This is a text version of the Jake’s Take video for those that need or prefer a text-based alternative to video.
Hey folks, Jake here. Boy, it’s been a long time since we’ve done one of these, eh?
If you’ve been round our YouTube channel before, you may remember I used to do Campaign Diaries every week of what happened in our D&D game, I’ve basically stopped doing that there, I do it on Twitch now, so there’s been little face-to-face Jake content on YouTube recently, but I’ve had a Jake’s Take brewing for a little while now, and that is…well…this.
Today we’re going to talk about what, in my opinion, separates good Dungeon Masters from bad Dungeon Masters, and what is at the heart of D&D (and all RPGs) in general. I think it might even influence good players and bad players. And before you stop reading, yes I know there are many ‘hot takes’ out there on what makes a good DM, but this is not one I’ve seen anywhere else before, which either means it’s a useful way of looking at it that hasn’t been mentioned before, or…not. That’s for you to decide. Maybe I just missed someone talking about it!
I was in the shower, a few weeks ago, yknow, as I often am, and I was thinking about good GMing and what tips I’d give to people about it if they asked me (I must have seen a Twitter thread or something), and it struck me that what separates a good GM from a ‘bad’ GM, what is really at the core of D&D, of roleplaying games in general, is questions.
What do I mean by that? Well, everything that happens in D&D, can be broken down into a number of questions. Broad questions, narrow questions, simple questions, dramatic questions. Spoken questions and unspoken questions. Questions like “do I hit the monster’s Armour Class?”, “does this NPC seem trustworthy?”, “are we going to succeed on our quest?”. Or the most classic question of all — “what do you do?”
Now, this is likely to get quite abstract so hopefully I’ll do a good job of explaining it, but questions, I believe, are core to D&D and tabletop RPGs, and they’re core to a lot of other dramatic media. In fact, you can’t have dramatic media without a dramatic question.
So what is a dramatic question? A dramatic question is, put simply, the unknown quantity in a dramatic scene that provides the tension. For as long as the question isn’t answered, there’s drama. As soon as it’s answered, the drama is lost, unless there’s other dramatic questions ongoing.
As a simple example, the dramatic question in any fight scene is “Who will win?”. Once there’s a clear winner, the drama is over, unless it forms a new dramatic question like “can our hero now successfully outmaneuver law enforcement having killed a man in cold blood?”
The thing that separates D&D and RPGs from other dramatic media — films, books, plays etc — is the ability for your players to influence the answers to these dramatic questions. Create their own dramatic questions!
There is no other storytelling medium that lets you do that. If you’re reading a novel and get to a particularly tense scene where it looks as if the protagonist might die a gruesome and horrible death, and you see that there’s still 300 pages of the book left then you know odds are they’re gonna be OK, and you become somewhat less invested in the outcome. The question’s already been answered. Not so in an RPG.
Unsurprisingly, I think these question things that are at the core of RPGs are also at the core of ‘good GMing’. We are constantly presenting our players with questions, whether they realise or not, and harnessing that and presenting our players with good questions is, I think, what makes a good GM. It’s also to do with how we handle our players’ questions, but more on that in a minute.
When I say we’re constantly presenting our players with questions, I do mean that, it’s just you might not even realise you’re doing it. Here’s an example. Your players walk into a tavern and you inform them that it’s a busy night, there’s some groups playing cards, there’s a bard in the corner, a few empty tables, one by the door and one next to an elderly couple, and a hooded man at the bar. Standard sort of description.
In that description, you’re putting forth multiple questions. “Which table will you sit at?” “Will anyone sit and listen to the bard?” “Anyone going to go and play cards?” “Who’s the hooded man, will anyone go and speak to him?” That’s just some, I’m sure you can pull more out of that without much effort.
When Bronwynn speaks to the hooded man and discovers he’s a private eye, here to investigate the murder of Old Man Crumpets the lighthouse keeper, it presents a dramatic question. “Who killed Old Man Crumpets?” “Will you help find out?”
