6 DM best practices that will make you a better writer.
I’ve been running tabletop games since I was sixteen, and after hitting people with swords and making characters scream and punch their way through epic plot lines, they’re still my favorite pastime. There’s something about the smell of a sourcebook or a PHB, the crack of the beer bottle (I never liked Mountain Dew), and that sound of the dice thudding across the table. You know it. A fresh paper character sheet is a siren call that promises a thousand potential delights, and the light flashing off the artwork of a good DM screen are all in my top-ten most nostalgia-inducing sensations.
I game a lot, you may have noticed, and one of the coolest things about being a DM is the way the skills you cultivate over years at the table apply directly to writing good stories. So sit down, my hungry players, because these are my top six best-DM practices that will make you a better writer, a better storyteller, and hell—a better person.
1. Balancing Narratives: this is the great secret of any ensemble story worth a damn, and being a DM worth your salt requires you to learn how to do this so seamlessly that everyone comes to the gaming table and nobody leaves feeling shafted by the experience. There is an art to doing this, and it comes down to a few things: first, you have to understand that at base level, every person is the hero of their own story, and they have a growth arc of challenges with which they must contend. The endings will not look the same, because some people grow and others sink. Not every story can follow a full ensemble cast (and to be honest, most can’t) but the verisimilitude of wholly formed characters comes of knowing what everyone wants, why they’re involved, and how to keep them in the story—or understand when it’s time for an NPC to bow out. The end result is a set of arcs that feel complete, cohesive, and balanced beside one another.
Author Lesson: Make sure everyone is getting enough space to shine.
2. Challenge escalation: At base level this is just mechanical—understanding the abilities/powers/skills of every player character at your table so that the challenges you throw at them will give you conflict that’s dynamic and entertaining. Conflict should always enhance the story, not bog it down. But the mechanics are only part of this—good DMing requires understanding the growth of your player’s characters well enough to raise the emotional stakes for them as the game—their story—continues. The antagonists of a good game are standins for the internal conflicts facing the characters. Every good story raises the stakes, the further in you get.
Author Lesson: Constantly raise the stakes.
3. Details are relevant except when they’re not: This ties into #5, but it’s tangential enough to warrant its own slot. Good storytelling isn’t about an excess of detail or a dearth of it, but that sweet balance between the two. This is going to vary from person to person, but over time you learn to suss out what details matter, why they matter, and what purpose they serve. Details are like precision strikes to the reader and players emotions, highlighting the relevant at exactly the right moment of the narrative to give the story or the game its mega-ton heart-punch.
Author Lesson: Only use relevant details.
4. The best antagonists are sometimes the characters themselves: Any DM whose stayed in for the long haul of a campaign has learned that the players generate their own best drama. The mistakes they make, and the side-effects of their victories are the meat and potatoes of making a good plot feel viscerally real. People will overcomplicate their lives without the necessary prodding of a single mustache twirling villain or violent cult.
Author Lesson: A characters faults are your best enemies.
5. Know your audience. Play to what they’re here for: A group of players are their own unique sub-genre. A good group syncs up their interests in such a way as what each person is putting into and getting from the game enhances the experience for everyone else. In this way, it’s the players differences as much as their similarities that enhance the experience. Regardless, reading this, understanding it, and feeding it is a critical ability for a good DM. You should always be listening to your players, sensing for those things that really excite or repulse them and responding accordingly. Also, this will just plain educate you as to what your strengths are as a storyteller. Knowing your Ideal Reader for any project is important, and I realized after DMing for the same people for a long time that if my story idea excites them, it’ll probably do well with the sort of people I want to reach.
Author Lesson: Understand your ideal audience.
6. An Adventuring Party is a Family: Characters are why we give a shit about any story. Worldbuilding is awesome. Magic, spaceships, science, the chemistry and the sorcery and the swordplay and the explosions—these things all enhance the experience. But a good storyteller, and a good DM never forgets that its the characters and the players that are the actual experience itself. Garnish is nothing by itself, and a stage without its actors is just an empty room lying in wait to become something. For characters to stick together through thick and thin, that element of heart, of caring, needs to be there. Whether you’re telling a tale of bright, hopeful adventure, or a grim dark trek into the bleak and violent, it’s that bond of companionship, of motivating, gut-check caring, that binds people together. A good DM learns this, and fosters it at the table. The character building scenes aren’t superfluous. They’re often downright critical. Bond them, put them through humor and hell and ridiculousness, and before you know it your party is standing together like siblings. And that warmth that starts to flow from the shared experience? That’s your sign that the real magic is about to happen.
Author Lesson: If the characters care about each other, so will your readers.
In conclusion: running a game and writing a book are separate skills. Being good doesn’t automatically equate to skill at the other, but there’s a lot of cross-pollination, and lessons to be taken from parallel art-forms.
Oh, and DMing/GMing a good game, or playing in one? That’s a fucking art form. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.