Friday, May 3, 2019

Certifying Dungeon Masters

Man, my brain has really been addled by all things D&D lately ("The Sleeper has awakened!")...if I wasn't so busy with a gazillion other things, I could/would be posting multiple blog entries on a daily basis (and probably still find the time/energy for drafting some campaign notes/house rules). *sigh* Such is life...when I have LOTS of time on my hands, my inertia always seems to be the other direction.

ANYway, I was combing through a bunch of old Dragon magazines the other day (specifically the first 50 or so), looking for a particular article, and kept coming across little buried "gems," pertinent to my own thoughts and musings. As I've often found over the last ten years of blogging/researching there really isn't all that much new under the sun...people have been obsessing and coming up with ideas and putting 2 and 2 together for a long, long time. The execution wasn't always quite right, but the early days of the hobby were still "early days;" lots of stuff hadn't been worked out yet. And yet some of our adaptations of these ideas (or decisions to go 180 degrees directions, in certain instances) are/were even more flawed than the original stab at the kernel of a concept.

[I'll give you one quick example: I've recently come to the conclusion that Alexis Smolensk's system of awarding experience points based on damage inflicted and received (in addition to XP for treasure found), is really the only sensible way of handling combat/encounter XP, and have decided that I'll probably adapt it wholesale in my next campaign. Welp, Dragon #36 (April 1980) already proposed this variant system ("Experience Points to Ponder: A New System" by William Fawcett). Alexis has the advantage of a bit more thoughtful design and about a decade of play testing...but someone had a similar idea (and for the same reasons) almost thirty years prior]

But I don't want to get sidetracked...the reason I decided to open up Ye Old Laptop and post something (instead of doing what I should be doing) is because I just have to mention this idea from Dragon #28 (August 1979). In an article entitled "Level Progression for Players and Dungeon Masters," writer Jon Mattson proposes a method of awarding experience points to players and DMs (not characters) based on their actual gaming experience, in order to provide an objective measure of ability.

This is something I've been thinking about for years, and only more so since considering the discussions I've had (both on the internet and in-person with other designers) about the possibility of training or certification for game masters. My opinion is that some sort of training for individuals who want to run games is not only desirable but necessary, and that the lack of good, codified training is detrimental to the hobby (some of my blog posts have mentioned this in passing). But I've often wondered how one would go about certifying a person as a credible, proficient GM.

Because here's the thing: it really doesn't matter all that much to me how experienced a player is at a table (neither as a DM or a fellow player), but it matters a LOT to me how competent a Dungeon Master is running the game. Because my enjoyment of a game session hinges on whether or not the DM can do his or her job at the table. And it is, frankly, very difficult for me to come back to the table of a DM whose game I neither appreciate nor respect (I don't think I've ever walked away mid-game from such a DM...I'm a little too polite for that...but I have come away from game sessions feeling frustrated, angry, and vowing to never waste another chunk of my time with that same dungeon master)...even if the person running the game is a friend that I like and respect.

Mattson's article provides the following experience point awards for DMs (he also provides some awards for playing/running other games that might have a certain "carryover" effect, but I'm just going to stick to the ones that are Dungeons & Dragons specific):

Per campaign* of basic D&D you play:  60
Per campaign* of basic D&D you DM:  900**
Per campaign* of Original D&D you play:  80
Per campaign* of Original D&D you DM:  1200**
Per campaign* of Advanced D&D you play:  100
Per campaign* of Advanced D&D you DM:  1500**

* Mattson considers a campaign to be "one full adventure, i.e. if a group of characters set out to explore a five level dungeon, the whole five levels (and only those five levels) would count as one campaign." While I take this to mean that XP is not awarded every session for a multi-session, site-based adventure, the article does not indicate what counts as finishing a "campaign;" should a DM be awarded full XP if a party abandons an adventure site, or if the delve ends in a Total Party Kill? I'm inclined to say "Yes" since that's the outcome of the "campaign," but I'm not sure that's the author's intent.
** Per Mattson, only two-thirds of this amount is awarded if the DM did not design the adventure (for example, if a published module was used). This seems reasonable to me, awarding one-third XP each for writing/designing, game prep, and actual running. 

