what I was reading and the whole concept sounded at first quite alien. It took me several months of frustrating reading and discussions with friends to finally understand what it was all about: Sitting around a table, throwing dices and killing monsters inside a “dungeon” designed by an evil Dungeon Master.

I dived into D&D with the full passion of a shy and sexually frustrated teenager who discovers he can actually be anybody: A fierce warrior dreaded by his ennemies, a cunning wizard, a nimble thief, a wise priest… I wrote programs to generate characters on an old IBM at school, I spent nights writing “scenarios”, mapping dungeons on 5mm x 5mm grid paper, inventing new monsters, reading hundreds of pages of arcane rules, reading sci-fi and fantasy books to get inspiration from and of course playing, playing, playing…

At that time, the Dungeon Master looked quite like the one portrayed by Alberto Brandolini: The overlord of the game, hidden behind his DM screen from where he would throw at the poor players traps and monsters, and under the cover of which he could cheat on the dices! It was a major breach to look behind the screen and try to have a sneak peek at the DM’s plans and scenario, something which would invariably bring upon your head a major disaster like a red dragon or worse, the DM leaving the game.

As a player, my goal was pretty much guided by numbers: Getting to 18/100 in strength, accumulating enough experience points to get to the next level where new spells, weapons, tricks, skills were available. And the only way to get those XPs was to kill monsters and hoard treasures! I, like other players in my team, played by the rules and kept on pursuing those goals in a never-ending cycle of more powers, more dangerours monsters, more treasures, more intricate dungeons… I moved on quickly from D&D to Advanced D&D as the latter offered to go beyond the first ten levels, more character classes, more spells, more weapons, more tricks. I bought more books, like the infamous Deities and Demi-gods which detailed the characteristics of numerous figures from real or fictional religions, or the Fiend Folio which detailed more dreadful monsters.


At some point, we grew wary of AD&D and longed for new experiences. We discovered games like Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest. Those games offered more complex settings and characters, with subtler goals like not losing all your sanity. But those games were still based on the principle of accumulation: Characters would grow and become more powerful, knowledgeable, skillfull. I vividly remember that the GameMaster (there were no more dungeons) was quite upset when, during one of our Cthulhu game, in some scene that was supposed to be one of the climax of the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign and following a lengthy and supposedly terrifying description of some fierce beast whiche we were fighting, I said “Oh, a Hunting Horror !” in a definitely not terrified voice…

Then I became officially adult, and then came Vampire. This game, and other similar games we played at that time like Pendragon, Bushido, Maléfices or Ars Magica, developed the concept of campaign not as a sequence of battles to gain more XP, but as long story depicting the life (and sometimes death) of the player characters.

All of sudden, or so it seems in retrospect, the goal of the game shifted from accumulating things to telling a good story. What became important was not whether your character was the most powerful vampire of the universe, the cunniest wizard of the Covenant or the noblest knight around the table ; but whether or not your character had been through interesting, intriguing, funny, frightful and more importantly memorable experiences. Your character could grow in power: This was not for power’s sake but to enable him or her to live new and interesting things, to be involved in more complex intrigues at the Kings’s court or the local vampire overlord’s den. One of our Bushido’s campaign ended up with one of the player’s character committing seppuku upon request from the Shôgun on the charge of treason and this was a really a moving experience. We played some Maléfices scenarios in a candle-lit chilly cave and those were the most frightening games we are went through.

The role of the Game Master obviously changed, so much so that it became a Storyteller in Vampire. He became more a different kind of player, a referee, a source of inspiration than a traps-dealer or a dungeon designer. He would be responsible for setting the stage, starting the story or crafting some new plot in case the original one dwindled and the game dragged along, surprising the players with interesting twists, embodying non player characters which the player would encounter or suggest… In other words, he stopped being an omnipotent dictator to become a facilitator, a master of ceremony: But having fun was a shared responsibility!

Within this frame, it was possible to be very directive, like an author whose skill takes you off and whom you would follow anywhere. Those kind of game masters would write complex stories, intricate plots, subtle NPCs and dramatic scenes and we would follow them because we knew they were good storytellers. I was more of the other kind of gamemasters, those who could improvise a game on the spur of the moment, counting on the other players to fuel the story and their own imagination to adapt to it as it unfolded in surprising ways. My scenarios were written on a napkin but I was good at recycling the numerous books I read, combining them, taking the plot of one book and mixing it with the background of another one.

At some point, role-playing games became so prominent in my life we started a company to publish our own games. The first, and most successful, game we published was Miles Christi, a game set in the Middle East during the early crusades era, in which the players’ characters were exclusively templars. This game was the embodiment of the evolution I sketched above: The scenarios were devised to put players into conflicting situations which forced to choose between their loyalty to the cause they were supposed to defend and their loyalty to the christian ideal of universal love and forgiving God. And each game ended with a confession scene during which the players were supposed to confess the, usually numerous, sins they would have committed during the game and were rewarded or punished accordingly.


The purpose of Life is living.

Those recollections are probably of low interest to the reader and might sound like nostalgic rambles from an aging man. But if I try to relate that experience with the aforementioned blog post, it seems to me it highlights something important about the way we work, and especially the way we work in teams while we develop software, and the role of so-called managers within a team.

Most organizations, and teams within those organizations, and people making up those teams, are playing D&D. Just like a D&D player wants to get more XPs, more gold, kill more monsters ; and D&D GM wants to devise more complex dungeons, more traps, more powerful monsters to throw at playsers ; those groups and people want more of something: Money, power, knowledge, tools, lines of code… They have a goal, they are mission driven, they achieve. And when they reach those goals, they find new ones, because it is never-ending, there is always more money, more knowlege, more power to grab. This is what give rise to the kind of Dungeon Masters Alberto Brandolini writes about, and this is fueled by the logic of accumulation and competition bred by material goals and achievements we often crave for.

Those days, I personally tend to favor the other approach. As a team member, whatever my precise role may be, I find it important to have clear, tangible goals. But what I have found to be more important is what happens within the team, the relationship I have with the people, the way we work together: The journey has become more important than the destination, the how? (and the why?) more important than the what?. As a Dungeon Master, or as an experienced person or the historical developer of some piece of software, what becomes important is to ensure we are telling ourselves a good story. And this is a collaborative process in which everybody has its role to play, and which requires a lot of effort from everybody.

To conclude on a philosophical note, let me quote my favourite philosopher:

Therefore, to man there is nothing more useful than man–nothing, I repeat, more excellent for preserving their being can be wished for by men, than that all should so in all points agree, that the minds and bodies of all should form, as it were, one single mind and one single body, and that all should, with one consent, as far as they are able, endeavour to preserve their being, and all with one consent seek what is useful to them all. Hence, men who are governed by reason–that is, who seek what is useful to them in accordance with reason,–desire for themselves nothing, which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind, and, consequently, are just, faithful, and honourable in their conduct.

Spinoza, Ethica IV,18,sc.