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How can DMs improve? What makes a good DM?


First Post
This comes from another thread with a poster asking for how to prepare as a DM. Buyt I figure with the wide varietyy of DMs here it might be fun to come up with some ways that DMS can improve.

I'm not a good a DM. So, I need to improve. But it can be hard to self evaluate oneself to figure out what I do wrong, where I am weak, and what parts of the game I don't use. So, we'll start this off with a shotgun approach.

What makes a good dm? What traits does a DM have, what little tricks have you learned? Obviously different DMs of different games require differnet traits and approaches. Or is that wrong? Doea what makes a person good at running D&D also make a person good at running Vampire?

Secondly, how can a DM improve himself? Is there a checklist of things a DM can try and see how it goes in his game? Are there different approaches that people have to the game that can be m,entioned so a DM can try differnt ones to see what works for them? Sure we have books with DM hints and ideas and little things but I'm not sure any DM Guide or similiar book truely goes far enough.

Are there common mistakes that DMs make? For people that have seen and indtroded the game to lots of potential DMs are there things people new to the game tend to do wrong that they might not realize?

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It's important for a DM to know what his group likes, and for him to listen to his group's wants regarding the game. Every good GM adjusts to his players' preferences, and finds a happy medium between what he wants to do and what the players want to do.

The most crucial talent of a good GM, however, is people skills. Good people skills matter more than rules knowledge, more than adventure prep, and more than world-building. A good GM is personable, flexible, easy-going, supportive, descriptive, critical (in the evaluative sense), level-headed, quick-witted, strong-willed, and accomodating of the players' personal tastes. A good GM is not a pushover, a nervous wreck, an arrogant bastard, a rules-lawyer, an adversary, a curmudgeon, a sluggard, or a know-it-all, and most especially, he is not a novelist using the medium to tell "his" story.

The most important thing a GM can do to improve his game is to listen to his players. If players are unhappy, they'll express it one way or another. Know your players well enough to pick up on non-verbal cues and aside comments. An open-minded and humble GM will make the necessary adjustments to increase everyone's fun.
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First Post
I don't think there is any list of things that makes up a good DM. There are too many variables known as "players" and different players want something different out of their DM. It's all a matter of getting the right players under the right DM to make things work. There are certainly tricks to be taught and learned but they will not work for everybody and some that work well for one DM might end up being detrimental to another.

Anyway, my suggestions:

1) Know your players. Know what they like and what they respond to. Know what they will pay attention to and what will bore them. Know how to read their mood and to tell when they're having fun or not. Once you do that, give them what they want or at least what they'll have fun putting up with.

2) Know yourself. Figure out what you can run and run well and do it. Don't try and run in a DM style that you don't like or can't do to the players enjoyment. Realize that not everybody is going to like your DMing style and don't take it too personally when they don't.

3) Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. The more you sit before the game and stat out creatures, work on maps, plan ahead, and even write out speculated conversations, the easier things will be for you when the game happens.

4) Don't be afraid to wing it. Sometimes in the middle of the game, all you preparation just doesn't seem to be workign out, the plot seems weak, the players are uninterested, but then you get an epiphany (or the players offer one) and a much better idea presents itself to you. Don't be afraid to dump your preparation for the new idea if it feels right. You just have to last the rest of the game and then you have till the next game to re-prepare and build up the new idea.

1) When in doubt, drop into combat. If the game is slowing down and you're faltering, start a combat. It will take up the rest of the game session most likely or at least give you time to think and at that point you've got till the next game session to come up with something, including a reason for the combat.

2) You can entertain most players by letting them make money. Figuring out trade routes, food costs, hired help wages, what they can buy low and sell high may seem like a boring logistics nightmare, but if the PCs are making money off of it, chances are they'll have fun doing it. Want to get them from one sid of the map to another or to adventure through areas they normally wouldn't go, set it up so they'll make money doign it. Treasure or resources (exotic animal bits for spell components) that they know can be sold for much higher price over at spot B is a good way to let them decide they want to go to spot B. Same goes with gambling even if it's just skill checks or consulting charts from random die rolls. Little encounters like that add spice to otherwise boring stops.

3)Base NPCs off of people you really know. They're easier to remember and you have a set personality ready built to portray for the PCs. If they know the person in question, even better because they will fill in the bits that you don't do right. TV and movie stars also work. Don't be afraid to say "he looks and acts just like actor X from movie Y", just present the idea once when appropriate and let it sit in their heads.
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First Post
As a player, I'd say:

1) Always remember you're there to have FUN.

