Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What makes a good DM?

I recently asked this question on two yahoo groups and got some cool responses. I thought I'd post them here:
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Realizing that you are there to contribute to the overall fun of a group, and knowing what your group wants in the composition of its game sessions. A good feel for pacing, to speed things up when they are slow, or to slow things down to keep them from getting out of hand, and the ability to borrow ideas from a variety of sources and put them to use for yourself.
from Clint Castro
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#1 Commitment. Being a DM requires time and energy to spend planning, reading, etc. A GOOD DM, however, knows this, and makes the commitment to do it.

It's a thankless job, however, in all honesty. You make no money doing it, you're often seen as "the bad guy" that has to say "no, you cannot do this" and some players take it personal when bad things happen to their character (conversation about said players maturity level is beyond the scope of this thread, however).

So it's a commitment out of love for the game, and appreciation for the role of a DM, etc. So commitment is #1 important thing - for its the DMs "JOB" to provide the basis for the fun. It is aesthetically rewarding - so if you're the kind of person that can appreciate aesthetically rewarding activities, then you'll love being a DM.

I have a saying on my campaign-based message board that says, "Often times, being a DM is like peeing in a dark suit. Most of the time no one even notices - but you will get a warm feeling from it for a minute or two."

Personally, I love being DM; because I love sharing my stories, my imagination, my creativity, and I love hosting the games. I enjoy playing D&D as a PC, but I LOVE being DM. And thus I'm committed to it.

#2 requires a good imagination; if that's lacking, you have to work a lot harder to provide the same means - alot more research and attention to details.

#3 Patience. Things rarely unfold during a game that you planned for exactly. Thus it requires patience to take things as they come, patience for dealing with unlevel headed players when things get heated, patience because it sometimes just takes a long LONG time to resolve an encounter.....

#4 Organization. So much to know. So much to read. So much to keep track of during the game. Each player controls 1 PC typically. The DM has to control all 4 orc fighter, the Ogre brute who is controlling them, the drow wizard consort who is masterminding it all; remembering that there's a trap if the PCs during the combat get too close to the throne, that there's grease on the ground from the PC wizard, that wardog is stunned for two rounds but will wake back up, one of the orcs is weaker due to the PC Wizard who cast Ray of Enfeeblement two rounds ago; all the while keeping track of what each player is doing on their turn. AND try to instill a little bit of flavor and roleplaying so that your combat rounds aren't just "He swings. He hits. You take 12 points of damage. He swings. He misses. Okay, your turn."

#5 Non-competitive. Too many DMs IMO consider the game to be about "him vs the players" They try everything they can to make the PCs fail; whether that mean defeating them in encounters, making obstacles so challenging it's impossible to succeed, saying NO to every idea, thwarting all players good ideas, and at worst, killing off PCs at a whim. The DMs role is a "neutral arbiter" a judge. It's okay to make things challenging - it's more rewarding. But it's also important to reward for creative and clever play. When a player makes a bold and creative means to overcome something, the idea is to help facilitate it for the fun - not throw out some DC 80 commentary and laugh at their failure. This is extreme I know - but there are many DMs I've seen have mentality such as this. I make my games challenging, and my players will say that nothing is "handed to them." But I certainly root for them to succeed. It's part of the fun, part of the story. And Fun is the name of the game. So I don't hand them anything, but I don't try to make them fail either; I want the story to continue. I want them to succeed. I think it's important to remember that in order to be a good DM; not to mention it keeps players coming back, when they feel the DM is not against them. When my players succeed at something, I'm often the first person congratulating them.

from Robert Brambley
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Most important I would say, is that both the DM and the Players have fun and enjoy the game. If both of those things are occurring then I would say it is a good game. Other than that I think it can really depend on the group because taste and style seems to vary so greatly these days. Some people like high fantasy others like realistic fantasy (my preference). Some do not care if the game or the plot make sense so long as the action is fun and entertaining, others get really annoyed if the plot does not have some cohesion. I have known people who just want to fight the bad guy (s) and not have to think or worry about it and others who get really bored if there isto much fighting with no reason. Gamers are definitely varied these days, so I think it is harder to define what makes a good DM. I have even encountered people that would rather have a DM make up a rule arbitrarily or on the fly,then take time to look something up. So, it really does take all kinds.Now if you want to know what kind of DM I prefer to play with, that is an entirely different story.

