The Alphastream Game Design Blog
I used to think of artists as talented. I can’t draw a decent stick figure, while they produce amazing inspiring works that blow my mind. They seem to have raw natural talent. A couple of years ago a friend of mine, Portland artist Jason Behnke, tweeted about how he dislikes the word ‘talent’. He attributed a large part of his art to experience and effort: the long hours of practice, the countless sketches, the many attempts that have yielded their current process, the effort level they give (across multiple steps) before turning in a piece. Other artists have made similar statements.
From my end, I think of myself as a good author, particularly of adventures. But, is it talent? I used to create some really bad adventures in high school and the ones in college were only marginally better. With my professional work I’ve had to work really hard on every project to get the finished work to be something with which I was pleased. I’m wordy, have too many ideas, and it takes many passes to produce my final work. Am I talented, or just hard-working? Working with Mike Shea, he made his work on Vault of the Dracolich seem effortless. And I work so hard to finish my half of Confrontation at Candlekeep as quickly as Shawn Merwin does. Is that their talent? Or am I just not seeing their effort? (Maybe they will answer in the comments?)
How does this factor into a new DM, who is approaching the game, sees some great established DMs, and finds themself to be inferior? Is being a great DM often due to talent? Most of the time? Sometimes? Rarely? Is the DM who can’t keep their players’ attention a lost cause, or taking the first step towards becoming great?
I think DMing is a lot like being a good author or good artist. You might have a leg up due to that hard-to-define ‘talent’, but I think I’m starting to side with Jason.
As a young DM in the sixth grade, I had no idea what I was doing. My players were roving bands of misfits, slaughtering the townsfolk just as often as they killed bad guys. My old copy of Keep on the Borderlands has penciled notes of just how much they stole from the keep… in every single store in the keep! Surely this wasn’t just the players… I was supposed to be in charge and to guide them and show them better ways!
One of my low points was in college, when I had nothing prepared and my players asked me to wing it. At the end they said it was the best session in a long time. That was a serious blow to my confidence. How could my improv be superior to the hours I normally spent preparing? What did my adventure plans have that made them worse than improv? I still think of that to this day, often.
Does all of this mean I lack talent as a DM, and I owe everything to effort and experience? If so, I really owe an apology to my old players! But, I don’t think so. I never had trouble getting people to play. Players came back, told friends, and we had many laughs. In thinking this all over, I don’t think the line between talent and experience is so clear, nor so easily separated. I think there are some things about me that gave me an inclination (talent) towards being a good DM. I like stories. I am analytical and can see what makes a good novel or movie scene fun, if translated to the game. I like doing voices and getting into character, and can do so relatively easily. I can usually put myself in the minds of the players and see what they would want out of a gaming scene. These ‘talents’ made up for the many things I didn’t know or didn’t do well.
Time and effort have made a huge difference. I learned from those around me, emulating what worked for them. Organized play was especially useful. I might have run the same adventure four times (or more) in a weekend, each time for different players. I could see what worked and figure out why a session was particularly fun. Every time I ran the adventure again, I could improve, altering my technique and seeing the results. Also, I often began by having a DM run that adventure for me. I could use what worked for them and change what didn’t. Invaluable! I learned (and continue to learn) from countless organized play judges.
“Talent is an accident of genes – and a responsibility.” – Alan Rickman
When I began, there was only one other DM in my school. Even in college, I didn’t know other DMs and I wouldn’t have known where to read about DMing. Knowledge is now everywhere, thanks to the Internet, blogs, and social media. If I’m running an adventure path I can turn to several great bloggers or Twitter folk and get fantastic ideas. I can turn to my favorite blogs for new approaches, tips, and lessons learned.
All of this is great for the new DM. Take heart! Those you may think of as having a talent may indeed have some predilection… but they also are likely to have started in a place very similar to where you find yourself. Effort and experience will add over time to your natural talents.
There is no level 20 in real life… gaining experience continues forever!
Want more? Baldman Games organizes major D&D conventions, including Winter Fantasy, Origins, and Gen Con. You can sign up to DM Winter Fantasy here. And, at these conventions Baldman often organizes seminars with DM training. You can see the first of those training sessions online, with more to follow.
And, here is what Roving Band of Misfits’ had to say on the subject. Benoit is a fantastic DM, so I really enjoyed his take. I agree that confidence is a big key, and you can build that confidence before the game without needing to inherently be a confident person (though it helps).
And, TheSheDM writes with her view on talent versus experience. In particular, she looks at how her opinion has changed over the years on what kinds of DMs she wants to attract to run organized play at my favorite gaming store. I like her choice of critical skills/talents.