Do You Know that Good DM People Talk About? I Hate that Guy

Do you know that good DM everyone always talks about? I hate that guy. Actually, the guy could be a gal. We’ve never met. I just imagine a guy so I can picture myself punching him. Does that make me a bad person?

I’m sure plenty of good dungeon masters read this blog. I love you folks. I hope I play at your table.

The DM I hate is some guy people keep talking about. Shut up about a good DM.

Apparently, we DMs have to put up with grief because a good DM can fix it.

If an adventure suffers from poor organization, lapses in logic, dull encounters, weak hooks, or any other faults, a good DM can fix it. Any of us who struggle with it obviously don’t measure up to a good DM.

That good DM must think he’s so great.

When it comes to role-playing games, a good DM is willing to forgive any lapse and eager to fix any fault. No amount of extra effort is too much for the guy.

Has a rule ever caused trouble in your game? A good DM just patches problems with house rules. His players never mind stumbling across extra rules locked in a good DM’s head. A good DM apparently never runs a table for strangers in organized play.

To a good DM, broken character features don’t exist. If anything consistently lets one character outshine the others, a good DM just designs encounters to single out and thwart the overpowered character. A good player doesn’t mind.

I suspect a lot of companies print adventures with a good DM in mind. They know that he reads a 256-page adventure like a novel and masters every word. A good DM hates white space and headings. Cram more text on the page! A good DM doesn’t need an index.

When a good DM uses a published adventure, he prefers sandboxes that lack hooks that draw characters through a narrative. Such hooks might lead players to think that, say, questing for the sun sword stands as a more valid choice than opening an inn in Barovia. That’s too close to railroading!

I think good improvisation skills help a DM, but a good DM improvises as much as possible. Game prep only tempts bad DMs to limit their players’ options. To a good DM, my game preparation must seem unsavory.

A good DM hates boxed text. How dare a writer put words in his mouth? For some reason, a good DM can fix anything but boxed text.

So you can see why a good DM gets my goat. Any time I have trouble in my game, someone tells me why a good DM never suffers the same problems. Any time I claim that a role-playing product could be better, someone always tells me that good DM would just fix it. I can’t measure up.

I wonder if auto mechanics enjoy driving unreliable cars because they know a good mechanic can replace the parts that fall off.

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24 Responses to Do You Know that Good DM People Talk About? I Hate that Guy

  1. Absolute best; you’ve pushed on a seriously sore spot. In my dreams maybe one day I’ll be a “good DM.”

  2. Jon says:

    I do think there’s some truth to to this though, minus the judgmental side of it. Running Tyranny of Dragons, you can either wallow in complaints about the disorganized presentation and sometimes scant content (“it’s more like an adventure outline!”) and let that come through to disillusion your players, or you can use it as a launching point to pull in community suggestions and put your own stamp on it. Yes, that’s more effort, but I’ve found it really rewarding.

    And it’s also true, that cases of overpowered character options or shaky encounter building rules can oven-times be much more easily overcome in the particular than they can in the general. So, yes, I think a “good” DM is able to make the game work sometimes in spite of the rules.

    But, I do hear your frustration and sympathize with it.

  3. Josh says:

    “I suspect a lot of companies print adventures with a good DM in mind.”
    No joke, I said this just the other day. When you write content for a living there is a push to be too clever and it becomes unhelpful and burdensome.

  4. snazzy says:

    I 100% agree with this. I don’t know who the super-genius, ultra-empathetic, supremely charismatic, has-12-hours-of-free-time-to-prep, “good DM” is, but man their campaign must be awesome. Maybe Chris Perkins?

    I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder and the first three chapters of the adventure presented nothing but trouble for me. The opening town is destroyed by cloud giants raining rocks from the heavens. The party leaves the town and is immediately confronted by a cloud giant tower and the adventure just assumes the players are a-ok with going up there. They just learned that cloud giants completely wrecked the town and now they’re supposed to blindly trust that they’re not about to get wrecked? Also in Nightstone I asked my players to deliver a letter to Bryn Shander, since I thought the Bryn Shander encounter sounded really fun (it was). When I told my players that it would be about a 30 day travel up the Sword Coast to get there they were like “uh… yeah, we’re not delivering that letter.”

    I had to tell my players that I had a bunch of stuff planned out if they hopped aboard the plot hook express and otherwise I’d just be improving for 3+ hours. The book makes it sound so reasonable that OF COURSE the players will want to go to the cloud giant tower, OF COURSE they’ll want to travel halfway across the world for a peasant they never met. But in reality, it requires some serious lack of critical attention, which I guess a “good DM” will anticipate and plan around.

    My players still joke that they were kidnapped by the cloud giant and held captive for months before being dropped off in the frozen wastes.

