I’m A Bad DM. Now What?

A question was raised this week by Randall Walker that led me to reflect back to my time as a career counselor, “What happens when I suck at being a DM?” The question is intriguing to me for many reasons, and the article below represents my thought process on how to provide an answer.

Many years ago, I worked as a career counselor at a large university. The role entailed meeting with undergraduate students and assisting them with career development. Often this would include the administration of a career inventory to assess how well the individual fit into a wide variety of occupational fields. For example, it takes a different set of skills and interests to excel as a firefighter than it does to excel as a business manager. My work allowed me to discuss career paths with the students, weigh the benefits and consequences of certain courses of action and form a plan for future career development.

The Above-Average Dungeon Master

First, ask yourself if you believe you are an above-average driver. Like most people out there, you probably consider yourself to be a better-than-average driver of an automobile. However, everyone out there driving a vehicle cannot be an above-average driver. It’s statistically impossible! If you were to assess the driving ability of everyone in the world, then you’d likely discover a normal distribution in the results. Some drivers would be horrible, most would be about average, and some would be Jason Statham. Everyone cannotbe above average. There are many drivers that are below average, and you might be one of them.

Are some people not meant to DM?

How does this relate to gaming? Imagine you are now assessing the ability of all Dungeon Masters instead of drivers. We first must develop a measure that is valid to rate the skill of a DM; this is an issue I will return to in a moment, but for now, let’s assume we have a measure that accurately assesses DM skill. We should expect to find a normal distribution in the results. A small percentage of DMs will perform poorly, most will fall close to the middle of the pack, and a small percentage will be outstanding. Which brings us back to the original question, “What happens when I suck at being a DM?”

Career Counseling

One of the tools most frequently used when assisting someone with finding an appropriate career path is the Strong Interest Inventory. The test was developed in the 1920s by a psychologist to help people leaving the military find employment. It has gone through numerous revisions, and the modern version is based on the Holland Codes created by another psychologist. The Holland Codes represent a set of personality types and the six-factor typology could be used to describe both persons and work environments. There are six Holland Codes:

  • Realistic – practical, physical, hands-on, tool-oriented
  • Investigative - analytical, intellectual, scientific, explorative
  • Artistic – creative, original, independent, chaotic
  • Social – cooperative, supporting, helping, healing/nurturing
  • Enterprising – competitive environments, leadership, persuading
  • Conventional – detail-oriented, organizing, clerical

Taken together, the Holland Codes are usually referred to by their first letters: RIASEC. The graphical representation below serves to describe the empirically-determined correlations between the types, which have been documented through decades of research. The shorter the distance between their corners on the hexagon, the more closely they are related. For example, Realistic and Investigative (next to each other in the hexagon) share more characteristics than Realistic and Social (opposite sides of the hexagon).

RIASEC Model

The Strong Interest Inventory consists of 291 items, each of which asks you to indicate your preference from five responses. It is an assessment of interests, and not to be confused with a personality or aptitude test. The test can typically be taken within 30 minutes after which the results are scored by computer. The test-taker’s responses are compared through a variety of advanced statistics to responses from groups of individuals in a various occupations. Imagine you asked 291 questions of 100 school teachers and 100 construction workers. There responses are likely to be quite different. Those results are grouped together, and when the test-taker answers the same questions, the test informs the test-taker if their answers are closer to the school teachers or the construction workers. A counselor typically reviews the results with the test-taker to discuss the nuances of the test.

Dungeon Masters & RIASEC

In the ideal world, we would have an established measure that evaluates the skill of a DM. The measure could be ratings by players and/or peers; let’s call it the Dungeon Master Skill Inventory (DMSI). But what makes a skilled DM? What are the talents and abilities that are most important to running a quality game?

This is where the Strong Interest Inventory could come into play. To my knowledge, no one has taken the time to give the Strong Interest Inventory to a large group of DMs. With GenCon coming up in a few months, many of the best DMs in the country/world will be under one roof. It is a phenomenal opportunity to collect data to discover more about the “art” of DMing; three things would need to happen.

  1. DMs are rated regarding their skill running a game. I believe DMs are already judged at times during conventions. We can use the fictional DMSI mentioned above to rate the DMs.
  2. DMs complete the Strong Interest Inventory.
  3. The results from the DMSI are compared to the results of the Strong Interest Inventory. If a clear pattern exists, then we could make more conclusions about what factors make a “good” DM as well as those factors that potentially make a “bad” DM.

Returning to the RIASEC model, let’s examine each of the six factors and discuss how they relate to running a roleplaying game.

Realistic

Occupations in the Realistic realm involve working with your hands or using tools and machines. Jobs in this area are more related to working with things rather than people. The people who excel in these occupations tend to be quite practical, mechanically inclined, and physical. Some of the more common jobs in this area are mechanic, police officer, soldier, computer scientist and chef.

