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From Good to Great: A DM's Guide to Engaging Players

Anyone's that been playing tabletop RPGs for a while can tell stories about the DMs they've played under. Some are awful, some are good, some are amazing. In my experience, running a game has three facets. The Greats excel at all three.

These are:

A Functional Handle on Mechanics & Healthy Attitude A good DM needs a basic level of understanding for the game system and a positive attitude about communication for when that fails. Nobody is going to get every ruling right and everyone makes mistakes. A good DM prevents these sorts of mistakes from happening and works through them in a positive way when they do.

Horror Story:
The party wizard blasted a hostile bat swarm with a color spray. The DM forgot to roll a save. The following turn when the wizard brought it up, the DM got upset, rolled the save, failed it and ruled that the unconscious bats had buried the characters within the swarm alive. They were now suffocating and would need DC 18 strength checks to escape. (Of course, that doesn't even touch the fact that the swarm should have been immune in the first place...)

Strong Storytelling. That is, the ability to tell an immersive and cohesive story. I can't tell you how many PFS games I've sat through from beginning to end with an otherwise decent DM and ended the game thinking What was that all about?. A good storyteller can make a janky story work and make a good story sing.

The Ability to Engage his/her Players. Player agency matters. This might sound a bit like storytelling but it's not. I can get a good story from lots of entertainment. If I want masterful storytelling alone, I'll happily pick up a book from Game of Thrones, watch a season of Breaking Bad, or browse through my DVD collection. Being engaged is what separates those other forms of entertainment from tabletop RPGs. Player agency is where tabletop RPGs truly shine.

This guide is going to be about the third point. I'd be happy to discuss functional system mastery and storytelling elsewhere but I'm going to focus on engaging players and bringing to light a skill that I see go unpracticed so often in games. I'm by no means a master but I know it when I see it.

Player engagement was summed up pretty well in the Never say, No blog post a few years back but I feel like it didn't go into enough detail. Engaging your players isn't about giving them whatever they want or coddling them. It's about making them feel like their choices and actions matter - in a fun way. It means giving your players agency and that, even if they're making the wrong choices, they're making an impact.

The Do's and Don't's of Engaging Players