Every Dungeon Master has there own way of doing things. Of course there are those archetypes that some people fit into, but each one will and SHOULD still be different from the next. Just as each player has to develop a persona for his or her character, the Dungeon Master has to develop a persona for himself. Now I am not saying you should become a short, stubby, red robbed wearing little guy with bad hair. No I am saying you have to find YOUR way of Dungeon Mastering. So lets look at some ways for the up and coming Dungeon Master to develop his style.
You are your own person. You have spent years learning to be the person you are so do not try to change who you are around the table. struggling to repress a personality is a sure way to be an awkward mess behind the Dungeon Masters screen, so let your personality live. If you are not an outgoing flamboyant type of person, then do not try to force yourself to become that when running the game. If you feel uncomfortable, you are not going to do the best job, so find a way to be yourself and still achieve your desired goal. A quiet reserved individual can run a game. They can take more of a third person approach and develop a more narrative style if they feel uncomfortable speaking AS the Non Player Characters. Your personality and how you interact with the players, will be part of what defines your game sessions.
Now while I just said to “be yourself” I will say that some personality types are not well suited to Dungeon Mastering. I find those who feel the need to “always be right” or lack compromise make poor Dungeon Masters, as do those who think being the Dungeon Master makes them some kind of god or overlord around the table. The job of a Dungeon Master directly goes against these kinds of personalities. Read this post for a better explanation.
BE REALISTIC IN YOUR COMMITMENTS.
Some people have more time on there hands than other. As such some of you may have plenty of free time to devote to writing adventures, creating encounters and world building. Other on the other hand may barely have time to run the session, let alone prep for it. Now while it goes without saying, being a Dungeon Master is work, you can lessen the work load in a number of ways. If you do not have a great deal of prep time, or you are not particularly creative then use the published adventures and material out there. You may find reading a pre written adventure and running it is a lot easier for you and less time consuming. Also if you do not have that “flair” for writing your own stories, you are probably going to have better game sessions that way. I have seen some horrible home made adventures being run recently, and the weak and lame story behind them made me cringe. Be realistic, and know that not everyone has that creativity. I am not telling you not to try your hand at creating your own material, far from it, just be honest with yourself and make sure you have the talent and the time to do it justice. If you realize writing your own material is not for you, well there is no shame in that. All editions have plenty of published material for you to use. Pathfinder (or D&D 3.75 as some call it) probably has the most frequent and regular support material that is always flowing off the press, so it may be a good system to use if you just don’t like or have time to write your own material. The bottom line is, if you do not have time to prep properly, then you are doing yourself and the players an injustice, so only play as often as you reasonably have time to prep for. Its better to run a good game every other week than a bad game twice a week.
The idea of developing a persona or style is to allow you to be consistent. If you know you do not like speaking AS the Non Player Characters then run your game in the third person as apposed to the first person, but be consistent. If you have the talent to voice act and are going to do so that is great, but be consistent. If you are going to be a stickler for following the rules as laid out in the handbook, that is fine but be consistent. Players like to know where they stand. They do not appreciate a Dungeon Master who changes up the playing field too often. They lose trust in the Dungeon Master and begin to feel lost at the table. If you are Consistent the players will feel comfortable and settled. If you realize you do need to make a deliberate change to the way the game is running, to a rule or any aspect that your players have come to know as standard then you should discuss and inform your players before hand.
BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF.
Know what you can do well and what you can not. If you have an amazing memory and like to learn and read, then you can be one of those Dungeon Masters that can run his game without much need of referring to the manual. On the other hand if you may have a gift for storytelling and would rather play a rules lite version of the game. If you have a flamboyant personality, and a good vocal range you may want to voice act and role play your Non Player Characters to the fullest, but if that is not you, then you maybe you can become a great narrative Dungeon Master. The key here is to be honest with yourself and know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Do not try to run a game in a manner on which you are not comfortable or skilled at. We all like to think we have talents in certain areas but truth is often we are deluding ourselves. I was blessed with a varied octave range and little to no shame, so I have no problem acting like and impersonating a woman and even flirting with male party members. I know plenty of Dungeon Masters however that just would not and probably should not do that. On the other hand I know some Dungeon Masters that are walking encyclopedias and can quote you a rule as written and what page it is on and in which manual. I can not do that. I know my rules, but I sometimes have to refer to the manuals to clarify things. I just do not have that memory. Be honest and own your shortcomings and embrace your talents.
I can not stress this enough. Why? well because it basically means you will not find your style or persona, and will go against everything we have already said. In this world of social and multi media (as I have mentioned before), I get to watch a lot of Dungeon Masters and players in action on line, as well as in gaming stores or other venues.
I have seen some good and couple of great “mechanical” Dungeon Masters. These are Dungeon Masters who concentrate on the depth and accuracy of the game and do not bother so much with first person, Voice acting, or being particularly animated. The Good and great ones know their rules inside and out when it comes to the game, and run awesome narrative stories. The poor ones however do not know the game and tend to fumble about the place and spend half the time checking on the rules.
I have seen some good, and a few great “storytelling” Dungeon Masters. The good and great ones really know how to develop the scene, set the mood and develop tension levels appropriate to the moment. While the poor ones do not seem to have a flair for language or description and lack the skills to develop mood and atmosphere in their game.
I have seen a couple of good or great “animated” Dungeon Masters. The good and great ones use their personality and voices to full effect. They truly become the characters that they are portraying and seem to be able to attribute and remember a vast variety of voices to their Non Player Character stable. They pull faces, wave their arms around and really throw themselves into it. On the other hand most I have seen are inconsistent in their method, have limited vocals and quiet honestly look more awkward and foolish than believable.
once again I say BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF! If you are not a walking encyclopedia, then do not try to be. Use the books. If you do not have the talent or comfort level to literally become your Non Player Characters, then don’t. Instead concentrate on clear and concise delivery of your narrative and information. It is far better to be good or great at what you CAN do , than poor at what you try to do and fail. Do not try to emulate others, trust me it shows when you do and if you do not have the skill set you will fall short. I do not name people directly but as I am writing this, my mind is thinking about those that I consider great at their destined style and method, and those that I have seen that I want to slap and say…. “NO! that’s not you, you cant be that person so stop trying to be, you look like a tool and you are doing your players an injustice”.
Every person is a make up of many things. So is a Dungeon Master. My hope is to help you become the best that you can be at any given time. I have spent over thirty three years honing my craft as a Dungeon Master and as I have said prior to this, I had to learn to be honest with myself and be critical of my own performance. I have improved immensely over time and most of my improvements were made by being honest with myself and asking for feedback. Once upon a time I studied the rule books and read them cover to cover like novels. I retained a good bit but certainly not as much as I would have liked. I have been jealous in the past of a friend who could read a book once, and seemingly memories it cover to cover and when he Dungeon Mastered never needed to pick up a manual of any kind during play. He (on the other hand) was equally jealous of my storytelling skills and ability to adopt a personality for each and every Non Player Character. Both of us however knew we did not posses the skill set that the other had, so were content to run the game our way, with the confidence that we did it well with our own particular style.
I finish by saying to be a good Dungeon Master requires much more than just developing a persona or style, but it is part of what will make you a successful one. I have been fortunate to play with many people over the past three plus decades, and I can say without a doubt all the good Dungeon Masters I have played under all had their own style that was true to who they were as a person. The poor ones all tried to be something they were not, and it showed………..