Tag Archives: DM Advice

The Good DM

How I loathe the sentence that starts with the words “A Good DM would….”

What is a “Good DM”? In the above case the concept is generally used by those with an agenda to bludgeon you into their way of thinking by comparing an action, activity or perspective they disagree with against a mythical ideal you can never live up to. Whatever you do, the “Good DM” does better, faster, with more flare and is otherwise and always your superior in every way. There’s no way to win against “the Good DM” argument. You are either a bad DM by comparison, or you give in and do whatever you are told you should. In truth a good DM would ignore arguments that begin with what a Good DM would or wouldn’t do.

So ignoring for a moment the logical fallacy argument of perfection, what is or what makes a good DM?

There is no one “right” way to play, and there is no one “right” or “perfect” DM. However, there are qualities to aspire to that help you be fair, fun, engaging and able to guide a good story, and that’s really what RPGs are all about.

Set the Scene

The DM controls the parameters of the game. They are the narrator, guide and referee. The players are the actors. The DMs job is to provide a framework for the Players to make choices, and then to help those choices play out in a logical and consistent way. In order to do that, you need to be clear about what is and is not present in the game, both in terms of Rules and Themes. This is best handled before the game starts (unless you are running an unfolding mystery style game) and this conversation is often referred to as Session 0 (which can include character creation).

Be Prepared

Being a DM can be a lot of work, and while you can’t possibly prepare for every choice or eventuality, you should have a strong working knowledge of the current accessible options and expected outcomes. If you are running a published module you should have read it thoroughly and understand in general terms what is to come. DM’s will often refer to the ‘2 day rule’, which is the idea that they have a plan for characters travelling in any direction from their current location for 2 days travel if the players suddenly decide on embarking in a random direction. 2 days travel allows you to throw in events and encounters enough to get through the current session to plan anew for next time.

It’s unrealistic to expect to be able to adjust instantly to any and all choices the players make, but nothing kills immersion like the DM pausing room to room to read the adventure.

Guide not Steer

It is preferential that the player’s choices guide the action rather than the DMs. If they players feel their choices are not impactful they will lose interest very quickly. They aren’t here to watch a movie, they are here to be involved, so let them. As DM you can offer hooks, events, and even direct choices between provided options by way of the narrative you present, but always let the players choose, and let their choice be genuine, meaningful and have consequences (good or ill).

Learn to say “Yes”

Often players choices will begin to take the game in directions you weren’t prepared for of that don’t fit the narrative. That’s the curse and beauty of playing an RPG and not a computer game. RPG parameters are soft (unlike ‘hard’ parameters like solid walls or zone limits in a video game), and player choice can bend or break them. Instead of staying in the Merchant’s Quarter where you’ve set the action, maybe they want to go to the Nobles’ Quarter instead. Or maybe they want to do something outside the rules, but within the logic of the game, like push an enemy off a cliff, but their character doesn’t have the required skill or ability.

Instead of saying “No”, try saying “Yes” instead. Narrative refocus can really enliven a game. It does take some small improvisation skills, but it’s a nice manageable step to “reskin” a scene rather than spin a whole adventure out of nothingness. For example, nothing in your Merchant Quarter encounter needs to change other than the ‘skin’ or ‘shroud’ of how it looks and feels. Mechanically it all stays the same, but your merchants now become minor nobles, your street thugs become bored noble duellists and your interesting street NPCs now become interesting courtiers and aristocrats.

Similarly, allowing players to bend rules (bend not break) to achieve an entertaining outcome will garner greater entertainment and investment in the game. So the character doesn’t have the Shove/Push/Defenestrate skill? Use the next nearest analogue (and maybe raise the difficulty slightly to be fair to those that do) and let them try. Maybe amend the action with slight unexpected variations that wouldn’t occur with the skill (such as the character drops their weapon, or the enemy tears their cloak away as they go over) just to add some interest.

Learning to say “Yes” doesn’t mean let wild, illogical rule breaking run the day. It means bend toward the player’s choices and desires to “just outside” the set parameters.

Be Fair and Consistent

Guiding and Saying Yes are great for player enjoyment, but the game needs to stay within the parameters originally set most of the time in order to maintain fairness and consistency. Allowing a player to bend a minor mechanical rules is one thing, but allowing them to warp space and time to perform miracles not available within the parameters is another. Sure it’s make believe, but it’s still a game, and games need rules or they devolve into an imagination contest. The one who pulls off the best “Dr Strange” wins. Rules and DM rulings keep a game consistent and fair, allow everyone to act and contribute evenly.

Bend a few small rules, and when you do remember or document what you did. If/when it comes up again, apply the same logic to the new situation. Arbitrate any choices fairly between players, and if you have to settle disputes between players, do so in a way that is best for the game, not necessarily for your favourite player, your best player, or your significant other. When you do make a ruling, make notes to ensure future rulings are managed the same way.

Like any game anywhere, if the referee is seen as being biased or inconsistent, its sucks the fun away almost instantly.

Failing Forwards

If your game is running well, and players are having fun, an awful turn of the dice or a poorly thought out choice can turn it from a great session to a terrible one. Chance and consequence are integral parts of any RPG, but occasionally the stakes are so high that character life and death, or the culmination of a long and hard-fought endeavour can hinge on one roll or one choice. It can be incredibly deflating for players to lose it all. The upside is that you know you have invested players when the dread silence descends, but the downside is a total mood kill on what was moments ago a great game.

