Recently, with our group letting an inexperienced DM run, and having two other players interested in getting ready to try DMing, I’ve been thinking about what the quintessential elements of good DMing are. I’ve spent tons of time thinking about things like “He choose to handle the story way X, I would have handled it way Y. What makes both approaches good and bad?”. This process has given me incite into why I DM the way I do, and why I believe that’s the best way to DM.
So, below are 5 tips that I’ve distilled down based on my 15 or so years with various DMs.
- Story: A DM needs to narrate the players story. Not tell their own story. [I learned this from Critical Hit‘s Rodrigo Lopez and WotC‘s Chris Perkins]
- Choice: Players should (almost) always have the option to choose how they handle a situation. These choices should be important. Never give them a single option, particularly when they’re faced with a journey or a plan. [This one’s based on my own experience. Nothing is more frustrating for a player than not being able to effect the narrative with the choices they make.]
- Use the railroad station, but not the tracks: Sure, you need to hit certain points after you launch the party from the station, but it should be more like a boat leaving a dock, not a train getting locked into a set of tracks. [I learned this one from Chris Perkins, one of my favorite DMs. If you want to see Chris in action, download the D&D Podcast’s episodes that feature the guys from Penny Arcade playing D&D]
- Don’t make plans for the party: Never, ever throw an NPC in the party’s way that says “Here’s the plan”. NPCs should always ask “What’s the plan”. [Combination of personal experience and Rodrigo’s influence here]
- Keep them Engaged: Pay attention to your players. If they seem more interested in their own interpersonal struggles than with your story, take a good hard look at your story and figure out why the story isn’t compelling to them. The story should support the characters and engage the characters/players fully. If they don’t care what’s next, they have no reason to want to move on to what’s next.
There it is, what I consider the most critical elements of DMing. Oddly, most of them reflect the collaborative storytelling part of DMing, stressing the importance of the idea that the DM isn’t telling the players a story, the DM and players together are creating a story based on an agreed upon world…
Which I guess shouldn’t shock my players, at least. I’m a DM who writes a character driven campaign in a world that she’s helped develop from the ground up over the course of almost 15 years…