DM’s Discretion has always been my favorite rule. It was the source of all power in the multiverse and it was taken from the Dungeon Master in the 3rd Edition, but after many battles with the rules lawyers, 4th Edition has returned control back to the Dungeon Master, albeit in a somewhat reversed, behind the scenes sort of way. When DM’s discretion was exercised prior to 4E, it was exercised to settle in-game disputes. Now, the discretion occurs prior to the game. In effect, the Dungeon Master becomes a rules legislator. A general survey as to how the rules of the game have changed can explain what I mean.
During the good old days of 2nd Edition the simplified rule set was focused primarily on combat. The Dungeon Master’s task was to use what was available to make determinations for player actions not covered by the rules. How many remember this tired old phrase from their Dungeon Master: “Hmm…ok, make a Dex check.” This, of course, could infuriate the rules lawyers in the group who, being the good lawyers that they were (and I am serious about that) would point out the inconsistencies between the call for “dexterity checks” and advocate for a strength check or for some kind of bonus to an ordinary attack roll. And we all remember how those discussions went: the Dungeon Master would have to assert his authority or the rules lawyer would take control of the game.
Now, that is not to say that such use of discretion was a bad thing, but clearly, gamers wanted something more concrete and less arbitrary. They wanted a rule that they can rely upon when thinking about how to kill the ogre charging down the corridor, or unlocking the trapped chest full of goodies. Enter Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 and 3.5.
These games fully democratized the game and turned the Dungeon Master into just another player, or a merely a referee of a game. The d20 system simplified the general formula for determining success and failures with the game (which was genius), and with that, there was no room for the Dungeon Master’s discretion without sounding completely arbitrary. With the multi-class and feat system a player could design his or her character in any way that he or she saw fit. Aside from some general campaign prohibitions, the Dungeon Master was powerless to stop the PCs from doing just about anything. If the Dungeon Master attempted to alter a rule, a competent and well-read rules lawyer could make a very compelling argument as to why the rule should remain the same. Any work a Dungeon Master wanted to put into an adventure or villain had to be supported by a concrete rule to justify the action. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, but it does create a lot of work for the Dungeon Master. I once spent 8 hours researching the Dungeon Master’s Guide, The Player’s Handbook, both Forgotten Realms books and the Book of Vile Darkness to create a red wizard of Thay that could, in the very first round of combat, cast a twin-quickened-maximized fireball (free action) followed by a maximized meteor swarm (Standard action). Another villain I made could kill a PC instantly with a critical hit if the PC failed a fortitude saving throw vs. 38. He had a critical range of 15+ and with his chaotic evil vicious two-handed sword he could inflict 10d6 + 25 damage on a critical hit against my lawful good player characters (and there were a lot of them in the party). Both villains were totally legit. Unfortunately, I never saw these villains in action…but I was ready for any complaints!
Of course, the 3rd Edition of the game brought a whole host of rules. Some players, Dungeon Masters included, found this to be too unwieldy and the game became more about rules and less about story-telling, a valid criticism to be sure.
Fourth Edition of course has provided a streamlined version of the game. (I am not exactly sure if you can say it is all THAT streamlined…) But, the game has certainly changed: it has simplified combat (sort of) and simplified the role that skills play in the game (sort of). This is, of course, from the player’s perspective (read: “Rules Lawyer’s perspective”), makes it easy for rule adjudication, character design and developing combat strategies. From the Dungeon Master’s perspective, the Dungeon Master has been given chapter after chapter of rules that are really just “the rules about the rules”. These “rules about the rules” provide the Dungeon Master with limitless possibilities to mold and shape anything and everything in the game. From skill challenges to monsters, the Dungeon Master can do just about anything and it is entirely legit. The Dungeon Master, when countered by a rules lawyer hell-bent on challenging something (usually anything) the Dungeon Master has in mind, can point to chapter 10 of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and explain why the goblin that just killed the PC is a 6th level ranger with fire powers.
This is what I like most about 4th Edition. The rules provided in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are the nuts and bolts to the very game itself. The rules provided in the DMGs are at the heart of the gaming reality to be molded by the Dungeon Master. Dungeon Master’s Guide One and Two are truly tomes of magic and wisdom that equip the Dungeon Master with the necessary tools to legislate effectively and, as Gary Gygax once stated, “to give shape and meaning to the cosmos.” The game designers at Wizards have produced a set of rules that places the Dungeon Master back where they belong, at the head of the gaming table.