2) Said fun should be for everyone, not just the DM.


First Post
3) Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. The more you sit before the game and stat out creatures, work on maps, plan ahead, and even write out speculated conversations, the easier things will be for you when the game happens.

This is Crothian we're talking about here. The guy can't have much time on his hands. :p


First Post
fafhrd said:
This is Crothian we're talking about here. The guy can't have much time on his hands. :p

Preperation is not my problem. Over preperation might me, I slowed down my preperation since what I had at the set up at the beggining of September is still going strong and the players are not through it all yet.


First Post
ForceUser took my most important thing: people skills. Being able to read others. Are they having fun? Are they annoyed? Knowing what they're thinking without asking will get you far. Knowing what they like and dislike will also help. Talking about the game afterward is a good way to go about this, but realizing in game their mood is even more important, I think.

Crothian said:
Doea what makes a person good at running D&D also make a person good at running Vampire?

I would say... yes, and no. Parts are the same, and others are different. The ability to improv and to read others remain, but if you don't understand the flavor and know how to bring out the flavor that the game is intended to perform, then you can't effectively do it. A GM who is good at running high fantasy games, isn't necessarily good at running horror games.

Secondly, how can a DM improve himself?

Practice practice practice.
Ask the Players for constructive criticism.
Play under another DM and note what its like.

These are the three keys, IMO.

Obviously, practice. If you do it more, and you're conciously looking at how you are doing, then you'll do better.

The Players can be very good helpers, assuming they can give constructive criticism. Other DMs who are playing are better at this, in my experience. They can tell you what they're looking for, what they're missing out on, and so on.

I'm a horrible Player. For some reason I can't play a PC with the same ability as I do an NPC, for whatever reasons. However, the little time I spent on the other side of the screen has helped me tremendously.

Are we asking how to be a good game master (which implies providing a reasonably entertaining experience to everyone), or being a great one (which requires a lot of practice and honing of skills)?

Good GMing means knowing what you and your players want, and importantly, knowing what you don't want, and what the difference is. The basics of GMing are discussed all the time, because running a game is, indeed, difficult to master. However, a lot of people do it, and when people hit snags that trip up the game, it's easy to give advice on how to get the game moving again.

What is hard, though, is going beyond good, going beyond just being a game you play with your friends to pass the time. What is hard is running a game that is entertaining, that weaves the players into a story that entertains them and touches them, making the game take on as much significance in the lives of you and your players as your favorite movies.

I've played games that I think were better than Star Trek, than Lord of the Rings, than Star Wars -- but so far, they surpass only in the realm of drama and action. So far I have only rarely touched upon deeper meaning -- emotional, intellectual, or spiritual -- in my games. While not all players are interested in games with meaning, it is a challenge game masters may rise to: to run a game that is both action-packed and deeply affecting, both visceral and sublime.

Of course, there is always the threat of taking ourselves too seriously. Few sins in game mastering are worse than railroading, and few types of railroading are worse than when a game master wants his players to learn or to feel something specific. Gaming is a group activity, communal storytelling, and at its best, a compelling game will be so because the game master gives it the potential to have meaning.

It is the players themselves (the game master too) that make that meaning real.


Also, broaden your knowledge. Read many books on many subjects. I found that the stories of old can inspire some beautiful colors in the game. I love to read about different professions, traditions, mythologies, you name it. I also take some classes, like right now I go once a month to blacksmith through the California Blacksmiths Association. I’ve studied brewing, bladesmithing, making armour, Oakeshott’s weapon typology and well, just about anything that I have time to study (beyond the scope of what I must for my profession).

It’s important not to impose too much on your players, though. Just use your knowledge to help describe the story, background, etc.. It adds a certain realism and depth to the game.


First Post
GMs can improve by running games. The more they run, it's expected the better they will become. They can improve by being a Player in another GMs game, preferably one with a different style of running a game than him. By seeing a different style, you can pick up on different things. GMs can improve by communication with players, understanding them, and figuring out what makes them tick and what they enjoy about gaming. GMs can improve by reading these boards, other boards on other websites, and reading books, watching movies, and talking to other GMs on how they run their games.

A good GM is a GM who can grab the attention of his players, keep that attention for a session, and get the players to WANT to come back of their own initiative, and be excited about coming back. A good GM is a GM who pays attention to his players, focusing his game on the characters (each character, not just one or two), and intertwining the lives of the characters together from session to session.

