A recent session of DCC in the Wilderlands has prompted a number of thoughts on the role of the DM (at least as I see it in the context of old school play):
Actual Play Analysis
A random encounter roll provided the result "chalk marks". I liberally interpreted this and decided to make a tableau of chalk representations of the party appear practically under their noses (i.e. in a corridor they had just passed through and were presently returning to).
The party's ranger decided to search for tracks (which takes a turn and thus increases the risk of random encounters). I decided that the chalk marks had been made by a ghost and that he could not find any tracks.
This was a bad decision because my motivation was to get on with the game, i.e. I was not interested in the chalk marks except as a minor distraction to create a spooky atmosphere.
However, it's the players' job to decide which things to investigate, not mine. Moreover, I should not create illusions but run the world -- I should have impartially determined what caused the marks in the first place (using my intution regarding the world and/or the dice).
(In my defence, I was prepared to stand by my decision and, for example, reveal the ghost to a detect magic spell (recently acquired by the party's witch).)
Next, the party decided to modify their representations: A recently killed dog puppy was part of the tableau and depicted as crossed out. The party carefully removed the cross. I rolled a d6, deciding to have the puppy's corpse rise on a 6 as per animate dead (a power I would then have to attribute to the ghost). Nothing happened.
This was an even worse decision because I acted on the players' speculations (i.e. on a 6, they would have come true). This procedure is remniscient of the RPG Donjon by Clinton R. Nixon. In Donjon, a successful check to detect secret doors means that you do indeed find a secret door (i.e. it is invented on the spot and incorporated into the fiction if it was not there before). Donjon is cool, but a very different kind of game than the old school D&D I'm striving for.
The players should feel free to openly speculate about the world or discuss their plans -- without fear of the DM making their fears (or hopes) come true or preempting (or facilitating) their plans.
(At least I rolled a d6 so things did not rely on DM whim alone.)
A note on the nature of random content
Random content is neither arbitrary nor unimportant:
Random encounter tables, for instance, are carefully constructed to reflect the environment. The Barrowmaze features different tables for different sections or different times of the day and my wilderness encounter tables likewise cover different geographical areas.
A random encounter with other tomb raiders should be treated as just as real and important as other stuff. A random roll creates a part of the world that both players and DM can refer back to. Further rolls and/or impartial DM improvisation should flesh out the details as needed.
I failed to take my own roll seriously in the situation described above, deciding it was merely "color" (i.e. window dressing). Eero Tuovinen has more to say about this -- please check out my next post.