from Cynthia McGillem
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SOUND EFFECTS!!!! LOL j/k I did have a DM once who did sound effects,though. He spoke like the NPCs would speak (be it bold and loud, quiet and meek, country twang, snobby...whatever). The best thing about a DM is their imagination. Yes it takes commitment and a lot of knowledge...but what isall that if there imagination is trash...

from Jennifer Gossett
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First of all, the DM should try as much as he can to follow the rules of the game. I know this seems odd, especially as the first thing, but I have played in too many games where the DM decides that he has his own idea about what happens instead of following the rules about what happens. (This does not include mutually agreed upon homebrew rules however)Second, the DM needs to allow some of what happens in the game to be generated by player interest. Believe it or not, a good DM is a servant of the players, and should not "lord over them" (much like Christ interestingly enough). Forcing the players to rigidly follow the story line (especially if it is linear) leads to boredom on the part of players (at least good players who want to actually role-play their characters)Third, the DM must be able to gauge the interest level of the players in what he is doing, and make changes to his scenario accordingly.Fourth, the DM should always prepare.Fifth, the DM should have a vivid imagination, and be able to draw people into the story.Sixth, the DM needs to do whatever it takes to create tension and intrigue within the story. If this means adding plot twists mid stream, or raising or lowering the Encounter level of a given encounter, it should be done.Well that's enough to generate a good argument I should think.

from Jim Aubuchon
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The most common answer is balance. There's this theory where the players should have a good balance between reward and risk. I can agree with this,but in my mind, the most important factor is fun. If players are having a good time and the DM is having a good time, then that's paramount.This can be tricky. Some players like the bookkeeping, where each little arrow is accounted for in their encumbrance, and where they're tracking things like food and spell components. Others really like games where they don't have to worry about these things. Some players like things to start from the ground up, and I've seen players who wanted to RP their character through the apprentice levels, while others don't really enjoy the game until 5th level when things start getting a bit heroic, and others are not happy until tenth level when things start getting epic.So what makes a good DM varies, and I would say that it depends on the group, and the best DM for that group is one that meets their needs and playing style.

from Nicole Massey
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Three key things:
1. Good storytelling. Whether you're using your own material or someone else's, you need to create the picture in the players' mind that they can dive into.
2. Consistency. Rules help with this, but even those don't always save you from inconsistency. If you're going to read the rules one way, do it all the time.
3. Player's advocacy. The best GMs are more interested in their players having fun than constructing the perfect world or running the perfect game. There is nothing worse than a GM who is narcissistic or out to "get" they players.

from Pete C
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I think James has summarized my feelings on this subject very well. In fact, I think all of his comments apply more generally to gamemastering any game, not just dungeonmastering.I would add the following. When I play in a game (I have mostly GM'ed in my gaming life), gamemasters I enjoy the most have the following three traits:* They listen. Nothing makes me more angry at a gamemaster than one who doesn't seem to be paying attention to what the players are saying.* They collaborate. Instead of doing their own thing, with me along for the ride, they are actually reacting to what the players are doing. I get the sense that they will be just as surprised as I am by what happens in the game.* They get to the "Good Stuff". The "Good Stuff" varies wildly from game to game: tough and interesting fights; dramatic situations with hard choices; unconstrained in-character interactions; and opportunities for derring-do, to name a few. But these gamemasters know what "Good Stuff" this group of players want from this particular game, and they do their best to maximize the amount of it on offer.

from Hans
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An iron fist, bow down worms!!!!! no?, One key ability of a DM is to adapt the story to what the characters do.

