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D&D General How to be a Better DM: One Size Doesn't Fit All

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I was perusing the thread by @Malmuria which was a comment thread about a survivor thread set up by @CleverNickName and it made me think about the overall issue of DMing, and why people both crave advice, give advice, and why the topic of good DMing can be so contentious and filled with so much one-true-wayism. Given that I wanted to write out my thoughts more in full, I decided to start a thread- a thread, about a thread, about a thread.

Please note- I am using the term "DM" instead of "GM," because I feel like it, because I'm mostly discussing D&D, and because I want to. Feel free to use whatever your preferred nomenclature is.

1. Why we always argue about definitions.

I love long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me on the internet.

There is a the famous line in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, when Alice and Humpty Dumpty are arguing, and the argumentative egg says, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less." While this quote has, unfortunately, taken on a second life as the meaningless "DERP" in political internet debates (somewhat akin to Godwin's law, it is inevitable that whenever a political argument on the internet goes on long enough, someone will cite Humpty Dumpty) the actual debate between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in terms of Lewis Carroll's background in mathematics and logic is more interesting- that terms must be defined and understood to be discussed. This is a point that Carroll raises again in Symbolic Logic:

In opposition to this view, I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorised in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of his book, “Let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’, and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’,” I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it.
And so, with regard to the question whether a Proposition is or is not to be understood as asserting the existence of its Subject, I maintain that every writer may adopt his own rule, provided of course that it is consistent with itself and with the accepted facts of Logic.
Id.
p. 166.

This is in contrast to the more common conception we have, pace Wittgenstein, that language is inherently a social construct, and that there is no private language. But that's the entire point- if one person is creating a specified and defined use of a term, either in mathematics, logic, or even terms of art or jargon, then it is incumbent that the defined term be known at the beginning so that others might be able to understand. However injudicious the definition, it is still possible to discuss if it is known!

Whew. Let's make this more concrete, shall we? Two people on enworld are arguing about "railroading." Person A says railroading is always bad, and person B says that railroading is often good. Approximately 500 pages into the argument, person A reveals that they believe that "railroading" means "removing player agency by repeatedly punching players in the face," while person B states that, "No, railroading means discussing what AP to do while eating ice cream." Of course, this being the internet, there will be another 500 pages of arguing about the definition, and then the thread will get shut down ....

This example is extreme, but it follows an established pattern; people argue about some piece of D&D / TTRPG jargon (insert "railroading," or "player agency," or "skilled play," or "story now," or "fudging," or any of a number of abstracted and jargon-y terms, and only later find out that they don't have the same definition or conception of what the jargon-y term means. And then, instead of coming to a general understanding of why those different definitions matter to the discussion, they instead start to argue about whose made-up definition is "correct."


2. Railroads and player agency and fudging, oh my!
I wouldn't say I was the BEST DM. But I would say that I was in the Top One.

When it comes to D&D, there is always seems to be an imbalance between the number of people that want to play, and the number of people willing to DM. Simply put, it is a truism to note than in most places, at most times, there is a greater supply of players than DMs. For example, while there are opportunities for people to make money DMing, you do not hear about many opportunities to make money playing D&D. Which means that the issue of DM scarcity, and the concomitant issue of "how best to DM," often come up on ENWorld.

How to "DM better," is usually addressed in two separate ways; the first is the request for specific advice. In other words, a DM has encountered situation X, they don't know how to deal with it, and they reach out to the community to see if anyone else has any ideas. These are (usually) handled fairly easily because specificity is the soul of good advice- if someone is reaching out for advice on how to make a specific ruling, or how to handle a particular situation (Help! My party killed the BBEG before the adventure really started!!!!), then it's much easier to provide bespoke, individualized advice.

But it's the second type of issue that drives most of the conversations. "Does a good DM railroad?" "How often do you fudge?" "What is most important, player agency or rule 0?" "Is it okay to allow players to metagame?" "Chad wants to play a Bard again, do I kill his character immediately, or kill his character immediately with extreme prejudice?"

By invoking certain terms that are both jargon (terms of art) and laden with connotations, these conversations necessarily invite misunderstanding. Normally, the use of a specialized term, of jargon, is to allow people who are familiar with the term to avoid having to go through the longer explanation for it every time it comes up. For example, in many professions (doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists) you will see jargon used - if doctors are discussing an M&M or a D&D, they aren't talking about candies or role-playing games. It gets more complicated, however, when these specialized terms don't have a widely understood, and generally accepted, definition.

