The Makings of a Good Dungeon Master
When players walk away from a gaming session thinking “wow, that was fantastic!”, what did the DM do right? Despite the fact that the answer to this
question is likely at least as varied as the answer to “what is humour?”, I want to take a stab at it. Since I have been gaming on both sides of the DM’s screen for
nigh on 20 years (I always wanted to say “nigh”…), I feel qualified to submit an opinion or two.
To get a handle on what makes a good DM, first I need to establish some descriptive tools. I believe that game masters are human. I don’t have complete evidence of this, but I would ask that you take my word for it. As humans, DMs resist stereotyping. Despite their resistance, I will club them into submission and stereotype them anyway. If you want to compare thinking on DM archetypes, check out my friend Chris Rasmussen’s web page, Words from the Maker. Since we’ve been hanging around together for nigh on 20 years (okay, now I’ve got it out of my system…), our thinking may tend to converge.
I believe there are five basic DM characteristics. Every DM has a “helping” of each of these characteristics in their makeup in some complicated
balance. The basic DM stereotypes can be seen in individuals who possess one of these characteristics far out of proportion to the others. Below I have described each of these DM characteristics: for fun, i’ve also included a brief note about what these folks are like as players.
- The Scientist: Do you want to know the tidal effects of a co-orbiting three planet system around a binary star? Curious how much energy would be required to keep a 1 km diameter satellite in a permanent 90 minute orbit at an altitude of 200 km? Wondering about the types of weather systems a one million square mile desert at an average temperature of 45 degrees celsius scrunched in between an ocean and a arctic plateau would generate? What rate of taxation is appropriate to generate sufficient revenue to support road construction and military, without unduly
burdoning the tax base? The Scientist probably has worked out answers to all these questions about her world, and more. The phrase “it’s magic” is
meaningless to the Scientist. The scientist can vary quite a bit depending on their area of speciality: astrophysics, geophysics, meteorology, governmental/legal systems, historical continuity…. As a general rule, however, they know more about everything in the real world than you do.
As a player: Let this person play in your wobbly world, and they will immediately begin calculating all of its physical characteristics. They will tut-tut your weather announcements, correcting you with detailed rationales for why and how the rain in M’chrain should fall mainly on the plains. Build a huge castle and raise a 100,000 man standing army, and the Scientist will immediately whip out their calculator and prove that your peasants are taxed beyond starvation. Forget the background history you wrote yourself for your world, and they’ll quote it back to you and probably correct inconsistancies. Have a vein of iron appear next to a vein of, oh, say, quartz, and they’ll lecture you on exactly why this is impossible (and no, I have no idea whether this is or isn’t possible: I am not a scientist). And, heaven forbid that you should describe your planetary system. They won’t know their characters family background or what they look like, but they can likely tell you the specific gravity of each item in their backpack.
- The Rules Guy: The Rules Guy knows the roll modifier for tracking six Kobolds through thick brush in poor lighting from memory. He also has a set of self-developed modifiers for tracking method, and a table for calculating probability of tripping over different root types based on ambient lighting levels. A real Rules Guy isn’t satisfied with the weak materials provided by the game’s manufacturer. They will chortle with glee as they develop entirely new character classes, advancement tables, and adjustment charts based on their own curious view of reality.
As a player: The rules guy can quote the book, page number and paragraph of any rule. They have calculated THACOs, characteristic adjustments, advancement possibilities, and lifespans for every character class and race combination in the game. They know the armour class, special attacks, number appearing, and treasure type for every monster in every creature guide. Depending on other personality quirks of the player, this can be very difficult for a DM to handle. They will be able to tell you the reaction modifier for the social class and level of their character, but they likely quietly avoid any need to role-play.
- The Artist: The artist is a visual creature. She probably has maps of every corner of her world, true perspective diagrams of the major buildings in each city, and a sketch of each NPC you encounter. Major NPCs likely have a full colour drawing, possibly even a painting. When you enter a room, she may give up trying to describe it to you with words and instead draw a nearly-perfect sketch, showing not only the position of your character in relation to the room’s contents, but all of their possessions and recent scars.
As a player: the artist is less concerned with statistics than with visualization. They almost certainly have one if not several sketches of their character, as well as any important posessions. When in an encounter, the artist may demand a stop to game play so that they can sketch out the situation and understand the visual relationship between the participants. They might forget what level they are, but the colour and texture of their cloak is likely clear in their mind. Their character probably lacks a detailed equipment list, but they can always point at their drawing to show what they are carrying.
