The DM Rule

by admin on July 1, 2012 in Essays

Too often we create our worlds with a particular story in mind and assume that all the characters will respect our intentions. They don’t travel beyond the borders of our map, try to use artifacts in ways that we did not intend, seek loopholes in our Laws of Magic, or otherwise stress the limits of our universe.

Real human beings, of course, are not like that. History teaches that it is human nature to go everywhere, do everything, and test every limit there is. Thor Heyerdahl proved that man could cross an ocean using only primitive construction materials, and we know that many islands in the Pacific were discovered by men who set out with no more than an outrigger canoe and a dream. There is no island so remote, no terrain so daunting, that men will not seek out and explore it, no supernatural concept so bizarre that someone will not attempt to exploit it. Merely saying “it is dangerous” may scare off most people, but there are always those will consider danger a personal challenge.

Want to observe this in action, in a convenient microcosm? Take a look at gamers. They take a perverse pride in finding the weak points in a fictional world and exploiting them to the nth degree, often to the chagrin of its creator. After all, they don’t know where your story is “meant to go”, nor would they necessarily respect it if they did…they don’t know what territories they are “supposed to explore”, or which lie beyond the limits of your map and are meant to be left out of the story…they only know what is put before them, and they will exploit everything in sight for personal gain as much as is humanly possible, disregarding all the risks factors that might discourage “real” people. That is, in fact, the one thing that gamers excel at: finding the loopholes in any fictional system, and breaking them wide open.

What a great testing ground for potential world-builders!

The “DM rule” teaches that any universe you create must be “gamer proof”. That is, it must have internal to itself whatever rules are necessary to support your story concept, and to enforce its limits. If there is something you don’t want your characters to do, there has to be a reason inherent in the world itself why they won’t do it. Warning them that they will die if they break the rules is not enough; some people regard this as a personal challenge to beat the odds. Making something dark and ominous only excites curiosity. Making something hard to get to only increases the rewards (and the status) of getting to it. Making something a “sacred tradition” only gives rebels something to target. Remember the lesson of history: It is in human nature to be stubborn, obstinate, and defiant. If you are unsure of how to apply this to your work, imagine a group of gamers set loose in your world, and try to anticipate the damage they would do. It can be an unnerving experience, but it is always an enlightening one.

Never is this rule more important than in creating a believable magical system. Any time you insert “power” into the human equation, you must assume there are people willing to take any risk, to break any rule, to exploit it. So ask yourself, if sorcerers exist, why don’t they rule the world? “They don’t want to” or “It’s not traditional” is not a good enough answer. Why are they not filthy rich, with mind-controlled servants to see to their every need? “They don’t believe in flaunting their power” is not good enough. You must either have reasons why sorcerers do not do these things, or acknowledge that some of them do. Sometimes an entire novel can spring from the answers to those questions…or be generated by your search for them. Barbara Hambly in particular is a master of this process, and her Sun Cross Trilogy is an outstanding example of how a simple control mechanism, “the price of power,” can drive a story.

To assume that magic has an innate cost that limits its use is not just an artistically satisfying theme — we like to believe that all power has a price — but it implies a world in which reality is not all that far removed from what we are familiar with. The second law of thermodynamics dictates that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form. Magic has to come from somewhere. Determine the fuel, determine the limits of the transformation, and you have a wealth of material waiting to be explored for story ideas.

This is a central theme of my current project, Feast of Souls. In it, the cost of magic is so high that most men are not willing to pay it…but some are, and some will try to find a way around that cost, and a few may even succeed. Out of that simple formula has grown one of my most powerful works, as every new limit I place upon my sorcerers produces dark new paths for my story to explore. Yet even in that context I take nothing for granted. If my sorcerers have traditions regarding how they use their power, there must be good reasons for those to exist, and I must assume that someone, somewhere, will defy those traditions. If they believe there are hard-and-fast rules about how their power functions, someone will test the limits of those rules. That’s just how human beings work, and whether they are piloting spaceships, fighting dragons, or playing D&D, it is unlikely to change.

So if you are not sure of how that would work in the vastness of your universe, imagine a gamer set loose there, and watch the sparks fly. Putting out those fires — or better yet, creating a world where they cannot occur — is one of the best story-generators I know.

This essay is copyright by C. S. Friedman, and may not be copied, disseminated, or linked to without written permission that specifically cites this work. Seriously. No exceptions.

  • Adrian G. Delgado

    This is entirely true. I have run roleplaying games for 13 years at least, and they are wonderful crucibles for testing the limits of a system. Depending on the player, everything from ethical considerations to the physics of magic can be tested, and some wonderful stories can be told just by breaking the rules. I especially LOVE to find those “its not tradition” type limitations and break them, exploiting the chaos to drive the story. Thank you for affirming that roleplaying can be another tool in the author’s tool box.