To use two examples to illustrate the point:
Fudging- there are many kinds of fudging, but generally people use the term to refer to the specific practice of dice fudging. Even more specifically, "fudging" generally refers to the practice of DMs changing the results of secret die rolls, as opposed to players changing the results of die rolls (which is usually called cheating). Other than some extreme examples, most people can generally agree on what fudging is.

Railroading. I have seen people adopt positions on railroading that seem extreme to me, on both sides- everything from "Choosing an adventure to run is railroading, since it remove player agency," to "Having players act out their parts in the DM's pre-written script isn't railroading, so long as the players don't figure it out." If you search out definitions on the web, you won't get much farther; here are a few that I quickly googled-
Rrailroading is the act of ensuring the players stay on plot by use of game mechanics.
Railroading is the GM forcing the players on a predetermined path through a story.
Railroading is a GMing style in which, no matter what the PCs do, they will experience certain events according to the GM's plan.
Railroading is when the GM takes any measure necessary to ensure there is only one direction the campaign may proceed — his planned direction.

Notice that "railroading" always carries a bad connotation, but it's unclear what, exactly, it might mean. Given that the use of almost any prepared material (let alone an AP) would fall within the ambit of "railroading," it seems that most discussions of railroading as a general concept would bog down into pointlessness; which they do. Contrast that with fudging; since most people understand exactly what it means, it is possible to have productive conversations about it (do you do it, when, why, do you roll in the open, what effect does that have, etc.).


3. So, what does any of this have to do with being a better DM?
Start every day with a smile so you can be done with it as quickly as possible.

One of the best things to happen to the growth of D&D is the rise of the streaming games; but this is, conversely, one of the worst things to happen to DMs. Yes, there are actual games by actual DMs streamed out there- but the truly popular ones? Those aren't D&D games, those are entertainment. You will learn as much about being a good DM for your home game from watching Critical Role as you would learn to be a considerate lover from watching adult film clips off the internet; it's just not in the same ballpark.

Instead, you will need to learn through trial and error, and through evolving your own style. Remember that what works for some people, may not work for you, and vice versa. One DM might thrive on being uber-prepared, another might prefer more free-form and improv. One DM might like to run Wizards' APs, and another might prefer a sandbox in their own setting. But, with that said, I have found the following to be helpful:

A. Don't listen to players. Not on the internet. I understand this sounds harsh, so I will make it more explicit- you're a DM. You probably have a table with a number of players! Let's say you have Pete, who likes to write 50 page histories for his characters and demands that you read them and find "hooks" for them in the campaign. And then there's Chad, who rolled up a Barbarian named Kronan, and wrote in the same thing for Traits, Ideals, Flaws, Bonds, and History- "Likes to Kick Butt." Sarah is an optimizing rule lawyer, and is living for the moment when she can catch you out in not knowing a rule ... so that it will work to the advantage of her uber-optimized Paladin, Lady Smites-A-Lot. But Jane, who just learned to play the game, is all about having fun and doing fun things with her pet as a Bestmaster. And so on.

Do you think all of those players would give the same advice to a DM on the internet? Do you think they all have the same interests? Do you think the same techniques and cares that some of us obsess over would make the same difference to all of them? Probably not! And if not, why would one of them have more importance to you just because they are on the internet?

B. Don't listen to other DMs. Not on the internet. Look, all of us that give advice, myself included ... we mean well! But we don't know your players. We don't know you. To the extent that we are giving out grand pronouncements ("Don't railroad!" or "Always roll in the open," or "Create a culture of corruption and accept bribes in exchange for favorable rolls") you should feel more than free to ignore them. And you should be especially careful when it comes to those who are telling you about some method or technique or theory that they started using that solves all problems, ever- there is nothing worse than the zeal of the newly converted.

Instead, look to the specific advice that you can use to apply to your game. For example, I know that iserith has put together a number of amazing posts about how he adjudicates specific rules and handles the action economy in 5e which many people find incredibly helpful. That's the type of specific and applied advice, applicable to a particular TTRPG, that DMs should seek out.

C. Run a different game. There is no single "best DMing technique" that always works, across all games, and all tables. Mix it up a little, if you can. Running different types of games will often give you insight and techniques that you can apply to D&D, if and when you run it again.

D. Keep on, keepin' on. There is no magic to this. There is just getting in the reps, and learning from your mistakes. No DM I've ever heard about was flawless from the beginning. More importantly, the DM you are today is not the same DM you will be 5, 10, 20 years down the road (or even next week). You will always be evolving and changing. Things that work today with the game you are running and the players at your table may not work with a different system and different players; it is better to be flexible than dogmatic.


