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D&D General The DM Should Only Talk 30% of the Time... Agree or Disagree?

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Quick Note: I tagged this as D&D General because I specifically want to talk about running D&D games. I know that other systems have really different ways of sharing the narrative burden. Feel free to bring those other games into this discussion, but let's overall focus on running D&D.

I'm an elementary school teacher, and I find a lot of my teaching practice bleeds into my DM'ing. One of the things I've tried to do in my classroom is reduce the amount of time that I, as a teacher, am talking. If I can have a student revoice something, I will. If I can have a student take attendance, pass out snacks, give appreciations, read the directions, etc etc etc, I will.

This is part of a larger trend of moving teaching (especially in elementary school) away from lecture-based lessons. The general idea is that teachers used to speak 70% of the time, and the goal now is that teachers speak 30% of the time, and students speak 70% of the time. Generally.

Anyways, I've started to think about this in my D&D games.

I've started to feel uncomfortable with how much my voice as a DM dominates the table during D&D. I'm often the one explaining the rules, describing scenes, and filling the session with talk, talk, talk. However, I feel like this is the base expectation of D&D: that the DM should speak 70% of the time. After all, it is my job to describe what the characters are seeing, then describe what happens when they try different things.

I do, however, want to try speaking less. I want to try to pass that burden over to the players. I want to try to speak 30% of the time.

Here are some ideas for ways I could pass the narrative burden over to players:
  • Have players describe the consequences of their actions in detail (for example, I say "you hit, describe the blow").
  • Ask players to describe inconsequential features of dungeons and towns ("Bob, tell us about this cultist statue...").
  • Allow players to play as NPCs in scenes their characters aren't present in ("Kathy, why don't you play as the blacksmith...")
Here are some more radical ideas:
  • Ask players to design important NPCs, and play as those NPCs.
  • Ask players to design towns, then run portions of the session when characters are in town.
  • Ask players to create interesting descriptions for dungeons, then run the mechanics while the player describes what the dungeon looks / sounds / smells like...
  • Have players design random encounters, then describe those encounters when they occur...
  • Ask players to contribute design ideas to settings during battles, and then have their descriptions be narrative truths...
So what do you think? Is this a strange, quixotic quest with no real benefit? Is this a molehill just I'm willing to die on?

Do you think there's any benefit to a DM speaking only 30% of the time?
 

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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I don't see a benefit to trying to come up with a percentage. Sometimes I describe things and the players interact with me a lot, so I talk more than 30%. Other times the group is roleplaying and I don't really talk for a half an hour while they interact amongst themselves. The DM should talk when it's appropriate.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I don't see a benefit to trying to come up with a percentage. Sometimes I describe things and the players interact with me a lot, so I talk more than 30%. Other times the group is roleplaying and I don't really talk for a half an hour while they interact amongst themselves. The DM should talk when it's appropriate.
It's a shorthand for minority, not meant to be an exact amount.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
It's a shorthand for minority, not meant to be an exact amount.
I think that in the classroom there is probably a learning component to the percentage of talking. In D&D I think that the DM should talk when there is a lull or when appropriate.

If the party is in a dungeon, there is going to be a LOT of "DM describes something and then players interact with the DM as they explore the environment." as well as a lot of combat, in which the DM is talking a lot. DM speaking time will be very high. In town, though, the players talk amongst themselves more as they plan out what to do next. Fights are fewer and I speak mostly as NPCs, unless there is some sort of urban adventure going on DM speaking time is much lower.

DM speaking time is only too high when he is cutting short what the players want to say and do.
 

ninjayeti

Adventurer
If I can have a student revoice something, I will. If I can have a student take attendance, pass out snacks, give appreciations, read the directions, etc etc etc, I will.
I think the better takeaway here is that the DM should outsource what they can to players, rather than trying to come up with a particular percentage of time they should be talking. A couple of things I have seen successfully outsourced to players:

-doing a recap of previous sessions
-looking up a rule in question while the DM continues to run the game
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Hmmm . . . So in my classes when we read something as a class (like a short essay or instructions for an assignment), instead of assuming the students will read it carefully on their own or have them listen to me read it, I have them go around the room each reading a paragraph, section, sentence, whatever increment seems appropriate to be read. I include myself in this, so if it goes all the way around the room and back to me, I read the next section and then on to the next student.

Thinking about this it struck me that while I am not comfortable with players just making up features of a location/adventure (beyond some reasonable queries - "You said there was a fireplace in this room, is it safe to assume there is a metal poker in or around it?"), I think it might be cool, if you are the type to used boxed text, to print them ahead of time on index cards and give them to a player to read aloud (or each player reads a section of it aloud).

