Let’s Talk: Tabletop RPGs and D&D – The Ideal DM – By Stephen Stachofsky.
After my top ten aspects of a good player, you should have known this one was coming for the DM’s out there. Over my years of tabletop gaming, I have worked with many DMs. Most have been amazing. Some have been, to put it politely, abysmal. I’m sure everyone has had experiences with a range of DMs, and I hope you all have played with the amazing ones at some point. Some DMs have the ability, either through discipline and study, or through an amazing imagination, or with luck both, to create incredible home-brewed campaigns and real authentic feeling worlds. Some DMs however are unable to accept deviation from their plans and storylines. They bully, and railroad players into following their preset design by fudging numbers and shutting down players’ ideas with some variation of the phrase “I’m the DM”. Some beginning DMs bite off more than they can chew with parties that are too large, too small, or full of new players. Everyone has had good and bad experiences with the Game Masters and builders of the tabletop RPG (TTRPG) world.
So, what makes a good DM?
Is it their ability to moderate the ridiculousness or ambition of players? Sometimes a player has to be reminded that even though they crit their strength check, they can not physically generate enough force to throw a gnome all the way to the moon. Is it their worlds and stories? Is it their ability to role-play vast amounts of NPC’s and villain characters? Well stick with me and, even though it’s still cringey, I’ll list out my top ten aspects of a great DM.
First, I have a note to add about this blog. This list, and any blog I write, is my opinion. These opinions are formed from experience and input from enthusiasts in the gaming community and my personal circle of friends. As always we love the game and love to make it better. I’ll arrange these in order from least important to most important.
10. A good DM knows the game.
This may feel repetitive and obvious, but it needs to be said. The best DM’s have read all three of the main D&D source books (the DMG, PHB, and Monster Manual) or their respective rule books for other TTRPGs. It doesn’t stop there either. They are always looking up new ways and methods for running the game. They research new expansions and source books. They also communicate with other DMs in their circle to get new ideas. Good DMs don’t have to know just one class or type but all of them, as often the DM is the troubleshooter for their players’ builds. Good DM’s study their game so that they can provide the best experience for their players. Good DMs often have someone they can bounce ideas off of who is outside their current campaigns, so that the really bad, or impossible ideas get thrown before they ever show up in front of the players. They experiment and test run encounters and they are well versed in the proper way to fudge a roll. They know the rules because it is their job to establish reality and lawyer the rules on occasion.
9. Good DMs are not afraid of a good homebrew.
Homebrew is a terrifying and wonderfully scary but also tantalizing idea. Homebrew can be a wonderful tool to give flavor to a campaign. It can be used to provide key hooks to a story and new wonderful items, monsters and places. Original campaigns can be considered homebrew. Good DMs test their homebrew and use homebrew effectively and sparingly. Not every player needs a new magic doodad, enchanted whatsit, or even a charmed thingy. Homebrewed items should be well developed and carefully tested before they are introduced to your realm. Just because you have come up with a 12 foot tall, fire-breathing chicken, doesn’t mean your party has to fight one every session. Good homebrew can be exciting for players and they remember items that have personal and intimate connections to the campaign. Good DMs use pre-existing items and monsters to base their homebrewed content on, so the fleshed out creatures, characters, and worlds are built on a strong skeleton.
8. Combat doesn’t equal story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love good combat. I love seeing the fear in my players’ eyes when they don’t think they will make it. I especially love watching them win. But, what about combat equals a good story? Combat by itself? No. Combat is generally only good for the story if the story has led players to the combat. Good DMs try to give a party as much room for role-playing as possible. The best campaigns have great settings, great characters, and some intense battles that tip the scales. Players generally play for the story and the combat is a lovely side note. Good story is made by the choices that players make based on the situation a DM creates. They build great chances for players to make emotional and moral choices. Maybe getting the magic stone for the wizard who hired the party will doom a whole village to starvation, but without the stone the wizard can’t stop a volcano that will wipe out an entire school of mages. These kinds of dilemmas (or hopefully better ones) are the lifeblood of TTRPGs.
7. A good DM keeps notes.
I feel a little like I’m beating a dead horse here, and this should go without saying, but it’s worth the extra emphasis. Especially with sessions that go away from your pre-planned events, DMs need to keep notes. While we hope our players will also keep their own notes, often DMs are asked to not only remember details for the whole campaign, but we are often asked by players to remember character specifics. Some DMs choose to tell their players upfront that keeping track of their coins, hp, and items or loot found, is up to them and not the responsibility of the DM. Notes can save you and your players time though, because you can ask players to keep their own notes until you are blue in the face, but at the end of the session, you are responsible for remembering everything. That even includes stuff that doesn’t feel important to the big picture. Not only will you have notes on your world, monsters, dungeons and maps, but you should also have notes on all your players and any NPC they interact with. Players have a tendency to latch onto the strangest and most inconsequential NPC, so you should be ready to flesh out every Tom, Dick, and Larry they run into, as well as Carol, Karren and Grace. Because every once in a while, Timmy is going to be the party’s unofficial mascot and you didn’t even plan to have him around for more than five seconds.
6. Good DMs know how to constructively support and shut down player’s ideas.
Being the DM is an exercise in restraint. Since TTRPGs are a creative and collaborative process, your players are going to have lots of ideas and plans for their characters. These ideas might include a mandalorian wookie (I did shut that idea down) or a set of ancestral armor made from metal harder than adamantium (my DM magically stole that). These things were probably not in your plans as the DM, and as such you have a choice. You can either “yes and”, shut it down, or amend it.
