To jump on the bandwagon from a Questing GM, he is graciously hosting this month’s RPG Blog Carnival Question, ‘How to be a better GM.’ There is a lot of thoughts I could add to this. I’ll bring up 2 things I think are the key though.
Communicate and listen – At the end of each session I say, ‘So what do you all think? Are you having fun?’ So many folks will point out that reading your players, knowing your group, understanding what your players want, all are important for being a good DM. Maybe you are a master at poker and can read your group’s enthusiasm well. Do yourself a favor and make sure your impressions are right. Give them all an opportunity to talk about the game with you, and do it frequently. Most importantly, be sure to listen to them.
Guess what? You are going to make bad calls. You are going to find some players bring interesting characters, while others are sort of dull, and this might make yourself slip towards favoring one player over another. You are going to make both game and personal mistakes. Give your players a chance to tell you about it.
Don’t let a player sit and stew about it for weeks on end. Eventually bad things are going to come to a head and things will blow up. Get people comfortable talking about the game. Don’t get defensive. Don’t get upset. Find out how they feel. Did I mention you should listen to the group?
If you are doing a good job, your players will realize that yes, you made a bad call. You flubbed understanding a power or whatever, but you are all there to have fun. It’s a game. The DM is not out to torture or punish anyone, just trying to make things challenging. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But reinforcing the idea that everyone should be having fun, and more importantly, communicating that idea to the group helps smooth things out immensely.
You will learn things. Maybe they absolutely loved that stupid NPC you quickly made up. Maybe they felt the combat wading through lava was too tough and simply frustrating. The combat on an airship was cool. The fight on the ice sheet against trolls was tough, but they enjoyed the challenge. You will learn the things your players like and dislike, all giving you ideas to make future sessions better. Again, make sure you listen to your group.
Play games – First off, you should spend a little time in the player’s seat. You should get a chance to see how other people DM. You should find out new tips and tricks. You should experience someone making things engaging and exciting. Or experience a heavy handed jerk, making your group suffer (and learn it is not fun). You will get better ideas how, or how not, to run a game. I cringe when I hear some guy cackle that he has never played D&D as a character, has always been the DM, and has absolutely no interest in ever being a player. That guy is missing a big part of understanding D&D.
Play different games. – Lots of them. You will learn by exposing yourself to different game designs how they work. What things are engaging and fun. What things are tedious and boring. You can port these aspects to your game, and doing so you’ll learn how to be a better DM.
Maybe you’ll find that intricate paperwork keeping track of game effects is serviceable, but having simple tokens makes book keeping interesting. Maybe you’ll realize that having events every other turn is predictable and boring, while making it somewhat random is more interesting. Maybe you realize penalties that make you sit out the game for several turns is frustrating, and that having some other mechanism to keep the player engaged is more rewarding.