    • So here’s how you handle the situations above:

      Storm King problem: Instead of presenting them with a tower they choose to go into, set up a bunch of different plot hooks (including false leads) that bring them to some ruin, temple, cave, dungeon, etc. Once they’re in, have a trap activate in a room that results in a teleportation into the top level of the tower, with the only way out being a battle through to the bottom in order to escape. There, plot hook fixed.

      Bryn Shander: “I asked my players to deliver a message to Bryn Shander, but it was going to take 30 days and they didn’t want to.” Then provide incentive. Offer them a ton of money upon competion or some magic items. Hell, offer them an ADVANCE if they’ll agree to do it. Let me ask you this: If I ask you to take a message to a friend of mine 3000 miles away, are you going to do it? No? What if I offered to also pay you $100,000?

      If you lack the ability to provide plot hooks, that’s ok! That’s a skill you develop over years of creative story telling. I would recommend doing some research into things like the illusion of choice. Give your players options, but at the end of the day, ensure the situations all point to the same road.

      The easiest way to do this is to start at the end point, and then provide at least 3 hooks for how to get there. Example: We need to get to the end of the Cloud Giant’s Tower. Hook 1: The player’s choose to venture there voluntarily upon hearing about it. Hook 2: The players are offered a large reward for taking care of the tower by a powerful person/creature. Hook 3: The player’s are forced into the situation via an ambush or trap.

      Same goes for Bryn Shander. Hook 1: Player’s choose to venture there after being asked. Hook 2: Player’s are incentivized. Hook 3: Player’s are forced to go in that direction via a mechanism such as an invading enemy force, an overwhelming enemy that knocks them out, or really any other creative reason (like a very high level rogue slipping sleeping poison into their canteens one night so that your players are all knocked out and then captured, sold into slavery, and shipped to Bryn Shander where you’re released by another group of adventurers who happened upon the slavers.)

      There’s a lot of REALLY easy ways to do this. Just open your mind a bit and think of what would compel YOU to go to these places, then give those options to your players.

      • snazzy says:

        I appreciate the response! I’ve learned a lot about motivation and incentives from this campaign. Chapter 3 of SKT forced me to really innovate there, since the plot basically stops until you meet up with Harshnag, and getting to that point is up to the DM. If I had to run Chapter 1 again, I’d do it differently. I’d maybe establish a relationship with one of the players and the NPC that died (assuming I even go with that as the reason to travel to Bryn Shander). Alternately I’d just have Nightstone be closer to Bryn Shander. Then it makes sense to go to the nearest big city and report the giant activity is going on.

        My complaint lays more in how I basically did what the book recommended, trusting that it would make sense and my players would want to do what the book suggests. And it turns out that it doesn’t really work. Which is disheartening! I’m a pretty new DM and so when the campaign book I spent all this money on has issues which require significant patching in the very beginning, it shakes some confidence in the product. The whole point of me buying a campaign was so I could game with less prep time required.

  5. Dan says:

    Only one rule at my table: Have Fun! (Even if the DM isn’t “good”)

    If I make a mistake or forget what an NPC said last session, we laugh about it, consult player notes, I make a decision and we move on. But it can get very tense around the table when your wife is the most serious player in the party and you just rolled a critical against her in a deadly encounter.

    I paid for it later – I had disadvantage on any husband-wife interactions for a solid week!

    • I got caught improvising when the pushed past and undermined what I did have planned for a session. Not being ready to commit to a dungeon crawl I gave them a large encounter at the entrance to fight through that would end the session nicely…. accept I overestimated what they could handle and 2 shot both my husband AND my daughter’s characters. That was 3 months ago… I’m still cleaning up that mess.

  6. Love this one, David. Really funny and relatable. FWIW, your articles have improved my DMing leaps and bounds. When I’m not happy with the way something went down in one of my own sessions, I tell my players, “Sorry, guys. DM David could have fixed it.” 😉

  7. Great article! I know that guy too, hate him.

    I must be a bad DM because I love boxed text and even though I own all the super-modules released for 5E in the last few years the only ones I have the energy and focus to read are short adventures I find at rpgnow….if it’s over 32 pages long I stick it on the shelf and forget about it!

    I have a Saturday group that occasionally reminisces about their “good DM” who I finally figured out was a guy who ran stuff 15 years ago that they still talk about. Joke’s on them! He disappeared mysteriously long ago and so they’re stuck with me. My definition of the good DM is “The guy actually willing to DM, since no one else is.” I fit that bill nicely!

    • Tim Bohn says:

      I miss dungeon magazine terribly. As I’ve always been a short adventure loving dm.
      Rpgnow, you say? I’ll have to check it out, thx.

  8. Ryan says:

    Maybe you should suck less as a DM?

  9. Tim Bohn says:

    So glad I’ve never considered myself a good dm.
    Great op-ed.

  10. Shawn Merwin says:

    Great article, David, even if the satire is going to be lost on people.