Most of the time you don’t even realise you’re asking questions, but it’s happening all the time. Making sure those questions have meaningful answers results in, I think, good Game Mastery. Your players come to your table and sit down because, whether they know it or not, they are expecting to be presented with questions. If those questions interest them and excite them, they’re engaged, they come away from the session having had a good time, all things being equal. If those questions are not interesting, if they don’t excite them, they come away from the session feeling bored. So we want to make sure we are presenting the players with *interesting* questions.
I’m not sure I have specific advice on that, I think it probably varies a lot from group to group, and scenario to scenario, but I think an interesting question in most cases is one where
A) the answer is not obvious, B) the question is unexpected, or C) one where the journey from question to answer is interesting in and of itself. I think that’s a good ballpark. If you’ve got at least one of those three, you’ve probably got something cool on your hands. If you have all three, now you’re really cooking.
For example, the question “who killed Old Man Crumpets the lighthouse keeper?” could have many answers. A simple answer like “His wife.” is probably less interesting and exciting than “invaders from the future” or “man, I dunno but they killed us too and now we have to travel through the Land of the Dead to track him down and find out so we can get back to the Material Plane and resurrect ourselves for vengeance!”
Not to say there isn’t a perfectly compelling adventure in doing battle with Old Lady Crumpets the Lighthouse Killer, but you see what I’m getting at. You’ll be able to tell when you present your players with a good question, because they’ll be invested in the answer.
There’s a sort of conventional wisdom that ‘bad GMs’ railroad their players, while ‘good GMs’ run a sandbox. I think what that is getting at, another way of looking at it, is “bad GMs” present few or no meaningful questions, and/or aren’t open to their players bringing questions or answers to the table, while ‘good GMs’ present meaningful questions and work with the questions and answers their players bring.
Questions like “Hey, what lives in that cave over there?”, “Wouldn’t it be cool to take over this city? How do we take over this city? What would we need to do?”, “What’s the most powerful sword, and how can I, the player, get it?”
So, thus far we have determined that ‘good Dungeon Masters’ are Dungeon Masters that present their players with meaningful, interesting questions, the answers to which the players are invested in. They’re also open to questions the players bring to the table. However, it’s also important to look at how we answer questions from the players.
Because players ask a lot of questions. Sometimes they ask them directly: “Do I hit the ogre?” “Do I remember anything about the Second War?” “Do I recognise this person?” Other times, they ask them indirectly. I think these are the more important questions.
Indirect questions can be harder to pick up on. When your Cleric takes time to go and preach in the town square, they are ‘just playing their character’, but they’re also asking questions of you the Game Master: “Do I do a good job?” “Do I convert anyone?” “Does anything come of it?”
A ‘bad DM’ would answer those questions with a statement. “You speak eloquently and get a good reception.” That’s perfectly fine, I wind up using that sort of answer all the time, but it doesn’t take the situation anywhere. It introduces nothing new to the scene. Nothing for the player to work with. A ‘good DM’ might say “You speak eloquently and get a good reception, but a vocal minority within the crowd criticize your deity.“
This is sort of like “yes, and” storytelling which we’re going to maybe discuss in a different Jake’s Take. The ‘good GM’ answer doesn’t really sound massively different from the ‘bad GM’ answer, but it presents more questions to the player. “How does your character respond?” “Do you care?” “Do their criticisms mirror concerns you already had about your deity?”
Those questions can be asked directly, or you can leave the scene open ended for the player to do with as they will. It’s a back and forth, like tennis, and a good DM knows when to ask those questions directly (or have an NPC ask those questions), or leave it in the player’s court.
Actually, tennis is competitive and we don’t really want that. It’s more like playing catch.
It’s worth noting at this point that with all these questions floating around and questions being pulled out of answers and so on that you can “find a question” in most answers that DM gives in that scenario, and it’s not always appropriate to answer a question with more questions, but the easier it is to see the question the DM is presenting, the better the scene will flow.
