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What’s the most useful DM skill?

Written by Expy - Published on February 15, 2008

Random thoughts

Crazy, crazy times at the Dungeon Mastering headquarters! I had a valentine’s day evening at Taco Bell, I now have two stuffed red dragons at home, and I had to open a valentine card booby-trapped with glitter – and glitter stays on forever!

The worst DM

This week I read The worst DM ever and I also listened to a Fear the Boot podcast episode that mentioned bad GMing (Fear the Boot is great – more on that soon). It got me thinking…

The best DM

So what makes a great dungeon master? Theres dozens of talents, qualities, and aptitudes that make great DM, but the difference-makers are skills – things you can actually work on and get better at. For example, you could say charisma is important to get everyone’s attention and keep it, but leadership serves the same purposes and ultimately has a bigger impact on a game because you can become a better leader over time. I even heard of leadership classes.

Depending on your game style and preferences, the most important skill set might vary. Here’s my top 3:

Yax’s top 3 DM skills

Storytelling – If you can’t tell a joke to save your life chances are you’ll have a hard time getting all the players to suspend their disbelief long enough to immerse them in your campaign world.

Game System Knowledge – A good grasp of the rulebook (figuratively for running a smooth session, and litterally to hit players) is crucial. In my opinion, a DM should know the rules well enough to make enlightened decisions about dropping official rules and introducing house rules.

Coolness – Yes, coolness is a skill (but I’m not sure it’s a word). I’m talking about the rule of cool here, not social standing. A DM has to be willing to disregard rules, the carefully planned campaign, and hopes that players will do what’s expected. If a character does something cool, it has to pay off.

What’s your top 3?

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Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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15 Responses to “What’s the most useful DM skill?”
  1. Tommi says:

    1. Improvisation. Can’t run a game without it.

    2. Will to improve. Can’t become better without it. Also includes the ability to take contructive criticism.

    3. Communication. To get all players to have a hang on the fictional events, to listen what they want to get out of the game, and to tell what you want out of the game.

  2. Roleplay says:

    Improvisation, for sure.

    Oh, and Taco Bell. Taco Bell is an essential.

  3. Adalore says:

    Well, I got none so far, but one thing that I wish for my lil newbies druids “lvl 3” super duper Xmas Scimitar is CONSTANT Rules. It seems to change every now and then… seesh.

    Consistancey over all fields of play.
    and of such I cannot spell.

  4. dberg_usa says:

    I have to say I was in tears when I read The Worst DM article. It’s a must read. The wedding tackle comment was priceless.

    As always, thanks ever so much for helping us find hidden gems like that. Your site is a real a treasure!

  5. Yax says:


    You are welcome! I found out about the worst DM article on Shamus Young’s website I believe:


  6. Sandrinnad says:

    Three….hmmmm….I hate having to choose :)

    ok….I’m cheating a bit :) I think I would have to call these a 3-way tie rather than rank them in any order….

    Organization – have your materials ready, game prepped &/or improv brain ready, and know the system

    Awareness/Sensitivity – reading player (and your own) moods & gaming styles & adjusting the game appropriately….or cancelling it entirely if necessary. Being aware when things are icking or creeping people out (think Worst DM) or when what seemed like such a good idea just _isn’t_ working. Just generally being aware of what’s going on outside your notes and maps and tables and your own agenda for the game. Also maintaining a comfortable atmosphere so that people feel safe trying out new things or losing themselves a bit more in the game.

    Sense of Fun & Excitement – I’m not sure how to describe it….maybe that ‘this is fun! we’re enjoying ourselves!’ vibe – not just feeling it but trying to make sure your players do too (not in an annoying way though….see awareness/sensitivity). And if you’re not excited about your game then why are you bothering?

    (I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a game where the DM is disorganized, bored, and completely oblivous to the fact that no one’s having any fun but is afraid to say so, but it is utterly painful)

  7. Octavian1224 says:

    All the suggestions above are superb. I have some simple rules for my DMing:
    1. DMs don’t kill characters… characters kill themselves just fine.
    2. I’m on your side… I want you to succeed.
    3. There is always a way out… though I don’t know what it is yet either.

    I run all my games impromptu… so I don’t know what’s behind that door or over that mountain until you get there either. That way it is a fun adventure for me too. DMing should NEVER be a chore, but an absolute thrill! (And yes, I do really make it all up as I go… just record it all for when the PCs come back that way).