When we get new magical items identified, I hand the player a magical item card and have them read it aloud to the other players. This is also a good way to catch typos in your printed materials (when my students find them I use it as a teaching moment about how everyone makes errors and how to better catch them - reading your writing aloud is one way).

Anyway, I am not too concerned about doing too much of the talking as DM - but if the group is very quiet, much like students in the classroom, I am a proponent of addressing it and asking what could change to make it better.

Then again, I also have a philosophy that my players are NOT my students and I am not their teacher and I don't want them to feel like I am assigning them class/home work - so I am careful applying classroom pedagogy to the game (that said, I credit my decades of DMing as practice for my teaching methods/persona).
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
At the beginning of a campaign I have a conversation with the group about how it's a cooperative storytelling game kind of like improv meets boardgame. Ideally we're all playing off each other and setting each other up for success.

This means thinking of me as DM as just another player in an improv troupe. Helping me out as I try to describe scenes and have conversations as NPCs.

Not everyone gets into it equally. It does serve to set the expectation that what we get out of it is what we put into it and it isn't my job as DM to entertain everyone. If the game isn't as engaging as a player wants they should be putting more ideas forward.

I don't go as far as you would about taking over traditional DM roles but I do dabble with it. For example, a player can say that an NPC or area or whatever is relevant to their back story and come up with some aspects relevant to that.

The one thing you suggest that I don't like is describing violence more in depth. I just don't want to focus on it that much. I suppose this is fine in sharing the burden because as DM I gloss over the description myself as well.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
Quick Note: I tagged this as D&D General because I specifically want to talk about running D&D games. I know that other systems have really different ways of sharing the narrative burden. Feel free to bring those other games into this discussion, but let's overall focus on running D&D.

I'm an elementary school teacher, and I find a lot of my teaching practice bleeds into my DM'ing. One of the things I've tried to do in my classroom is reduce the amount of time that I, as a teacher, am talking. If I can have a student revoice something, I will. If I can have a student take attendance, pass out snacks, give appreciations, read the directions, etc etc etc, I will.

This is part of a larger trend of moving teaching (especially in elementary school) away from lecture-based lessons. The general idea is that teachers used to speak 70% of the time, and the goal now is that teachers speak 30% of the time, and students speak 70% of the time. Generally.

Anyways, I've started to think about this in my D&D games.

I've started to feel uncomfortable with how much my voice as a DM dominates the table during D&D. I'm often the one explaining the rules, describing scenes, and filling the session with talk, talk, talk. However, I feel like this is the base expectation of D&D: that the DM should speak 70% of the time. After all, it is my job to describe what the characters are seeing, then describe what happens when they try different things.

I do, however, want to try speaking less. I want to try to pass that burden over to the players. I want to try to speak 30% of the time.
I think in order to accomplish this, you would need to dismantle the fundamental structure of DM describes environment, players describe what their characters do, DM describes the results and repeats from step 1.

Here are some ideas for ways I could pass the narrative burden over to players:
  • Have players describe the consequences of their actions in detail (for example, I say "you hit, describe the blow").
In my experience, players tend not to enjoy this, unless it’s done very sparingly. Some players get excited when they get to describe the final blow after a tough boss fight, but having to describe every hit against every random baddie gets tedious. And even then it’s only some players who actually enjoy it - most of my players get uncomfortable being put on the spot this way.
  • Ask players to describe inconsequential features of dungeons and towns ("Bob, tell us about this cultist statue...").
Again, some players enjoy that, but others find it really uncomfortable. And I think the crossover between players who enjoy this kind of thing and players who would rather be DMing is quite high.
  • Allow players to play as NPCs in scenes their characters aren't present in ("Kathy, why don't you play as the blacksmith...")
I like this one! If you often have scenes where the whole party isn’t present, I think this is a neat way to keep the players whose characters aren’t present engaged. Though, as with the previous two points I think you’ll find that some players like this while others get really uncomfortable being asked to do it.
Here are some more radical ideas:
  • Ask players to design important NPCs, and play as those NPCs.
I think at this point, you’d be better off making those important NPCs into PCs and doing a sort of troupe play thing where players can have multiple characters that they switch between for different sessions.
  • Ask players to design towns, then run portions of the session when characters are in town.
  • Ask players to create interesting descriptions for dungeons, then run the mechanics while the player describes what the dungeon looks / sounds / smells like...
  • Have players design random encounters, then describe those encounters when they occur...
  • Ask players to contribute design ideas to settings during battles, and then have their descriptions be narrative truths...
The DM is still the one doing 70% of the talking in these cases, you’re just shifting who’s DMing. And that’s a perfectly valid way to do things, in fact the DMG has more suggestions on ways to do this sort of thing. Again, though, make sure you‘ve got a group full of people who enjoy DMing, otherwise you’re putting players on the spot for something they’d rather not do.
So what do you think? Is this a strange, quixotic quest with no real benefit? Is this a molehill just I'm willing to die on?

