Research: What Makes a GM Great?
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  1. #1

    Research: What Makes a GM Great?

    Hello everyone, I am a new member here at EN World, but am very familiar with the site from my experience searching for information pertaining to D&D. I thought that this would be a great place to get some help with a project I am working on for a local business. If you have the time, please leave a reply in response to the following query:

    Think back to the best GM you ever had in any tabletop RPG gaming experience. What do you think made them such a great GM? Give a specific example of something they did, and explain why you think that makes them great.
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  2. #2
    Cutpurse (Lvl 5)

    der_kluge's Avatar

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    Jan 2002
    Tempe, AZ
    I don't know about "great". I think very few GMs actually get to "great", but I'm ok with being good, since even that takes a long time to master.

    To be "great", you have to have amazing pacing, and be a good voice actor - being a good actor in general doesn't hurt, and you have to run a great game. But all those aren't required to have fun at a game table.

    For me, what made me a "good" GM, was just about the most stunningly ridiculous quality you could imagine - apathy. Once I stopped caring about the characters, and focused on the story specifically, I became a good GM. Don't worry about killing the PC. If they do something stupid, they deserve death. The skill lies in being able to balance the challenge of the game with the abilities of the characters. It's why I tend to fudge a lot of hit points of my monsters "behind the screen". If it's too strong, I'll scale back the hit points. If things are dying too quickly, I'll double the hit points. The trick is to be right on the "knife's edge" of difficulty, without pushing them over, and still keeping them entertained and challenged.

    There's. That it. IMHO.
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  3. #3
    Scout (Lvl 6)

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    May 2019
    Quote Originally Posted by Solanima View Post
    Hello everyone, I am a new member here at EN World, but am very familiar with the site from my experience searching for information pertaining to D&D. I thought that this would be a great place to get some help with a project I am working on for a local business. If you have the time, please leave a reply in response to the following query:

    Think back to the best GM you ever had in any tabletop RPG gaming experience. What do you think made them such a great GM? Give a specific example of something they did, and explain why you think that makes them great.
    I can only answer for the style and type of game I like. That caveat in mind:

    1- Someone who takes the game seriously. They put in the time and the effort to make sure that the game runs smoothly for all involved. They work (and thats a key word here) to develop the information they need for each session in advance, as well as in sufficient depth to cover a wide variety of actions we silly players might take. Obviously he cannot cover every possible iteration, which brings us to point 2!

    2- Someone who can wing it in a way that remains true to the core of the game. In other words, they don't just pull stuff out their butt, they draw upon the well of knowledge of the system and their world and can create a reasonable situation based on almost anything a player decides to do, mid game.

    3- Someone who does not fudge rolls. At all. Ever. As soon as they do, and we players find OUT they do? We feel cheated and the game world is lessened for it.

    4- Someone who uses their own world and adventures. This perhaps I'd consider my most controversial point: GMs can run settings like FR, Greyhawk, Eberron, etc and do a good job. They can run adventure modules with their own spin on it. They can be good GMs doing this. Servicable GMs. The game can be fun. But they will never be a great DM if this is where they do the majority of their work. By all means. Great GMs can steal from settings and adventures, thats fine, but they cannot 'take a setting and then spin it/twist it'...they must take their OWN setting that they know, intimately, and add other things to it from differing sources if they wish.

    A custom setting is crucial because it allows the GM full freedom and frees it from the pre-conceived ideas about that setting from the players. Even unconscious/subconscious ones. Does this take more work? Yes. But a GREAT GM doesn't use pre-made modules/settings for most their games. Maybe one shots, maybe intros to a new edition/system they are trying. But never for a serious campaign.

    Edited to add:
    5- A great GM is able to read the players at his table keenly and to engage them in a way that they find interesting and fun when they are getting bored. Subtle is best, but sometimes you have to be very not-subtle. A great GM will know. They will be able to resolve issues at their table quickly and to the satisfaction of all...and if there is a player who is not fitting at the table? They will politely but firmly ask them to go. (Note: A great PLAYER will recognize when he or she is not a good fit and excuse themselves prior to this happening).
    Last edited by HJFudge; Sunday, 9th June, 2019 at 05:29 AM.

  4. #4
    A 1e title so awesome it's not in the book (Lvl 21)

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    Oct 2015
    NE Ohio, USA
    Most importantly, the opinions of those who play in their games.

  5. #5
    Grandfather of Assassins (Lvl 19)

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    Sep 2015
    The Emerald Coast
    What makes a great GM?

    1. A great GM is able to improvize on the spot, even when the players go off the beaten path, or do something completely unexpected.
    2. A great DM allows his players to surprise him, and rolls with whatever the players come up with. He facilitates their ideas and does not block them.
    3. A great DM is able to make his fictional world come alive, whether this is an existing campaign setting or a homebrew setting.
    4. A great DM is able to vividly paint a mental image for the players of their surroundings, and make the characters that inhabit it come alive.
    5. A great DM makes the players feel like heroes. He makes them feel laugh, cry, cheer, and takes them on a rollercoaster of emotions where they feel like they are the heroes.
    6. A great DM is able to course correct when his players don't like his campaign, or certain elements in it. He always takes his player's wishes into account.

