Whether you call them a Dungeon Master, a Game Master, a Storyteller, or a G.O.D. (Game Operations Director), they are the crust that holds together the cheese of players and the toppings of settings and mechanics in the great pizza of the gaming world. (FYI: nat 1’s are the hidden anchovies.)
Welcome to the second portion of my Setting Expectation series. I’ve thrown a lot of words for players out there, but given that numbers do not a character make, neither does a bunch of players a game make. Just as is it perfectly fine and indeed necessary for DM’s to set high but reasonable expectations for their players, the players need to ask questions and set expectations for their potential DMs to make sure everyone gets the flavors they are looking for. No one wants to sit down at the table expecting a feast of rarest jewel-like sushi and ending up being served unrecognizable blobs of mysterious deep-fried “meat” that wouldn’t be out of place at a traveling sideshow.
To that end, before I come up with more awkward food-related metaphors, THE LIST!
1) Your style is as inclusive as your group wants/needs
Before I continue further, a moment of explanation: in this context, I am not speaking of demographic inclusivity (because you should have that already, n’est pas?) but of content.
Do you, as a player, look forward to crunchy gaming? If so, make that expectation clear (and feel free to check out my essay on mathematics-focused gaming, available through our Patreon). Are you looking for original content, or someone to guide you through preprogrammed modules? Know what you are wanting, and ask for it. Not every DM is right for every gaming group - and that is perfectly okay. I have found it better to wait for the right fit of group and DM than try to trim the edges of a square peg to fit a round hole. That being said, if you’re extra thirsty for a game, perhaps you can be a bit more flexible. Your mileage will, of course, vary.
2) You can manage party dynamics and balance
Be firm but fair. While a group of five bards might be highly entertaining, or a group of four Dawn Castes capable of flipping the Blessed Isle upside down and shaking it ‘til all the jade falls out, or what have you, that’s not a balanced group.
If two players want to play similar concepts, a good DM should have some methods of conflict resolution in their pockets. Be it high dice, rock-paper scissors, pistols at dawn...if the DM can’t manage a simple discussion between players with conflicting desires, perhaps the players should reconsider their suitability.
As a corollary to that, if you have a diva/spotlight hog in your group, a capable DM should have some good ways to rein them in and make sure that all players get a chance to shine.
3) Remember, we are giving you our time. Don’t waste it
As someone who has literally planned her work schedule around her game nights, this point cannot be stressed highly enough for my liking. If a game group trusts the DM to give them a solid few hours of entertainment, and the majority of players end up sitting around thinking that they could be doing other things (laundry, homework, knitting scarves for pangolins, etc.), that DM needs to indulge in some serious introspection. This is a two-way street- if players aren’t enjoying themselves, they have a duty and a responsibility not only to speak up, but to offer constructive, actionable criticism and suggestions for improvement.
This is especially true if you have a group of busy adults who have other commitments they must honor. It often takes active sacrifice to carve out an afternoon or evening to dedicate to gaming, not to mention the occasional financial investment for character sheets, dice, pizza, travel expenses, and things of that ilk. Our time is our gift to you. Use it wisely, and admit that there may come a time that you can’t. Ideally, before burnout sets in, have a succession plan in place.
4) Nudge, thrust, or force - keep the group focused (within reason)
First and foremost, most gaming groups are comprised of friends who may only see each other during this weekly/biweekly/monthly session. There is a 100% chance your players will get sidetracked, especially if there is a long and involved role-play that doesn’t include everyone at the table, or at the beginning of the session. A good DM will recognize this and have some tactics in mind to bring the game to order.
Inevitably, there will be nights when the game just doesn’t come together, when everyone is hellbent on heading off in different directions and the plot thread has not only been lost, but devoured by rabid ferrets. This is the time for a good DM to show their finesse and creativity in bringing everyone back to the central focus of the game at that moment.
