Learning to DM by Playing a Character RIGHT.
"Anyone can be a great..."
Maybe. I don't know if there's science behind that Ratatouille-assertion. A whole bunch of practice can certainly help. But when you are in the presence of someone who does a thing spectacularly well, you know it. And after that, it's hard not to make comparisons. (The awe you feel is also instructive. Most feelings of awe deliver a take-away. You learn something. More on that later.)
In Austin TX, we've got Franklin's BBQ, which I have only eaten once. It was the best brisket I've eaten. Subjective opinion folks. It's impossible to eat brisket at other places and not compare it to Franklin's.
Yet, Gas-Station-That-Sells-BBQ seems to do an "awful" lot of business.
Let's say you try Gas-Station-That-Sells-BBQ's brisket and (let's pretend) it's not as good as Franklin's and you just can't enjoy it, so you go home and decide to make brisket yourself cuz, ya'know: "HOW HARD CAN IT BE?"
You Google "Best Brisket Recipe" and roll up your sleeves.
Long story short:
Wow, Brisket is a little more expensive that I thought.
And it's so big.
Damn, it takes a long time to cook.
I don't have a pit to cook it in. My oven? Am I doing this right?
Wow, this turned out great...I think. I mean it's not Franklin's but...well, it might not be as good as Gas-Station-That-Sells-BBQ either, but hey, I DID IT MY SELF!
That was a lot of work...and there's so much left over!
I don't want to do this again. I guess I'll just eat at Gas-Station-That-Sells-BBQ or maybe try to find a better campaig...erm...BBQ place.
Turns out there's a REASON transcendent BBQ cannot to be found on every corner. Serviceable BBQ is ubiquitous...if you know where to look. And then there are dens of abomination where atrocities are worked out in smoke and darkness. These sometimes, mercifully, go out of business but not before traumatizing a new coterie of survivors (who may never eat BBQ again).
I think everyone has talents. So, everyone can probably be great at something. It might not be cooking brisket...or DMing.
But if you love D&D, there are HUGE ways for you to contribute without being a DM, ways that your DM will thank you for.
"Hold on, Anthony. You're full of crap. Anyone CAN be a great DM!"
"OK. I mean, I'm not going to argue. Go, and be great!"
"Thanks, I will. And, instead of this blog post, you could have written something helpful like: 'HOW TO BE A GREAT DM!' But prolly, you don't even know how to be a great DM. You just THINK you're cool."
"Well, I sort of already wrote that in this post over here. Plus there's all these cats on the interweb saying what's what and stuff. You can watch 'em like I did on the YouTube: bunch of in-your-face DMs learning you how to be like them.
Turns out some of these new kids are almost as old as I. Their videos and channels have a TON of views and subscribers and, although I don't really care for their personalities, their advice isn't awful.
Just my opinion but, potential problems with going to YouTube for AD&D DM advice are more or less:
It's overwhelming: too many tips in rapid-fire to be digestible or useful.
My cynical side reads the over-hype of every tip and every episode as: "I don't care whether you become a good DM, I just want you to "subscribe" and "like" my revenue stream.
Personalities that shine on YouTube are not necessarily the same personalities that make outstanding DMs. DMing is first and foremost NOT (ABSOLUTELY NOT) about acting or performing. DMing is NOT about how bombastic or out-going you are. DMing is FIRST AND FOREMOST about judging. Which is why, if you happen to be a judging personality type ( see MBTI ) you might be a great DM. Judging does not show well on YouTube and some people actually think "judging" is a dirty word. But it shows well in games. Great judges are revered for their fairness and for their attentiveness to how that fairness relates to being human. Great judges understand compassion. Being a thespian can help your game, but it will not save it if you can't ref.
Celebrity D&D games are bittersweet for me. As a kid I was ridiculed for playing. Now D&D is popular. I want to celebrate, but down in an admittedly dark region of my soul it's hard not to look at celebrities making a buck on high-profile D&D games as a bastardization, a confiscation, a reconfiguration by a group of folks that might once have mocked me, but who now capitalize on my hobby and represent it in a way I only partially recognize. Yes, this is absolutely me being petty and a little vindictive. But in another regard, it's fair to say that your games are probably NOT going to be anything LIKE celebrity D&D and I can't advise you to study the norms of running a game from them, which brings us to:
Passive entertainment is about showmanship, grandstanding & drama (eg. movie stars entertaining me while I lie on my back covered in Doritos crumbs). Whereas Participatory entertainment is about communication, fairness and friendship (or at a minimum sportsmanship). Ergo, YouTube is not the best medium for showcasing D&D...the best medium for showcasing D&D is PLAYING D&D.
What are you getting at, Anthony? I'm just saying, watch YouTube to be entertained. Don't expect it to turn you into a great DM. If you want to become a great DM, play with a great DM and start your apprenticeship.
