If you, like me, enjoy consuming D&D-based media content because it is enjoyable and helps you improve your own game, you’ve probably watched Critical Role at some point. And if you’re really into Critical Role, that probably means you’ve seen a panel or two from the cast at a con. One of the most common questions that Critical Role’s esteemed Dungeon Master Matt Mercer seems to get is “Why/how did you start DMing?” This is a fascinating question to ask DMs, for there are as many unique answers as there are DMs, but I always find Mercer’s answer to be particularly fascinating. When asked, he mentions that he started out as a player, but his group had an awful DM. This inspired him to start DMing himself, and the years of investment and hard work has turned him into the master of the craft that we know today.
Even though this story is fascinating and explains a lot about Mercer and probably many DMs today, every time I hear this story there is one worry that crosses my mind: What if I’m that original DM? What if I am so bad of a Dungeon Master that people tell stories of how bad I am thirty years from now? I think that most DMs have that fear; we constantly worry if our players are having fun, if a good story is being told, if we’re remaining impartial, and all of the other million things that DMs have to or tend to worry about. So how do we, as DMs, keep ourselves from becoming that DM? After thinking about this heavily over this subject the last week, I have come up with some ways that I think new DMs can keep themselves from falling into the Bad DM Trap, both as a storyteller and as a friend to your players.
- Listen to your players
This may seem like a fairly obvious tip, but often on Twitter or in Facebook groups I hear players complaining about their DM not listening to them or ignoring their wishes (this goes both ways; I see a lot of DMs upset that their players won’t listen to ground rules set or trust them, so make sure that there is respect on both sides). Sometimes the things that players want their DMs to do are a bit outlandish, but more often than not these things are simple requests that should at least be talked through with the player. D&D is a not just a game, it’s a form of collaborative storytelling, and if the players don’t get a certain amount of input, they’re going to feel cheated and that they might as well be playing Candyland. This doesn’t just go for story ideas however; if your players are having an issue at the table, pay attention to what they’re saying. Maybe there is some turmoil between two of the players, or perhaps something that happened in the story went too far and the players are no longer comfortable with the direction that the story is taking. D&D is a great way to challenge players, particularly their creativity and expectations, but it is important not to push them past a breaking point. This is a great way to lose players and even friends forever. Listening to your players as a friend and a Dungeon Master is the most important thing you can do.
- Use the backstories of your PCs
Often when you have a group of players, each of them will come up with a unique backstory for their characters. Not everyone gets invested in the backstories, but most people will come up with at least a little something. When creating a story for the game, it is important to pay attention to the stories that the players have given you. It can be tempting to focus on the epic story you might have in mind, and often the players will still go along with what you have, but applying elements from the backgrounds of your player’s characters will get the players invested and make the story feel more real. Bringing back an old mentor, a dead lover, or a fierce rival from a character’s past can widen the scope of the adventure and provide some emotional investment that a player might not otherwise have. The more you can get your players invested and pay attention to the characters they have created, the better of a DM you will become.
- Constantly be working on your world
This point is particularly relevant for homebrew campaigns, but whether you are creating everything from scratch or using a pre-made module, it is vital to constantly be working on the adventure and shaping the world that the players exist in. This will not only help you as a storyteller, but it will also give the players a lot to work with and help make the world feel real. Often the players will have questions about the circumstances they have found themselves in or the background of the town or kingdom they are currently occupying. If you can produce an answer quickly, either off the top of your head or through a quick notes search, it will appear that you have put so much thought into the game. In reality, you don’t have to know everything ahead of time; you can make something up on the spot as long as you write it down, because if it comes up again and you don’t remember what you said, the players might catch on. However, when I say constantly I certainly don’t mean 24/7. (Believe me, I work three part-time jobs, go to school full time, and suck at time management, so I know how precious of a resource that is). However, it is good to spend time throughout each week working on aspects of the world, even if you aren’t prepping for a session. Maybe it’s ten minutes each day, or a full hour once a week; however you can fit in, try to make a habit out of occasionally world-building to make your world even more awesome. The players will appreciate how much work you put into the game for them, and your creative skills will keep growing.
- Practice your poker face
A lot of DMs worry about struggling with NPCs because they aren’t particularly good with accents or body language. All of these do help provide a fun and authentic experience for the players, but they’re not absolutely crucial to the gameplay. One item that a DM should have in their toolbox however is a good poker face. I personally struggle with this; even as someone who did theatre for seven years, I always sucked at staying in character when something went awry. When my players do something like predict the plot twist or joke about something that might actually happen way down the line, I have a hard time hiding the big goofy smile that has wound up on my face. During my time as a DM, I have become slowly better at holding a poker face when it comes to important things (there’s a difference between smiling while in character because a PC made a joke and grinning because the players guessed something really important that will pop up by the end of the session). However, I still have a lot of problems with this, and it’s something that I hope to keep working on. A good poker face can be a powerful asset to a DM, both when acting as an NPC and while simply observing the players interacting and planning, so working to perfect it can take your game to the next level.
In the end, there’s no formula for how to be the perfect DM. Everyone makes mistakes, even Matt Mercer, Matt Colville, Chris Perkins, and undoubtedly Gary Gygax himself. That’s one of the best things about D&D; it’s a game with a lot of rules but a fluid nature, and we as DMs are in charge of figuring out how to work within the rules, or even throw them out. The only true guideline to being a good DM is to ensure that your players are having fun. Whether that fun is nitty-gritty realism and depression or bust-a-gut laughter, you as a DM are responsible for it, and to make sure it happens we must pay attention to our players and give them what they ask. As long as we DMs allow our players to have fun and facilitate a thrilling and creative story for them, we are not that DM, and we can be proud of the work we have put into the game.
Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.