Do you think there's any benefit to a DM speaking only 30% of the time?
It’s not for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who would enjoy it.
 

It depends on the nature of the situation. If players are mostly investigating, asking questions, gathering information--then the DM should probably talk a lot. If the players are engaging in action, working through obstacles, or strategizing, then the DM should take a back seat and let those things play out.

Some sessions are high on exposition, others aren't. Overall, I think 30% is a bit low, but not egregiously so. Personally, I'd aim for something like a player/DM ratio of about 60/40, all depending on the specifics. I, unfortunately, take forever to communicate anything (as those who frequent this board may have noticed), so mine are probably biased rather a lot toward me talking. I am exactly the kind of person to whom Mister Torgue would say, "THAT SENTENCE HAD TOO MANY SYLLABLES, APOLOGIZE!!"
 


MarkB

Legend
I don't see any value in setting a guideline that will have DMs second-guessing themselves as to whether they should hold off on speaking up at any given point. Whether a DM should be talking is determined far more by what is happening in the moment than by trying to maintain some kind of ideal ratio across an entire session.
 


iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The basic play loop has the DM talking in 2 of the 3 steps, so it seems like the DM talks more by design. The main thing after that is to make sure the players are more or less equally sharing the spotlight and adjudicating in ways that allow the players' stated actions to have an impact on the setting and everything in it in a way that makes for a fun time and the creation of an exciting, memorable story.

Getting that right is more important than how much the DM speaks relative to the players in my view. Learning to be succinct though, as a DM and player, is a virtue as I see it.
 

guachi

Adventurer
I'd like to think as DM I talk about 1/2 the time considering I'm almost always 1/2 of the conversation. Though I do have a few house rules that encourage play solely among the PCs and I always find the times that happens to be really entertaining as a DM as I have zero control or input in that situation.
 

J-H

Adventurer
I like to go "What do you do?" and then sit back and let them come up with a plan. I mostly just do combat and descriptions + NPCs... they get to come up with solutions.
 


JustinCase

the magical equivalent to the number zero
Without getting caught up in percentages that were meant to be only metaphoric, I am interested in this concept. Since D&D (and every RPG) is basically a group activity, there's something to be said for letting the players be more active in the whole thing.

Sure, there's a risk of the story going somewhere you, as a DM, didn't intend, but will the game be more fun for it? Perhaps, perhaps not.

I'm seriously considering trying a few of the things you described in my next session, and see where it goes.
 

Yora

Legend
30% seems like a good amount to aim for. Though that would be at the high end. If you talk more than this, you're probably having an audience, not players.
 

Yes, imo its a good idea and something I've been toying with and trying to figure out ow to incorporate myself.
Here are some ideas for ways I could pass the narrative burden over to players:
  • Have players describe the consequences of their actions in detail (for example, I say "you hit, describe the blow").
  • Ask players to describe inconsequential features of dungeons and towns ("Bob, tell us about this cultist statue...").
  • Allow players to play as NPCs in scenes their characters aren't present in ("Kathy, why don't you play as the blacksmith...")
I like these ideas. Not something I've used yet, but plan to. Need to get in the habit myself of spurring this discussion or turning over the descriptions to my players.
Here are some more radical ideas:
  • Ask players to design important NPCs, and play as those NPCs.
  • Ask players to design towns, then run portions of the session when characters are in town.
  • Ask players to create interesting descriptions for dungeons, then run the mechanics while the player describes what the dungeon looks / sounds / smells like...
  • Have players design random encounters, then describe those encounters when they occur...
  • Ask players to contribute design ideas to settings during battles, and then have their descriptions be narrative truths...
I've actually done a little bit of this. I've had my players map and redesign the Trollskull Tavern and one built a MineCraft model of Iniarv's Tower for us. I also ave one of the players often collect lore for parts of our campaign (i.e. put together the history of Myth Drannor) for everyone. I do need to do this more as well.
 

schneeland

Adventurer
I somewhat agree, in the sense that in an ideal case, the GM creates situations, which facilitate roleplaying, discussion and action on the side of the players. In addition, my personal preference is to allow players to narrate the details of their success and failure on rolls. I have never measured the exact time, but about 1/3 on the GM side on average seems ok for groups where (most) players take an active role.

It gets tricky, though, for groups where the players are less active and/or are looking for a narrative to be experienced. In those cases, the GM probably has a much higher part of the "talking time".
 

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