CHAPTER 18:TOP TRAITS OF GOOD GMS
On a Twitter and Facebook survey asking players to describe the top traits of good Dungeon Masters, about 160 responses revealed a focus on three traits: flexibility, creativity, and improvisation. These three traits stood out above all others, including knowing the rules and being fully prepared. Whenever we look to improve our skills as GMs and acquire additional tools to help us run great games, the most useful skills and tools are those that will help focus our flexibility, our creativity, and our ability to improvise.
This chapter talks about a few techniques that can be used to improve these three core GM traits.
“Work. Don’t think. Relax.”
—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
You can’t be flexible, creative, and able to improvise if you’re tense. And yet running RPGs is stressful. When a game session goes bad, it usually isn’t because everyone’s taking it too easy. Often it’s the opposite. People hang on too tightly. Everyone has expectations for the game, and by the gods, those expectations will be met! Players stop listening. You find yourself saying, “No.” You rule harshly against characters whose actions piss you off. You demand to finish every scene in that published adventure, whether those scenes are any fun for the players or not.
Being able to relax comes with experience. It comes from trusting your tools to help you run flexible, creative, and improvisational games. It comes from remembering that the players are your friends, and that everyone is at the table to have a good time.
When it’s getting close to game time and you start to get nervous, that’s a good time to take a deep breath, review your notes, and remember how you’re going to start the game with a bang. Once you’ve started strong, you’re off to the races.
“Listen more than you talk.”
Flexibility, creativity, and improvisation all require one supremely critical skill from a Gamemaster: the ability to listen. Hundreds of books and articles discuss the improvisational technique of “Yes, and…” That’s the concept of taking ideas from others and figuring out how to build off them. This technique can’t work if you’re not listening to the players.
You can actively listen by making eye contact and not interrupting. You can use your game journal or campaign worksheet to make a few notes on what’s being said while the players are talking. Active listening gives you insights into what the players see in the story, what they see in their characters, and what they want out of the game.This is especially important when you’re running games over a virtual tabletop. When you and the players aren’t all in the same room, a lot of physical cues that most people take for granted—including eye contact and general body language—are lost. So don’t be afraid to be more direct in drawing information out from each of the players, ensuring that you’re keeping everyone engaged with the game you’re running.
Once you’ve listened—once you’ve really heard the players—you can take ideas from what they’ve said and feed it back into the game. Because the way of the Lazy Dungeon Master encourages flexibility, it makes it easier for you to incorporate the players’ ideas without feeling like you’re throwing away endless pages of your own material.
TRUST YOUR TOOLS
All the steps in the Lazy Dungeon Master checklist have been built to support the flexibility, creativity, and improvisation needed to run your game. You’ve designed your secrets, clues, scene descriptions, and fantastic locations so you can use them when needed—or so you can throw them out when better ideas show up.
It might take you a few sessions to see how all your material works when put together. But when a player describes a piece of their character’s background and you use that in a secret or a clue later on in the campaign, it brings your game to a new level. Likewise, when the characters go off track but you’re able to drop in one of your fantastic locations to accommodate them, it changes the tone of the game.
Your ability to work with the players makes it clear to them that you’re not just sticking to a script—but that you’re also not making it all up randomly as you go. It shows them that the world of the game is real, even as it also adapts.
SHARPEN YOUR SKILLS
Among all the many different ways to improve as a Gamemaster, improving your flexibility, your creativity, and your improvisation skills will serve you well as long as you’re playing roleplaying games.
The more you practice, the more you learn from other GMs, the more you talk about your process, and the more games you watch and participate in, the better you’ll get at these skills. And the better your games will be as a result.
CHECKLIST FOR FLEXIBILITY, CREATIVITY, AND IMPROVISATION
• The best DMs embrace flexibility, creativity, and improvisation.
• Learn to relax, and focus on your strong start when it’s getting close to game time.
• Actively listen to players by making eye contact, not interrupting, and taking note of what they say.
• Build off the ideas players give you, and connect them to secrets and clues.
• Trust your preparation material to help you run a creative, flexible, and fun game.
• Continually sharpen your skills by watching other games, reading about the experience of other GMs, and talking to other GMs.