There are things I might look for - confidence, for one. A sense of humour that doesn't destroy the verisimilitude of the game. Judgements that encourage player respect. Self-deprecation. Compassion for the players mixed with an understanding that now and then a DM must be unsympathetic and tough-minded. On the whole, characteristics that are hard to pick up in an hour's conversation, much less at a distance.
Much of the resistance to a DMs ability or skill originates with the 'island' mentality of the game. Two hundred people do not play at the same time in the same game ... and if they did, the results would hardly bring the crowd together. I tried an experiment some years back where I ran a combat based on a poll, so that the choice with the highest number of votes would determine each character's action. Because I included some slightly stupid choices, such as the thief breaking off from the party and attempting to hide in shadows, the balance of the votes tended towards stupidity - I think probably because a group of uninvested persons did not care whether the characters lived or not. I think they wanted to see what would happen. I think, for outsiders, it is always that way. As outsiders, they don't identify with the characters around the table. They think, instinctively, "If that were me, I wouldn't do what he's doing."
It's funny that we have a whole film industry based on the premise that you will like this character because you identify with this character ... and yet in the real world we hardly ever identify with anyone. Conversations about other people tend to be about what's wrong with them, or occasionally how we would like to bed them or impress them. Rarely am I standing in a crowd at an office and hearing about how "John" is "just like me!" More likely, they'll say, "John's an idiot" or, more truthfully, "I wish John liked me."
Fan boys are the worst about this, being the sort that find fault with anything, no matter how desperately or craven the fault-finding is. Consider:
|Accomplishment: Proved himself one of the best Air Force pilots|
in the world; went to the moon; walked on it.
Fanboy Complaint: too stupid to speak English properly.
|Accomplishment: Became the most popular candidate in two|
American elections, to be voted by the majority as the most powerful
man in the world, despite the fact that he is black.
Fanboy Complaint: he has big ears.
|Accomplishment: multi-talented, arguably the most widely-known|
global celebrity in human history, with a personally earned
wealth in excess of a billion dollars.
Fanboy Complaint: she's creepy.
Proving that it is possible to find fault with anyone or anything. The Fanboy's complaint against the kayaker who has learned to shoot the most dangerous rapids in the world is that they're an idiot for doing that. Against this sort of peanut gallery, there is no 'whitewater.' And presently, with regards to RPGs, the peanut gallery owns the theatre.
The Island structure of the game, however, means that it doesn't matter. The only meaningful opinion of anyone's ability to play the game is measured by people close enough to hit with a lamp cord. Anyone further away than that doesn't matter. Therefore, if your world has players that adore it, no matter what sort of game you run, you're met your quality targets. At least ... for as long as those players last.
It is harder for DMs who grow obsessed with the game, who come to realize as adulthood changes the social structure of their relationships, that player's DON'T last. Many is the DM out there who, in no way tired of the game, has watched the players wander off to become accountants, fathers, soldiers or foreign policy advisors, only to recognize they've run out of places where they can get players. How much the worse for them when they discover the 17-year-olds who loved their world were dumber than hammers, and that the new available player crop has a higher standard. And how many players would like another good game like the one they played in university ... but all the DMs these days are morons.
The critical moment comes when the world you've been playing in no longer exists, or when the world you've been running must now be compromised because you have only two players now, and math is an uphill struggle for both. The Island literally sinks below the waves ... and very often, the only rational solution is to give it up and quit playing in favor of giving a shit about the Superbowl. After all, you're 25 now. It's time to give up your infantile infatuations with a child's game and embrace the infantile infatuation with a child's sport. It's evolution.
There's a fellow I met last month who manages the local gaming group. He's in his 40s, he's clearly been playing for a long time, and he's proud of his ability to stay 'hip' and now. He's very excited about D&D Next and considers people who play 3.5 to be archaic and living in the dark ages. He plays 4e now. He's one of those fellows who cannot lay off warstories, even in the midst of running his own game. He enjoys his position of organizer because it means he can wander the seven or eight tables in session and interrupt the proceedings with advice, philosophy and, of course, more war stories. The players I know who attend these sessions weekly (some of them are in an offline campaign of mine) tell me he does this incessantly. Some may think this isn't relevant, but apparently his wife left him recently and he has admitted to many people (including me, within an hour of meeting him) that he's been depressed lately. There's no question that the game is a major social outlet for him.
Here, then, is something to think about when discussing people who have played this game all their lives. For many, it has nothing to do with the game. For them, the game's social premise is something that can be ignored, like a kibbitzer will at a chess game. The presence of other people is an opportunity to combat loneliness or promote one's importance. And the roleplaying game's open interactive framework is conducive to that. MUCH more conducive than it is to the insistence that players shut the fuck up and settle down to some serious play.
It is possible to recognize at a glance the quality of chess players by the intensity of their play. It isn't always so, but one does get to notice that if they're not speaking to each other, at all, it is probably because the game is more important than anything else in the world to them. I have personally experienced that level of intensity in D&D, but it could hardly be called as consistent as playing chess.
This brings back an old memory with which I'll end this post. When I was a kid, about nine years old, the gang of high-school teenagers down my street created a haunted house for Halloween one year. Their parents must have been indulgent, because they transformed the first floor of the house into a horrorscape, then charged kids who came in through the front door, walked along the designated pathway in a circle around four rooms, then out again. I don't remember much, except there was one scene that had a powerful effect on me.
It was four 'men' playing poker. Four of the boys were sitting absolutely still, as still as mannequins. I recognized them. They were dressed as cowboys, with guns, hats, mustaches and expressions of murderous will. I'll never forget how angry they looked. To get past them, we had to go really close, and squeeze between one of the chairs and the wall, and we were told in a hissing whisper before trying it, "Don't touch them! They'll freaking kill you." Being nine, we believed it. It was terrifying, being that close, and feeling that at any moment they'd suddenly jump up and shoot us full of holes. The effect was powerful. There was no question in our minds about how serious these players were.
I was young. I'd probably look at the scene now and laugh. But I totally bought into it at the time.
Role-playing would really be something if it were like that. Like gamblers playing for life and death stakes, with guns on their hips, ready to shoot. Where it took nerve just to sit down and start playing. Where the players had their hearts in their throats.
Yes, that would really be something.