DM Advice: Story Trumps Dice

By Brian Moakley Mar 21, 2021

Being a dungeon master is difficult. I want my players to have fun. I want them to feel like pulp genre heroes. Yet, I also want to be fair from a ruling perspective.

The other day, I ran into a conundrum. One player is a Goliath Barbarian aptly named Rocksmasher. His strength is pretty high and he runs Totem of the Bear, making him a muscle powerhouse.

So when he told me he wanted to tear a door I had no idea what to do. I mean, what does a DM do in that situation?

First a little back story.

The party arrived at a monastery run by a cult. The players had already visited the monastery as third-level characters and they barely survived their first encounter.

Now at fifth level, they wanted to deal some payback. They arrived at the monastery, and that’s when Clinton announced his plan.

“I want to tear the door off.”

I immediately went into DM research mode. What’s the door’s hp? Do I run a strength contest versus the door? What happens if he fails?

I stalled, ignoring Clinton’s suggestion. I wasn’t trying to ice my player. I was trying to figure out how ripping off a door worked in fifth edition. All the while, all the other players were cheering at the assault.

I stalled.

I said, “A sliding eye panel opens, revealing two cold steely eyes. What do you want, a voice says behind the door”. Clinton didn’t flinch.

“I reach into the slit and tear off the door. “

A picture of a Goliath Barbarian from D&D Beyond.
A Goliath Barbarian from D&D Beyond

He was committed. I already had several tabs open with varying approaches to handling doors and I was paralyzed. I was stuck in a loop of player choice and consequence and mechanics. I was lost.

I follow Matt Coville’s YouTube channel on Dungeons and Dragons. Throughout all his videos, he’s said time and again, that people play D&D to feel like heroes. Sometimes, the dice roll will make a player feel heroic. Other times, it has to come from the DM.

I said, screw it. Instead of rolling damage or doing strength tests, I described in detail how the barbarian’s muscles tightened and how his low struggling grunts transformed into a roar. I described how the cultist’s face behind the door broke into a whimper as the wood splintered around him.

The players loved it. Narrative trumped dice. And Clinton felt awesome. The players around the “virtual” table congratulated him. That’s the spirit of D&D.

That solution may seem obvious especially to more experienced DMs. For me, there are so many variables in play, it’s easy to lose the reason for the game. It’s easy to lean on the dice but. But leaning on the dice too much abdicates your storytelling to random chance. And that ruins the game for everyone.

By Brian Moakley

Brian Douglas Moakley is a writer and technologist who lives amongst the quiet hills in New England. When not reading tales of high adventure, he is often telling such stories to all who will listen.

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