What does a DM need to know?

I recently offered a young player of D&D who was interested in becoming a Dungeon Master to give him some pointers on how to be a good DM. But while I have been a DM for nearly 4 decades now, it isn’t actually all that easy to describe what makes a good DM. In some ways it is more an art than a science. And where it is a science, it is a badly documented one.

The basic role of a DM is easily described: He sets the scene, asks the players what they do, and then reacts to their answer by telling them the consequences of their actions, thus setting the next scene. Rinse, lather, repeat. What makes the description of a good DM so complicated is that different people are good DMs in very different ways. You ask a player what he specifically liked with a DM, and realize that whatever that was, it was probably something optional. For example when I ask for feedback from various players in different groups of mine, I frequently get told that they appreciate my preparation of visual playing aids: Battlemaps, 3D printed miniatures, handouts. But you can play with another good DM who doesn’t use any of those! Another DM might be appreciated for his creation of fantastic worlds, but you can play great games without those as well. Some DMs are great play-actors doing accents and voices for NPCs, but you don’t need that either. So what is the stuff that is actually essential?

Dungeons & Dragons, and any other pen & paper role-playing game, inherently always exists on two different levels: Horgar the barbarian swings his battleaxe and with a satisfying crunch decapitates the evil wizard. John the player of Horgar declares that he wants to attack the evil wizard and rolls a 20 on his attack. Horgar and John need each other. Without John, Horgar doesn’t exist. Without Horgar, John isn’t playing D&D. I believe that an awareness of those two levels, and a constant effort to keep the two levels in balance with each other, might well be the most important part of a DM’s job. Concentrate too much on the story, and the players get bored because they don’t get to roll dice any more. Concentrate too much on the dice, and you end up playing a board game.

Corollary to that is the need for balance between DM actions and player actions. D&D is a game of interactive story-telling. Take the interaction away, and it becomes a lot less interesting. No DM’s hour-long monologue beats Netflix in entertainment value. But letting the players role-play alone without feedback on the consequences from the DM only leads to people becoming lost and confused. Players need “agency”, the ability to influence the story and the outcome of situations. But that agency only makes sense in the context of there being a story and a situation to overcome. The DM needs to make sure that he tells the players enough for them to understand what is going on, so they can act, but also to leave enough room for different choices and original ideas from the players.

That gets us to another important point: The “never say no” rule. It isn’t an absolute rule, because it applies only to constructive input from the players. But the idea is that as long as the player proposes something constructive, the DM should accept the proposal and try to work with it. You can still judge that the idea is very unlikely to work, and require the player to succeed in a very difficult roll. But that is still far better than letting the players propose lots of things and always saying no until by chance they come upon the one solution you previously decided was the good one. Saying yes can change the whole campaign to something you hadn’t imagined, but that is the beauty of it. The goal is not to have the story proceed on predetermined rails, but to have everyone at the table contribute to the story and together create something greater than one man’s story. In my Zeitgeist campaign the players were a group of policemen working for the king; but it was up to the players whether they wanted to play those policemen as the Keystone Cops or the Gestapo or something in between.

While these rules certainly don’t cover everything a DM needs to do or needs to be, I do think that they are among the most important for success. What other advice would you give a new DM to help him become a good DM?