A few weeks ago I had an idea and I pitched it to my friend the NewbieDM:
What if we created a series of dual posts comparing the views of a new DM and one with 25+ years of experience? We would pick a subject and each write an opinion post about it and cross link it.
The idea was accepted nearly instantly and we sat on it, waiting for a great subject to start the series.
Then NewbieDM hit paydirt with the following Tweet:
I wish one day I’d be lucky to play D&D with a DM as great as the DMGs’ hope to create. The DMG2 is awesome for storytellers.
This was too good a subject to pass up.
So we agreed to discuss what it take to be a great GM. Not merely a good one, but a GREAT one!
Here’s my stab at this…
What IS a great GM?
Great GMs will run amazing games 9 times out of 10. While not necessarily extroverted, they irradiate clear enthusiasm for whatever game they run and Zen-like confidence that whatever happens during a session, fun will be had by all.
Great GMs know they are good but always try to become better, shaping their GMing styles to fit with their group’s changing needs. When they happen to run a game that isn’t stellar, they note down what went wrong, check with players for feedback and move on without insecurity or self-flagellation.
Great GMs will also foster favorable gaming conditions to maximize everyone’s fun. They will develop an accurate sense of the key motivators of all players, get to understand their own and work these motivations into their adventures. Even when caught with the intricacies of game mechanics, they will sense subtle changes in a group’s dynamics and react to help channel the energy toward maximum.
Great GMs know that table authority only goes as far as what the players are willing to grant. They know that it isn’t inherited by the position. They will foster bidirectional trust between themselves and the players and facilitate trust between players, irrespective of the actions of PCs.
Great GMs are great mediators and will try their best to resolve conflicts around the table. However, they also know when to walk away from a failing game or excise fundamentally selfish players from their games. When a game does fail, they learn from it, move on, start a new game or even invite others to get on the GMing seat to foster the growth of new, possibly great GMs.
The Elements of Great GMs.
In my opinion, great GMs shine more through their social abilities than their mastery of the rules or the originality of the scenario they’re playing.
Great GMs possess the following social skills:
- Great Communicators: They are dynamic speakers that can convey complex information in simple and entertaining ways.
- High Empathy: They can read their players, sense moods and react accordingly
- Active Listening: They pay close attention to what players are saying and use what is said to shape game decisions.
- Fair: They treat all players equally and adjudicate game situations in a neutral, consistent fashion
Of course, technical skills are not negligible. Understanding the rules of a role playing game and being able to refer to rules rapidly (or make fair rulings on the go that make sense), are important aspects. Great GMs will usually internalize the algorithms of a game and use them to guide adventure design (be it pre-prepared or improvised).
Dude, that’s a long list! No one’s that good!
But more importantly, Great GMs are not just the figment of this here GM. They exist, I’ve seen them in action. There aren’t enough of them, I’ll grant that. You have to be on the lookout for them. I strongly believe it’s the job of older GMs (like me and others) to foster more of them. The hobby desperately needs more Great GMs.
The thing is, all I’ve listed above are habits and skills that everyone can learn, save one. If a GM refuses to recognize that they could get better, then they’ll never achieve great GM status.
How long must one work to become a Great GM? I’d say years, many years. There are certain core lessons of GMing that no amount of Forum posts, blog posts and Game Master Guides will teach, especially the social and other ‘soft’ skills. For those, only time at the table can teach… and often the lessons are painful and hard to swallow, the temptation to ignore them is high, so you need to learn them several times before they ‘take’.
(Putting one’s motivation ahead of the players’, or assuming that one’s motivation are the one true way to play are two examples of habits we have a hard time changing )
Heck, I’ve been at it for 26 years now and while I know I’m a very good GM, I can’t claim to have reached the great stage yet. But that doesn’t prevent me from striving to get there eventually and I encourage all GMs who want to get better to aim for that Greatness. I know I’ll get there someday!
To do so, aspiring GMs should set goals to reach and constantly try new things at the table. Failure is likely, but learning to brush it off while absorbing the lessons of such failures is one of the traits of Great GMs. My own game reports and ‘Lessons Learned’ are the tools I use to get better and I work at specific goals, like becoming a better improv GM.
Anyway, suffice it to say that whatever you may have heard or thought about GMing, developing social skills are far more important than knowing the rules or building the perfect game world.
Do you agree or not? Tell me what you think and how you would define great GMing.
Have you ever seen such GMs?
Now let’s have a look at what NewbieDM has to say about this. (The post is up!)
I hope you liked this new format, I think it’s got potential!