Confidence game: Why Faking Confidence Makes You a Better Dungeon Master

Some dungeon masters boast unshakable confidence in their skill, even though their games only attract players because no one else wants the DM’s chair. Overconfidence leaves these DMs blind to their flaws. I should know. As a DM, I have been that overconfident, and it led me to run bad games.

bills_tableNow I know that my skills can always stand improvement. That my next session could be a dud. That however well my last game went, I can find ways to do better. When I finish running a game, I reflect back on the session and wonder how I can recreate the moments that went well and fix any missteps.

My lesser confidence makes me a better dungeon master. Don’t tell my players. I need to seem confident.

When expert DMs name the qualities of a good DM, they often cite confidence. I agree with 100% certainty.

As a dungeon master, you channel an imaginary world to your players. When you seem uncertain about what happens in that world, it yanks the players out of their imagination and reminds them that you just make things up.

In a confidence game, a con man schemes to gain someone’s trust in order to rob them. As a dungeon master, you don’t chase anyone’s retirement savings, but your game still needs trust. If you speak of the game world with confidence, players trust you as their eyes into it. They throw their alter egos into an imaginary world and trust that it will react in ways the make sense.

For dungeon masters like me who sometimes lack confidence, this insight should feel encouraging.

If you lack confidence, you can fake it. No dungeon master always feels confident. You just need to pretend enough to show authority. No problem. As role players, we all practice pretending.

Even though you can fabricate confidence from pure bluster, I prefer to reach the table armed with the real thing. You do not need 10,000 hours of GM experience to build the sort of confidence that helps at the table. You just need to master the sliver of your game world that players will see. By doing the preparation you probably already do, you can reach the table with confidence.

As a dungeon master, you may worry that someone at your table will know the rules better than you do. Don’t let this shake your confidence. Someone usually knows more, and that doesn’t matter. In a prior Dungeon Master’s Guide, designer James Wyatt wrote, “When I started working at Wizards of the Coast, it took a long time before I felt comfortable running a game for any of my coworkers, even though I used to always DM for my friends back home. They all knew the rules better than I did, and I didn’t want to get caught in a stupid mistake. Eventually, I got over that.”

You need to know enough of the rules to keep your game moving, but you do not need to match the rules lawyer. You can delegate mastery of the rules. Have someone look up that spell for you. Let the lawyers explain the corner case. They relish the chance.

“The DM is the person who prepares adventures, plans a campaign, and runs the monsters and NPCs,” Wyatt wrote. “I don’t want to be a referee or judge, and my players don’t expect me to.”

Of course, the rules leave many decisions to the DM’s judgement.

Confidence—or an imitation of it—lets you make these rulings with authority. If your rulings seem to rely on the players’ approval, you encourage them to quibble. They start to lobby for favorable rulings. I’ve sat at tables where players see the DM as unsure. They try to wheedle advantages and the game lurches along. Despite the merits of saying yes, compelling stories require obstacles. Immersion requires a game world that doesn’t change as the DM waffles. Listen to the players, make a confident ruling that seems fun and fair, and then move on.

The secret to projecting confidence at the table lies in role playing. Play the character of a confident, expert dungeon master. A dungeon master much like you. If you come prepared to bring a sliver of your game world to life, playing the role should come easy. You can run a great game. Your players sat to roll some dice and have fun. They want you to succeed.

This post originally appeared in October 2016.

7 thoughts on “Confidence game: Why Faking Confidence Makes You a Better Dungeon Master

  1. prabe

    Reminds me of something I’ve seen about acting and/or politics: “The secret is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you’ll have it made.”

    Fake confidence is better than no confidence at all.

    Reply
  2. Tardigrade

    Ugh. Awful, awful advice this week David. I cannot fart loud enough to express just how terrible it is. It is fractally wrong.

    I could go through this line by line and show how horribly, tragically wrong you are about almost everything. But I think that would be putting too fine a point on it.

    Suffice it to say, yes, you need confidence. But you get that through a deep and abiding understanding of both the rules and your world. Not through fakery. Fake confidence leads to arrogance which is a complete killer for trust and your game. Without trust, you have no authority.

    Should have left this stinker in the archives where it would have quietly been forgotten.

    Reply
    1. TRay

      Tardigrade, I agree with your main point about the DM needing a deep understanding of the rules and their world. But David’s advice is completely in sync with the current push to make D&D easy and accessible. Being a good DM is very hard, and not everyone is cut out for it, but that is exactly what no one wants to hear today. And so we get rules lighter and more roleplay heavy. And this seems to be what the majority wants.

      Reply
      1. Tardigrade

        TRay. Thanks for the reply. You say some true things. But that doesn’t mean David should pander to them and it doesn’t let him off the hook for giving objectively terrible advice.

        It doesn’t matter what the masses want. If people do what he suggests, they will not be successful. It will undermine their games.

        Reply
  3. Zed Banville

    “The DM is the person who prepares adventures, plans a campaign, and runs the monsters and NPCs,” Wyatt wrote. “I don’t want to be a referee or judge, and my players don’t expect me to.”

    In original Dungeons & Dragons, before the coining of the term “Dungeon Master”, this role was called “referee”, and those filling the role were expected to adjudicate based on a sound knowledge of the rules, although such rules could be altered at the referee’s discretion, overruling any rules lawyer. Wyatt advocates abdicating responsibility for the most crucial part of the DM’s role.

    Reply
  4. alphastream

    There is a part of me that wants to say that confidence comes from being good at what you do, or that it must be completely genuine to really register. However, I’ve played with many DMs who I have later learned are not actually very confident. One of those is Chris Perkins. The first time I saw how anxious he was, it blew me away. There is no question as to his skill. And he speaks with seemingly great confidence at the table in front of thousands, even when running challenging players. But he does not relish the stage. Similarly, more than half of the players in Acquisition Incorporated don’t care for the stage and don’t feel confident there. Not everyone is a showperson, but many are able to fake it – and it works for them.

    Reply
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