4. Conclusion.
There is nothing more discouraging than the sheer number of people that are shocked by honesty and the paucity of people shocked by deceit.

It is fun and comfortable to argue about metagaming, railroads, and player agency; it allows us to retreat into tired positions, well-tread by prior arguments, and reiterate our righteous outrage that others do not play the same way that we do. But in the end, those discussions are less about helping other DMs find their own way than it is to assert our own preferences. Getting bogged down in jargon and definitions is part and parcel of these arguments. It is far better, and more productive, to look at the specific ways in which your own DMing style can improve or evolve, so that Chad's Kronan can have fun kicking butt while Sarah can shine and smite to her heart's content.
 

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CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
Thanks for forking the discussion over to a new thread for us, @Snarf Zagyg. For a moment there, I was worried that the discussion was about to spin out of control and get the thread locked.

And my two coppers, for all their worth: your advice in 3B ("don't listen to other DMs") is strongly-worded, but it's spot-on. Other DMs might have good advice, but they aren't going to be in the room with you and your players. You have to run their advice through the filter of "will my players enjoy this?" every single time. This is true for internet chat forums, YouTube live-play shows, the Sage Advice column, and the friggin' Player's Handbook.

The fly in the ointment over in the Survivor: Dungeon Masters -- discussion thread is whether or not a Dungeon Master who does things differently for her players than I do is a "bad DM." (Or in the typical parlance, "doing it wrong.") Even when the players are all having a good time.
 
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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
There is a lot of material out in the GM-advice Industrial Complex, and this post contains much excellent advice for sorting through all that material. Something that this seems to touch on (but not land on) is the idea that different advice might help different GMs get to the same desired place. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, I'd call it an actual good.
 

Ringtail

World Traveller
And my two coppers, for all their worth: your advice in 3B ("don't listen to other DMs") is strongly-worded, but it's spot-on. Other DMs might have good advice, but they aren't going to be in the room with you and your players. You have to run their advice through the filter of "will my players enjoy this?" every single time.
It's because of this when I do give DM advice, I always tend to preface it not as "Here's what you should do" but rather "Here's what I would do." I feel like this tends to leave me advice as something that you can take or leave and not some commandment from an incredibly experienced GM that you absolutely need to heed if you want your game to not suck.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
By invoking certain terms that are both jargon (terms of art) and laden with connotations, these conversations necessarily invite misunderstanding. Normally, the use of a specialized term, of jargon, is to allow people who are familiar with the term to avoid having to go through the longer explanation for it every time it comes up. For example, in many professions (doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists) you will see jargon used - if doctors are discussing an M&M or a D&D, they aren't talking about candies or role-playing games. It gets more complicated, however, when these specialized terms don't have a widely understood, and generally accepted, definition.

Yes, we should note that the doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists.. and professionals in general, are trained, and learn the specific technical meanings of their terms in that training. GMs are more in the realm of being self-taught.

Also, if you are, say, an electrician, there's right ways to wire up a house, and wrong ways. The words are defined to deliver this technical knowledge. The right way will deliver power where it is needed, and the wrong way will either not deliver power, or will burn the house down. It winds up pretty clear whether you've met the requirements of completing the highly technical task. GMing, not so much.
B. Don't listen to other DMs. Not on the internet.

We could add an item to the list that might be useful, though.

E. Observe other DMs. Play games run by other DMs. Play games that aren't normally your cup of tea. Play with GMs of different styles, that use different techniques. When you see or hear something you don't understand, ask questions, but realize that their answers are usually steeped either in their own groups, or in their own dogma of play, and you will likely need a translation step to your own practice.

Most people on the internet are not familiar with the skills needed to coach someone else (which is often more about asking questions and listening than it is about pontificating answers), so don't expect them to be successful in doing so.
 
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CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
It's because of this when I do give DM advice, I always tend to preface it not as "Here's what you should do" but rather "Here's what I would do." I feel like this tends to leave me advice as something that you can take or leave and not some commandment from an incredibly experienced GM that you absolutely need to heed if you want your game to not suck.
Agreed -- it's just more polite. Also, a lot of folks confuse opinion with rule in this hobby, and this small change in phrasing can really help clarify things in a discussion that can't rely on facial expression, tone of voice, and body language.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
We could add an item to the list that might be useful, though.