Being written in 1979, the only "basic D&D" the author could be referring to is the Holmes-written basic set. B/X (published in 1981) is much more similar in complexity and rule scope to OD&D and I'm inclined to put both it and the later BECMI in that category. 2nd edition AD&D would go into AD&D, and you could probably put all "later editions" (3rd, 4th, 5th) there as well...but then some might argue that the objectives of play are so different for later systems (especially 4E) that they really need to be put into the "other games" category for simple "carryover" XP.

[maybe you'd need to have "multi-class DMs" these days with XP split between Old and New school. Ha!]

The advancement table for Dungeon Masters in the article looks like this:

Level 1: Initiate     0-1499 experience points
2: Apprentice     1500-2999
3: Expert     3000-4499
4: Overseer     4500-5999
5: Supervisor     6000-8999
6: Moderator     9000-11,999
7: Mediator     12,000-17,999
8: Arbitrator     18,000-24,999
9: Referee     25,000-34,999
10: Referee, 1st Class     35,000-49,999
11: Judge     50,000-74,999
12: Dungeonmaster     75,000-99,999
13: Dungeonmaster, 13th level     100,000-124,999
14: Dungeonmaster, 14th level, etc.     125,0000 plus 25,000 per level after 14th

[ha! There's also a note that Dungeonmasters of 18th level or higher may also be called "Overlord." I dig on that!]

I'm sure that some folks reading this are going to just shake their heads and call it all ridiculous. After all, the mark of a good DM should include something about how they're evaluated by their players, right? How they interact, how they arbitrate, how they smooth over difficulties and deal with troublesome issues? Not to mention how they improvise and adapt, how they role-play monsters and how much fun is had by all? Certainly, if a DM is giving the impression to everyone who joins the game that he/she is an asshole, it shouldn't matter whether they've run five adventures or five hundred, right?

Maybe. But maybe we need to have some concrete "measurables" to measure. Maybe there is something about a person who writes, preps, and runs a game getting better at writing, prepping, and running games. And maybe that's kind of important when you're emphasizing the game aspect of the hobby and not the "oh, it's just another way to socialize and interact with buddies in a casual, geeky fashion." Sure, yes, that's a thing...but some folks want a higher standard of gaming. I know I do.

Mattson's article isn't a bad starting place for such a discussion. Going over my own DMing history (as best I can remember it), and sticking with only these XP awards (and counting B/X play as "basic" rather than OD&D, and not counting any post-2E experience), I'll say I conservatively calculate my own experience as 65,420, giving me a rank of "Judge," but being about 10,000 shy of "name level." If I upped the awards for B/X campaigns and included awards for other games I've run (there have been many...including 3E D&D), it's possible I might crack 12th or even 13th level, but I'm inclined to leave it as is...a good indication of my "rank" in terms of Old School D&D. about all I care about these days.

And which ALSO means, I've got room to grow. I'd certainly like to be worthy of the "Dungeon Master" title ("Overlord" seems like a pipe dream any time in this lifetime). But, being honest here, I've still got plenty to learn and discover. "Judge" actually sounds about right (I'm pretty judgmental). "Mastery" is something I'm working on.

Anyhoo, I welcome thoughts and ideas on the subject, and ways one might use this (or a similar) objective system to analyze quality, skill, and competence...or any differing opinions from folks who feel this line of thought is unnecessary or impossible. Also, I invite anyone who feels so inclined to post how they level themselves (using this system) in terms of "old school DM experience." To be perfectly honest, I'd like to see how I rank in comparison to the other DMs out there.

Just please: no taking XP for 5E games. I don't care if they're run in an "old school" way or not.


  1. I'm pretty sure we tried that Dragon Magazine's methodology for experience points in somebody's world I was running in at the time. Not my own. I believe the focus was on damage caused, not damage taken, but of course it has been decades, so I can't be sure.

    I am coming upon on my 40th anniversary of game testing come Sept 6, 2019.

    1. Yes, focus is on damage caused; slight difference in XP awarded for magic-use in combat. As I wrote, I prefer your (well-tested) rules.
      ; )

  2. I spent hours yesterday looking for the source of xp for damage to add to the "thanks" credit for my upcoming (trigger warning) b/x hack of 5e where I use it. Had no luck. And here you go and share it just like that. Cheers.

