Becoming a Great DM: Talent vs. Experience

DM ScreenIn a recent blog article, Teos Abadia (aka Alphastream) posed the question: Is a good DM “good” because of talent or because of experience? And is there even such a thing as DMing talent?

By way of response, if I have to choose talent or experience, I choose experience. While there may be certain aspects of DMing that some people do “naturally” well, I don’t believe that anyone naturally possesses everything it takes to be a good DM. Further, I believe that everyone can learn enough of the skills necessary to be a competent DM through practice and experience. And even those natural abilities some people have can be honed further through experience.

That being said, I think that the article misses the heart of the issue by asking a question that is only tangentially related to what we all (DMs and soon-to-be DMs alike) ask at some point. The real question at the heart of the matter is this:

Can you learn to be a good DM?
Or, asked in a more personal way,
How can I become a better DM?

“Experience or Talent?” is a theoretical question. “How can I improve?” is a rubber meets the road practical one.

To our more practical question, I believe the answer again is yes. DMing is a skillset, and every skillset can be improved. Naturally, the follow up question is, “What would that take? What sorts of skills does a DM need to develop to be ‘good’?”

Here is my humble, and off the top of my head list. Feel free to make additions in the comments:

My initial response to Alphastream, when he posed the question on Twitter was that every good DM has confidence. If you don’t believe you can handle “off the rails” situations that come up in the game, you’ll freeze when they (inevitably) come up. And the game will suddenly stop. If you feel like you need to reference the rules at every turn, the game will suddenly stop. If you don’t know what to do when the players are floundering with a clue or plot hook… yup, the game will suddenly stop (even if the players don’t know it at the time).

So, what drives confidence? Certainly, some of us have more “confidence” than others, but by and large experience drives confidence. Here are a few things that will give you the confidence to run a fun game:

Knowing the rules – and knowing when to bend them. To be a good DM, you have to know the rules. Enough of the rules to get by, that is. You don’t need to have the books memorized, but you do need to know generally how the system works. As you DM more, and run into more situations, you’ll get better at this because you’ll see how the rules work in various situations.

Preparation. If you feel more prepared, you’ll be more confident. But what does that preparation look like? For some, it means knowing the game world and its NPCs like the back of their hand. For others, it simply means a couple of general notes about where the session could be headed. Still others create cool terrain layouts for their groups. The point is, whatever preparation makes you feel more comfortable about a session, do that.

Experience with different groups. Let’s face it: if you DM for the same group every week, you’re going to get a feel for what your group will do in certain situations. And you can prepare for that. In my experience, a really good DM can create a fun game for any group that sits down at their table. The best way to get this kind of experience is to DM for one of the major conventions. One year, I DM’d the Delve at Gencon, and ran for 24 very different groups of 6 players over the course of a single weekend. Talk about a great experience! (And it was fun!)

Social Skills
If Confidence comes from knowing the game and being prepared to run the game, then Social Skills covers the “people interaction” side of things – because let’s face it, RPGs are social games. Social skills are required to run them.

I’ve had many DMs over the course of my D&D “career.” I’ve been heavily involved in Organized Play (OP), and attending conventions means that pretty much every time you sit down to play an adventure, you have a different DM. So I’ve seen the gamut. (I’ll never forget the DM who didn’t even speak loudly enough to be heard over the din of the convention hall). Far and away, the best DMs I’ve run into had the same three traits:

  • They smiled and laughed along with us
  • They conveyed their own excitement for the game
  • They figured out a way to say “yes” or at least “no, but you can…”

Of course, there are more facets to the social skills you need to run a good game – you also have to be aware enough to make sure all players are included, and that no one is getting offended, for example. But smiling, conveying excitement, and helping the players do awesome stuff is a pretty good start.

The good news is, the RPG community has more tools for aspiring DMs that it has ever had in the past. Twitter, Blogs, Books, Conventions…there is literally more information that you could possibly ingest, and it’s all there to help you become a better DM. So go out there, ingest some of it, and then try it. There is no better way to become a good DM than experience.

What do you think? Did I miss something in my list of things a good DM needs? Leave it in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Becoming a Great DM: Talent vs. Experience

  1. Pingback: Talent vs Experience | Alphastream

  2. Steve Nathan

    Thanks, Brian!
    I agree 100%. I, myself, love building all kinds of do-dads, I love GM handouts, from mini ancient tomes, to whole paper villages!

    Now, if I could just find players… ;)


  3. Pingback: Finding a Great DM: Experience vs Talent | TheSheDM

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