    When we were trying to come up with ways to get feedback on the adventures we ran at conventions, we finally just decided to leave any ranking system off in terms of evaluating the adventure. When sessions went wrong, the players were rating the adventure low and the DM high. When the session went great, people were rating the adventure high and the DM high. We finally just had to let the DMs be the ones who rate the adventures, because they are the ones on the front lines.

  11. Anon says:

    The only issue I’ve had with a ‘good DM’ is when they are overly knowledgable about something, and feel restricted by it. For example, I am very knew to the Warhammer 40k universe, and my DM wouldn’t let me do certain things because “a member of the chapter wouldn’t do that.” (We were playing Deathwatch).

    I can appreciate that, but it really sours my experience of trying to find myself as an individual when I play games and that happens. Part of why we play the characters we do is because they are often the ones who have something about them that is a bit different. Lore should be a guideline, not a restriction. If my character behaves in a manner not in harmony with lore, don’t prevent me from doing it. I would prefer some kind of in game consequences, big or little, to appropriately go along with the behavior.

  12. Shawn Merwin says:

    Since I love this article, and people seem to be missing the point all over the place, I hope this helps:

    The target of this really excellent satirical article (which employs verbal irony) is not good DMs, not bad DMs, not good players, not bad players. The target of this article is me, and people like me. I am in charge of producing (as in writing, editing, proofreading, etc.) D&D and other RPG adventures that run at conventions like Gen Con. So while I am trying to get adventures done, often against a time limit, I might take a shortcut here and there. I’ll leave out important stuff that a DM needs to know, and I rationalize this with “I know this is being run by good DMs, so I can let it go for now.” It is a BS justification on my part–just because I have good DMs to fix problems in the adventure does not excuse me not doing my job.

    It is the same for any RPG creators. We should do our jobs well and not rely on the “good GMs” to fix our mistakes. We should understand how DMs and player consume our products and work to make things that are easy to use. If GMs want to riff on stuff and “roll their own,” that is great too, but it doesn’t excuse the original creator for shoddy work. David doesn’t hate good DMs, and I know he IS a good DM. He is (rightfully) calling out those of us who create the content, reminding us to do our jobs. And the message is certainly appreciated, at least by me.

    • Chris Wachal says:

      It’s not just aimed at you(or even primarily, I think…though there is a facet of that).

      Having had a lot of discussions about D&D on forums and Facebook pages, there is a general attitude among D&D players that you aren’t allowed to complain about the rules or adventures. This is because the attitude is that ALL D&D games are made up on the fly and almost entirely improvised and that the rules are ignored almost 100% of the time.

      A good DM doesn’t run pre-written adventures because a good DM doesn’t want to railroad their players like that. If they choose to use a pre-written adventure, it is mostly as inspiration for their (obviously) much better adventure (being a good DM, they are much better than the writers who would write adventures professionally).

      When discussions come up where someone says “I think this ability is a little overpowered since it clearly does more damage than other similar abilities”, the answer is always “No ability is overpowered. A good DM can handle any ability a PC has. A good DM just plans encounters around the ability to make sure it doesn’t cause problems.”

      The attitude is that rules can never be bad since a good DM ignores the rules whenever they are bad or plans their entire campaign around which classes and abilities the players have and adventures are all bad because they don’t customize everything to the particular group of players.

      Only a bad DM with no creativity uses pre-written adventures, plays in Organized Play campaigns or limits themselves to the rules written in the book. If someone says “I want to be a half-dragon illithid” a good DM says “Yes, let’s figure out how to make that work” a bad DM says no.

  13. Gayle says:

    Yes a good DM has no problem with a player using 4D6 re-roll 1’s and 2’s and drop the lowest. Extra feat at level 1 and everyone picks a rare magical weapon – a good DM laughs at such trivial attempts at imbalance. You want to be a blind flying weredrow with blind sense? No problem. A good DM is all over that shit and will throw in the ability to wield a double handed weapon in each hand just to keep themselves from getting bored.

    Don’t stifle your players imagination – be a good DM.

  14. James Bishop says:

    I’m a great DM, so I am constantly trying to tell good DMs to not mess with your head so much. I can tell you that you probably didn’t realize you’re a great DM too. We can spot this sort of nonsense. Oh and by the way, we great DMs can not only fix boxed text, we can discern whether lousy authors should have their heads examined for suggesting such tripe. I could elaborate on our skill set here, but that it’s your blog, I will leave it to you to represent us well.

    Great GM #1969

    PS. One of my fair players went to a cool venue and ran into a good GM. I had him go back and punch him in the head for 200 XP. Live vicariously through others actions.

  15. Its an interesting… article? poem?

    What ever it was, it brought up some good points. There is a lot of pressure on us as DMs to be better at what we do than a common human is considered to be at what ever it is that they normally do…. and i think its justifiable to FEEL like that, but not necessarily to force it upon people.

