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My girlfriend and I are in a game my friend started a while ago. (We're playing D&D 5e.) It is his first game but we all DM other games at the same time. I feel I have done a lot of research into DMing and my skills have improved a lot. I have taken a lot of notes from Matt Mercer and Critical Role. I feel as though my friends DM style has not similarly improved and has become pretty bland.

The DM has us make multiple skill checks without consequences and other repetitive or boring tasks. His descriptions are usually short and uninteresting. For example:

DM: You're in a forest...roll perception.

ME: rolls 18

DM: you see a pair of bugbears just walking around (he does this a lot where he states things we see but doesnt put a threat or reason)

ME: (knowing this, i try to make a reason) how much do I know about bugbears?

DM: Roll...ummm...nature

ME: rolls 22

DM: you know...a lot about them.

ME: so i know theyd come after me if they saw me?

DM: yes

ME: engages by polymorphing one into a rabbit, other one smashes it and charges

initiative: fight was over in about 5 minutes cuz i cast slow on it, my party member shot it with an arrow, i nailed it with a firebolt. dead

DM: Youre still walking in a forest...roll perception

ME: 14

DM: you dont see anything...roll perception again

Outside of game he seems really excited about his story, but its like forcing down medicine to play sometimes. As a player, he's very engaging and immersed in the world, describing every attack he makes and such, but when he DMs it's basically "you hit, you deal x damage, next in initiative".

I've talked to him a bit, but he got a bit depressed afterwards. He's kind of a touchy soul so I'm kind of hesitant to say much more.

Is there anything I could do as a player to possibly engage him? Should I be asking to do things in game that I, personally, think he should be prompting me to do?

So my question is: as a player, how can I can inspire my DM to give more to his game than he currently does, without hurting his feelings or criticizing him?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: comments are for clarifying content, not posting small or incomplete answers. Please use answer posts to submit answers instead. Prior comments containing answers have been removed. (Comments clarifying the question have been edited into the question, too. Thanks for those!) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 19 '16 at 19:12
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Probably the simplest way of thinking about this reduces down to four basic scenarios, two of which we'll be able to eliminate immediately.

  • The players and the GM both think the GM is doing a good job.
  • The players think the GM is doing well, but the GM doesn't.
  • The players and the GM both think the GM is doing a bad job.
  • The players think the GM is doing poorly, but the GM doesn't.

The first two, assuming you are speaking for the entire group, are almost certainly untrue. (The second one seems a little odd, but I've seen it happen. We all know GMing can be hard work, and issues of introversion, stage fright, etc can cause anxiety in the GM even though the players are all fine with the GM's job.)

So the first part of helping to fix this is to figure out which of the second two cases you are actually in. I see signs of both in your description. "you know...a lot about them," seems like something most GMs, even beginners, would realize as an inadequate answer in one sense or another. On the other hand, "Outside of game he seems really excited about his story," possibly suggests that he thinks everything is going fine.

In my experience, people who want to do something well, and realize that they aren't, may be more receptive to criticism than people who think they are doing just fine, thank you very much. The latter case may involve shattering some illusions.

Another important thing to realize is that people get better at things due to experience (which this GM manifestly does not have a lot of) due to research (which you have done but this GM probably has not, as he is new at this) and due to constructive criticism and helpful feedback. Especially in a performative art like GMing, it is hard to know if you are really hitting your target without feedback from the audience, and that feedback is both the GM's responsibility to pick up on, and the players' responsibility to provide, without crushing his ego.

All of that pre-amble leads to a central notion of communicating better with your GM both in-game and out-game, but doing so gently.

In-game, you can do things like:

  • Ask for more of what you want to see. But that does mean asking rather than telling. In your example about the bugbears, you started with asking but reverted to filling in details, feeding them to the GM and getting ratification. It'll be awkward, and it can be overdone, but getting these details to flow from the GM instead of you is key.

  • In-game, a few mild pointers on mechanics and craft might help, e.g., "Should we really be making those perception checks ourselves? I shouldn't really know my own roll for that, should I?"

  • In-game and out-game, as a veteran player and GM who is trying to be a model player, I would try very hard to get myself aligned with what this GM finds interesting. This may very well be confounded by the GM himself, but there may be a dynamic going here, where the GM feels obligated to put filler material (for verisimilitude; for mechanical reasons-- to expend a certain amount of your resources, say; for pacing reasons, etc) but is not actually that interested in it himself. The bugbear example might be a case of that, too-- GM feels obligated to put in filler, you feel obligated to follow up on it, no one is happy.

  • Out-game, praise what you like. I cannot say this strongly enough, so I will shout: OUT-GAME, PRAISE WHAT YOU LIKE. Your GM is not a mind-reader and there is no better way to get his attention than just telling him, "Man, when X and Y happened, and you described Z doing W, that was just awesome!"

  • Out-game, depending on your answer to the initial question (does he think he's doing well or not) you can always offer to give him a straight-up set of opinions on what went well and what went bad. But it helps immensely to have a feel for how receptive he is to hearing the downsides, and you should be aware that gentleness goes a long way, here.

  • Out-game, you can always just ask your GM what parts of the game he finds most interesting, and if there are any things you can do as a player to help focus on the interesting parts.