from Isaac Tim
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Imagination. The ability to craft a story, regardless of levels, that draws the players into it and keeps them enthralled while allowing them leeway tobring their character to life within the world you have crafted. So, those who say, "Levels above (X) just can't be challenged, or you need gods to challenge them." are already at a disadvantage. The good DM can find something to keep ANY level of character entertained and challenged/threatened. (Without including deities in a direct confrontation.) Imagination. All else is secondary. But some of those secondary skills are nearly as important. The ability to keep the game moving smoothly, which in turn requires knowledge of the rules to the point of total comfort. Know the rules and you'll also be ready for the rules lawyers lurking out there.If there IS a second most valuable skill in the good DM, it's probably storytelling. It's possible to design a masterpiece of an adventure, with wonderful adversaries and enthralling action, only to have it fall on its face because the real "feeling" of the story never got across. Imagine someone reading The Lord of The Rings to you in a constant monotone and dead even pace. Be extravagant in your description. Don't be afraid to try different accents in the voices of your NPC's. Stand up and wave your arms to show them the vast expanse of the prairie before them. Mood lighting and music can do wonders. Make them feel the story you wrote.Know when to say "No." Some players are a fine combination of shameless munchkin and shameless beggar/con man. If you aren't on your toes, andready to stop them, before you know it vorpal weapons are SOP and you have a bevy of mages with Wish in their spellbooks. Don't let a player dictate the goals of the adventure. That's your job. That covers SOME of the most important aspects, I think. As soon as I hit"Send", I'm sure I'll think of something that makes me bang my head on the keyboard. But that's after you get this.

from Rick Stevens
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I think number one is fairness. If you're able to make things challenging but not impossible for the players, you're doing a good job. Failure and death should be real possibilities, but so should success and big time rewards.After that comes an ability to keep the game moving. This translates into a thorough knowledge of the rules and the willingness and ability to wing it when necessary. Nothing bogs down an adventure more than, "Hang on, let me look that up" in the middle of an exciting action.If you get those two down I think everything else falls into place. Yes you need creativity and imagination, but I think most 1ed DM's are going to have at least a bit of those.

from Jeff Allison
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I have mostly lucked here since joining but this conversation has drawn me out. I could not agree more with Hans and James. A good game master, no matter what game he or she is involved in, must know the rules of the game but at the same time be flexible. He or she must have a good idea of the story but at the same time be willing to work with the players when they do something unexpected. Just a note, I have been roleplaying for 25 years, very briefly as a gamemaster (It is not my thing) and mostly as a player. I always enjoy a good game master as they can both give the game a life of its own and bring out the best in the players. Hans by the way is my gamemaster and the best I have played under in 25 years. God Bless Paul Smart
Organized. A DM needs to be organized in that s/he has to keep track of and manage a great number of things, past, present, and future.But the definition of "organized" will vary dramatically, depending very much upon the group. Some are compulsive bookkeepers who keep tremendous lists of everything and have written house rules for everything. Others keep it all in their heads and make each decision based upon the current circumstances.

from Bryan “Winemaker”
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Definitely an emphasis on Imagination and Creativity though..If the PCs can see it coming, it will tend to take some of the anticipation and excitement out of it. If they feel like the DM has it out for them, eventually they are right and won't come back..Yes it's a game but it can't ever get to DM vs Players..And yes, a good DM in IMHO is flexible and rewards ideas that are plausible and creative by the players..Definitely helps the player feel good about their own creativity and contribution to the game and spurs them further on... Be rewarding that player to a degree, it also can set an example for other players...Thus collectively all the players might eventually become fully engaged...WHAT A GAME you have then!!! As to the idea of "handing things to them"...I think in some cases it is a good thing but only when the players don't know it was that way if possible..If they know something was handed to them it leads to expectation of surviving, getting the gold, etc and again takes away from the excitement of the unknown..."RPG Hero's sitcom/movie" When you know no matter what or how bad it is, at the end of the day the hero saves the day.. I would give a thumbs up to my current DM Dave.. Don't ever know what direction that sucker is gonna go with things..LOL.. Its a love hate thing, kinda like marriage..lol Just kidding..Game on.