Failing forwards is the idea that a loss or a failure is not the end, just a setback in the ongoing story. The most obvious of these is the dreaded TPK (total party kill) where all the characters are killed or incapacitated, though there can be others in the story where the necessary McGuffin is irretrievably lost, or a critical NPC dies etc. The solution is to find ways to move forward. Maybe they didn’t die, they were just knocked unconscious and taken prisoner (to escape later). Maybe the magical explosion of world ending tore through the fabric of reality and dumped them onto another plane of existence. Maybe they did die, and now their souls are wandering the abyss, accidentally arriving there instead of their version of heaven. In all of these cases the game goes on with new challenges.

It never hurts to have a backup plan or other contingency up your sleeve for when the fickle Dice Gods curse your group with natural 1’s at a really inopportune time.

That is not to say you should remove all stakes. Failure and death should be a possibility. However those should be reserved for pivotal moments or adventure or campaign climaxes as much as possible, and less for an ignoble end to a great game because of poor rolls or one bad choice.

Always seek to Improve

The one thing that a “Good DM” always has is the desire to improve. We all have our strengths, and if we are honest with ourselves we all have weaknesses (I’m terrible with voices – all my accents tend to roll into one after a few lines). Even as you build these skills, you should never consider them complete. As skilled as each and every DM is, no one is perfect, and there is always ways to learn and improve. Even the professionals such as Matt Mercer and Chris Perkins are still learning. It’s evident when you view their sessions that they don’t always get it right, but they do try to fix or improve on those mistakes going forward. It is the same for any of us mortals too. Desire to improve fights complacency and stops us from becoming mundane, predictable and stale as storytellers.

The Mechanical Skills

While probably most important as a basic skill set, I add this near last because it’s usually the first skill set DM’s develop in some fashion, and we all generally understand the game mechanics of the system we run.

My advice on the subject really focusses on two things. Firstly, don’t assume your knowledge is complete. Most systems are complex enough that rules interactions can create a huge amount of variables. Like all your skills you should be looking to improve your knowledge as you go, and be prepared to be occasionally wrong. Players are often as knowledgeable or more so on rules that directly affect them and their character. Be prepared to be occasionally challenged on a call, and be prepared to – at times – accept that challenge and change your decision if it’s correct. A challenge to a ruling is not necessarily a personal attack. You are a referee for, not an adversary of, the players.

Second, a deep rules knowledge means you’ll be in a better position to know when and where rule bending (see Saying Yes and Failing Forwards above) for the sake of smooth running will or will not create problems, and just where that limit lies. There’s no substitute for experience to ensure a seamless, immersive gaming experience, but ‘system mastery’ comes in at a close second.

You will be your own harshest critic

No matter how much pressure you think is placed on you from outside – from your players or from the standards set by the professionals – the greatest pressure on you will be from yourself. Am I doing this right? Are people having fun? Did I make a bad call? Am I being fair? Am I a “Good DM”?

The most important advice I can give is this – Cut yourself a break. Stepping up to be DM is a responsibility not everyone is willing to take. Many players will never sit behind the screen. Sitting in that chair means you are halfway there already, because you want to run a good, entertaining game for the enjoyment of yourself and others. If you are worrying about being a “Good DM” you are probably on your way (if not there already) to being a genuinely good DM.


You Dont Have To Be Matt Mercer

The rise of RPG popularity is due in no small part to its inclusion in mainstream TV (Big Bang Theory, Stranger Things) and the emergence of stars and celebrities discussing their experiences with it in mainstream media.

We now have celebrity DM’s running “All Star” groups. The likes of Matt Mercer and Chris Perkins have turned our basement hobby into a spectator sport, with wonderful stories, props, professional voice acting and a raft of misfit players – both staples and cameos – that we’ve come to know and love.

The upside of this is that we now have more interest in our hobby than ever before, and its growing. The downside is the expectations are now higher than ever, particularly from the new wave of players being introduced to our hobby through these channels. If players see Matt Mercer or Chris Perkins as the ‘norm’ how are we mere mortals to possibly compare?

The answer is simple – we don’t, and we don’t have to.

There’s no need to place that level of pressure on yourself. Although the analogy is not entirely accurate, it’s like comparing yourself to a professional footballer, and deciding since you aren’t that good it’s not worth going to a local park or club for a game.

Many of us enjoy RPGs for their various elements, which until recently did not include public performance. Don’t get me wrong, if you play at a con or a game store you’ll have some onlookers, but few stay long enough to analyse your story, style or proficiency. If they like what they see, they might stay, if not they move on. For the most part your only constant evaluations come from your players themselves and – whether you are aware of it or not – they are already invested in the game from the moment they sit down. They want to be there and they want to like it. They want to be a part of it. Half the job is done before you even start, and if you let them, they will do a lot of the work in making the game run and flow.

You still need to be diligent to the role, and a good DM* will always seek to engage their group and improve their skills, but you don’t have to roll out a production to run an enjoyable game.

Not comfortable or good with voices? Don’t do them

Can’t afford terrain and minis? Don’t use them

Prefer ‘theatre of the mind’ to tactically mapped battles? Great!

An RPG game is a lot like going out to dinner. You will appreciate something that is well prepared and flavourful, but what makes a “good meal” is a matter of taste. Additionally, no matter how good lobster is, if that’s all that is available you’ll get sick of it pretty quickly.

Each DM is different, and each game is unique. Don’t try to be something you aren’t comfortable with because you feel you should be ‘more’. What you provide is more than enough, and likely better than you think it is.

There is no such thing as the ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’ to run a game. Is everyone comfortable and having fun? That’s the right way. Everything else is flavour.


* The “Good DM” is covered in another post.