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DMing 101

July 15, 2013

Dear Reader,

While I realize that our correspondences often deal with video gaming, pen-and-paper RPGs are often a frequent hobby of mine.  I’m interested in RPGs both for their entertainment value as well as the social dynamics of how they work and the actual mechanics that make them games instead of cooperative storytelling.

One constant in most every P&P RPG is the role of the DM, or dungeon master.  In other games this role may be called a GM (Game Master) or ST (Storyteller), but since D&D was basically first and because it drove one of my DMs crazy to call him the DM instead of the ST, I’ve always just deferred to that abbreviation.  The role of DM is to adjudicate player decisions in the game world, sometimes through role playing, sometimes through mechanics.

This role puts people in a position of power, and as a result, sometimes people either cannot handle the responsibility or become overawed by their own power and abuse the position.  There’s countless stereotypical jokes about bad DMs, DMs who are cruel to their players, give their players unwinnable encounters, and revel in the glee of their player’s tears.

Here’s the thing.  Any DM can kill all their player’s characters.  It’s not a challenge to design a fight that guarantees a death – or a total party kill (TPK).  What is a challenge is to create encounters that engage your party’s strengths while also pushing them to the edge of destruction.  Players should on occasion really feel like they’re going to lose, only to have their strengths pull them back from the brink at the last moment.

There’s no one right way to DM, but there are plenty of wrong ways.  Today, I just want to cover what I consider to be the three most important aspects of DMing: your relationship to the players, your approach to the rules, and your goal as a DM.

Relationship with Players

Let me start this course with a very simple statement.  Considering the players or their characters as your enemy is the wrong way to DM.  That perspective is precisely what leads to DMs who take pleasure in their players’ failure or glee in character deaths.  The players are your allies in creating an enjoyable experience, and while that doesn’t mean that you have to concede to every wish they have, it does mean that you’re all on the same team and have the same overall goal: fun.

Consider a band.  If one member of the band plays against the other members, you’re not going to produce a very good sound.  On the other hand, a band working together to create diversity in their sound can produce some very interesting music.  The DM may not be exactly in step with each of the players’ wants, but working actively against them will only bring disharmony and conflict.

Conflict isn’t, of course, in and of itself a problem.  Having some conflict can bring about excellent role-playing and moments of tactical genius.  On the other hand, if every decision your players make you attempt to countermand, well, you’ll win.  You’ve got all the power.  This brings us to my second major point.

Relationship with the Rules

You should make it your goal to find a way to say yes to player ideas.  This doesn’t mean every idea has to work, but it does mean that if a player has an idea, it shouldn’t be shot down in the “mechanics” phase.  I’ve had situations where I as a player have had a crazy idea and had it shot down because it wasn’t clearly delineated in the rules.  With a better DM, I’ve had other crazy ideas that were allowed that led to excellent game play for everyone.

Game designers cannot think of every possible action that can be taken in every possible situation likely to come up in their game.  As a result, you’re often in the position to adjudicate how things will work with actions that are outside the bounds of the rules.  In these situations, you should make every attempt to find a way to say yes.

Rules are a means to an end.  Without them, you wouldn’t be playing a game, you’d be participating in cooperative storytelling.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s not the same as an RPG.  However, when the rules are getting in the way of the group as a whole having a good time, they need to be bent.  This brings us to my final point.

The Goal of a Good DM

So overall, the DM’s primary goal is the good health of the group as a whole.  This means weighing each individual’s momentary positive or negative feelings against that of the group as a whole while maintaining consistency and some balance within the mechanics and game world itself.

Sound like a tall order?  It’s really not.  It’s pretty easy to measure how much fun you’re having and, upon reflection, make sure that it’s not at the expense of everyone else.  If you can do that for yourself with any objectivity, you can do it for the players in your group, as well.

Remember to keep the emphasis on the group, as sometimes  you’ll have players who want to use the rules to unbalance the game to the detriment of the other players.  They won’t necessarily be doing this intentionally, but simply as a result of the type of game they’re wanting to play.  In their play style, eliminating all chance of failure means they’ve “won” the game.  RPGs can’t be won, though, only played, and to make sure others aren’t unhappy, you as DM need to start thinking of the group as a separate entity to any individual player or the game mechanics.  When the rules are going to harm the group, consider bending them.

Consistency, of course, is important, though, so make note of when you bend rules, and make it clear during or after the session whether those bendings are going to be permanent or a one-time thing.  Otherwise the players’ expectations in the future and yours may differ, which only leads to problems.


Dear reader, if you ever want to talk DMing or just shoot me some questions, please do; I love talking about this stuff, and I’ve been doing a  long time, so I think I’ve got some perspective on it.  Whether it’s worth sharing or not, you’ll have to judge.


Stubborn (and judged)


2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2013 9:33 am

    Good post with some interesting points but I think the key is the first in a broader sense – know your players. I normally run games but when I play in a crunchy system I have the bad habit of turning into a Munchkin rules lawyer. Even knowing this it’s hard for me to avoid in a system like GURPS or D&D (probably why I prefer systems like Ars Magica, World of Darkness (without teen angst), or The Pool) and the GM really needs to step on that or things will go very badly.

    More broadly it’s understanding why your players are at the table. One of my habitual groups has a player who wants to kill monsters and loot treasure while another player wants to develop his character’s story, preferably without changing his ancestral sword every three weeks for the latest upgrade. They can coexist but it requires some interesting storyline development and agreement between the players that the game is going to go through phases that may not be exactly what either wants but is needed for the overall campaign. I think the other key concept is not to fear party splits. Sometimes it makes the most sense for the players to break into smaller sub-groups (even solo) to deal with story development. The task for the GM is to make those sessions interesting for everyone during all phases and to provide a valid reason for the party to reform. Use of an NPC buddy can also help some players.

    One mechanical thing I will say, expanding your last point, is don’t be afraid to cheat. If the scenario notes call for three demons and the party is too beat to take them just change the notes before they break into the summoning room. If an enemy attack would kill the player, though no fault of the player, just change the result. You are the only one who sees your dice and players are not going to complain about surviving the a battle. It does have to be done with some care – very few players are going to believe that an enemy with a 85% hit chance missed six times in a row. Developing your acting skills is also useful. Throwing the dice, rolling your eyes, and complaining that Orc archers must have founded the Imperial Marksmanship Academy is much more effective than rolling the dice, looking at some charts, up at the players, and then mumbling that the Orcs all missed.

    Finally, if you are going to run a game you have to know the rules. I doubt anyone agrees with all the rules in any published system but you should know what they are and, before starting a campaign, explain those that you changed. If you are uncertain of a rule or how it should be implemented in any situation it is normally better to just make a call than look it up and analyze that call. Generally speaking (rules lawyers excluded) players are not going to complain if it doesn’t hurt them and they probably don’t know either. Game flow is much more important that technically exact decisions.

  2. Beshara permalink
    July 15, 2013 1:22 pm

    I miss playing P&P role playing. The group I used to play with couldn’t stay focused for a long time, but we had fun. I tried to DM once, and I let the story I was trying to tell get in the way of the player characters. I ended up forcing one player to turn against the others or betray his character’s family. That was pretty much the end of my DMing. Didn’t really get a chance to try again, as our group split when everyone moved away for college.

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