from Jim
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Hmmm being a good DM. Knowing the rules and knowing when to make them up, or using your own ideas. When using store bought stuff, knowing when to deviate with your own ideas. Knowing when to let them die, and when to survive. Because party whipes should mean the DM sucks, unless everyone in the party is a raving idiot lol. Knowing when to use roleplay, combat and puzzles. Too much of any one thing can be a mood kill. Knowing who or what will imbalance the game, and make it not fun or unfair to others. I think these are the basic principles of being a good DM.

from Steven Hatchell
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Jim wants a good argument, and I might be the person to give it to him. He begins:*****First of all, the DM should try as much as he can to follow the rules of the game. I know this seems odd, especially as the first thing, but I have played in too many games where the DM decides that he has his own idea about what happens instead of following the rules about what happens.*****I feel a bit odd arguing against this, because I built my reputation by being the most by-the-book referee out there. On the other hand, E. R. Jones (my co-author of Multiverser) built his reputation on the statement that whatever the referee decides is decided. When we caught on, we would say that he would have us roll the dice so that he could decide what he actually wanted to have happen. He had a knack for telling a story and making us feel like we were part of it.Thus I began to recognize that there was more than one way to run a game. In fact, in http://ptgptb.org/0027/theory101-02.html Theory 101: The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, I catalogue four distinct referee styles--Illusionism (in which the referee controls everything but the players are deceived into believing that their actions matter), Participationism (in which the referee controls everything but the players are quite aware of this and enjoy adding color and being made to feel part of it), Trailblazing (in which the referee carefully determines what the players should do and lays out the clues for them, but it's up to the players to succeed or fail at this), and Bass Playing (in which the referee creates the setting and the initial circumstances but from there interacts with the players who through their character actions are creating the story).It is also important to understand the difference between "rules" and "system", outlined in http://ptgptb.org/0026/theory101-01.html Theory 101: System and the Shared Imagined Space. As the Lumpley Principle puts it, system is the means by which participants at the table reach agreement concerning the content of the shared imagined space. It is really an unwritten set of rules for social interaction, a "this is how we create the story" concept that is implicitly shared by those involved. If that system allows one participant, the referee, the credibility to override "rules" for the sake of "story", then that is part of the system, even if it goes against what is stated in the "rules". What "rules" are is simply an authority to which participants can appeal within the system, that is, that any player (including the referee) can at any time say that the outcome is "X" because of a certain rule stated in the book. However, the system always includes assumptions concerning who gets to decide which rules apply when and how. That is, if you rolled a natural "always hits" twenty against a creature "hit only by +2 or better weapons", the rules might not make it clear whether that "always hits" applies in this case. The system comes into play at that point. Is it up to the referee to decide these things unilaterally, or do the players reach a consensus concerning how that ought to be understood in their game? The system tells us who gets to decide how to understand and apply the rules.The problem Jim identifies is not that a referee doesn't "know the rules" nor that he doesn't "follow the rules". It is, rather, that the referee believes that the system gives him the credibility to override the rules and at least one of the players thinks otherwise. That means that despite having agreed to "play D&D4e" we are not really playing the same game, because each of us brought different suppositions to the table as to how we were to use the authority of the rules in establishing the credibility of participants in creating the shared imagined space. That is, the referee apparently believes that playing D&D4e means he should approximate that game, use its tables and such, but exercise his extensive credibility as referee to override any rule that does not enhance the game experience he is attempting to create, while the player apparently believes that he can expect the referee to follow the letter of the rules as the player understands them.The rest of what Jim says suits me fine.I would, however, re-emphasize this point: there are many different ways to tell a story. One of the most gratifying statement any game critic ever made about our Multiverser: First Book of Worlds was that we grasped many different approaches to storytelling and incorporated them into the designs of our various scenarios. A referee can be good if he can adapt to one particular way of telling a story and do it well every time; but to be great, I think he has to be able to adapt to different referee styles, to know how to tell a story in which the player is in control of everything and the referee does no more than respond to player choices, or one in which the referee has created a story and is leading the player to discover the clues, or one in which the player's decisions in some way actually do not matter at all. My http://gamingoutpost.com/article/left_or_right/ Game Ideas Unlimited: Left or Right? addresses this aspect of taking away the impact of player choices when they shouldn't matter. I should probably also mention http://gamingoutpost.com/article/invisible_coins/ Game Ideas Unlimited: Invisible Coins in connection with referee techniques.I hope this helps.

