Saturday 29 December 2012

On DMing Strengths and Weaknesses

I introduced my old friend Nate, who keeps an irregular blog, to RPGs around about a year and a half ago, and he is now running a LotFP campaign set in a fantastical simulacrum of real-world Finland. It is interesting to see somebody's DMing-style develop. I was in (I think) the first session of a game he DM'd, and so I have seen him progress from a novice to a regular, running proper campaigns. (Little Nathan has all grown up.)

What is most interesting about this is that I have noticed that Nate is very strong in two areas that I see as my weaknesses - creating very memorable NPCs on the fly, and creating a more fairy-tale kind of a mood. My NPCs tend to blend together, unless I put on a funny voice or accent, being universally sarcastic, cynical, mean-spirited, and rather unhelpful. (Except if they are women, in which case they are just overtly flirtatious, even if they are 80 years old.) I'm not sure why this is the case, but it's definitely the area I need to improve on most.

And the mood of my games leans towards the gritty; I don't do the fantastical very well. Nate has a good line in the fairy-tale-esque - I'm not sure how intentional it is, but there is a heavy dose of the Brothers Grimm and a (very dark and bleak) Hans Christian Andersen in his work. I like the tone of my games, but I would also like to be able to vary it, and bring in some fairy-tale flavouring from time to time.

It's interesting, don't you think, that learning from other people's DMing style is something that is almost never remarked upon in the RPG blogosphere? It's often noted that people who blog are very good at creating content (monsters, spells, maps, etc.) but very poor at discussing more fundamental issues like how to be a good DM. I'm reminded once again of Zeb Cook's advice in the 2nd edition AD&D DMG: "Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one". That must start off with learning from others, but in general it is something we tend not to talk about.


  1. Alotta people GM because nobody else will most of the time.

    G+ has changed this for me.

    1. I've heard this before, but most of the groups I've been involved with have had more than one people who really want to GM.

      What have you learned from watching other people GM on G+?

    2. There's me watching Jeff...

    3. Oh, and I knew this instinctively but I can tell you watching other people GM has definitely driven it home: speed of response might just be the most important thing

  2. To me at least these observations are equal parts nteresting and odd.

    I'm with Zak regarding the fact that usually every gang of friends has but one or two people willing to be the GM. In my experience, it's usually a large number who don't want to GM and a bare handful that don't want to play (like me), so it works out quite nicely.

    I tend to be style adaptive to some extent, shifting slightly depending on the genre and the type of players I have. I run Superheroes grittier these days for example, since the Players I have prefer Image, Wildstorm and Dark Horse to Silver Age DC (which is my preferred style).

    Universal constants are fast action, memorable NPCs of various types and unusual environmental conditions.

    I'll agree that 'Advice on being a better GM' would be a welcome series of posts but I don't think you aren't seeing such content out there in an indirect way. Many of the blogs I follow generate very little in the way of character, creature or item write-ups and fewer still have that as their focus.

    Certainly Jeff Rients, Zak, Age of Ravens, Blacksteel of Tower of Zenopus, Ark of Rather Gamey, you and I* don't seem to generate all that many posts statting up monsters, magic items or the like.

    *I don't actually follow my OWN blog. That would be silly. Oh course, I have to wonder what I'm up to these days. Hmmm.

    1. You may be right about not many blogs writing up monsters, items, etc., now that I think about it.

      But you still don't see many people talking about how to be a better GM. For what it's worth, I'm not very interested in lecture style, "How to be a better GM" posts. I'm more interested in "How I am trying to be a better GM" posts, or perhaps "This is what I have learned about my GMing" posts. If you see what I mean.

    2. A lot of the most useful advice is pretty game-specific. Eg from being a player in a 4e game, I learnt that GM's trick of removing half the fights/encounters from published adventures, and saving them for later as possible wandering monsters. Immediately turns a dreary grind into an exciting, dynamic environment. That advice applies to Pathfinder or 3e D&D modules as much as to 4e D&D I guess, but might be irrelevant in eg AD&D where the game already has robust systems for creating dynamic environments.

  3. Everyone has strengths in weaknesses in everything they do. A brilliant GM capitalizes on his strengths, while shoring up his weaknesses as much as he is able.

  4. The best advice to GMs: be a Player! It's amazing what you learn from the other side of the table. You see things you'd never have thought of that the other guy/girl does great, and you see them do stuff badly and are reminded that you're pretty good at that. :) I learn more about GMing from 4 hours playing with a new GM than I do from 400 hours of reading blogs and articles.

  5. Thanks for commenting on my style! I stopped blogging in December as time closed in, but will be writing more soon including my AP thoughts from my side of the table.

  6. This made me remember a comment by Jeff Rients (somewhere on his blog, copy/pasted some time ago):

    "The amount of objective GMing advice I can offer is very small.

    *Don't eat the dice.

    *Don't set the players on fire.

    *Always wear a condom.

    That's about it."

  7. As one of the three or so DMs in my current group, I take notes on what the others do differently. I try to improve my game by incorporating things they do better than I do, but I don't worry about it, it is an urge to self-improvement.
    You know you're doing it right if your players have fun.