Of course, to also be a good GM... a GM needs players. Players that are attentive, willing to show up, and give the GM a solid chance to run the game. Players that are willing to abide by the rules the GM sets forth, and willing to cooperate with the other players. Players that make characters within the structure and guidelines set forth by the GM without arguing.

No matter how good a GM is, all it takes is one player to ruin a game, no matter how awesome it could become.


First Post
Practice is of courwse the best way to learn anything. But getting together gaming groups and gaming times can be tough. So, what can a DM do inbetween sessions and in between campaigns besides more gaming to help them improve?


I think knowing your weaknesses and being willing to either work on them or work around them is a big step. NPC characterization is not my strong suit, e.g.

I also think that running what you love is a big step. Sometimes it shows when the game or campaign style isn't your favorite.


First Post
Crothian said:
Practice is of courwse the best way to learn anything. But getting together gaming groups and gaming times can be tough. So, what can a DM do inbetween sessions and in between campaigns besides more gaming to help them improve?

A simple game you can play with someone via aim or irc : timed stories. You are given some basic premise, and have to write a short story using that premise and you have a time limit. You might have a round where you write comedy based on it (think improv ala 'who's line is it anyway?'), dramatic stuff, descriptive stuff, etc. Generally the last person to write a description gets to choose the next premise. Skills improved : improv (obviously), being able to take some concept which you normally wouldn't consider in a context and run with it (say you had to write a dramatic short story about a cow burping or something - not easy), general writing/speach skills.

Getting involved in some debates/arguments where you have to use logic to defend your point is also a useful diversion in DM downtime, since it helps you organize thoughts in a coherent matter.

These suggestions come from a DM who feels the most accomplishment when he manages to get his players to sit down and hammer out intricate plans to accomplish some goal, or spend hours trying to convince each other to do something or change their ways or whatnot - basically when he can sit back, listen to a story unfolding and generally not do any work, so use them in that context :p.


ForceUser said:
It's important for a DM to know what his group likes, and for him to listen to his group's wants regarding the game. Every good GM adjusts to his players' preferences, and finds a happy medium between what he wants to do and what the players want to do.

You have described my ideal GM! Sadly, in 10+ years of gaming, I have only ever met four (including myself) who seem to take this approach. I think it is quite possible that I have merely lived in all the wrong places ;)


First Post
What ForceUser said.

Unfortunately, pulling that off requires everyone at the table, players and GM, to think about why they play, what they want to get out of it, and be able to communicate that. I don't know if people can do that are all "great players", but they're certainly rare.

I don't think that applies solely to gaming, though. Every social group from friends to families (and especially marriages/relationships) needs the same thing, and lots and lots of them lack it.

I tend to divide DMing into three distinct skills. These divisions are, of course, arbitrary, and there is a degree of overlap between them. However, I do find it helpful. The three areas are as follows:

Rules mastery: Should be obvious - knowledge of the rules, how to apply them, and when to ignore or change them.

Story mastery: Everything to do with plot, characterisation, and so on. Basically, anything that you would find in a good novel falls under this category.

Table mastery: People skills. This is your ability to deal with or prevent disputes, to build a good group, and to enforce your authority when it is required.

Any or all of these can be improved, but the techniques for doing so are very different in each case.

Rules: This is the easiest of the three to improve, because it's almost purely mechanical. The DM can just sit down with a PHB and create lots of characters, run lots of battles, and generally test the rules, until he's confident with what he's doing. Practice makes perfect, and by testing the hard cases, the DM will become better able to make judgements on the fly. Also, long practice will reduce your need to check books during play, and give you a guide to where you might want to ignore the rules to speed play.

Useful techniques: I've found cheat sheets very useful here. When preparing an encounter, if you know there's some odd factor that will apply, write it down in a prominent place. If an NPC spellcaster uses lots of buff spells, note down all the effects that apply, in all the possible combinations (to deal with Dispel Magic and similar effects). If your players favour particular tactics, note the rules surrounding those tactics.

Story: Read lots of books, in lots of genres. Watch lots of TV, particularly shows in the genre your trying to emulate, but also good shows in any genre. (If you can stomach it, watching soaps can be helpful - the depth of the characters here is not great, the acting is poor, and the plots are very simple. However, these are all due to the extremely high rate at which these things must be produced, and a lot of the same pressures apply to DMing.) One book I found extremely useful was "The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics" (thanks to Monte Cook for recommending that one), because, again, a lot of the same pressures apply.

Useful techniques: The most useful trick I know here is the compilation of lists. Lists of names, lists of cool words (with meanings), lists of trades, lists of trees, flowers, brush-strokes, architectural styles, colours, character traits. Lists, lists, lists.

