6 D&D Convention Tips for DMs

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 23, 2010

Yesterday we shared 6 D&D Convention Tips for Players; today it’s the DMs turn. After running a few Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) adventures at the Spellstorm gaming convention this past weekend in Toronto, I’ve put together a list of things to keep in mind when you’re the DM. These tips are applicable to any D&D game, but even more so at a convention.

  1. Expect the unexpected

  2. Just because you’re playing an LFR adventure doesn’t mean that the PC will do exactly what the text expects them to do. In fact, the best games usually deviate from the script a little bit. As the DM you have to be ready and know how to handle the unexpected.

    For example, in a game I ran this past weekend the PCs needed use a secret passage to enter a warehouse. The only way to access it was through a narrow alley. At the mouth of the alley Halflings playing dice games were paid to keep out uninvited guests. The adventure assumed the PCs would fight the Halflings, and then proceed down the alleyway. However, the PCs learned who had access to the secret entrance and disguised themselves as these people The Halflings had no reason to stop them because the PCs didn’t raise suspicion. Creative thinking allowed the PCs to avoid combat. When combat broke out inside the warehouse I had two of the curious Halflings join the fight after a few rounds, but by then the PCs had things well in hand.

  3. Bloody hell

  4. The DM runs everyone who’s not a PC. During combat this is usually a lot of creatures. So sometimes the DM forgets to tell the PCs that one or two of the monsters are bloodied. It’s an understandable oversight, but it needs to be corrected. There are a lot of powers that react differently against bloodied and non-bloodied opponents. PCs will often decide who to attack next based on who looks the healthiest or the most hurt. So DMs, pay attention to those bloodied values (printed clearly in the monster’s stat block) and let the players know who’s down to half health. If you use minis, make sure you mark them accordingly.

    Although players are generally much better at denoting when they are bloodied, they do forget from time-to-time. So this reminder applies everyone, DMs and players alike.

  5. Don’t forget the details

  6. Most monsters have attacks that are more than just straight-up damage. Whether it’s fire, necrotic, poison or some other damage type be sure to tell the PCs which type of damage just ate away 16 hit points. Many PCs have resistances and may not actually take the full damage. But if you forget to mention that it’s a cold attack they won’t know that their cloak of survival should have softened that last blow by 5.

    If the monsters have auras or any other defense or power that the PCs would automatically recognize, be sure to mention it. Don’t wait until they’re standing next to the monster before revealing that it actually has a fire aura 2 and PCs entering this aura take damage and are dazed. If the PC knows about an aura they may decide to attack from range rather than charge in.

  7. Give up initiative

  8. When you’re reading the adventure (before the convention) pre-roll initiatives for all the monsters. Even if you don’t expect the PCs to participate in a particular fight, roll it up anyway. It’s an easy thing to do ahead of time and it’s one less thing to do when you’re completely immersed in the game at the Con.

    I rarely track initiative myself when I’m the DM. I ask if one of the players will do it for me. I have enough to worry about and handing off initiative lets me focus on all those other things. There’s always one player who is happy to take on the job. When I’m a player I always volunteer to track initiative.

    Regardless of who’s tracking initiative, that person should give an “on deck” notice to the next person in the order. This will help keep the game moving.

  9. Watch the clock

  10. Most games at a convention are limited to a set time slot. As the DM it’s your job to make sure you give the PCs ample opportunity to complete the adventure. If the game is running slower than you expect and you’re worried about time I’ve come up with two ways to keep things on track.

    The easiest way to speed things up during a skill challenge is to determine a challenge breaker (as we discussed in Skill Challenges and Rewarding XP). A challenge breaker is any player action that, if successful, would logically end the challenge immediately. So just because the adventure says that the PCs need 8 successes, I’ll often give the party full XP if the role-playing supports the successful completion of a skill challenge with fewer successful checks.

    The easiest way to gain time during combat is knowing when to Call the Fight. When the combat become a war of attrition then it’s time to call it and let the PCs move on.

  11. Let the PCs be heroic

  12. This is a mixture of the “say yes” philosophy and the “rule of cool.” If the PC want to try something that’s a little outside of the rules and it makes sense for their character and makes sense for the moment, then I say let them try it.

    For example, in a game I ran this past weekend the PCs were fighting on a rooftop. If they fell off they’d take 4d10 falling damage. Needless to say, one of the monsters had a push attack. Two PCs were pushed to the edge but made saves to catch the ledge. The Dwarven Fighter saved and remained on his feet. Next round same thing, two PCs were hit but made their saves to catch the ledge. And again the Dwarf remained on his feet. Third round a PC finally (and unfortunately) failed his save. The Dwarf in the square next to him stood his ground and remained standing. The quick thinking player running the Dwarf asked if he could use his action point to grab his ally as an immediate reaction and catch him before he fell off the roof. I allowed it. Made sense given the circumstances. The next round the pusher was defeated and the combat played out.

Just like the tips for players in yesterday’s article, I’m sure the points I make above are nothing new to most DMs. Some of them may be more relevant during convention play than at a home game, but they’re all good reminders.

If you found these tips helpful I’d also recommend you check out some of the other articles we’re written covering tip, tricks and reminders to improve the way you DM your game.

What other tips should DMs keep in mind when running games at a convention or at the FLGS? Please share your thoughts and ideas. Being a better DM makes everyone’s experience better and more enjoyable.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Neuroglyph February 23, 2010 at 10:53 am

Good advice there, especially since I plan to do some DM-ing at conventions this year. I haven’t actually run a game at a convention in about 10 years, but after attending my old college gaming convention last weekend, I am really chomping at the bit to get out there and DM for conventioneers!
.-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Release of New Product Line: Kill or Be Killed! =-.

2 Rook February 23, 2010 at 8:56 pm

All very good tips and points. I think I’ll use the tip in #4 and make one of my players an official initiative tracker. This is especially good for players who’s minds tend to wander when its not their turn. Keeps them focused and involved.
I also like your example in #6. Kudos to the player for thinking outside the box and to you for allowing it. Well done.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..Wondrous Lootz: the Orcwand =-.

3 Ameron February 25, 2010 at 12:12 pm

@Neuroglyph
The backbone of all Cons are the DMs who volunteer their time. Without DMs there wouldn’t be any games. Thanks for stepping up.

The real trick is to get lots of people to run a game or two and not expect the same folks to DM every single slot, every single time. If everyone at the table takes a turn as DM then you shouldn’t have to run more than 1 session every 5-7 games (assuming most tables have 7 people, 1 DM + 6 players, with various DMing experience).

@Rook
I find handing initiative to a guy who gets bored easily is a good way to keep them engaged. It seems so simple and it makes a player and the DM happy. Win-win.

I too was very impressed with the player from example #6. I wouldn’t have thought of it, but when he did I had no problem saying yes. I still made him roll for success, so it wasn’t an automatic catch.

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