from M. J. Youngmjyoung@mjyoung.net
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Easy to do unless you surround yourself with friends that treat youbadly to begin with, don't have the maturity to try to change thingsBEFORE they throw a fit at the table, and who think they are owedwhatever they want.Frankly, I keep friends with ethics and integrity, but you are quiteright. Not all people do that, and will have to sacrifice part of theenjoyability of their game to players/friends who take thingspersonally and treat you or your players poorly.For me, it's simple: This is my home. If you wouldn't treat me thatway as a guest in my home, don't treat me that way in the game.Result: Very happy players with smooth games, no drama or grief,disagreements that don't result in hard feelings.

from McKenzie Calhoun
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I have a good example of this type of thing.I was introduced to this guy named Steve, which is my real name (not my internet name).Anyways to make it simple we called him by his stage name. Because he's a b-day magician. "Mystic Marlo"!He lived in a tiny residential motel, and wasn't a bad DM per say. But he loved to pick on my friend, and the stuff he made off the cuff wasn't bad.. But it had alot of potential fatal things. More so than I'd do at low level games. However as much as I enjoyed gaming wit "mystic marlo" his place too small, and not enough gamers.So my idea proposed was to get some of my friends involved with a game ran by myself and have "Mystic Marlo" join us so we could all get to know him so everyone could see what his gaming style and demeanor was like to see if he could run a game for me and my close friends. Well apparently "Mystic Marlo" sucked at being a player compared to his ok DM'ing skills. He kept going on a bored tangent and nearly getting into an all out brawl with my friend Jason, (who could be often very annoying himself) and who we always picked on him for being single (with the joke being "There's a reason for that")So anyways, we stopped gaming with "Mystic Marlo" for his poor manners, and common sense.It was a shame he couldn't control himself and just bear and grin running a player character for once. Otherwisel, we might have enjoyed playing characters in his "mediocre game".

from Steven Hatchell
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As a DM I started creating complex storylines for my game, but was finding that my player, who originally liked my ideas, becoming dissatisfied with the game, and I ask myself why, and it came to me, in the beginning it's my story, but after the first session it becomes their story. So I fixed it: now I create the storyline only up to the beginning of the game, and then instead of writing an in-depth story arc, I instead create scenarios that happen unless the characters chose to get involved. For example, the game starts with two warring kingdoms, if the players don't get involved in that storyline, Prince "A" defeats Prince "B" in a horrible battle a month (in-game time) after the game begins, but as soon as the players get involved what happens next is up to them.

from Isaac Tim
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Arrgh, too close to the mark , I'm sad to say I was a "Mystic Marlo", folks liked me being a DM, but I was rotten player, combative and dismissive of other players and other gaming styles (and thats puting it lightly), but I ended up with a "Me" one of my games, and I was like, hmmm, I'm also being huge jerk, a poor friend and on my way to becoming single, so I stopped playing like a jerk.

from Isaac Tim
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lol, wow! I almost thought you really were mystic marlo! I'd be more than happy to shake hands with that fool if I had the chance. With time we all change, and my friend Isaac Timm. Glad to hear your words because that means you've become wiser for your experience and becoming aware of it. I've probably had my experiences at being a bad dm, when not everyone fit into my can of worms. Or a player of mine wasn't kept in check quick enough and I lost gamers because of it.Well met! Your words mean I'd accept you as a friend and good gamer for saying them!

from Steven Hatchell
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D&D, and other table top Role-Playing games are social games, so the most important rules are the social ones around the table. What really helped me be better Role-player, Dm, and a nicer person is I develop other interests (Role-playing is still by favorite hobby), Basketball oddly enough, and of course reading. My suggestion for being a good DM is to reading alot of everything. Read alot, and read more then fantasy, you don't have to read War and Peace, but if do..you get two things out of it, you get to read War and Peace, and you get ideas for your games. And if reading isn't your thing, watch a lot of movies, because the most important thing as a DM is getting story ideas. The rules will work themselves out, D&D has the rules pretty well spelled out (in all its Editions)the biggest task of a DM is making the game enjoyable, if you and your playerd are not have fun, then what is the point?

from Isaac Tim
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I was waiting for that one.

