by Mike Shea on 3 September 2019
In July 2019 I had the pleasure of speaking with David Chris on the DM's Deep Dive. David Christ is the owner of Baldman Games, the company that runs D&D organized play events at a half-dozen of conventions every year. At Gencon alone he runs 8,000 players through about 1,200 games. He's run over fifty shows at this point and manages over 2,500 DMs over the years. He also runs surveys of all of these DMs, receiving feedback on what worked well and what has not.
This gives David a unique perspective on Dungeons & Dragons dungeon mastering. David has DM feedback on thousands of games. Though these views are limited to convention games, which don't always correlate well to how DMs run home games, it's still a huge amount of experience we were able to tap into during this interview.
The rest of this article contains notes from our discussion.
Running a D&D game is about the group, not you. D&D is a collaborative story. The players have as much control over that story as the DM. Bring the group into the story.
Have fun. Smile. Laugh. You don't have to know all of the rules. If you're running a fun game it will make up for other defficiencies. Everything else takes care of itself. Hiccups are easier to take care of when everyone's laughing about it.
Nothing goes as planned but disasters are fun. If you roll with the punches things turn out well.
Preparation. Lack of preparation shows. If you've read, re-read, and taken notes on your material you're in a much better place to handle the strange things that happen. You don't want to have to worry about what the next encounter is. A good DM prepares. A good DM is ready to improvise. If you don't prepare it's hard to improvise.
Smile. It's a game. Have fun. If you start stressing out it leaks through the rest of the game. It's a bad cycle when you're stressed out and the players see it. Take a ten minute break and regroup.
One of the easiest ways to get a low rating as a DM is for the DM to say "I'm telling the story, you're just along for the ride". The DM who is so certain that their way is the right way is the one who is going to get crappy ratings. If a DM thinks their way is the best, that's a sure sign that they're taking in feedback from their table.
Mike compares this to the Dunning Krueger effect. Someone who thinks they're really good many not be as good as they think while those who realize they have much to learn are on the path towards greatness.
Some of the newest DMs are the best DMs because they're not encumbered by historical baggage. DMs who think they're great DMs will ignore the results and then select themselves out of the program.
Not being prepared is a sure sign of a low rating game. Your numbers fall if you stop at the beginning the game to read the module. This is a particular problem at convention organized play games. People paid for these games and don't want to sit there watch someone read a module.
Read the adventure and take notes. Write down NPC names. Pronounce them ahead of time. Put monster stat blocks on cards. Use an initiative tracker. Preroll initiative.
Players who see a DM with their shit together will feel more confident in the game and their DM. It's contagious.
DMs at conventions talk to other DMs in their tier and with those running the same adventures. Sometimes they're even talking to the authors of the adventures. How do we replicate this at home?
David believes people get a score bump for using candy for monsters. A timeless classic. In Dave's opinion Reece's Peanut Butter cups are more well-liked than miniatures.
The people with terrain and minis can make a great experience. A DM with the maps and minis, however, can be too tied into their own story to forget about all of the important stuff. The guy with the empty table might be running a great game. Minis and terrain are no indicator of how good a game it will be although it does show a DM who has prepared.
According to David, convention games don't have the same flexibility as a home game. Side quests are a feature in home games but a bug in convention games. There's much better food at home games. Home games have a much greater sense of flexibility than convention games.
A really good convention DM knows how to railroad characters back into the plot of an adventure without the players knowing its happening.
There’s been an explosive growth in D&D over the past three years and David is seeing this in the convention games he manages in the following ways:
Rules knowledge is the least important trait of the four traits on which Baldman Games scores DMs. In order the importance of traits are:
If prepared numbers are low, all the rest of the numbers are usually low. If rules knowledge is low, it doesn't correlate to lower scores in the other categories. Friendly is more important than fun but the two are often tied together.
A lack of rules knowledge can actually help break past an adversarial relationship when the DM asks the players to help with rules.
There were fifty new DMs at Gencon.
The internet has done many terrible things but it gives us a wide range of DMs with whom we can share experiences.
We have a huge online D&D community with tremendous interconnection between DMs sharing experiences but then each of us goes home and runs a game in isolation for our four to six players. What happens at that table doesn't have any effect on the rest of the world. It's a very different sort of hobby. Some really great DMs in home play cannot work well in organized play.
Thanks again to David Christ for letting us squeeze his brain and get his experience running so many D&D games over the years.