With the release of Netflix’s spectacular Stranger Things, interest in tabletop RPG’s, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, has been reintroduced into the public consciousness. Even as I’m writing this I have been preparing a campaign to introduce some new people to the game, and bring a few who have played a bit in the past into the current (5th) edition of the game that started it all.
From a personal standpoint, I have been an off-and-on player of D&D and other “pen and paper” or “tabletop” RPG’s for more than 20 years now, and a DM for 15. Few campaigns last very long (one statistic I read found that the vast majority of groups didn’t last more than 4-6 sessions, something I’ve experienced myself), which can be disheartening for those of us who want to run a game, and discourages many would-be DM’s who experience this from trying again. I’ve been in that position before. Thankfully, I had friends who were more experienced, that helped me learn what it means to be a good DM.
So what makes a good Dungeon Master?
Every role playing group, game, and system is different, but the golden rule for DM’s across the board is that a DM’s primary job is to ensure that every player in a campaign is having fun and enjoying the tabletop experience. This means something different for every group. Do your players just want to smash skulls and start riots? Do they want to be able to use their characters’ skills in interesting and challenging ways as they navigate a labyrinth on par with the infamous Water Temple? Maybe they want to explore who their characters are with more story-heavy quests that will have them spending more time building relationships with NPC’s and each other than squishing goblins. Most groups want a balanced game. Whatever it is, it is the responsibility of the DM to ensure that, regardless of what you have planned, you make sure that all of your players’ needs and desires are taken into consideration.
Even the best DM’s, with the best preparation and storyline, can have a group fall apart because they fall into a few basic traps that many DM’s fall into. The first is the mindset of DM vs group. The gist of this is that, while, no, they won’t throw a bunch of first level players into the demon pits to battle the evil Drow goddess Lolth, they are going to make them suffer, and make every encounter ridiculously hard, hopefully resulting in the death of one or more characters. This is an easy mindset to acquire, especially if your players aren’t really interested in doing the carefully constructed quest you’ve laid out for them, but it’s also a very dangerous one. A DM should work with their players to bring their fantasy world and characters to life and tell a story, not against or despite them. Like any other medium, the players want to feel connected to and invested in the heroes. When I DM, I encourage my players to create backstories, give them quirks and personality traits that make them more than numbers on a piece of paper. If a DM is trying to kill the characters at every turn, it can be difficult to do any kind of character development. If a player thinks their character is just another piece of meat on the chopping block for a hostile DM, they won’t care about the character any more, so they won’t care about the story, either, and, ultimately, they won’t care about the game. Now, to be sure, a DM shouldn’t just make everything a cakewalk, but putting in the effort to craft challenging, but winnable and fun encounters is a part of what makes a good DM good.
The second trap that many DM’s fall into is inflexibility. Too many DM’s spend too much time crafting an adventure, and then not being able to adapt if the players want to do something contrary to the DM’s designs. Players with a lot of experience want to have their own ideas of how their character would react to any given situation, or want to play characters that fall out of the normal hero-villain dichotomy. What if your player wants to side with the Blackguard and overthrow the king? What if they want to play a ruthless assassin who kills simply for the joy of it? What if they simply don’t care about what happens and would rather just explore all the ruins, claim all the treasure, and become wealthy and fat? When I was still a relatively new player, I once played in a game where we all decided to play chaotic neutral characters, and all we cared about was ourselves. Unfortunately, the DM had carefully constructed a whole world and storyline he wanted us to follow, so he resorted to a tactic commonly referred to as “railroading.” Basically, this refers to a DM telling their players what the characters do, instead of just putting their players in a situation and letting them react. Two things that should never come out of a DM’s mouth without VERY good reason are telling a player what their character does, or telling them that they aren’t allowed to try something. If you just want to tell a story, write a book; if you want to play a game, then let your players play the game.
The third major mistake a DM falls into is taking things that happen away from the table and aren’t game related, and letting them affect the game at the table. Being a DM requires a certain amount of professionalism and decorum, and the gaming table is not the place to resolve personal disputes, unless it is between characters, not the people playing the game. Think of it like a job, even if you absolutely hate one of your coworkers, you still have to go to work each day and be at least nominally nice to them. If you can’t do this, one of you is likely to lose that job. If you, as a DM, have a problem with a player that can not be resolved like adults, maybe being in the same gaming group, regardless of how long it’s been going on, isn’t a good idea. Remember, everybody at the table is there to have fun, and it’s no fun for a player if they feel like their DM is punishing them for something.
A DM has a lot of power. I often jokingly refer to myself as the “God of the Gods” of games that I’m playing, and that isn’t a bad way to approach it. What was that saying about power and responsibility again? Sure, it’s cliché, but it’s there for a reason. You are the arbiter of rules, the creator of your cosmos. The forces of nature in your fictional universe bend and twist at your whim, and that is no small thing when you really think about it. Unfortunately, this power presents its own challenges, because there are real people, with real hopes and feelings, that are relying on you to help craft an enjoyable, meaningful gaming experience. And if you are recording it for podcasting, as is becoming more and more prevalent these days, the responsibility is greater, because who knows what aspiring DM/GM might listen to you to try and learn how its done. If you can’t fulfill that responsibility, maybe being a DM isn’t for you, and that is fine, nobody says you have to be one, it’s perfectly fine if you just want to play.