Few things are as ominous as the rattle of dice behind the DM screen, followed by “Roll initiative” or “Roll join battle.” These have proven to be highly effective at capturing a group’s attention. (In our group, it’s usually met by a chorus of “oh, hells,” followed by a mad scramble for dice while the DM cackles in sadistic glee.)
5) Are you (potential DM) adaptable?
If the aforementioned rabid ferrets have caught the players’ attention, does the DM have a history of being able to roll with the punches, or do they get sulky and angry when their finely wrought tapestry of intrigue and imagery gets tossed aside?
Some of the most fun and memorable games I have participated in involved players going entirely off the rails and the DM running with it. In my own DMing experience, I have learned the hard way to not plan game sessions beyond snacks and bullet points (with the occasional sheeted out NPC for flavor). I prefer to lay out a panoply of ideas and see where my players are drawn. Sometimes I get what I want, sometimes my work goes right out the window. The important thing is that my players and I enjoy ourselves.
If your DM (or you as a DM) is so set on getting their way at all costs, perhaps they need to take a step back and rediscover the joy in the game. It’s a role-playing game, not people reading from a script.
6) Know when to lose - and how to make it feel real
There are days when my dice roll super hot and my players’ dice would be at home in Vladivostok in January. Those are the days of the accidental TPKs, the sort of games that leave a bad taste in people’s mouths because they never had a chance.
In LARP, there’s a concept known as “fair escape.” If your party is going up against impossible odds, do you want your DM to give you a warning, or do you want to go in blind? This is something you will need to arrive at a consensus on. I prefer a warning, but others have faith in their dice.
There may be times when, through no fault of their own, the players just can’t seem to make any headway. There’s a finesse to creatively manipulating rolls and stat blocks to at least give players a chance to run away - remember, the NPCs and enemies should be just as vulnerable to nat-1s as the players. This can be harder to manage if you are playing without a DM screen, but gaming etiquette says that players shouldn’t be actively watching the DM roll. This is a controversial subject, but I fully believe that a good DM should know both when to lose and how to make it believable.
7) Have a plan for toxicity, and be ready to use it
This is a tough one to suss out ahead of time, because toxicity can take so many forms - whether it’s someone who is a congenital time-waster, the perennial diva who won’t take correction, the one person who can bring a scene to a grinding halt by responding “I roll a 14” when the role-play comes around to them.
Most players are amenable to coaching or correction, and some groups can learn to work around unfortunate habits such as being late or being unprepared. Many players, given the opportunity, will jump at the chance to help their fellow gamers improve their gaming skills and etiquette - especially if they are friends outside of the game. Personality quirks are hard to balance, but a little understanding and patience usually provides excellent results.
No one, and I mean no one, likes to have to have the uncomfortable conversation of asking someone to leave the table. Dislike for personal confrontation aside, asking a player to leave can unbalance the party, or break it altogether. Sometimes this can be fixed by having an NPC take that player’s place, but that increases the DM’s workload exponentially.
Be aware of the DM’s own toxicity - sometimes players can spot burnout before the DM will admit that there is a problem. Good players will support their DM as much as the DM supports them. Happy players + happy DM = happy gaming.
This list is not intended to be all-inclusive - there will always be other considerations, such as does your perspective DM run the system you like? What is their philosophy on the balance of mathematics and role-play? Is the book the literal facts or a rough guide? - but good starting points to consider when joining or creating a new game.
This whole thing boils down to a few questions - is this DM the right one for you and your group, or can they possibly grow into the right one? Are both parties willing to invest time and effort into making the gaming experience an enjoyable one?
If the answer is yes, you’ll probably be in for a good time. If not, you’re going to have a tougher situation. I hope for your sake that it’s the kind of pressure that creates diamonds from coal, and not black holes from brilliant stars. As always, comments and commentary are welcome.
May the Unconquered Sun shine upon you,
Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as an ordinary office employee that holds vehement opinions about Oxford commas and extraneous hyphens. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.