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Treasure a Good DM
Dungeon Editorial
by Steve Winter

The Dungeon Master makes or breaks a campaign.

I don't think that's a shocking statement. The DM isn't the only factor, of course, in whether a campaign succeeds and is enjoyable for everyone involved. Anyone, DM or players, can ruin a campaign by being rude, inattentive, disruptive, or by not showing up. Players by themselves, however, can't make a campaign excellent. They can and must contribute, but when the dice truly hit the table, excellence is in the hands of the DM. No matter how good a team of players might be, it can't cover for a weak DM, but a strong DM is a leader who can make up for and overcome a few weak players.

It's no surprise that a lot of DMs don't cut the mustard. Some were thrust into the position because no one else wanted it or because they owned the rules. Some are too young and immature (or just immature). The really bad ones are power trippers, control freaks, pedants, bores, passive-aggressive backbiters, or possibly worst of all, bullies.

They all want to be excellent DMs, I'm sure. The fact is, it's a hard job. DMing demands writing exciting adventures, handling multiple NPC roles, staging adrenaline-pumping fight scenes, keeping everything organized, and managing players' personalities. Lots of people can do those things. The trick is finding the person who can do all of them, at the same time. It's a bit like finding someone who can paint pictures, fix cars, cook, and throw a football.

If you've played with a really sterling DM, you know that it's a tough act to follow. They set the bar high, and that in itself is imposing. Who wants to take the chair behind the screen after the world's best DM vacates it?

We like to think that every Dungeons & Dragons player is an up-and-coming DM. They learn from and emulate the DMs they play under. Sadly, it's easy to emulate a bad DM and pick up all of his or her regrettable techniques; anyone can learn to do something poorly. The opposite is not true; observing an excellent DM will not, by itself, make you one.

That's why it behooves every top-notch DM out there—and you know who you are, even if you're too modest and self-effacing to admit it openly—to act as mentors to those players who show the knack. Don't assume that anyone can just pick this up because it comes naturally to you. 4E encourages DMs to apportion some of the campaign management duties among players. That's a good idea not just because it lightens the DM's load but because it lets players dip their toes into the DM's pool. What better way is there to learn the skills of a DM than by picking them up one at a time? Some possibilities include:

  • If a player has a deft hand at keeping track of the party's travels and escapades, put him in charge of recording the world's history, or even of creating some of it.
  • If a player has a knack for coming up with interesting characters, arrange some scenes where her character isn't present so she can take over the role of a few NPCs encountered in the street, a shop, or a tavern.
  • If a player is an excellent tactician, find an opportunity to let him take charge of some of the monsters in a fight, either because his character is somewhere else or (less fortuitously) KO'd or dying.
  • If a player is a talented storyteller, encourage her to try designing an adventure, or just outlining one. The short delve format is ideal for this. If the adventure is good, run it for the group—or take a night off from behind the screen and let this player run it.

Every DM's ideal should be to graduate at least one person, if not more, from the rank of player to Dungeon Master. If you were lucky, someone showed you the way. The time to pass on the favor is always now.

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