  3. A system of GM certification would be an interesting challenge to tackle. Coming from a language education perspective, I'd think it should involve a mix of "classroom" time to get background/theory, and "monitored practice" to examine how the candidate puts theory into practice. Similar to how one gets CELTA or TESOL certification.

    Of course, the language education certificates are helpful for finding a job, and maybe for negotiating your salary up a bit. But they're far from necessary. I don't have any - haven't needed them.

    On a different note - that system of awarding the DM experience points needs some careful evaluation. By a strict reading of it, I could run a 12 level megadungeon campaign with characters going from 1st to 9th level and it would only give me as much XP as running a 5-room dungeon.

    1. The megadungeon is one aspect that the system doesn't take into account. Another might be the "wandering sandbox" campaign where clearly a DM is running SOMEthing, even if it's not a specific adventure.

      Still, at its core the system is at least measuring something objective...and something that I find to be an adequate measure.

      I will say, with regard to the "megadungeon" (the origin of which can be traced directly to Book 3 of OD&D) that such a thing might be possible to break into separate "campaigns." Gygax's original text states one should start by creating "at least three levels at once" [one "campaign"] with "new levels under construction so that players never grow tired of it" [additional "campaigns"], each such section being unified by a single theme (as per G's examples)...using the term "campaign" here in place of the term "adventure."

    2. Just for fun, I looked up the CELTA course contents

      To get a CELTA certificate (certifying that you're competent to teach English as a foreign language, and required for many teaching jobs through the British Council), you need to complete a 120 hour course (classroom time), perform 6 hours of teaching practice (observed and given feedback by an experienced teacher(s), observe experienced teachers for 6 hours, submit 4 written assignments and a portfolio of your teaching work products (lesson plans, assignments & worksheets, grading rubrics, etc).

      For a Game Mastering certificate, you could follow similar guidelines. Personally, I'd put a bit more emphasis on the observation and practice game mastering and less on the classroom stuff, but Alexis provides us with a good guideline for the sorts of things the "classroom" content could/should cover.

      There would need to be some fair way to evaluate the performance in the classes, the written assignments and portfolio, and how well the candidate performed both in observing and in practice. That's not easy. But it's do-able.

      And then there would be something a bit more concrete than "campaigns run" as a metric.

    3. “you need to run games for 120 hour or 40 sessions, whichever comes first; run a game for 6 hours or two sessions, observed and given feedback by an experienced referee, observe experienced referee for 6 hours or two sessions, submit 4 written blog posts about how you run games and a portfolio of your gaming products (adventures, house rules, spells, classes, magic items, etc).”
      All we need is an organization to formalize it!

  4. I think it's a place to start, but dm experience can't be just based on campaigns completed or time spent dming. I've known people who've dmed for 20 years and they were still pretty bad, they weren't dick dms or anything, just not able to handle the job. However, it can't be based entirely on player input either, everyone is biased in some way.

    1. Clearly, as in most hobbies/professions/areas of expertise there are some people blessed with more "natural talent" than others.

      That's why a system of measurement (like this one) is both useful and desirable. Practice DOES tend to make for a better/greater ability, and the experience of designing adventures, prepping adventures, and running adventures are really the basis of the DM's job/practice. Generally speaking, people who continue to fail at their job will eventually be held the case of a DM, they will lose players, acquire a negative reputation, etc. and end up running fewer and fewer games, eventually tiring of the activity or simply being mothballed.

      Yes, a "pretty bad" DM may run games over 20 years, but how many? We're not measuring longevity in the hobby...I started playing circa 1981, but I took a substantial break in play for decade or more (during the late 80s to mid-90s)...and have been on a pretty big break since 2014 or so. All told, I've probably spent less than 30 years "actively DMing" even though I've been in the hobby closer to 40.

      We don't want to give out gold watches for "time in"...we want to track actual work done. Writing adventures, prepping adventures, and running adventures (and, to a limited extent, playing adventures) all counts as "work" in my book.

    2. I don't disagree with the general premise here, yet I think if someone is practicing bad techniques in the first place, they will only reinforce those bad techniques, and if players showing up to the table is the only indicator, they may feel like they are doing great.

      also defining a 'campaign' is difficult. I'm pretty sure the only campaigns that have been completed while I was running were one-shots. how do you separate different campaigns/adventures in an ongoing game? is it when a major goal is completed? what if the players abandon a goal or fail?

      hours spent dming might be a better measure than campaigns, but still there has to be something more than just time, because practice doesn't always make someone better at something.

