Something Old, Something New: Great DM’s

Posted on September 18, 2009 by


The other day on Twitter, Phil the Chatty DM suggested a series where we each write about a topic and we’d see how our views compare, taking into account my one-year experience as a DM versus his twenty-five years.  I though it was an interesting idea, because I’m inclined to believe that many of the readers of this blog fall into my camp in terms of experience, and they’d get a kick out of comparing notes as well.

So after reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, I casually mentioned this on Twitter:

I wish one day I’d be lucky to play D&D with a DM as great as the DMGs’ hope to create. The DMG2 is awesome for storytellers.

Meaning that, as they read, those books make an amazing attempt to create the über-DM.   A DM whose table is the Shangri-la of role-playing, a table with a waiting list of thirty players waiting to get on,  or more importantly, a table full of fun.  And let’s face it, if you were to take every single bit of advice in those (and everyone before them) books, you’d have the tools to be a great DM.  But how many of those great DM’s are there, and what makes one?

When I started playing D&D, one of the main things that pulled me into the game was the DM I played with.  It’s been many years, so I may be looking at those times through the prism of nostalgia, but to this day he’s been the best DM I’ve ever played with.  His descriptions, his world, his rubbing of his palms together after rolling behind the screen, all those things added up to a great DM.  He’d roll, look at you with an arched eyebrow, and casually say, “Oh my.” You knew you were screwed.

So in my opinion, what makes a great DM?  Well, first, a great DM respects his players.  Not in the “not out to get you way”.  That should be a given.  He respects them in the sense that if he’s offering a spot on his table, he better be prepared, he better be enthusiastic, and he better be into it.  Nobody wants to be sitting for 4 or more hours with a guy who’d rather be somewhere else.  I know I wouldn’t.  If I were a DM with no desire to DM, I’d rather cancel on my players than offer them less than my all at the table.  I see it this way, if I’m going to do this, I’ll try my hardest.  Outcome be damned.

A great DM is a great communicator.  The words of a DM bring worlds alive.  They describe fantastic locations and creatures.  Nothing is worse than a DM who mumbles his way through the simplest of descriptions,  “hmm, ok, you, ah, you enter a 10 by 10 room.”  No, a great Dm would project the image of that room with the greatest of descriptions while not being boring with unnecessary details.  The players would all hang on his every word, waiting for the creepy crawlies to come out and bite.  He builds tension with every scene and every die roll, and the players love him for it.

A great DM is also a bit of a ham.  He plays his NPC’s with a bit of dramatic flair, and relishes in creating characters.  He gives them all vibrant personalities that make them instantly recognizable, while never encroaching on the fact that the PC’s are the stars of the movie.

I played a game at Gencon, and the DM was the exact opposite of all the things I’ve laid out here today.  He mumbled, didn’t bother adding any flavor, and even spoke in not too caring terms about the system he was running.  He was a terrible DM.  Why anyone but only those with an insatiable appetite for RPG’s would sit at this guy’s table is beyond me.  He offered no reason to waste my time sitting there, while great DM’s make time pass swiftly by.

So does this mean that us newb’s, without the years of experience on our proverbial “DM’ing backs” can’t be great DM’s?  I’d argue that we can, but that yes, years of practice would make things a lot easier.  Some people have an innate talent to comfortably speak in front of others, and have a command of the language that would facilitate great gaming sessions.  So yes, some of your newer DM’s may in fact be great already, whether you think so or not!

But what steps can we take as newbies to become great DM’s?  I know I’m not a great DM-yet.  There are still many gaming sessions to go, (and given the spam of time between each session I do play…who knows…) but I hope to get there one day.

  • Be prepared and organized.  Now more than ever, there are many tools online to make gaming more organized and dare I say it, automated.  Initiative trackers, wikis, blogs.  All those things can lead to a more organized DM.
  • Find your inner actor, and create memorable NPC’s.  Be a ham, act it up at the table.  Players want the entertainment.  Give it to them, but don’t outshine them.  Your NPC’s should complement the stars of the show, not become them.  This may even lead to your players becomeing more comfortable in the role playing aspect of things.  Give it a shot.
  • Learn to say “Yes!”.  Your players are part of the story, so involve them, even if the path they’d rather take doesn’t quite fit your plans.  I’ve said it before:  Don’t make your PC’s ride your Newbie Railroad!
  • Learn to be a good verbal communicator.  Be well read, build a good vocabulary.  Nobody wants to hear the same descriptive words over and over.  All languages have hundreds of words, use them!  Use synonyms to vary things a bit, and make things sound interesting.

I am sure I’ve left out quite a few things, but that’s where you come in.  What makes a great DM, and where am I wrong?  Also, check out the Chatty Dm’s entry in the topic, where he provides his own views on what makes a great DM.

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