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    \$\begingroup\$ “Out-game, praise what you like. I cannot say this strongly enough” -- seconded. Positive reinforcement is always better than an ego hit (i.e., negative criticism), and the best way to influence someone away from X is frequently by praising when they do Y instead. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Read Sep 19 '16 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ "The second one seems a little odd, but I've seen it happen." -- I'm British, I reckon about half the GMs I know never think they're doing a good job. The trick when praising a GM is to convince them you aren't just being polite. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Sep 19 '16 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SteveJessop There's also the problem that the GM can see “how the sausage is made”, and that takes away a lot of the impact and effect of good GMing; meanwhile the players get the full enjoyment of that skill. To use another metaphorical proverb, “the cook is their own worst critic.” \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 20 '16 at 17:41
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This can be tricky. A lot depends on the underlying reasons for the lack of detail. If he's just nervous, for example, that can be helped. But if he just doesn't have the imagination to make a vivid description, then that's a lot harder to work with.

First, as a player, make your questions as specific as possible. Your goal is to make it nigh impossible to give answers of only one or two words. No yes/no questions when you want more detail.

  • "What do I know about Bugbears?"
  • "What have I heard about the territoriality or aggression of Bubgears?"
  • "What do I know about their natural habitats?"

Now this can fluster some GMs, who don't have the knowledge at their fingertips and aren't confident enough to wing it. So the next thing to try is supplying your own details and trying to get him to build on those. Some GMs might not love this, but it CAN give a jumping off point for more back and forth.

  • "I know from the lore Bugbears are pretty territorial. Am I near their nest?"
  • "I've heard they won't attack if I remain a certain distance away. Am I too close?"
  • "Bugbears like a little salt. Should I throw some of my dried rations to distract them?"

Next, you can - politely, gently - flat out ask for more detail.

  • "Can you tell me anything else about the terrain and the Bugbears? Anything I can use to my advantage?"
  • "Can you explain why the Bugbears are there? Is this their nest? Are they hunting? Watering hole?"

For that matter, why are you in the forest in the first place?

Next to last, try talking with him again out of game. Always phrase your concerns as positives. It helps if you can summon a positive example to reinforce.

  • "I really liked that detailed description you gave about the Dire Wolves."
  • "It will help me get into the adventure if I have a better idea of the setting. Can you give some more detail about each scene?"
  • "When you played Thrognar the Barbarian in that game last week, your descriptions of your actions were brilliant. I bet your game would be just as awesome with a bit more detail."

You know your friend and I don't, so you have to tailor the exact wording. But I think you see where I'm going here.

Finally, if nothing else works, it might be time to have him step away from the GM Screen. You can also phrase this positively, and you can use your own games to demonstrate the sort of detail you're looking for.

  • "Hey I have an idea for a medium length story. You mind if I GM for a few weeks?"

You MAY come to a point where you realize he's just not the GM type. Not everyone is. But if you approach the issue from a positive, helpful position, you're more likely to see good results.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ still new to the site, didnt see the answers section and was only commenting earlier heh heh. im getting some ideas and I think we can prop him up, might have been an off night cuz hes had a few golden moments as well. Thought i will state that the DM he learned from wasnt the greatest from what hes told us. So he may just still be falling back to those tendencies \$\endgroup\$ – Skeither7 Sep 19 '16 at 19:13
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Before I get into any advice I want to state that the solution to this problem is going to be largely dependent on your friend's desire to improve himself. You can probably help out with this by being supportive and empathetic, but ultimately you can't MAKE him better; he has to decide to improve. That being said:

Every GM Sucks... at First

There may be some very rare exceptions, but as a general rule nobody will run a great game on their first try. They might not even manage to run a GOOD game. Becoming a great GM takes a lot of time and a lot of game sessions. A great GM is expected to be a great writer AND a great improviser, plus a great tactician and maybe even a great diplomat. You need a solid understanding of the game world you are running/creating and you need to know at least the core rules really well even without having a book or .pdf in front of you. You can absolutely run a great game without being great at any of the things I just listed, but they are all things that definitely help and that most GMs tend to get better at the more games they run.

Help Him Out

If you want to encourage your friend to improve you could try to make his job a bit easier by helping out with stuff at the table or before you get to the table. Maybe he needs help coming up with NPC backstories or compelling plot devices. If he is open to receiving help behind the scenes then you can offer to help directly but if he is sensitive about that or not open to that kind of help, you can still help him out at the table while you are playing.

You can try to make sure that your interactions with the world and the NPCs leave plenty of openings for him to play off of. You can suggest details about the world or about the characters you are interacting with.

As per your example: Your character encounters 2 Bugbears in the woods. You roll Knowledge to see what your character knows about them. Your GM replies that you know "a lot." You could follow that up with "What are these Bugbears doing this far out into the woods?" or even "These Bugbears are probably hungry if they are this far out into the woods." In this way you are suggesting details that will help your GM build a more cohesive world.

Try a Campaign Module

Fifth Edition has official modules with pre-written adventures and possibly even some with pre-generated character sheets. Having your friend run one of these modules would take away a lot of the planning and inventing and allow him to dip his feet into the water of GMing without having to build an entire world from scratch.

Try a Different System

Branch out from 5th edition and try a game that helps the GM out a bit more. A great game for this is Dungeon World. The way the DW system is designed gives the GM a very specific set of reactions that he can use in response to any player action. It essentially turns the game into a back and forth of Player Turn <-> GM Turn.

Suggested Resources:

One website that has helped me immensely in improving my GMing and that I think could be very helpful for your friend is The Angry GM. His articles are entertaining and also wonderful at teaching new ways to run your games (sometimes fixing things you didn't even realize were a problem).

Warning: The Angry GM uses strong language that some readers may find offensive. Reader discretion is advised.

Another website that can be a very helpful teaching tool is: this one! Introduce your friend to RPG Stack Exchange. He can read through some of the questions already on here and ask his own questions if there is something he needs help with.

Summary

Becoming a great GM takes time and practice. If you want your friend to improve and he wants to improve then the best thing you can do is be supportive and play more games with him.

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