I have not always been a good DM. I think it might still be presumptive to call myself a good DM and that I would be more comfortable saying I’m a decent DM with a few specialities, but I think I wouldn’t argue against anyone if they called me a good DM. I think the lesson I learned that made me an alright DM was to never, under any circumstance, take away player agency. They’re free to do whatever they want in the game and I should support their endeavors, but they’re also free to suffer the consequences of their actions.
What has made me a better DM, one approaching something that could be generally described as “good,” is learning how to play the game my players want to play. Which is difficult to quickly encapsulate so I’ll avoid searching for a pithy-adjacent saying to wrap the idea in. But somewhere along the line, I learned how to find the joy and excitement I want from running a D&D game while also giving my players what they want.
This is a difficult lesson to teach other people since it requires learning what your players want quickly enough to make it a core element of the game, and reading people well and accurately is not a skill you can instruct via blog. I could also try to create a questionaire that synthesizes the answers a DM or GM would need from a series of probing questions, but I’ve found that sometimes people just don’t fill that stuff out because they’re forgetful or aren’t pre-planners rather than as a reflection of their interests in a tabletop RPG.
The best way I’ve found to discover what my players want is to create a wide range of options early in the game, pay attention to what they pick, and then develop those ideas until my players are telling me more directly what they want. “Listen to your players’ choices and actions in-game” doesn’t sound like a radical idea, but it can be incredibly difficult to put into practice when you, as the storyteller, are trying to push a narrative. You’ve taken all their backstories, all the elements of your world, thrown in a few dashes of outside media, and then mixed it all into one wonderful world with Things Happening, so all you want to do is serve this delicious meal to them, right?
Well, that can get kind of railroad-y. It can also make games drag or particularly not fun for one or more of the players. Any time you get prescriptive with a narrative in a tabletop RPG, you run the risk of alienating players who maybe weren’t interested in that specific thing. And it can be difficult to let that go because you’ve put so much work into it already. You made this wonderful thing you just want to share and while four of the five players are loving it, one is looking for an excuse to leave the table as they stir your story casserole around their plate.
I like to think of what I do as a buffet. I create a large variety of stories, opportunities, and high-level lore events and put them all out for people to enjoy. I don’t stand at the buffet, serving people, because that would become me suggesting things. I watch from the kitchen, making sure anything that gets gobbled up is replaced and replacing things no one touches with something new. As my players eat at this buffet, I figure out their tastes, their preferences, and learn to anticipate their desires. The first time I set out something new that people exclaim is exactly what they didn’t know they wanted, I know I’ve gotten the feel right.
As is true of most things, this is a process that has taken a lot of practice and that requires continual refining. It is also fine to put your thumb on the scales a bit and just ask people if they’re enjoying what you’re producing or to let them know that the current theme isn’t going to stick around much longer. There was just a huge demand for it, suddenly, and other new things got put on hold as the interested parties gobbled up everything you created. Communication is important while you’re refining this skill, and being able to accurately guess people’s interests is no replacement for just asking them. You shouldn’t be guessing from a place of zero knowledge, you should be asking first, making informed guesses, and then narrowing it down from there.
As always, your mileage may vary. This works really well for me, though, because I’m very tuned in to my frequent players and I don’t run open games. I run things for the same groups of people repeatedly, giving me time to work things out. If you’re running games for a random assortment of people, quick questionaires are the way to go. It’s just so much safer that way.
You’ll know you’ve gotten the hang of it when you wind up using at least fifty percent of the stuff you’ve created and never feel like you need to twist people’s arms in order to get them invested in learning the lore and mechanics of your world. They’re digging into all of that on their own because they’re genuinely interested in it.