Dungeon Mastering is largely learned through experience and observation. As you run games, you (hopefully) have a chance to take in what works and what doesn't, learning from your mistakes, tucking away new tricks and honing your skills to a fine +5 edge.
Running a game, however, is very taxing on the ol' brain goo. While in the heat of a session, flailing to hold together some semblance of a logical storyline that your players managed to shred on first contact, it can be really difficult to leave some brain space for reflection. Your whole brain is likely saying things like, "What do you mean you want to know the names of the mad Duke's entire serving staff!?" and "is the spell the cleric just pulled out of obscure splat book 963 subject to spell resistance or no?"... ergo, not a lot of time to process what is and is not working. I can't count on all my limbs the number of times I've reached the end of a session only to look down at my game notes to see something like:
Rayne eats some cheese and onions
Lanna on the prowl
That's where observation comes in. I have learned a lot from watching other DMs, and have picked up bits and pieces of things that work well, and not so well. Some of the things that I have learned and incorporated from GMs I've played with include:
- Having two DMs alternate games on opposite weeks takes the pressure off of them while making it feel like everyone is playing regularly.
- You must want to play as much, if not more than your players, or the schedule will fall apart.
- Causing permanent harm to the PCs is not always a bad thing. It can also make for really interesting roleplay.
- Taking away the PC's stuff can lead to greater creativity.
- Sometimes being a bastard helps increase emotional investment.
- Death is not always the most interesting penalty.
And these are just a few of the things I've picked up... wow, most of those examples make me sound like an aspiring jerkwad! I'm not changing them though!
Getting to the other side of the DM screen, or even to a spot hovering around the table can provide some wonderful perspective on how to improve your own game. Furthermore, watching other GMs is often more valuable than reading about good DMing. Even if the good or bad techniques are not spelled out as explicitly, seeing them first hand in context beats the pants off of reading a list of best practices.
Lately, I've become rather enamored with watching recorded game sessions, especially those hosted by Chris Perkins. I love the way he manages to walk back retcons* while remaining in character and in the scene. I love that he is so calm, where I tend to be a bit frenetic, and watching how he describes a scene as the events are unfolding. Some DMs, liken watching a tabletop game to watching paint dry, which can certainly be true, but if the game is running well, you're in the right mood, and you're watching for the right reasons, you could learn a lot from a DM.
This GenCon game is pretty cool to watch.
Perkins DMing with two of the world's most prominent D&D authors as players
Fellow gamers, do you enjoy watching others game? If so, have any particular favorite DMs to watch?
*retroactive continuity or correcting a misread roll after the fact