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The Pressure to DM: Is It For Everyone?

My TTRPG (tabletop roleplaying game) career didn’t start all that long ago. While a number of people in my circles begged me to give Dungeons and Dragons a try for years, I drew a line. I was nerdy, but I wasn’t that nerdy, I’d tell myself.

In 2015, I caved. A few of my college roommates wanted to give it a try and I knew of a willing DM: My friend Erskine. Erskine graciously lead our inaugural adventures, and would later go on to DM a game for myself and some local buddies within the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module for 5e. It lasted maybe 3 sessions before a TPK. Erskine once again offered to DM.

And this is when I felt the pressure that I believe every TTRPG player experiences at some point: The pressure to DM.

So I want to take the time to relieve that pressure from many of you. There is something you should know if it hasn’t been expressed to you already:

It is totally okay to never serve as a Dungeon Master (DM).

Min-Maxing the DM Position

The idea of min-maxing is a controversial one at some tables, but I want to suggest that it can be applied to the DM position just as readily as it can be applied to a PC. To find that “optimized” or optimal DM, look for a healthy dose of two things. Both must be present in order for things to work out well for all involved.

1. Ability

I don’t think that the DM necessarily has to know the rules inside and out (although that does help things run a bit more smoothly), nor do I think you have to be the kind of DM you see on popular Youtube channels or hear on hot podcasts.

That is not what I mean by “Ability.” Not everyone can invest the kind of time and intentionality that a DM’s prep or execution requires. Even while some DMs prep more and others less, it can be a lot! Plus there are lots of numbers and narrative beats to keep up with.

It is a big jump graduating from tracking a single PC’s stuff to juggling everything that goes on behind that screen. I am also a firm believer in the “play to your strengths” thought, and for some that’ll make DMing a no-brainer while for others it will prove an obstacle; though not insurmountable!

2. Desire

Sometimes I think well intentioned PCs will offer to take over behind the screen just to give their DM a break or to let them have a chance to play a PC; as if they’re doing that DM a favor. But there are DM’s out there that don’t want to do either! Some people would rather be a DM than a PC, and more power to them!

A pic from my ongoing Storm King’s Thunder campaign.
  • A DM with Ability but no Desire is going to be a grump.
  • A DM with Desire but no Ability is going to be a mess.

This is a both/and, not an either/or (in my opinion, of course; as is the whole of this article!).

Me; I’m big on Ability but low on Desire. I am super Type A and so I prep well and can manage all the fiddly bits behind the screen with ease. But I’ve also learned that I am so Type A that I easily get frustrated when encounters don’t go as planned or the story takes unexpected turns. That’s the beauty of TTRPGs, yet it absolutely grinds my gears…if and only if I’m the DM.

Anyone and everyone who wants to try their hand at DMing should 1000% be given the opportunity to give the role a whirl. That said, some will find that they struggle with the demands of the position and/or that they don’t enjoy it as much as they do playing a PC. That shouldn’t be held against them at all.

And here’s a second secret: As a player, there are a couple things you can do to enhance the experience of your DM.

Be the Player Every DM Wishes They Had

Even if you aren’t cut out for that DM Lyfe, you can still be a tremendous help to the person who fills that role for your group. Here’s how:

  1. Know your character. I’ve written an entire article on this before, so I’ll just direct you there. tl;dr – The DM has prepared for you. Take the time to prepare for them!
  2. Serve the DM whenever and however possible. If he or she is behind the screen, move minis as they instruct to save them a thousand trips back and forth between the map and the screen. When it isn’t your turn in combat or during a bit of exposition, offer to top off the DM’s drink or fetch her a snack. Volunteer to hunt down the answer to a rules question while they continue to facilitate the narrative or combat. When they’re talking, make sure you’re not. Keep the phone in your pocket. There are a million little things you can do to communicate respect and gratitude and to make things a tad easier on the DM.

Be the best darned player you can be! Any DM will gladly run a game for a crew of amazing players.

Not everyone has to take a turn as the DM/GM, so I relieve you of any sense of obligation you might have harbored on that front. Do you wanna give it a try? Sure! Go right ahead! But if it just doesn’t prove to be your bag, don’t feel bad for saying so and return to the table as a player. Always follow the #1 rule of role playing: Have fun! Do what you like; nothing more, nothing less. What may feel like a chore to you is a passion for someone else.

A great question to ask your DM: Are you doing what you love and want to do? Are you following Rule #1? If the answer is “yes,” keep your spot at the table and be a great player for that DM. You’ll both be better for it!