Table: I found this to be the hardest area to develop, because it's the one that you can't really prepare for. All I can recommend is that you practice this. You might want to consider volunteering some of your time to a local youth group - dealing with difficult teens seems to be good practice for dealing with difficult gamers :)

Useful techniques: Keep the game flowing, don't be afraid to make a ruling and stick by it, and when things get difficult, diffuse the situation with a winning smile.

I hope some of that is helpful.


I think that what makes a good DM/GM is different from group to group. I have won 'Best GM' awards at cons for sessions that I my normal players would not like at all. So a good GM for a given group is one that makes everyone (including himself) enjoy the game.

Crothian said:
Secondly, how can a DM improve himself?

Get feedback. Every so often ask your players what they think about the game. And when everyone (out of courtesy) answers "it's nice and fun" ask more detailed questions about what they think is best, what they enjoy most and what they would change. That way you can at least know what to improve. How, is a different case, but unless you know what to improve you are risking changeing the best part (often for the worse).

And don't be afraid to use a game-day or parts of one to talk out of character as players and GM about what you would like the campaign to be. Unless you get the players to talk about what they want you have to be very lucky, extremely skilled and a mind reader to get it right.



There was on one website about five years ago, an exhaustive list of activities that would improve your DMing as well as story-telling skills; unfortunately, I have long since lost this web site and its list. It contained things such as:
--Go on a nature walk
--Go horseback riding
--Read certain specific books on Roman and Medieval military life

And a host of other activities. If this sparks memories for anyone, I'd LOVE to both have a copy of that list and post it here, because it seemed to me a series of excellent suggestions for both becoming an excellent DM, and for regaining a lost creative spark.

Other suggestions I'll let alone: reading your players and designing adventures for their emotional "kicks" to playing are well represented.

I will add that another good idea is watching other DM's wherever possible; Not to critique them in front of people, but to look at what they do, at what tricks fall flat to a gaming table, what neat things they do that you never considered before, but go off well or seem like great ideas. Studying successful people's habits is something that is a good idea in D&D as well as in life. :)


First Post
Here is one of the best pieces of advice I read on improving your GM skills.

Choose one aspect you want t o improve on. Like Maybe it is bringing your NPC's to life making them more interesting etc. Concentrate on this one thing for 2-3 sessions until it starts to become a habit. Then choose your next weakness say giving more lively combat descriptions and work on it for 2-3 sessions.

Its easy to develop the needed skills this way. You simple make a list of what you want to improve then make a big sticky note of which one you want to focus on and stick it in front of you duringthat session a constant reminder of what you are focusing on.

Realize also that you will want to revisit some of these as time goes by becuase you will probably slip slowly back to old habits which is fairly normal. I have to go back every few months and visit my weak points.

Another thing that helps me is to do a survey every 4-6 months my players. Its easy to do and worth taking say 1/2 a session to do so. My survey is simple Name 3 things you like about the game, GM style or anything else dealing with the sessions (such as time or place you game, other players etc), Name three things you dislike, name one memorably scene from the past 10-12 sessions.

Tell everyone to work on this alone then maybe compare notes. The idea is to avoid a bunch of Dittos from the group.

It helps to open the dialogue between the players and GM.


Leadership & Management skills.

You are the leader of a small group of people (players) trying to get certain objectives accomplished (adventures) for a defined purpose (fun, usually).

You need to be authoratative enough to keep your game & players on track, but not so draconian the feel they hear the 'train whistle'.

You need to be able to interpret the rules quickly & efficiently. You need to know the rules well, but don't feel the need to memorize them. Try to be fair & consitent when making rulings. Don't be afraid to say "I don't know, for now we do this, I'll read up on those rules before the next session & tell everyone what I found out". (Rules lawyers can make this a headache, but I'm usually able to to be both authoritative and democratic enough to reach a temporary settlement without the game grinding to a halt.

A lot of what makes a good DM is good people & speaking skills. (Not something gamers are known for). But, just because you have problems inter-acting with a cashier, or would rather jump out a plane wihtout a parachute than give a public presentation, doesn't mean you lack those skill sets.

Some of the best DM's I've been under are normally shy & reserved outside of the game. For myself, my experience as a long-time DM has really improved my public speaking & inter-personal skills. While I don't relish a command position, I can do it very well.

The best way to become a good DM is to PLAY under a good DM. Sort of like an apprenticeship. It's probablly the best way to learn. Of course, finding a good DM can be very challenging sometimes.

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