Hmmm, i don't know much about being a DM, but what i do know is the most important thing about DM'ing is to make the game enjoyable. Even if the story goes out the window, the Half-Orc Barbarian marries the Princess and the Bard gets the frog, if the players enjoy it, it is a good game. If the game isn't enjoyable, it is not a good game.

Also, as a player, my pet hate so far in our campaign is when the DM makes a judgement on a spell or rule, then two or three sessions later the ruling gets changed without any warning. If you make a ruling stick with it. If it appears overpowering *inform* the players *before* a game session. There is nothing more frustrating, as a player, to have a rule changed one day, then have it changed back another day, then changed another day into something else, during game play. Nothing wrong if it was changed before the session. Nothing wrong with that at all (got to keep overpowering rules in check you understand), but changing it in the middle of someones turn without any prior warning is very annoying. My advice in that instance is to allow it, then at the end of the session / beginning of the next gaming session say "This ruling i made X weeks ago, is now being changed because it is overpowering". That is 100,000,000,000% times better than having it changed in the middle of someones turn.

I guess, bottom line of DM'ing is to try and make the game as enjoyable as possible without anything crazy happening (unless you want something crazy to happen!! It is your world after all).

from KnightMaramon
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It's just like any type of artistic pursuit. Good DM's barrow. Great DM's steal. If you are trying to do something that no one has ever done before in a role playing game you are already starting with a strike against you. Everything has already been done before and it is better to figure out what others have done before to make a game shine than come up with your own way to make a game shine.Also a good trick to cut down on some of your work if you are running a complex plot driven game is have your characters write up a synopsis up to the current gaming session for some bonus experience. Once I have these synopsis I can use the information to create a reference book for my game. This way I can keep up the detail necessary for my campaign and I can keep track of how my characters affect my world.Mike Stoler
I concur with the synopsis. I have each player write a 'journal' from their character's perspective which they post on the campaign-message board.

I don't give out bonus XP; as an incentive and reward, however, I allow those who do to re-roll their hit points when they advance (if the first roll was unsatisfying for them).

Suprisingly, even with that incentive its still only done about 50% of the time. Usually the people who do it - would probably do it anyway even if there wasn't the incentive; and the people who don't probably wouldn't regardless of what the incentive was.

But the journals that do appear do help shape things, helps get inside the characters mind for goals, aspirations, perceptions etc, for making things more 'personal' within the campaign. Of could those character who do participate get a lot more out of the games, too, since as a DM, I have more PC-specific material to work with.

Like anything I suppose, you get out of it - what you put into it.

from Robert Brambley
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We DMs are, first and foremost, judges who arbitrate encounters between players, monsters and NPC's. Second, we set the adventure by authoring a prologue and generating series of logically connected encounters that give the whole enterprise a "storyline" if you will. We're not writers and directors leading players scene to scene. Rather we set up the milieu and let the players develop the story with their decisions and actions as they move through the adventure. Our imaginations set up the milieu, the players' imaginations create the final story. As long there is that partnership between the playersand the DM, the whole game is a success. Anything less is notconducive to good game play.

from Dan Presley
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In other words, if the players enjoy playing under your guidance then that's a good DM.

from Azador
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That's a "successful" DM. Is that the same as "good"? Does it matter? :-)

from Winemaker
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I have played with some pretty good dm but the players are what makes the game fun or not to me. If a new dm as good players he or she can learn alot from the players in the group if they are willing to teach a new dm. As a rule that i would gave any new dm keep simple .

from Anthony Kuntz
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I thought about editing alot of it, but that might miss some of the flavor of their ideas, and they are all really good ideas, from some really good people.

Cheers,

Chris
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