  5. My knee-jerk reaction to this was "I dunno man, dming is an art, man... not everyone likes the same art, man..." But drilling down on it I agree there can be an objective experienced based metric. Not everyone may like Anthony Hopkins acting, but if you cast him he'd sure as hell knew what he was doing. It's an interesting idea that seems to have great value in a tournament or convention venue.

  6. I can quibble with the fine details, but the overall concept is fantastic. Imagine if the RPGA or Adventurer's League actually kept track of their "official" referees' games, and you could look up the hard numbers on a particular referee before you decided whether you wanted to spend several hours of your life at their table.

  7. It seems to me a system like this would result in fewer good GMs. Some of the best GMs I know were people that originally needed to be coaxed into it. If there was a wall of certification around the concept, they never would have tried it.

    On top of that, where are uncertified GMs supposed to get all the experience they need if people are gravitating towards certified GMs.

    I think mentoring is the best way to nurture new GMs. If you have players in your group that want to give it a shot, be willing to play in their games and give honest but constructive feedback.

  8. Well, then. Interesting concept, and one which would take me right out of contention as I have never really played that 'D&D' thing and been 'role-playing' for all this time. No points for that, so I'll score myself as a utter novice.

    Any suggestions as to where I can learn how to be a good GM?

    :) - chirine

  9. Kenzer & Company does this kind of thing in KoDT... for laughs.

    I'd recommend Players be the ones to award GM XP, rather than another option.

    1. So, if I earn 2,000 x.p. from my players, and go up a level, what would that mean exactly? Would my TCTPK numbers go up (to cause total party kills)? Could I force a player acceptance of DM ruling check with better chance of success? Do I get increased "dodge points" that give me protection against hurled empty bottles and cans? Because that last would be really helpful, being that I'm such a brat DM.

      It would be nice if the players could adopt a "playing not plays" attitude regarding the game, so long as they're going to give out the experience. Somehow, I don't think my DM agency is going to increase at all, however.

    2. In the Kenzer & Company comic, The Publisher certifies all the GM's as well as the players. The "grades" or whatnot (been a while since I read them) facilitated things like whether a GM would be invited to run Convention games, but also, the GM had to keep up their ranking as their players increased their own ranks: a Rank 10 player moving to a new town would never deign to join a Rank 5 GM's game.

      As I said, it's for laughs.

      Some things are best judged socially. At least until we rid ourselves of these material shackles and can do everything without such restrictions, it's probably an idea that can stay in the 1970s.

  10. Using Alexis and sensible in the same sentence calls for some kind of life reevaluation.

  11. There's something vaguely repellent about the notion of certifying Dungeon Masters' "experience" (via points or otherwise).

    Who's to judge? There's no OSR Pope, no Holy Dungeon Master See sitting on the Cathedra of Gygax to dole out the XP awards. And I can't think of a single Gaming Community Personality that I'd trust to hold such a position. Never mind that it isn't practical to look over every DM's shoulder.

    In the absence of such an authority, how could this ever be of any use? "Credentials" are meaningless if not bestowed by an authority that can also police and revoke them. And if such a system were to be set up, it would catch like fire on waterlogged bark. Nobody would pay it any attention, except for the few who reject it as elitist pretension. It would have all the cachet of a degree in TV/VCR Repair from a fly-by-night for-profit college.

    I'm sorry to be so down on this idea; but I honestly think that if your goal is a world with more good Dungeon Masters in it, this one is either ineffectual or counterproductive.

    1. @ John:

      MMmm...I think my reply will need its own follow-up post.

  12. I was halfway through a reply to this, but I think J-Higgs said pretty much what I was going to say.

    If done for laughs, sure. I mean, I'm not going to do it, but whatever ballasts your submarine.

    If done seriously, I reject it out of hand. This stinks of the kind of organized play cesspool bullshit that makes up RPGA. I'll wear my 0 DM exp as a badge of pride.

    <3 you though, JB.

  13. I'd like to apply for Holy Dungeon Master.

  14. Just want to let you know, JB, that I upgraded the language on my experience rules, with an eye to make them easier to understand:

    1. Thanks! Sometimes I need things in smaller words.
      ; )