The Good DM: Hoax, Myth, Legend

This is not a Matthew Mercer hit piece.

The Good DM. Man, do I hate that guy.

No matter who you are, no matter if you’re new to running a game or a seasoned hand with published adventures under your belt, once you are measured by the standard of the Good DM, you’ll be found wanting.

The Good DM is ready for everything. He never forgets a rule, he maintains an encyclopedic knowledge of all the PC spells and abilities, and he can instantly adjudicate confusion with a perfect ruling that everyone accepts without question. He is infallible, infinitely patient, always able to keep the party on track, and so in-tune with player needs that you’d swear he was psychic.

“The Ultimate Wizard of Oz…”

The Good DM is a master worldbuilder, too. He’s already worked out the local politics of every region the party might wander into on a lark—not that the party will wander anywhere, and certainly not on a lark, because the Good DM will carefully entice them, giving them the freedom to choose but ultimately guiding them inexorably to the next important clue in the story. He has mastered being totally in control, but also letting his players be in control at the same time. His is the Schrödinger’s cat of player-driven games, and he the ultimate Wizard of Oz, moving things behind the curtain to make things happen exactly when they need to happen.

The Good DM has also sprinkled bits of everyone’s backstory into everything, no matter how farfetched the 38-page background packages his players gave him ultimately became. The backstories were long because the Good DM always gives carte blanche for the players to make anything they want. And if your breath catches at the thought of a noble, lawful good paladin being stuck in a party with a chaotic evil cambion necromancer, don’t sweat it. He’s the Good DM; he can make any party composition work seamlessly in any environment, and let everyone feel as though they’re contributing. Champions of opposing gods will have compelling story reasons to collaborate, and combat will always allow everyone to shine, whether they’re an unoptimized halfling barbarian/wizard or a min-maxed vampire samurai with laser guns for eyes.

Yeah, $@#% that guy

The Good DM has done more damage to the self-esteem of many talented and creative DMs than anyone else in their lives. Every DM knows that if they ever stumble, if the party ever has a string of bad rolls, if anything ever doesn’t go perfectly, then they are not the Good DM. Why? Because the Good DM would have planned for this! Why can’t they just get it like the Good DM?

That confusion about whether innate spellcasting can be counterspelled… the Good DM would never have had to check that it can’t. Forgetting that the Berserker barbarian can’t be frightened while raging and so he shouldn’t have had to roll against the dragon’s Fearsome Presence? The Good DM would have remembered that without having to be reminded. The name of this random NPC’s mother-in-law? The Good DM knows it and has a some ways she can tie the characters into the story from which they’re running the risk of getting sidetracked.

Not even Matthew #$@%ing Mercer can measure up to the Good DM.

“Professional-level talent…”

Speaking of Matthew Mercer… wow, did we all seriously underestimate just how good the Good DM’s showmanship was before Critical Role came along. It was like 2015 came along and suddenly the Good DM let loose the full force of his charisma and professional-level talent. It didn’t used to seem that every NPC, no matter how insignificant, had its own distinct voice, speech pattern, and physical manifestation back in the Halcyon days before Twitch. Back then, the style of the Good DM seemed less well defined, rather than a gestalt of the top entertainers in the industry.

Now, you don’t have to be the Good DM to desire to improve yourself and how you run a game. But you also don’t have to watch hours and hours of D&D streams a week to grow, let alone run a fun and exciting game for your players. By all means, delve in if you have the time and desire; there are lots of great streams, podcasts, and websites that can help you improve. But at the end of the day, you’ll never be the Good DM, so don’t bother pretending.

Or you can forget about the Good DM and recognize that you aren’t an imposter for not being perfect. Perfection is not and never has been a prerequisite for being a Dungeon Master. If you want to be the DM, you have just as much right to sit at the table as anyone else, no matter what a few overly entitled players might demand.

So get out there and roll some dice. $@%# the Good DM and everyone who demands you be that person.

Feature Image Credit: Joré Escalera (Artstation)

For the sake of clarity, I very much admire Matthew Mercer as a person and a Dungeon Master. This feature image was not chosen to target him, but rather to give a visual conceptualization of what the ‘Good DM’ might look like; some otherworldly, magical entity who is so far removed from reality that you can’t hope to compare to him. As the Internet proves every time some minor mistake or judgment call is made in Critical Role, not even Matthew Mercer is a ‘Good DM’.

Taylor “Ipsimus Arcanus” Reisdorf is the self-styled archmage at Dungeon Master’s Workshop. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook

2 thoughts on “The Good DM: Hoax, Myth, Legend”

  1. I’ll be honest: I don’t think Matthew Mercer is the god of DMing. He’s exceptional at character voices, and his budget is outrageous (the minis! the 3D battlemaps!), but other than that, he’s perfectly average for a DM of multiple decades.

    He forgets rules more often than DMs many years his junior, but his shopkeepers are rich and varied. His local economies are bland and stereotypical, but local traditions and festivals are interesting. He underuses lair and environmental effects, but has a good sense of verticality in his battlemap design. Like *literally everyone else on the planet,* he has strengths and weaknesses. His biggest strengths, as I said, are character voices and his show’s budget, neither of which are really “core” to what it means to be a Good GM.

    The Good GM is the one that keeps players coming back with creative stories, fun encounters, and most importantly, a good-faith effort to engage the players’ expectations–and rarely, to subvert them.

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