- Jun 2005 -
19235 Posts

What Makes a Good DM

Back in May, I conducted a poll where I asked the community what skills they thought were minimally necessary to be a good DM.  I had divided the skillsets into several professions: actor, demiurge, field marshal, game designer, judge, puzzle master, and writer.  The rankings went from "This Skill is Not Required" to "The DM Must Be Better at This Than Anybody Else at the Table."  Although plenty of people proposed other professions, these were the ones that I thought the developers of Next could actually provide tips on in a future Dungeon Master's Guide.  The results were quite interesting.  I will break down my analysis as follows:

Less than Competent: Actor and Puzzle Master Life's full of questions, isn't it?
-The Riddler, The Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City, Part 1

Players did not seem to think it was all that important for Dungeon Masters to be particularly good at voices or puzzles.  They seem perfectly content if their DM is good at it, but it isn't something that requires more than amateurish levels of competency.  This is probably for the best.  Teaching people to act is difficult, particularly through the written medium of a Dungeon Master's Guide, and there are plenty of books out there for DMs who want to transform into thespians.  Puzzles are even more idfficult to teach, and finding a DM who enjoys crafting puzzles (and is actually good at it) is rare indeed.  Possibly, the players are simply bowing to reality. 

None of the remaining professions exceed the "Must be Competent" category.  Which is good.  A Dungeon Master's Guide need only concentrate on getting aspiring DMs to be comfortable in these roles -- they don't have to be professionals.  Even within the "competent" category, however, there are distinctions to be made...

Right Brain: Demiurge, Game Designer, and Writer Do I look like a guy with a plan?
- The Joker, Dark Knight

Smack dab in the midst of the "competent" category are the three professions I would classify as "right-brain" jobs because they rely on whimsy, creativity, and artistry.  Writer and Demiurge actually tied with Puzzle Master in the category of "amateur"; they got moved into this category because they had more votes for "Competency" than for "minimal competency".  Game Designer, which actually straddles the right and left brains, had only a slightly higher rating than Writer and Demiurge.

Still, the player base clearly asserted a preference that their DMs be competent writers, game designers, and demiurges.  In the end, I conclude that D&D is a game about stories and people want good, compelling stories.  As a game designer, the mechanics should serve those stories and not the other way around.  Some basic advice on how to craft a good story, how to create compelling NPCs, and how to set a mood, would all be important components of a Dungeon Master's Guide designed to aid DMs in these areas. 
Left Brain: Field Marshal and Judge To manipulate the fears of others, you must first learn to master your own, are you ready to begin?
-Ra's al Ghul, Batman Begins

There was great consensus that a Dungeon Master should be competent in these three areas.  The profession of Field Marshal, in fact, was the only category in which a clear majority -- 52% -- believed the DM should be competent.  Nearly three-quarters of the respondents felt the DM should be either competent or a master at judging.  That profession received the highest number of votes for both "mastery" and "must be better than anybody else". So clearly, these skills are considered very important to the players.

What can the developers do to help a DM?  These skills are what I call the "left brain" skills.  They require a lot of analytical thinking, clarity of communication, and quickwittedness.  One thing the developers can do with respect to judging is make the rules clear and state the game design assumptions up front.  That way when a DM has to adjudge a rule, it will be infrequent, and he will have a decent way to understand what the developers intended might happen in an unexpected scenario.

With respect to the field marshal, monster design and encounter building guidelines shoudl be explicit and easy to apply.  This is, to my mind, one of the most important pieces of "guidance" that a DMG can include for new and even experienced DMs.  Avoiding accidental TPKs as well as accidental cakewalks, is a matter of art as much as it is science.  Incorporating terrain, different types of creatures, environmental factors, traps, and hazards is a lot to juggle.  A DM needs a lot of guidance on how to make this seem seamless, and how to make their adventures flow without being boring.

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