by Mike Shea on 11 February 2019
Great DMs are always refining their craft. We are not static beings. We learn. We adapt. We don't throw away our decades of past experiences when a new idea comes along. We use those experiences as our baseline understanding about what makes this game fun for ourselves and our players. We then gather new experiences and modify our baseline based on what we see and learn.
The more we play D&D and run D&D games, the more we know and the more we think we know. This can actually get in the way. While our experiences are not to be discounted, they are also not walls to block us from new ideas. We might hear some crazy new idea that another DM is trying. It might sound like madness to us. It might even be madness. But it's still worth considering and evaluating with our previous experiences. It might even be worth trying at our table—and that's where we're most likely to really understand the idea. Experimenting at the table tells us much more than just pondering what might happen.
Often, however, we're too quick to judge. We have ways that work for us and we're more likely to hang on to those ways unless something really shocks us out of our groove. It takes a LOT of evidence to push us out of our previous opinions—more than it should.
So, as we see ideas and feel our instinct to dismiss them, give them another look. Spend some time understanding them, visualizing them, and maybe even trying them out before throwing them away.
We don't have to completely throw away everything we've learned every time something new comes along but we're more likely to discount good ideas than to grab on to bad ones so give new ideas more weight than you might normally apply.
The results of the evolution of our brains has implanted many weird cognitive biases and quite a few of these can come up in our growth as dungeon masters. Two in particular pull us in different directions which can hurt our ability to grow as DMs.
Impostor syndrome occurs when we assume that we're terrible DMs when matched up against the rest. We feel like we have no real skill or background to justify us sitting in the DMs seat. We find ourselves in this position if we compare ourselves to other DMs that we might meet or see or even if we base our assumptions on our skill around some perceived master dungeon master that our players expect us to be.
Fear of being found out as an impostor can push us away from the DM's seat or make us overly nervous when we find ourselves in it.
One easy way to avoid the paralysis of impostor syndrome is to remember that almost everyone feels this way. We're all just pretending to be good at what we do all the time and, most of the time, that's all we need. It's also nice to remember that, given no other evidence to the contrary, we're statistically likely to be in the middle of the pack if ranked with other DMs.
The Dunning Kruger effect is almost the opposite of impostor syndrome. The Dunning Kruger effect occurs when we're just starting out at a particular skill and believe that we're way better at that skill than we actually are. It only comes to us later, as we get more experienced, that we realize how little we actually know. The Dunning Kruger effect is, simply, false confidence based on inexperience. We don't know enough to realize how little we really know.
When we consider both of these, there's a nice summary we can keep in our minds as we evaluate our skills as DMs:
We are neither as good nor as bad as we think we are.
Once we've figured out what ideas we might want to actually try, we can run small experiments to see how they work at our table. The key is to try it out in an environment where we can see how something works but not leap into a big commitment if we end up not liking it.
For example, Mike Mearls put out a playtest for a new type of initiative he calls "Greyhawk Initiative". It got a lot of reactions when it came out but many of these reactions didn't come from people who actually tried it out. Trying out a new type of initiative has a very small impact. We simply describe how it works and use it for one or two combat encounters to see what it feels like. With something like Greyhawk initiative we probably want to try it more than once to see how it works instead of just doing it for a single combat. Our first time is likely to focus on learning the system instead of actually using the system.
We can run the same sorts of experiments for all sorts of things like adding a 13th Age style escalation die to a combat encounter, trying a new approach for skill-based exploration, or running a battle with hundreds of enemies.
Just as we must push back our instinct to reject ideas we're not already using, we must remember that trying out an idea isn't the same as fully adopting an idea. Trying things out is cheap and can let us really see how something works instead of just basing our opinion on theory.
The next time you see a new approach towards something in D&D, don't judge it until you've tried it.
"Head clear. Mouth shut. See much. Say little."
- Roland Deschain, Wolves of the Calla