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The Principles of D&D 4E

Posted in Games, Principles

Apocalypse World has this brilliant way of presenting what the GM is to do at the table during a game. There are a few parts to that, but the one that’s maybe most portable and informative is Principles, the items that guide the GM.

So I’m a big fan of summing up other game’s GM advice as Principles. I already did it for Moldvay D&D, and Jonathan Walton did it for Burning Wheel. Clyde got the whole series started by doing it for 4E (post no longer available), but I kind of disagree with his assessment. His principles are pretty good, but I’m not sure how much they come from the book and how much they come from the inherited knowledge of How D&D Is Run.

So, with the excellent new Rules Compendium out, I scoured the 4E Dungeon Masters Guide and the Rules Compendium for the Principles of 4E. Here’s what I came up with.

  1. You and everyone else are responsible for the fun of the game together (DMG 7)
  2. Identify your players’ motivations (DMG 8 )
  3. Build a party with the players, use it in the creation of the story and world (DMG 10)
  4. Mediate between the players and the rules, but you don’t have to know all the rules (DMG 12, RC 35)
  5. Choose a style and tone of game, share it with the players (DMG 12)
  6. Set table tules (DMG 14)
  7. Prepare as much as possible (DMG 18, RC 35)
  8. Move between the 5 modes: Setup, Exploration, Conversation, Encounter, and Passing Time (DMG 20)
  9. Narrate with brevity, atmosphere, and style (DMG 22)
  10. Find the fun. Gloss over mundane details, never make players search for the action. (DMG 24)
  11. Use props: maps, minis, illustrations, handouts, objects, music. (DMG 25)
  12. Tell the players everything they must know, and everything they should know within the limits of the rules and their abilities. (DMG 26)
  13. Say “Yes, and …”, improvise. (DMG 28)
  14. Keep the action moving forward (RC 35)
  15. Add complications (RC 35)
  16. Failure isn’t an endpoint (RC 35)

Interestingly, none of these really say much about dungeons, or the “combat first” style that the rest of the 4E rules tend to promote. The stuff from the Rules Compendium is particularly good, adding complications and non-blocking failure are some of the best GM tools. It’s just too bad the rules don’t support those more, like in Mouse Guard where adding complications and non-blocking failures are built in to the rules.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and senior test engineer at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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