The focus of these jobs is working with things rather than people. It would appear at first that this set of skills would not immediately jump to the front of the list when thinking about the abilities needed to perform well as a DM. Even though the DM has to interact with game mechanics and things quite often in preparation, running the game is very much a social activity. It is possible that DMs with Realistic tendencies would run a more railroad-style campaign. They might not be comfortable deviating from their plans or adjusting rules on the fly when players come up with a unique solution to a problem. However, they are likely to be quite talented in the mechanics of the game. Realistic DMs may use props for wonderful effects as they enjoy preparing them ahead of time for the game.

Investigative

Occupations in the Investigative realm involve working with theory and information. Jobs in this area tend to be analytical, intellectual and scientific. You can imagine that jobs in this area are more focused on things rather than people. Some of the more common occupations in this category are lawyer, finance, engineer and physician.

Professionals in this category interact with people, but the main focus is still on things. For instance, a lawyer and physician interact with clients and patients all the time, but their job is primary focused on mechanics. Lawyers must know the law and physicians must deal with sickness and injuries. DMs with an Investigative approach are likely to be quite knowledgeable of the rules of the game and how it “should” be played. These DMs may not be flexible at the gaming table and rigid when it comes to rulings. However, these DMs are likely to be very prepared for each game. They are likely to have well-balanced encounters and specific contingencies depending on the actions of the party.

Artistic

Occupations in the Artistic category typically are original, independent and non-conforming. The people who gravitate toward these jobs could be described as chaotic and creative. The jobs in the Artistic category include actor, writer, musician and performing artists.

The people in these professions are creators. DMs with an Artistic leaning are likely to find a great deal of joy in the story and roleplaying components of gaming. They may draw maps, develop detailed and engaging NPCs and draw in their group with enthusiastic performances. However, the DMs may not be as concerned with strict adherence to rules and gaming mechanics. It seems reasonable that some element of the Artistic category is required to run a well-balanced and engaging game.

Social

Occupations in the Social category typically occur in cooperative environments and the jobs focus on supporting, helping, and healing or nurturing others. Another way to describe the Social category is Helper. Jobs classified as Social include therapist, teacher, social worker and receptionist. Physicians and other occupations also can fall in the Social category.

We discussed previously how those in Realistic occupations are focused on things. People working in Social occupations are focused on people. If you refer to the hexagon above, you can see that Realistic and Social are on opposite sides of the model, meaning they are not alike each other. DMs with Social tendencies are likely to enjoy the social side of gaming. They may find more interest in roleplaying, or possibly even random chit-chat with players, compared to combat or other game mechanics. They are likely to be quite vocal and expressive with language and be open to communication from the players. They will likely support players throughout the campaign; as a result, they may not challenge them too forcefully as they do not want to “rock the boat.” They may focus on nurturing the players to the extent that the game is no longer challenging.

Enterprising

Occupations in the Enterprising realm consist of competitive environments and focus on leading, persuading, selling, dominating and promoting. Those employed in these fields are often intent on increasing their status and reputation. Some of the jobs in this category are business, administration, marketing, real estate and publishing.

Those working in these fields certainly deal with people, but instead of a being a helper like those in Social areas of employment, they are focused on persuading others. DMs who fall in this category may spend a good deal of time directing the party or selling them on how the game should be run. There may not be as much collaboration with the party compared to the other categories. The danger of this approach is the DM becomes the focus of the game rather than the players. However, these DMs are likely quite skilled in organizing the game and getting players excited to join a gaming group. It’s probable that these DMs will create challenging stories and combat situations for the party, and may want to even “beat” the party in the game.

Conventional

Occupations in the Conventional category rely on precision and perfect attention to detail. Those that excel in these positions are orderly and organized. Jobs most frequently associated with this category are accountant, secretary, librarian, technical writer and banker.

People working in Conventional jobs are most commonly working with things, whether it be numbers, books, documents or another set of materials. DMs falling in this category are thoroughly prepared for their gaming sessions. They are likely to have a vast understanding of their gaming world and the players that inhabit it. They will have encyclopedic knowledge of the applicable rules and will not allow the players to cut corners. The potential downside of this approach is once again inflexibility if the party attempts a course of action that is not in the rules. The DM may rely too much on a strict railroad for players to ride and not allow deviations from the scripted plan.

Discussion

Think about how you would define yourself in the RIASEC model, both in terms of how you view yourself and how you view your job. Do those two line up? My guess is that if you consider yourself a Social person but have a Realistic job, then you have a certain amount of job dissatisfaction. Ideally, our interests and personality would line up well with the needs of the occupation we have.

Now think about how you run games for your players, or how other DMs run games for you. It is likely that their occupation and personality type influences how they prepare and run games. A Realistic DM would be able to run a wonderful campaign for a group of Realistic players, but it might be a disaster if they players are all Social according to the RIASEC model.

