New dungeon masters can find an endless amount of professional DMs to compare themselves to: voice actors, comedians, writers, and developers. They’re all incredibly proficient at the game and are tough to measure up against.
The recent trend of live play content online often highlights the best of the best talent in DnD and it has warped the perception of what a dungeon master is expected to bring to the table. We’re going to set the record straight. Anyone can be a dungeon master.
You’re Not Expected to be a Professional Voice Actor
Shows like Critical Role or The Adventure Zone highlight a rising trend in Let’s Play DnD broadcasts that feature distinct characters, witty dialogue, and a whole collection of voices and accents in the game. Lots of players have started playing DnD because of shows like these. Getting new people into the hobby is great, as we always want more people in the game, but these shows skew the expectations of what the game is like for new players.
When a new DM starts the game they may see their players as measuring them against a whole host of individuals who run DnD professionally. This can be intimidating for new DMs. I mean, who would want to be compared to Matt Mercer on their first game of DnD? With these over the top ideals a lot of DMs can feel pressured to create character voices that are both hard to pull off and even harder to maintain.
The truth of the matter is that these bits of acting are the result of many years of hard work and practice. The performances you see online only look effortless because the people doing them are highly polished professionals. Even though you may want to use voices for your characters in the game, it is often better to build a character that is identifiable by their goals and actions than it is to apply a voice that distracts you from the role of forming cohesive dialogue.
You’re Not Expected to be a Professional Comedian
Humor, while often found in a game of DnD, is not a requirement for the game. A lot the shows that DMs compare themselves to are full of wit, sarcasm, and quick thinking that make for a great show. At the end of the day, these are just performances.
In DnD you have a lot to manage as a dungeon master and having razor sharp wit is often one of the least important parts of the game. If you manage to crack some successful jokes but bungle the main quest line you’ve likely missed the most crucial part of the job.
New DMs don’t see the prep work that goes into the comedy aspect of those games. Often the players and the DMs work together away from the table to create situations that are meaningful for the performance and add opportunities for humor in the game.
In podcasts this can be distorted even further because you don’t get any insight into the editing process. A joke that was kind of funny on the first take can be redone and you’ll never know as a listener.
Shows like The Adventure Zone are designed around comedy. The premise of many episodes is absurd and the game is only very loosely Dungeons and Dragons. They all know that their goal is to make something that is fun and entertaining to watch and the rules stretch to make the game more narrative and humorous. A typical game often has a very different balance to its narrative and gameplay elements.
You’re Not Expected to be a Professional Writer
In the more serious realm of live play shows you will find expertly crafted narratives. You’ll see stories that are fit together with all sorts of twists and turns and you’ll never know what to expect. The whole thing plays out flawlessly and you end up with an amazing piece of drama. You shouldn’t expect this in most of your games and definitely not in your first one.
The biggest difference between a professional writing a campaign and you writing a campaign is experience. Just like your characters level up in the game, writers level up their writing by doing it often. Your first campaign will be just as bad as the professionals’ campaigns were when they started writing. No one is an expert in their first go.
Even if you have some experience, writing is not easy. When you see a brilliant DnD session online there are a few things that are concealed in the making of that session. First is that the amount of session prep that is dedicated to a professional session is likely 5 to 10 times longer and more tedious than your session prep. Many profession campaigns are both meticulously created and organized.
Not only does the game have more notes than most DMs ever generate, it also adapts to make the game entertaining for viewers. There’s a lot more editing going on behind the scenes than you might realize.
On top of all of that, the players for a professional game are in on the story. They likely have time outside of the recorded sessions to talk about character development, plot progression, and general revisions they need to account for to make everything run smoothly.
Sure, most aspects of the game might be surprising for the players. But the players aren’t going to walk off the main plot line because they know the point of the show is to go through that plot. Your players likely don’t have the same investment. People who aren’t doing this professionally hardly have the time to get together to play one session, let alone plan for it. Your players are there to have fun and that’s what you should focus on.
What You Are Expected to Do
As the Dungeon Master you are expected to maintain the game, help with rules, and guide the story. Your players are there to mess about in the world you’re creating and decide which story gets told.
Ultimately a lot of careful planning in a normal game goes to waste because your players are going to be interested in whatever they want. They can walk off the main path of your game and the game can be just as fun. It’s your job to ensure no matter which direction your players turn the game can continue.
You don’t have to do voices and accents for your NPCs. You don’t have to crack jokes or have a million witty retorts. You don’t have to tell an epic tale that would make the Muses weep. Your only job is to keep the game going. Being a DM is hard work, but it’s also fun and rewarding… even if you aren’t a professional.
How to Be a Professional DM
If you’ve gotten this far and you’re thinking that even though you don’t have to be an amazing professional actor, writer, or comedian, you still want to be. Well that’s great! Dungeons and Dragons is the perfect place to practice these skills if you want to hone them.
Your first run at voice acting will be terrible, but the more you do it the better you will become. Your first campaign will have plot holes big enough for a tarrasque to sneak through, but you get better the more you write. Your first few gags at the table will likely fall flat, but you’ll learn a lot by trying.
The only way all of the professional DMs out there got so good at what they do is by putting in a lot of time and effort. No one starts amazing, but you get better with practice. Because DnD is so open and there is so much you can do, a Dungeon Master has a chance to gain and exercise a ton of different skills.
Outside of the skills we’ve already discussed it can also help you get better at improvisation, planning, management, you name it. Dungeons and Dragons, while a fun game and pastime, is also a great way to hone some skills you never thought you’d work on.
If you put in enough effort, who knows? You might be able to start the next hit live play game online!
Focus on the Game, the Rest Will Follow
Running DnD with your friends is all about the fun of the game. Your job is to keep the game going and ensure that both you and your players are having a good time.
You’re not putting on a performance. You’re not running a game to be seen by millions of viewers. You are running a game for everyone at the table to tell a story together and have a blast doing it.
Don’t lose sight of what really happens at a DnD table and don’t constantly compare yourself to masters of the craft. DnD is all about the experience you share with your friends and the real great DMs are the ones who simply decide to sit down and run the game no matter what their skill level.