E. Observe other DMs. Play games run by other DMs. Play games that aren't normally your cup of tea. Play with GMs of different styles, that use different techniques. When you see or hear something you don't understand, ask questions, but realize that their answers are usually steeped either in their own groups, or in their own dogma of play, and you will likely need a translation step to your own practice.

Most people on the internet are not familiar with the skills needed to coach someone else (which is often more about askign questions and listenign than it is about pontificating answers), so don't expect them to be successful in doing so.

As my favorite Internet Geek himself would say,

JPWFYnK.gif
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
The fly in the ointment over in the Survivor: Dungeon Masters -- discussion thread is whether or not a Dungeon Master who does things differently for her players than I do is a "bad DM." (Or in the typical parlance, "doing it wrong.") Even when the players are all having a good time.

I'm not @overgeeked , but, respectfully, that's not his problem at all.

There is no problem with "doing things differently" especially if as you say "the players are all having a good time."

But there are a few things that really are bad DMing regardless of taste, and the argument made was that bullying and belittling your players rises to that level - that's the fly in the ointment.

Now, this actually is quite relevant to @Snarf Zagyg 's post - because this isn't necessarily a live streamed gaming session - it's entertainment and meant to be consumed by an audience not necessarily the players. The one episode of EXU I did see bears this out because the DM, on at least one occasion, paused and addressed the audience with (paraphrased) "and here's what's happening that the players are not aware of..." It was quite apparent that the DM was treating this as a story to tell and entertain first and a game session second.

To sum up: I agree with much of what the OP wrote (though, I kind of disagree that Critical Role isn't a good model for a new DM and can expand on that) I would classify EXU as entertainment vs. a gaming session and if you DID classify it as a gaming session (which, as I said I wouldn't) I would put it in the "don't do it that way..." column.

My 2 cents and all IMO of course.
 


el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
It's because of this when I do give DM advice, I always tend to preface it not as "Here's what you should do" but rather "Here's what I would do." I feel like this tends to leave me advice as something that you can take or leave and not some commandment from an incredibly experienced GM that you absolutely need to heed if you want your game to not suck.

This is why I named my D&D zine HOW I RUN IT because I wanted to keep the sense of "this is what I would do" at the forefront, rather than anyone think (for good or ill) that I am saying THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD RUN IT.

"I can't tell you how to run your games, but I can tell you how I do, so I have. . "
 



Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Wonderful post! I agree with the thesis, and find the notion that streamed actual plays are the D&D equivalent of porn most amusing.

Well, I tried to make the connection as explicit as I could while still remaining within the forum guidelines.

But yeah- you can see (right now, in fact!) people that will look to streaming entertainment, such as Critical Role or Exandria Unlimited for their lesson in how to play D&D - or, just as weirdly, criticize the performers for "not playing D&D" correctly.

But it's performance. It's entertainment.

It is not simply a D&D game that is being streamed. They have those- if you watch an actual game that is being streamed, you quickly see the differences.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
But it's the second type of issue that drives most of the conversations. "Does a good DM railroad?" "How often do you fudge?" "What is most important, player agency or rule 0?" "Is it okay to allow players to metagame?" "Chad wants to play a Bard again, do I kill his character immediately, or kill his character immediately with extreme prejudice?"
Have you seen The Gamers: Dorkness Rising? There's a bard scene you might particularly enjoy!
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
Before I describe the points I partially disagree with, pleasek now that I agree with 90% of what you said. This is a wonderful post!

Those aren't D&D games, those are entertainment. You will learn as much about being a good DM for your home game from watching Critical Role as you would learn to be a considerate lover from watching adult film clips off the internet; it's just not in the same ballpark.
I don't agree. I enjoy Critical Role for what it is; a fun entertainment that I play on my phone when I'm doing the dishes. It's like watching theater. However, seeing someone doing it differently absolutely made me question some of my assumptions, realize that maybe there's some things I thought I did very well or very poor and that it wasn't the case. I also was spectator to several very cool moments that made me go "oh, that's cool, I never thought about doing something like that".

I've seen people criticize the way Matt Colville DMs. He's not my favorite DM ever. I disagree with him on multiple things. But he knows how he DMs, he knows what he likes and doesn't like and watching him run his game made me realize different things.

I became a better DM every time I spent some time watching other DM.
Instead, you will need to learn through trial and error, and through evolving your own style.
This is the most important factor for sure. My way of improving, which I still do today, is to always give myself one thing to do better at every session. It might be making a cool handout, trying to give more freedom to my players, or maybe integrating a rule that's I've misunderstood in the past. I'm always trying to improve. I take pride in the effort I put in DMing, and I'm actively trying to get better.