Now, this also goes the other way. I’ve seen it online before that ‘good players give their DMs things to work with’ — NPCs they care about, bonds, you may have seen that post floating around about ‘knives in backstories‘ etc, and I largely agree with this. This comes down to the players presenting their DM with questions.
For example, lets look at a base background characteristic for the Sailor background in 5th Edition: “Ruthless pirates murdered my captain and crewmates, plundered our ship, and left me to die.” A player picking that characteristic for their character might be asking “Who were these pirates?” “Will I get revenge?” “Do they still have the map to the Cursed Temple of Glakthara Of The Deep Trenches?”
There’s plenty there for a Dungeon Master to spin into an interesting aspect of the adventure, but Billy No-Name the orphaned rogue who cares about nothing and nobody doesn’t present quite the same menu for a Dungeon Master.
There’s a lot of discourse online about backstories for characters. Some people think they’re essential, some people think they aren’t, some people think they’re essential and must be 5000 words long and no shorter, etc etc. A lot of Dungeon Masters, myself included, like backstories because they give us things to work with. Ways to weave a character into the narrative better. They give us questions to answer. 5000 words of all the things you’ve already done and fully resolved and will have next to zero impact on the campaign we’re about to play? Nowhere near as useful as 10 unresolved questions you have.
It’s also way more work!
Similarly, lots of Dungeon Masters, myself included, like our players to have ambitions. Desires. Goals. They want their players to ask questions. “Will I be able to track down my ship again, and recover it from the Syndicate?” “Once I have my ship, will I be able to take back the throne of Scale?” “If I rebuild the Grand Temple of Alteus, then what happens?”
So I think in the same way, good players are players who present their DM with questions. It’s my belief that when you have a Dungeon Master that knows how and when to pose interesting or ‘good’ questions, and you have a group of players that create their own questions for the Dungeon Master and the game, that’s really when it takes off. That’s when you have something special on your hands.
That’s it, folks. My take on what makes good players and good Dungeon Masters. How well they can ask and answer questions. It’s a broad answer, so I’m sure there are edge cases where this isn’t the correct way to go about things, but at least from my experience the sessions where I’ve presented a good, meaningful question to my players have been a lot better than the ones where I haven’t, and this isn’t a way of looking at RPGs I’ve seen other people mention.
That may be because it only makes sense in my head, or I’m not running in the right circles, or it seems so obvious to everyone that people assume there’s no need to talk about it. I did my best to keep things clear and concise but I appreciate it may have been difficult to follow my train of thought there. Hopefully you found something useful though, I’d be interested to know your thoughts.
I’m not sure how much actionable advice is in there, I don’t really know how to provide any, I think it might be too nebulous a concept, but I’ve definitely found that just being aware of this, thinking of the game in these terms and working to make sure I’m providing interesting questions and interesting answers and seeing what unspoken questions players are presenting me with has been a really positive boon on my Dungeon Mastering. I by no means hold myself up as an expert at this or as some sort of master DM, quite the opposite in fact, but I think framing Dungeon Mastery through this lens might have value for anyone, regardless of how good a Dungeon Master they already are.
It might also not!
Anyways, if you found something useful here I’d encourage you to stick around, we stream our D&D game every week, I have a few other Jake’s Takes up on YouTube as well, hopefully more to come soon as long as I have a topic to cover that I have a meaningful opinion on. I’ve largely relaunched the channel, I’ve taken off a lot of old content, almost all of it, from before I knew what I was doing. I mean, I still don’t really know what I’m doing so that doesn’t mean a great deal, but, yeah I’ve left the other Jake’s Takes up for the minute, I think everything else is gone. I’m still not super happy with the quality of them so they might get redone at some point, we’ll see.
If you’d like to support the channel, I just recently released my first adventure, The Corwyn Catacombs, on our shop and on DriveThruRPG. It’s PDF only right now but I do have print copies, I’m just getting stuff together to sell them too. It’s a 4th level one shot set in my own world, I’ve introduced a few folk to D&D with it and it worked quite nicely for that purpose. Maybe it’s the sort of thing that interests you.
Otherwise, until next time, have a good one!