Finding a Great DM: Experience vs Talent

In a recent blog article, Teos Abadia (aka Alphastream) posed the question: Is a good DM “good” because of talent or because of experience? And is there even such a thing as DMing talent?

In a response to Teos’ article, Brian Benoit over on Roving Band of Misfits declares “DMing is a skillset, and every skillset can be improved.” He explains that the hallmark of a good DM is one that actually strives to improve and goes on to acknowledge there are certain aspects that make for a better DM, namely confidence and social skills.

I thought about what Teos’ question meant to me. Being deeply involved with organized play for several years, I volunteer to organize and run a lot of events. I am constantly searching for new DMs. I have seen DMs come and go, good and bad.

I find experience to be an altogether useless metric by which to measure potential DMs. Often DMs that have reached out to me feel obliged to present their “DMing resume”. If they didn’t, I used to ask for a DM’s RPG history as part of my process to evaluate if they were good DMs or not. I assumed that more experience equaled better DMs. I learned eventually that I was wrong.

I learned experience is no guarantee of skill or quality. It can be a yoke, weighing down a good DM, making them inflexible, unable to adapt or improve despite any superior qualities they might have. It can make them strangely jaded, lacking in enthusiasm and creativity. Now when I recruit DMs I don’t express interest in learning too many details about a DM’s gaming history – I’ve found it helps me focus more on the DMs other qualities.

If you translate “talent” as an inherent quality or ability; then maybe talent is what defines the DM. I think there are two qualities present in every DM. In fact, if you lack both of them you’re probably not interested in D&D to begin with (and you might be a zombie, you should get that checked out).

Confidence is the first. Everyone is capable of being confident. Some people have an abundance of it, but those who think they have none can discover wellsprings of it within themselves with only a little encouragement. Knowing if literally you can or can’t do something is relatively simple, but confidence is a measure of your willingness to do act and sometimes all you need is a nudge.

Speaking of encouragement, self-improvement is also an ability I believe is inherent to everyone, but the degree of possible self-improvement varies… so it might be more appropriate to say flexibility is the second important trait. A flexible DM can learn, improvise, be open-minded, creative, and is less likely to lack confidence in new situations. I have never known a person to be taught how to be adaptive and open-minded. If someone became flexible in their methods, it was really because the quality already existed within them.

Since I know experience is not needed to be a good DM, its clear to me that confidence and flexibility are the “talents” of a good DM. That is why I always say DMing is easier than you think – you just have to have the confidence to try it and the flexibility to improve every time after that.


3 thoughts on “Finding a Great DM: Experience vs Talent

  1. Pingback: Talent vs Experience | Alphastream

  2. Very well said. I think you’re right that confidence and flexibility are vital. Two other broad elements I think are important are energy and enthusiasm. Being a good DM takes commitment. In long campaigns and big groups especially it can even be a lot of work. To do that, while making an enjoyable experience for everyone takes energy. And to that end, you need to be enthusiastic. Even if you’re confident and flexible, if you show up tired or don’t seem interested in the group or the material, it can really put a wet blanket on things. One thing I do is play some music in the car on the way to D&D sessions to get me pumped up. I want to walk in the door ready to go and have a blast. I think it makes a big difference. I’ll also play music during the sessions and intense music during longer combats to really add some energy. Our games often go past midnight and we’re not as young as we used to be so people getting sleepy is a real concern. It’s honestly amazing all the elements that can be present in trying to run a good game.

  3. Hi, I enjoyed reading your answer to the question, “What makes a good DM, experience or talent?”. Your on to something about a Good DM requiring confidence and flexibility.

    It made me start thinking, being a good DM probably has more to do with personality than anything else. Skills can be learnt but personality is ingrained and really can’t be altered after a certain age.

    Then it dawned on me, The big five personality traits describe perfectly what it takes to be a good DM. The people who have strong personality traits for openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and low neuroticism probably will make very good DM’s.

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