  6. #6
    Minor Trickster (Lvl 4)

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    Sep 2015
    I used to say 20 years ago they needed

    1. a decent set of mechanics
    2. ability to describe things well
    3. good plot and reasonable things to fight.
    4. good players.

    Don't think much has changed except 1. is probably much easier now.

  7. #7
    Spellbinder (Lvl 16)

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    Jan 2011
    Corellia (Space-Texas)
    A great GM creates a fun experience for the players. But because the definition of "fun" is different for everyone, you can't pigeon-hole specific traits or qualities based on a particular style of play. Even what some people might consider as "bad/wrong" examples might not be an issue for everyone else. Voice acting doesn't matter as much as running challenging or interesting battles for a group focused more on tactical combat and finding treasure. Likewise, a passing knowledge of the rules may be sufficient for a group that prefers a more narrative freeform style of play. And, of course, you'll find most groups have a mixture of players with different preferences, so everything is subjective.

    But if you need to quantify it with a universal characteristic or trait, it comes down to one simple thing that applies to all systems, all genres, and all styles of play: communication. Listen to your players. Respect their input. Explain your expectations. Treat every group and game as a unique table; do not assume everything that applies for one automatically carries over to the next. That includes discussions on forums or other outside influences. Your game, your table, your players.

  8. #8
    Magsman (Lvl 14)

    Man in the Funny Hat's Avatar

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    May 2005
    The Inland Empire
    I'd break it down into four often inter-related aspects:

    1. Good communication. Poor or complete lack of communication is 90+% of the issues people have in D&D. The DM doesn't say what they want or expect. Players don't either and can't GUESS accurately at the DM's positions. Whether it's game rules or behavior at the table, communication is unquestionably the first mark of a good GM. You can then also extend that to skill at communicating description - of people, places, events, objects, actions. This is a VERBAL game no matter how many minis and props and so forth you might have. It is verbal interactivity between players and GM's that the game revolves around.

    2. Imagination. Beyond just describing everything, a great GM needs to invent a huge amount of people, places, events, objects, and actions. These may be featured once and then never again, or constantly throughout every game session. And even if you get most-to-all of your game content commercially you're still only going to have the more basic and obvious features imagined for you. A great GM needs to fill in all the blanks, the cracks, and most of the details of what IS already provided.

    3. Improvisation. No matter how much you have in the form of printed adventure or your own notes on adventures you create from scratch, you'll need to create more on the fly. You can imagine all the details you like but you'll ALWAYS find yourself in situations where you have to invent more. And sometimes you'll have to re-write and ad-lib entirely new adventures and not just pieces of them, because players will choose to do things and focus on things you never anticipated. You then need skill to invent and redirect.

    4. Self-sacrifice. One part of GMing is preparation and world-creation and it would be hoped that a GM enjoys that part of the position. But it's never a process meant JUST for the GM's own enjoyment. Creating and preparing a game is at best only half - the other half (the half that really matters) is when the PLAYERS enjoy it. The GM has to get a large part of THEIR OWN enjoyment from the fact that the PLAYERS get enjoyment from what the GM provides. So, the players enjoyment sensibly takes a certain precedence over the GM's personal enjoyment at any given point. The GM may really dislike creating and writing out stat blocks, but when the actual game proceeds smoother because the GM doesn't have to keep looking up information in books, and therefore the players get more enjoyment out of the game - it is the players enjoyment that provides the payoff to the GM, not the tedium of the stat blocks. Sometimes being a GM can be tedious, un-fun, and hard work - but a great GM sacrifices enjoyment of THAT part of the position for the PAYOFF of seeing the players benefit from that. It's deferred gratification and vicarious entertainment as much as it is anything else.

    There is a reason why there are vastly fewer players as a rule who are willing and able to take the position of GM. It is the mark of the great GM to appreciate that even if not all parts of the job are fun or satisfying, it is worth the cost to them for the parts that ARE fun and satisfying. It is also therefore the mark of a great player who appreciates the sacrifices that EVERY worthwhile GM must make for the sake of that players entertainment. And it is the GM who most has to deal with your #*@% as players. When players are jerks, self-centered, unappreciative, or can't get along with each other, the GM gets gypped of the payoff for their efforts. So, yes, the great GM exhibits a significant amount of self-sacrifice.
    Last edited by Man in the Funny Hat; Sunday, 9th June, 2019 at 06:14 PM.

  9. #9
    Dracolich (Lvl 29)

    Morrus's Avatar

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    Jan 2002

    Research: What Makes a GM Great?

    Enthusiasm. While a GM invested in the game theyre running cant guarantee a good game, a GM not invested in it does guarantee a bad game.

    Our group is always happy to play any game or system which somebody is excited about running. Because the system takes a back seat to that.
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  10. #10
    Grandmaster of Flowers (Lvl 18)

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    Mar 2005
    There are lots of things that go into making a great GM, a lot of which has already been mentioned here. Ill say that a great GM is one that works to lift the PCs up while also challenging them just the right amount.

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