Players often argue against rolls, or skill checks claiming that a different skill they have should be used instead. Good DMs know how to react and roll with these things in a constructive and cordial manner. If the answer you decide to give is “no” then you need to have a good reason for that answer. For example, in the game FateCore, intimidate is not a skill that can be used for a defensive roll. So what happens when you have a player who has a character who is really scary, that insists on rolling intimidate in reaction to being attacked? Well, first I said no, due to the above stated rule. After he continued to press his case I said, “Sure” with a massive sigh and rolling of my eyes. “Roll the intimidate”. He rolled poorly. So, I added damage to the attack, because he scared the guys who were shooting at him making them pull their triggers faster. He then rolled his defense roll (physique) and we moved on. Sometimes, saying no is allowing players to go through with their plan, even though you know it isn’t going to work or you aren’t going to allow it to work.The best DMs know a good idea when they hear it, and reward players for innovative problem solving, great in character role-play, and story additions.
5. Good DMs have their resources ready before players are at the “table.”
This may feel like it falls under the category of number ten, but it is its own category. Plenty of us have sat down to play D&D or Fate or any number of TTRPG and had to wait on the DM, who is often the host, to set the table. This can be a very long process depending on the amount of maps, books, notes, diagrams, and minis. Good DMs set up early. When players arrive they are often ready to get down to brass tacks, or brass dragons.
Especially as the DMs are often the host, it’s your chance to set up early. Have your stat blocks for your monsters, dungeon maps, world maps, and npc sheets that you need ready well before the first player walks through the door. For the traveling DM, keep a special DM bag with all your resources carefully organized so that you can set up quickly. Arrive reasonably early if you are not the host. Even if you are playing digitally, as many parties are these days, set up early.
4. A good DM knows the value of silence.
Sometimes you know your party is setting themselves up to fail. Sometimes they are blindly rushing down a hallway that is a dead end while the door leading to the villain or treasure is back the way they came. Sometimes they are in a pub about to pick a fight with an ex-adventurer warlock/revenge paladin who just wanted to open a bar when the killing got to be too much. In these moments, a good DM knows the value of silence. Let your players lay in the bed they made. You know what is around the corner. Doors one, two, and three are not mysteries to you, but they are to your party. If door one is the door where glory and riches await and they choose door three which is a sure path to hell, let them choose. Try not to gode players into taking the easy path. Let them get themselves into tough situations. Now’s a good time to break out that Robert Mckee quote again. “True character is revealed in the decisions a human being (or dwarf or orc or elf) makes under pressure,” so let the party be under pressure, whether by your own design or their own ill-fated decisions.
3. Timing is everything.
Not only is timing everything in a session, but the timing of sessions make or break parties. Most parties are not prepared for 24-hour power marathons. Knowing what your party can handle, and that impacts the length of your sessions, goes a long way to keeping a campaign going across multiple sessions. In my experience, three to four hours is usually my max as far as being prepared as a DM. Every party is different so good DMs have a timetable and try to stick to it. They give notice if they are planning on a longer or shorter session. Players like predictability. Planning sessions ahead of time, and how regularly you meet as a party are important skills for a DM. The DM is often the administrator of the party and good DMs spend a lot of time honing this skill.
2. Be ready to improvise.
DMs spend so much time preparing for sessions, racking their brains to predict every possible action that players might take, but it’s impossible to plan everything. When the players throw you a new curve ball, good DMs are willing to leave their plans behind and improvise. Maybe the hook you thought would really get your players moving in the right direction just didn’t do it. You can either force the players down that direction or see where they will take themselves. Sometimes letting the players explore the world around them is more fun and gets a better story than you could ever plan. The preparation for a DM still needs to be there, because you are going to need a world they can explore. As players create the story, good DMs can always find ways to bring the party back to the hook they had originally envisioned.
1. The best DM is the one who chooses to do it.
I know I’ve said it before. Some people are not cut out to be DM, but every party needs one. TTRPGs just don’t work without one. Even someone not cut out to be DM is better than no DM at all. This is the most important aspect of a DM. Being willing to do the job, and attempt to do it well even if it starts off rough, is so important. DMs provide the “table”, the context, and the spark. Even if you “don’t know what you are doing” you are better than nothing. In this crazy world, the table might look more like a tablet or a computer screen, but the best DMs are the ones who are there. RPGs of all sorts are progressive and compounding events. Each session, usually, continues off of the last, so being willing to set the “table”, whatever it looks like, makes you a hero to your players. The DM who is reliable and consistently proves to be at the table on time (when possible), and ready to play, is the kind of DM that players want to play with and tell stories about. Even if you are lacking in some of these other aspects as a DM, you will often be asked when your next campaign is going to be. Most of the other aspects of a good DM can be learned in time, but reliability and willingness to do the job are rare, and the most important.
Many of these aspects and tips are things that we are constantly working on and I’m not saying that I possess all of these myself as a DM. These tips are meant for everyone as a reminder, not as a criticism. We love the game and we love to make the game better. Hopefully these help.
If you liked what you read or you have your own tips and ideas for being a good TTRPG DM, drop a comment below. Be sure to share the podcast and blog with your friends.
Until next time,
Stephen and the Storytelling Breakdown team