- The Story Teller: When the story teller begins to speak, his words evoke emotions, places, and times. He uses voice characterizations to differentiate NPCs, and can conduct conversations between several non-player characters at will. In fact, it will sometimes seem as if he prefers these interludes of “talking to himself” over interacting with the characters. It is quite possible that your first experience with gaming “props” will be with a story teller as well. The story teller is likely to have histories, creation myths, and fully detailed NPC backgrounds within his world. When he hands you your character sheet, it is likely accompanied by a twenty page short story illustrating your character’s past.
As a player: the story teller is more interested in character development than characteristics. His character history likely reads like a novella. His characters probably have quirks and personality ideosyncracies that he actually role plays. He also is liable to hold a DM to task for ignoring his carefully-crafted background. The story teller might not know how many hit points his character has, but he can tell you the name of his favorite childhood pet and describe how his character felt when Rover died.
- The Diplomat: The Diplomat is a master at the fine art of directing and, may we say, manipulating people. She can get the players to follow a subtle and dangerous adventure hook, while encouraging them to think that they have outsmarted the DM. When the players begin to squabble, get side-tracked by inappropriate in or out of game activities, or get bored, the Diplomat will quickly restore happy order. A Diplomat’s world is likely filled with complicated social orders and intrigue, many layers of which must be traversed by the successful player.
As a player: the diplomat is very likely the party leader. There character is organized and probably is an established member of the game world’s society. When the party thieves get out of hand, the diplomat will devise an appropriate way of getting them to return the key things they stole from other party members, while simultaneously making them feel like it was their idea.
The “Proper” Mix
As I said at the beginning of the section, the “right” mix of DM characteristics will vary tremendously, primarily dependent on the preferences of the
players. However, since this is my web site, you have to listen to my preferences and biases.
For me, a great DM is probably weighted more heavily (I.E.: amongst their characteristics, these are strongest) on the Diplomat and Story Teller characteristics, with at least one major strength (I.E.: rated higher than “average”) amongst the remaining three characteristics. However, the absolute key element a truly great DM must have is an understanding of their own capabilities. They must emphasize their strengths, and find ways of either improving on or minimizing the impact of their weaknesses. One way of doing this is to rate yourself on each of the above characteristics. Better yet, rate yourself, then have a couple of your players rate you. I could come up with a fancy numerical scale to make this more mathematical, but for now just use “very strong”, “strong”, “average”, “weak”, and “terribly weak”.
For example, take myself. I would guess that I am average on the Story Teller, average on Diplomat, weak as an Artist, and terribly weak as a Rules Guy and Scientist. I am balanced the right way for my preferences, but I lack any strengths. Overall, my rating is poor: I don’t have a single “very strong” characteristic. I can put on a good
show for a session or two but, unfortunately first impressions are fleeting. With an extraordinary effort, I could go all the way up to…good. I am at my best when I am running an NPC who has some background (sometimes created on the spot), and at my absolute worst when trying to make a weather system or geological fact make sense. Because I am further crippled by a lack of devoted time, I should try to use someone elses’ setting, one with well developed maps and physical systems. If I build my own world, I should work hard to either research enough to make my world believable or at least internally consistent, or clearly set the tone at the outset that scientific reason should not be assumed. Probably my best bet if I really want to be a world builder is to start very, very small. Alternately, I could build “small and light”, and throw away/start again often. This would perpetually keep my players on the early side of the learning curve, allow me to draw my plot in extravagent and “world busting” strokes, and minimize my need to have copious detail.
I will also go ‘way out on a limb and assess my friend Chris. He is very strong on the Scientist, Rules Guy, and the Artist characteristics, weak on Story Teller and Diplomat. He’s balanced a bit off for my preferences, but he has three very strong ratings. Overall, Chris’s rating is good, particularly over the long haul. With a relatively minimal effort, Chris could be great. Chris is at his best when describing the physics, geography, or political systems of his world. His NPCs tend to be short on conversation, quick to provide price lists. With his massive strengths, Chris can bury his players in an amazing array of maps, geo-political data, rules modifications, and military histories. Unfortunately, these same massive strengths have tended in the past to overpower his fair to middling other characteristics. Chris should continue to work as a world-builder: he is very good at it. He should also practice more character-to-character interaction, particularly since he is good at it when he overcomes his misgivings. It should be apparent that his weakest area is still stronger than my “middle level” characteristics.
What can I say? I’d rather play in a gaming session run by Chris’ than one run by myself. Worse yet, he is actually making the kinds of changes I suggest here: I’m doomed.