You can run a serviceable game with just SOME experience. But if you want something special it's a lot of hard work. Now days the things that sell better than actual products, are the lies about how to hack your way to "awesome" without the effort other "saps" invest. How to produce an hour's work in 5 minutes? How to DM a great game with less than 15 minutes of prep. Well, it's unpopular to call bullshit on all of that, but I do. Your 15-minute prepped game is going to feel like a 15-minute prepped game.
If you want the pay-off without investing the time, MAYBE you can host a one-off w/ a store-bought module and have a decent evening fudging your way through. But that's like comparing a lucky one-night-stand to a relationship with a rich history of improvements and memories. A high-caliber AD&D campaign will devour the DM's free time, obliterate weekends and require not only many hours of prep, but at least a few more for post-game record-keeping. There are no short-cuts. There are no tricks or cheats or hacks.
The closest thing a good DM has to a "hack" is that the thousands of hours spent developing the campaign accrete into a milieu that the DM is so familiar with, he appears to pull rabbits out of hats. But getting to that point means putting in the work.
The brisket takes a long time to cook. When you've cared enough to NOT do it half-ass, and you've sweat until you've gotten it right, the joy is in knowing that you did it right and that the people who eat it love it.
Which segues back to the thesis of this post:
"Anyone can be a great..." might (or) might not be true as it pertains your temperament, talents, desire & commitment to DMing.
If you realize that you might NOT be the best person to sit behind the screen (for whatever reasons: situational, temporary, or not) there are still contributions you CAN make that will earn you huge respect AND AT THE SAME TIME sharpen the skills you need if/when you decide to run a game of your own.
DM your Character: This means that you run it like the DM is running the campaign. You pay attention. You mark off the arrows that you shoot. You take notes. You don't fudge. You don't recline in your chair like a slob, half-listening while scrolling facebook in your palm. Yes I'm a grognard-curmudgeon. But you need to pay attention to every detail on your character record or you need to NOT play at my table. Know your spells inside and out. You shouldn't have to look them up. Make yourself spell cards, but triple check your transcriptions. If the only way to stay organized with your items, treasures and NPC-related obligations is by making a spreadsheet...then MAKE A SPREADSHEET. Your characters are your only responsibility. If you can't run a single character with your eyes closed, you can't run a game. If you run your character like a great DM runs the adventure, everyone will notice. No one will be waiting when it's your turn to act. People will be asking your opinion on what course of action to take. And the DM will love you because you are treating his or her hard work and prep time with respect.
Engage with the World: This means that you don't treat the words coming out of the DM's mouth as filler between to-hit rolls. If the DM tells you the name of the king, write that shit down. Take notes on every location and NPC. You've already memorized your character sheet, right? So you have nothing else to do! Record the rumors. Assume the NPCs are real people with motives. Be suspicious. Plan for the worst. Try to make friends. Form networks of trustworthy associates. Speculate openly about what the NPCs might or might not be planning. Dig through the city archives for the history of the old manor. Demand answers. Go deep. Doing this will train you to be a great DM because you will then expect the same assumptions from your players. Your world will become a real, living, breathing place instead of a one-prop play. Also, if you treat the game world in this way and your DM is shocked or cannot field your questions, you will have learned something about the caliber of your referee.
Embrace the Drama: Again, I will paraphrase Gilbert Chesterton: Inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered. Saving throws that turn your bard to a pillar of ruby that must then be left sinking on the sandbar are an inconvenience. If you want to be a great DM, you must learn to be objective and interpret die rolls as narrative, even when the results are surprising or unwelcome. It is the hardship of the dice and the human reaction to them that makes any of this worth a damn. Therein lies the adventure! From Lost in Space to Robinson Crusoe, tales of woe mingled with wondrous discovery are what you are after. When your character loses an arm you must own it, adapt to it, embrace it (ha!). Buy a wooden prosthetic and wear a glove or force everyone to look at the stub by using it to point rudely at everything your character wants. Make it a part of your character's and the campaign's story.
Learn the Rules: You know those cats that sweep the ice in front of the curling stone as it slides toward the target? That's your DM, smoothing the game for you. Because the ref probably knows the rules better than you, he or she is simply telling you to do things and you are doing them. "Roll a d10," says the ref. And you do. Then the ref says something happens. Was this a one-off ruling? Or was it a codified rule that will apply again? If you ask once, you never need to ask again. Learn the rules as you go. Collect them like butterflies and eventually you'll have the whole order represented, ready to display your mastery and run your own game.
How do you become a great DM? I don't think it has anything to do with YouTube. I think you start by being a great player, playing with a great DM. It is an old school apprenticeship. And if DMing doesn't fit your time constraints, I don't recommend trying to cut corners. Better to exercise the practices above and help shape a good campaign into something even better.