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Research: What Makes a GM Great?


First 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.

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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.


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).
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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.


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.

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
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.

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.
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Well, that was fun
Staff member
Enthusiasm. While a GM invested in the game they’re running can’t 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.

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

aramis erak

lets the players collaborate in building the story, rather than simply slotting them into his story.

Ensures everyone gets screen time
ensures everyone has a chance to contribute. (which isn't the same as screen time, but the two are related)

Ensures players have Meaningful Choices (choices with consequences).


Knowing the setting, genre, and tone well enough to rarely be at a loss for what happens next.
Being attentive to the needs, desires, and preferences of the players.
Knowing the rules at least pretty well.

To elaborate: I've three what I would call "great" GMs, and they all shared these traits. They were good at thinking on their feet, knew the rules, the setting and their plot, and were generally good at maintaining the mood or feel that the players expected from the game. They were good at keeping the players more or less focused.

I will note that none of them did voices, had cool props, or engaged in other theatrics much. Looking back, this surprises me, because the games they ran were very atmospheric and often genuinely and appropriately tense.
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Adaptability. Knowing when something isn’t working and then doing what can be done to make things better; to pick up on player cues and direct or redirect things toward their interest.

A GM has to help keep the game fun, even if that means changing or even ditching what he’s prepared.


Small God of the Dozens
I like GMs who are willing to admit that there exists more than just their way of running a game. GMs who are willing to read, and learn, and grow - all in service of a role at the table that needs all three. This doesn't even need to be about accommodating players, which is also sometimes necessary, but more directly about GMs who actively grow their skills. I'm always on the look out for new ideas about how to run X, or how to design X, or whatever. Be a sponge - there's inspiration everywhere.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I think there's a different set of requirements for a GM for a convention / one-shot vs. a GM for a campaign.

For a convention/one-shot:
  • Bring everything vividly and concisely to life.
  • Make each of the few scenes you have either memorable or quick. Voice acted NPC, narrow escapes, acts of daring, everything meaningful.
  • Have great pacing. Important to control tension for the climax at the end of the session.
  • If a player doesn't have a chance to shine, manufacture one. There is only a small (4hr?) window for everyone to feel like they were a vital contributor.
  • If inclined, fudge (both dice and #/power of monsters) to make encounters epic.

For a campaign GM:
  • Much of the one-shot list is still appropriate about running a memorable session, but gone is the idea on short term planning.
  • Find out what interests the players. Do that. Even if that's not the direction you were originally planning.
  • The PCs are the stars. Don't one-up them with your NPCs. Don't one up them with a "GMPC". Don't regularly o Deux-ex-Machina.
  • Don't be afraid to kill your darlings. In other words, be willing to let go of things that don't work for the table as a whole even if you really like them.
  • Give every player a time to shine. It's okay if one session favors one character over another as long as it evens out - you're building for the long haul.
  • Learn to be comfortable improvising.
  • Prep things you don't need that you can pull out when you don't have anything else.
  • Give each character their own arc, their own place to grow.
  • Weave plots together. Have clues for one in the bowels of another as well as hints about a third plus the introduction of an NPC you plan to have reoccur in yet a different plot.
  • Throw challenges at them you aren't sure they can survive - from such comes stories of legend. (And PCs are more durable then you think.)
  • Throw easy challenges against them, especially multiples of foes who were once challenging in low numbers. Nothing like a curbstomp battle to make the PCs feel like heroes.
  • Take the characters out of their comfort zones at times.
  • Remember you only have authority because the players gave it to you. Don't wield it like a dictator.
  • When soeone derails all your plans, reward them for cleverness, don't gripe and grumble about wasted work - and definitely don't disallow it just because it's not what you imagined.
  • Give them different types of challenges.
  • Be consistent.
  • Find out what you need to make good NPCs on the spur of the moment. Do it. Sometimes it's prep. Sometimes it's random pictures. Sometimes it's a catalog of voice accents or a list of quirks.
  • Say "Yes". Often it will be "Yes but", but start with that.
  • Don't let a lack of rules stand in your way of something cool. Don't let a rule hamstring you - but be careful because they are part of your shared social contract.
  • Don't be afraid to give your players some authorial space. Let them tell you about their god, their tribe, their homeland.
  • Paint the world in broad strokes until you need it. Just enough to be able to give a concept and lay some foreshadowing and hooks.
  • Nothing is true until it hits the table. Even the plot you had.
  • Have fun - if you're not having fun, that'll come across. So run things you enjoy for people you want to spend time with.
  • Step #1 in dealing with a problem player is to talk to them honestly and non-confrontationally. These are also rules #2 through #99. Rule #100 is just to toss them out. None of the rules are to make up house rules that really only target that player's character like some HR department trying to appear "fair".


Balance. In everything.

It's very easy to be a GM focusing on lovingly detailing your gameworld - and forget about the playing characters. It's also very easy to be a GM who will bend over backwards for the PCs and ignore everything else including key underpinnings of the background.
It's very easy to be enamored with storytelling, and forget about the rule mechanics, which are what yield consistent outcomes, which make enjoyable encounters. It's very easy to be a stickler for the rules, and forget about the storytelling, which is really makes the adventure worth living.
It's easy to be firm in following the plot (AKA railroading) and forget that sometimes improvisation is the only thing to do; it's easy to prefer free-wheeling and end up with a plot that seems to have no ryhme or reason.

I could continue but you get the point. Walk the fine line.


The most important traits are easily imagination and the ability to improvise well. They are the things that allow a great GM to always keep the game moving and keep the players engaged and having fun. I'd also add enthusiasm for running the game up there as well. Players can tell when you'd much rather be playing than running.

After that there are plenty of other traits that are nice to have, rules knowledge, a healthy book collection 😉, a collection of outrageous accents, etc...