    Oh, and my special 4th rule (DM privilege!): The DM is always right, no matter what! So, if I tell you something that is not what I meant to say, I adjust my campaign to fit the error, thus having never made the mistake.

    For the TRUE rpg experience (yes, I’m old-old school) try putting the books down and setting the dice aside and DMing without them. If you have player trust in my above codes, then you have role-playing at it’s best. :)

  8. 1. Improvisation – The DM has to be able to react to us players doing something crazy and unexpected.

    2. Command of the room – I have a short attention span; if I (and/or everyone else at the table) gets off-topic, I want the DM to have the command of the room to bring us all back to the story.

    My two cents…

  9. niggle says:

    1. Creativity (keep it original)
    2. Spontaneity (keep it interesting)
    3. Organization (keep it flowing)

  10. 1) The Rule of Cool… of course! :)
    2) Tailor your game to your player’s needs.
    3) Shamelessly steal ideas from your favorite TV shows and Movies.


  11. timespike says:

    1. The ability to think on your feet. Players are a canny lot, and will keep you on your toes. If you lose balance once you’re up on them, you’re going to go down like a plane with no engines.

    2. Creativity. It’s important that your games don’t feel like en endless retread of the same old tired fantasy tropes over and over again until there’s little to distinguish one session from the last or the next.

    3. Baseline knowledge. The rules, the setting, and your players. You should have solid knowledge of all three.

  12. Alphadean says:

    The three most important skills as Game Master for me would be 1) Adaptability – gmaers never follow the path planned for them. A gamemaster has to be ready.
    2) Tale Crafting/Storytelling – if the Gm can’t craft a good to great adventure whats the point to playing.
    3)Innovation/flexibilty – being able to to se beyond the rules in order make it flow. The ability fix cumberson rules and rules lawyers with a set of smokin’ house rules. Advice to all DM’s your 1st house rule should be “i’m the DM, thats why” and your last house rule should be see number one. let all the rest fall where it may

  13. Vladimer Gilliand says:

    1. improvision
    2. the ability to add a joke or pun into the quest.
    3. not be a strict rule follower.
    I have only 2 of these and working on the other one.

  14. Gronk says:

    1. immersive storytelling.. “a giant ant enters the room” isnt the same as, “you notice a shift in the shadows, you see a huge insectoid head with matching mandibles, dripping acid that hisses as it lands on the rock below”
    2. Having a realistic idea of the consequences of magic.. how much would a permanent prismatic wall cost, or a “great prismatic wall of china” ? knowing that the army or 20, 000 orcs wont enter a desert without a very good reason. this is a backbone of improv.
    3. Balance.. Dont give the players overly powerful weapons, like +5 swords. It leads to straight up hack and slash.. but a scroll of “worked stone to mud” 3 turn duration can make mudwrestling a whole new sport. Basically give them unconventional tools that are remarkably powerful in the right setting. And virtually useless for a straight up fight outside the setting. Give them access to “discount spells” that have weird side effects.. a charm spell that leaves the caster speaking with the voice of the opposite gender 1d4 hours.. not always convenient.. and a giveaway if you cast it on a fellow mage who might be entitled to another saving throw.

    4. Use their advantages against them when needed.. Lets say an opponent pulls out a mirror of opposition,, while your character is at a weird angle to it and 50 feet away, and engaged in a fight with 2 death slaads.. dont let them get off with “I’m too busy to see that reflection it’s impossible” make them roll a spot check,, if the players spot is augmented to 30 it’s not impossible, it’s likely.

    5. Shortly after leveling– or getting cool toyz– give them a challenge that was a little bruising before, that they can mop up with the boosts.

    6. Dont rules-lawyer sure a large bag of holding doesn’t have the right shape mouth to hold the large mirror of opposition. If this is the kind of trick your player wants to pull, make a way for it to happen. Sure drag him through the mud for it.. save for petrification.. and have him retrieve it from the giant ants who are using it as a source for extra workers, as the mirror is slightly defective. asked the charmed mage to take an amnesia potion so he wont chase you later. (see tie it all together, it makes it feel more fun).

  15. Shane says:

    re Gronk’s ideas, I’ll add a rule 7, when you try something “clever” be ready to roll with any mistakes when you do. The PC could have +1000 to spot, they still won’t see their reflection in a mirror that’s at a weird angle to them (try it at home!). And even at the proper angle, well, the “average” death slaad has +22 spot… :)

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