How to find your DM style

Just as there are many different types of D&D player, so, too, are there many different types of DM – and just as DMs ought to know what their players enjoy, so, too, should players have some idea of how you like to be DM.  

In this article, I am going to present a series of binary opposites to help you identify your own DM style. This is an exercise in false dichotomies, of course, and most of us will sit somewhere on a spectrum in each case. Sometimes, though, by defining what we are not, we gain a better understanding of our strengths. DMs wear many hats – actor, referee, storyteller, therapist – and we all change our style from time to time to suit the scenario in front of us.

First off, though: is there such a thing as a bad DM?

Bad DMing

In short: yes. Of course there are bad DMs.

As a longer answer: DMing is a craft, and we all get better at it over time. Everyone does it a bit differently, and if one person’s style doesn’t suit a particular group’s taste, that doesn’t mean they’re a ‘bad’ DM.

But: there are a few DM ‘types’ that rarely lead to positive experiences. I will run through a few of these now.  

The DM adversary. This is not uncommon: the DM who aims to ‘beat’ the players, who sees the game as an antagonistic chess match. (By the way, this is not the same thing as a tough DM who wants to create meaningful challenges – more on this later.) Given the DM is essentially god and can do whatever they want, this always felt like a strange approach to me, and it’s rarely fun for the players. There is an unwritten social contract between the players and the DM, and when DMs play like this, trust starts to break down pretty quickly. Be a fan of the players.  

The burnt-out DM. Also common. Some DMs end up becoming ‘forever DMs’, prepping extensive week in, week out to give their players a fun session. The problem is, even the greatest DMs need some time off now and then, and when the burnout kicks in, the game suffers for everyone. There is probably another article in here, but for now, a few suggestions: prep less; take a break; find inspiration elsewhere; run shorter campaigns. The DM is also a player, and it’s important that you’re having as much fun as everyone else at the table.

The solo DM. Not literally, but a DM who acts as though the players don’t exist. They aren’t interested in what the players enjoy, or their characters, and tend to run the group through a series of prewritten scenarios. D&D is not a novel: it is improvised, random, and collaborative. If you genuinely aren’t interested in the other people at the table, then maybe write fiction instead.

The solipsistic DM. Not quite the same as the solo DM, this is a DM who sits in their ivory tower and doesn’t take feedback – the D&D equivalent of a self-published author. Checking in with players is crucial and often the best way to avoid conflicts down the line. DMs who aren’t interested in whether or not the players enjoy the game might be brilliant – but they might also have players who aren’t having much fun and don’t feel listened to about it.   

The unsafe DM. D&D is first and foremost about having fun. DMs should not present uncomfortable or upsetting scenarios that their players have not consented to. Sometimes this is inadvertent, and a good DM will recognize their error and repair the damage. But wilfully setting out to cause distress is toxic. Safety tools exist for a reason.

Putting these negative archetypes to one side, then: where do you fit on the DM spectrums?

Types of DMs

How do you want to do this? Matt Mercer of Critical Role is widely admired for his deep-immersion style of DMing

Planning or improv. How much of your sessions to improvise on the spot? Ten percent? 50 percent? More than 90 percent? Some DMs prepare fastidiously for their sessions; others wing it on the fly. Both approaches have their merits.

Gamer or storyteller. When you think of D&D, do you think of telling cool fantasy stories with your friends, or a sophisticated, tactically rich board game? Regular readers will not be surprised to know that I lean very much towards the former, but for some DMs, D&D is a game first and foremost.

Character-focused or world-focused. Which is more interesting to you: the campaign setting or the people who live in it? To some extent, this might be an artificial distinction, but there are some DMs who lean towards one over the other. Do you have a long cast of characters with a fairly primitive world map? Or are you the sort of DM who wants a map for everything but treats NPCs as throwaway strawmen?

Vocal or watchful. Here it can be interesting to watch some of the ‘big beasts’ like Matt Mercer and Chris Perkins. Both are masters of rich, colourful description, but they know when to sit back and give the floor to their players. Some DMs take centre stage; others are like a guide at the side.

Serious or light-hearted. It’s hard for D&D to be completely serious (the game is unpredictable and features creatures like flumphs and modrons), but some DMs embrace the light-heartedness more than others. (If you’ve ever watched Acquisitions Incorporated, you will know what I mean.)

Acquisitions Incorporated - PAX Prime 2015 D&D Game - YouTube
Not everyone can DM like Chris Perkins

Freeform or RAW (‘rules as written’). How much do you handwave things? How much do you use house rules? Almost nobody plays the game exactly as it is described in the Player’s Handbook, but some DMs depart from the rules more than others.   

Episodic or continuous. Do you like to have an overarching plot like The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, or do you follow more of a ‘monster of the week’ format? Both are fun! But some groups prefer one to the other.

Sandbox or closed narrative. Linked to the above: are your players free to go anywhere and do what they want, like in Skyrim or Far Cry, or is there a series of connected encounters for them to go through, as with Diablo or Tomb Raider? To some extent, this debate (which is fiercely argued in some quarters) is a bit of an artificial distinction: most campaigns have a mixture of the two.

Homebrew or published. Wizards of the Coast have published twelve hardback campaign-adventures since 2014, plus a couple of compilation books like Tales from the Yawning Portal and Candlekeep Mysteries. Some DMs run tend to only run prewritten material; others make everything up themselves. Which are you?

The Chain, Episode One: Red Sky At Morning - YouTube
Matt Colville offers a host of tips on homebrew world-building

Generous or hardcore. DMs have a lot of scope to alter the difficulty of the game. How much treasure do you hand out? How hard are your encounters? How often do your players level up? What happens if the character die? Some players relish the challenge of a lethal, high-stakes game; others want something more casual.   

Theatre of the mind or tactical grids. This can be a big deal for some groups. Where 4th edition advised the use of miniature figures, 5th edition assumes theatre of the mind combat by default. Some players hate it. I don’t. Give both a try: see how you get on.

Combat heavy or combat lite. D&D has three pillars, but for some DMs, only one of them matters. And this is fine – if it’s how you and your group like to play. Something to talk about.

Dungeons or situations. Older editions of D&D focused almost exclusively on dungeons – hence the game’s name. Yet many modern gamers have moved away from traditional site-based adventures, I would argue, and we can see this in the type of content produced by Wizards of the Coast. Dungeon of the Mad Mage stands out as the only true megadungeon in the 5th edition canon.      

Classic fantasy or newer genres. Although D&D has drawn on diverse influences from the very beginning, it is clearly deeply rooted in sword and sorcery and Tolkienesque high fantasy. But it doesn’t have to be! What are your DM influences? Are you drawn towards more ‘vanilla’ settings like Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, or are you excited by dungeon punk like Eberron, cosmic horror like Call of Cthulhu, and gritty grimdark stories like the Witcher series?

Why choose OSR | Game Masters | Yawning Portal
The OSR movement harks back to an early-style of play

Old school or new school. Generally speaking, old-school gamers emphasize rulings over rules and player skill over character abilities. They are often more relaxed about game balance, too, and prefer grittier levels of realism to the high-powered ‘superheroic’ feel of some D&D games. The revival of ‘old school’ gamers presumes the existence of a ‘new school’, but there seems to be little consensus about what this involves. I would argue: a stronger focus on roleplay, a less adversarial approach to DMing, a more generous approach to game difficulty, and – perhaps a controversial view – a more modern and embracing approach toward diversity.

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