Do you think all of those players would give the same advice to a DM on the internet? Do you think they all have the same interests?
No they don't, but that's why they're valuables! You build your experience from the players you've had. And you've got no experience from the type of players you've never DMed for. There's a saying in video game development (and probably other industries) that players damn well know what doesn't work, but they don't know what the right solution is.

It's always interesting to me when I go on Reddit, and a puzzled DM describes a situation that happened with players that are clearly very different from my own. And it makes me ponder as to why his player are not having fun? How would I approach players like that? What's their intrinsic motivation? What are they looking for, what do they want out of the game?
 


OB1

Jedi Master
You will learn as much about being a good DM for your home game from watching Critical Role as you would learn to be a considerate lover from watching adult film clips off the internet; it's just not in the same ballpark.
While it may be true that @Snarf Zagyg might not learn as much about being a good DM for his home game from watching Critical Role, I have personally learned a ton from Mercer and from a host of other streaming DMs. I wouldn't even be playing D&D today if I hadn't got addicted to the 4e podcast Critical Hit (Rodrigo Lopez, who really should have made the Survivor thread). And even though I never played 4e and don't find that game to match my style, I was still inspired by and learned a lot of great things about DMing by listening to the show.

If you want to be a good writer, you don't just write, but read as many authors as you can. If you want to be a good film maker, you need to watch a ton of movies. Want to be a good football player, watch as many games as you can. You still have to hone your craft and discover what works and doesn't work for you and your audience, but being exposed to all kinds of different ideas and ways to do things, as well as watching people fail and succeed in different ways, can give you tools you never knew existed, or that may have taken you years to work out on your own.

The point of advice on the internet or watching live-streams or playing in other peoples games isn't to give you the perfect answer for how to be a good DM for your group, but to give you options to think about, explore, reject or try. Aabria might not be everyone's cup of tea, but @overgeeked can still learn something from her about how to make their own game better and for someone else it might be the perfect style for the group they play with. And a heated argument about a finer point can end up broadening the understanding of those involved.

I believe that live-streaming shows and podcasts have been an immense boon to the hobby, since previously it was difficult to be exposed to different styles of play. And while some players may try to perfectly emulate a DM they see on a stream and fail spectacularly, they can still learn from that experience and modify their own style, should they choose to try.

I do agree that the best way to become a better DM is to think about and empathize with YOUR players. They are your audience, not a thousand or a million people on the internet. What works for you and them is all that matters, and communication is key. Just like two lovers discussing what they like from the adult film clips they've watched on the internet ;)

Of course, no one should read this post and take it as gospel, rather, I hope they think about it, take what works for them and discard the rest.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I don't agree. I enjoy Critical Role for what it is; a fun entertainment that I play on my phone when I'm doing the dishes. It's like watching theater. However, seeing someone doing it differently absolutely made me question some of my assumptions, realize that maybe there's some things I thought I did very well or very poor and that it wasn't the case. I also was spectator to several very cool moments that made me go "oh, that's cool, I never thought about doing something like that".

I've seen people criticize the way Matt Colville DMs. He's not my favorite DM ever. I disagree with him on multiple things. But he knows how he DMs, he knows what he likes and doesn't like and watching him run his game made me realize different things.

To be clear about the analogy-

It's not that people can't learn anything at all about, um, intimate relations from adult films. Obviously, they can!

It's just that adult films aren't about capturing the actual experience- they are about entertainment. If you believe that ... for lack of a better phrase ... this is how things really work ... you will end up with some profound misunderstandings.

Same with Critical Role and similar shows. Yes, you can get some tips here and there; but if you go in there believing that this is how your D&D table actually works, then .. you will end up with some profound misunderstandings.
 

Bolares

Hero
But yeah- you can see (right now, in fact!) people that will look to streaming entertainment, such as Critical Role or Exandria Unlimited for their lesson in how to play D&D - or, just as weirdly, criticize the performers for "not playing D&D" correctly.
Ah, the "mercer effect"...

Great post Snarf! Took me a while to read it all, but couldn't agree more. I'd ad as an item (to the already expanded list by Umbran):

6. Be open minded and respect other people's idea of fun.

Sometimes we forget that our truth is not THE truth, and something we assume is fun in land really awkward with our players, or worse, we won't recognize that our players are trying to show us what their kind of fun is...
 

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