I have taken the Strong Interest Inventory, and they provide you with your Holland Code. The results give you a wealth of information, but one piece is the three categories that best match your responses. For me, it was Social, Artistic and Conventional (SAC). My job as a psychologist is a good fit for me since it is a helping profession (Social). However, my other interests (such as gaming and writing this blog) come from my interest in Artistic endeavors.

Remember it is the Strong Interest Inventory. I have a great interest in music, but I have no talent. So the test is constructed to measure your interest in an area, not your skill. This is why it helps to speak with a career counselor when you get the results because they are easy to misinterpret. For instance, my results came back years ago and the job that was the best match was speech pathologist. My answers were most similar to those given by speech pathologists. But the take-home message was that I was interested in a helping field working with people. I chose psychology and it’s been a good fit.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the best Holland Code would be for a DM. I think any combination could work depending on the group. However, this article may cause you to think about your style and where potential flaws may lie. Consider your personality, interests and occupation in the categories listed above. Do you DM the same way? For example, if you are a strong Artistic personality, then you may lack some of the great strengths (detail-oriented, organization) of the Conventional personality.

Perhaps you are a terrible DM. That doesn’t mean you have to remain a terrible DM. Discover your weak points. Ask for feedback. Understanding yourself will go a long way to understanding how and why you run your games in a certain way. And how best to improve it.

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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8 Responses to I’m A Bad DM. Now What?

  1. Geek Ken says:

    I think you’ve provided an interesting set of tools to get at how effective a DM is. I think this might be a great way to get some feedback to DMs that run events at cons and other sanctioned events. I wonder if the RPGA ever had something like this.

  2. wolfRam says:

    Hm! An interesting article indeed! Too bad the tests are commercial.

  3. The Id DM says:

    Geek Ken, there are any number of assessment tools that would be interesting to compare to DM skill (if we can agree on a measure for that variable). I think it would be interesting to see the results. Perhaps the information could inform future sections of the DMG 3.

    wolfRam, thank you for the feedback. The Strong Interest Inventory does cost money usually. If you are a student at a university, then you can probably take the test for free or little cost at your university counseling center. It’s a very helpful test and provides great feedback about career options. The MMPI-2 is another useful measure, but that is a whole OTHER post for another day.

  4. AJ says:

    Here is a Personality test which I really enjoyed. http://similarminds.com/maslow.html
    It’s based upon Abraham Maslows Heirachy of needs. Not directly related to this assesment testing indicated above, but still very interesting. I myself took the Berkman assesstment test when entering college. It indicated a high aptitude as an artist, which is eventually where my career ended up some 7 years later. These tests are actually very telling, I too would encourage anyone who can to take one.

  5. One way to make sure you don’t suck as a DM is to give yer wizard mroe treasure! It’s a guaranteed Non-suckage, certificate!!

  6. BrianLiberge says:

    The Iron DM competitions being run at Cons have the players rate the DMs. My understanding is that this is a newer occurrence. But I, like many, I’ve spoken with, have doubts at how useful this measures is. My two biggest concerns are:
    1. A great deal of DMing is social. You’re always going to perform better with people who you click with. This means your score is going to have large +/-% pretty much uncontrollably.
    2. This only rates your DMing ability for this one shot adventure. The skills required in running a campaign can be quite different.

  7. Tourq says:

    I’ve seen Convention Administrators ask for feedback from many on their mailing list – specifically how they felt a GM ran a game. Was it fun? Was it entertaining? Did he/she hold the group’s attention? Were they fair? Were they prepared? were they on time? and so on… As Brian said, this may skew reality because conventions rarely offer continuing campaigns (and never with the same players), so it maight be hard to judge a GM on his ability to run a campaign. However, I think this would be only a minor deviation from the truth.

    As far as how I do, in the same day I’ve been told that I’m a great GM by one person, and a bad GM by another. So I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, right?

    On a side note, I took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and broke it. Or, it broke me. Whichever.

  8. The Id DM says:

    AJ, Brian & Tourq,

    You bring up great points. There are many personality assessments out there. I almost used the Myers-Briggs instead of the Strong Interest Inventory to structure the article above, but the Myers-Brigss felt more difficult to explain. I took that test (multiple times) and the results always come back the same: ENFP

    The personal ratings of a DM are subject to many factors that can have little to do with DM skill. Are you already friends with the DM? Are you playing with other friends in the group that make the experience more enjoyable?

    That is why a standardized measure of DM skill would be helpful. Perhaps having observers outside the game rate the session is one option. Important factors to consider are:

    1. Knowledge of rules (you’re running the game after all)
    2. Preparation
    3. Creativity
    4. Energy
    5. Personality (you have to be engaging with the players)
    6. Table management (moving game along; balancing player contributions, etc.)

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