    A DM is supposedly the “gods” of the world. So there might be some kind of expectation that the Dm therefore knows every single detail about the world, has a perfect solution to everything, etc because we look to them as the canon source of information about the story and world we are playing in. In many western cultures gods are all knowing and all powerful beings. Due to this idea implanted in us from child hood, I can see why most of us might think that the DM, the “god” of the campaign setting, might have to live up to those high standards too.

    But the thing we forget is that pantheons of gods generally didnt have omniscient and omnipotent gods, therefore in D&D even if the players view the DM as the god of the world (which i’ll admit i dont personally agree with), he or she would still have the benefit of NOT needing to be all knowing and all powerful, aka flawless.

    So, its this misconception or assumption is where i think people are getting this idea that a “Good DM” is perfect.

    Now none of that excuses people from berating you when you get something wrong. there is obviously a fine line between wanting a DM to be better, and crushing them and their spirit with insults. As an artist, i remember sitting through hours of critiques in class on my art work,and the other students’ works as well. We learned to analyze something, then talk about its positives and negatives, and the same can be done for DMing.

    The skills a DM needs/uses are creative ones. They are not mathmatical and there is no clear right and wrong way to do things from a logical point of view. Its very much like critiquing art. It’s very emotion based and most of what we consider to be a “good” ruling or a “bad” ruling is based on our personal opinions and feelings, not facts. (tho there are fact based errors like breaking RAW, or a DM acting maliciously, etc).

    Still, i think being told what you can do better is a good thing, if done correctly. Berating someone, insulting them and belittling them is not the way to go. But a polite and constructive response can help us all grow. No one is perfect in anything, and we can all grow in every aspect of our lives.

    So, you’re that people keep telling you and others what the can do wrong. Thats fine. D&D is, after all, ‘just a game’. But how many people out there do you know that wanna play Overwatch to the best of their ability? or MtG? or Call of Duty, or Mario or whatever other game is out there? Every DM can improve their skill sets. When we make mistakes they should be pointed out so the Dm can consider those habits and decide if that is a purposeful feature of their style, or if its something they dont want to be doing and how they can change it.

    I want to be the best DM i can be. I want to be that “good” DM. I strive to be 100% awesome and perfect. and part of that is a relaxed attitude to my mistakes in the moment. but after the game, or during the week, i want to be able to analyze my style and improve on everything, and to keep improving on everything for as long as I play this wonderful game.

    Keep remembering we are human. we can make mistakes and not have to explode about them in the moent. they dont have to effect the flow the game has, while we are playing it. But between sessions is the time to reflect on your choices and try to decide if we want to keep making those choices in the future. Accept and Forgive mistakes, but dont be idle. Strive to correct your bad habits and be better.

    • Chris Wachal says:

      His point isn’t about being “a Good DM”. It is the fact that people think their way of playing is what makes a “Good DM” and that people who play differently aren’t good DMs. I’ve seen it posted all over the place everything that he says in this article. The Oberoni Fallacy is committed nearly constantly:

      There are no problem rules because a Good DM fixes problem rules. There are no overpowered abilities because a Good DM plans encounters and entire adventures around them so they don’t cause problems. There are no bad adventures because a Good DM reads through adventures and rewrites them so all the bad parts are removed. Good DMs never have problems keeping their players on track because a good DM wouldn’t create a track in the first place.

      Basically, the whole thing assumes that unless you are writing your own adventures from scratch that are purposefully adapted to your players and change on the fly based on their actions while having a large list of house rules, you are not a Good DM.

      That amount of work to customize the game to your particular group can be overwhelming and nearly impossible if you have a lot of other things going on in your life. So, people are setting the bar extremely high in terms of what a “Good DM” is, to the point that the vast majority of people aren’t going to reach that bar. Plus, that’s assuming that the type of game that is created by all that extra work is actually BETTER than one where the DM didn’t put that work in. For some people it will be, for others it won’t. It’s really personal preference.

  16. Elibus says:

    TL:DR – someone has problems accepting criticism… Take heart, good sir! Only be embracing your failures can you seek to overcome them and become a good DM.

  17. i can’t be alone in not using the canon/official published 5ed adventures, surely?
    to avoid being a railroaded DM, i collate stuff to allow easy improv. ive made my own maps, npcs, when i need a combat encounter, its just a case of putting CR equivalent , equal in number and environment appropriate monsters it’s my way of giving the players free rein; to prevent the players breaking the plan by not having a plan… just a series of encounters i can stick in anywhere needed.
    atm, my players are on the serendipidous road to steal #Orcus’s sceptre… this will take a while as they’ve to cross 3 planes to get there

  18. Sounds like you need better players. “oh man, too bad we got stuck on this weird problem, a good DM would have fixed it” is bullshit.

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