A DM’s Debut: The Story of a First Time GenCon Judge

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on August 23, 2010

While Ameron and I were at GenCon we met a lot of other players and DMs. Some of these folks were very experienced and others were coming to D&D for the first time. One experienced DM judging at GenCon for the first time was Shawn O’Leary. We played at his table during our first crack at the D&D Convention Delve. After the adventure we shamelessly plugged our website and asked Shawn if he’d be interested in writing an article for Dungeon’s Master about being a first time DM at GenCon. Shawn was kind enough to take us up on our offer and today we’re happy to share Shawn’s experiences with you.

I’ve been a Dungeon Master for a long time. The first RPG I ran as the DM was D&D, of course. I can’t recall if I started with the blue box or the red box but D&D started it all for me. After that there was Gamma World and then various other role playing games published by TSR such as Marvel Super Heroes and Star Frontiers. But my favorite game, first and foremost, was and still is Dungeons & Dragons.

I love D&D for its emulation of heroic fantasy, which I fell in love with after reading The Hobbit for the first time. The immersion in the story and the feel of being a part of something special is what draws readers into those books. In D&D the players become the heroes of the story. Now they too can feel like they’re a part of something special. The same is true for the Dungeon Master. His immersion into a world where these heroes play is just as great. Every good DM loves to weave a story that’s just as intense and powerful as the best fantasy novels. When the players feel like they’re a part of that the DM gets a tremendous sense of accomplishment and gratitude.

Now throw a convention into the mix. Add to that a first-time judge and you get a lot of anxiety and uncertainty building up. GenCon is the convention of conventions after all. I spent a lot of time preparing, more so than I normally would for most home games I run. I am a free-flowing DM and generally run on the fly. This was going to be a great challenge for me since I was running the D&D Convention Delve.

I had to learn new monsters for a large assortment of encounters. I didn’t know which of the 16 encounters I’d be asked to run but I had to be ready for all of them. In the end it didn’t seem like I’d done enough prep-work and I was nervous that first day. I was just as nervous the second day because I had children playing at my table. I was scared! I had never run D&D for children before, only adults. I really wasn’t looking forward to running the encounters, but in the end it turned out better than I’d thought it would.

Despite my apprehension I wouldn’t have gone into the convention any other way. Based largely on my positive experience, I now plan to attend and judge every year – money and God willing.

The reasons I’m so interested in returning to judge again are very compelling. I was immersed in the story just like everyone else at my table. I really got into my role as a judge and storyteller. As the con went on I became more flamboyant with my storytelling. I gestured crazily as I emphasized or exaggerated the character’s and monster’s actions. I became so lost in the enormity of it all that I wasn’t just judging anymore – I became part of the story, just like the players. And what about the children? It turns out they had fun too.

When the kids were at the table I made a mental note to turn down the dial on severity and graphic descriptions. I made references to a particular Saturday cartoon that anyone who played D&D likely watched. I even made references to Dungeons & Dragons Online which a couple of the children could relate to. All in all it was something they could all be a part of and take home with them.

I had fun every time I judged, although a lack of coffee and sleep meant that I was notably running out of gas by the end of the day.

The last reason I have for wanting to do it again is perhaps the most moving and touching. One of the players I judged during the convention played at a table with children. I don’t remember his name but I will never forget him. As the convention wound down to a close Sunday morning he approached me and again thanked me for the doing a great job as the DM. He expressed his gratitude for making the game a memorable moment for the children. He then said that because of me it was going to be the most memorable conventions he had ever been to.

That meant a great deal to me emotionally and professionally. I knew that in order to succeed as a DM and as a judge I had to accomplished two very important feats: 1) everyone had to have fun, and 2) my judging skills needed to be valued by people I didn’t know. I think I can safely say I accomplished both tasks. The satisfaction that comes from this accomplishment along with the entertainment of a day of D&D is addicting. I want to be part of that again. I can’t wait till GenCon next year.

About Shawn – I’m a 40 year old gamer who started D&D with the blue box if memory serves correctly. I have been adventuring since then and don’t plan on slowing down any time soon. When I am not adventuring I am weaving the heroic tales of this and other rpgs so that I can tell tales of heroism with my friends. In the real world I am a free lance game designer with Emerald Press, a pdf publisher of game supplements and new rules for D&D 4E, writing stories of a fantastic nature and when the bills need to be paid I am a medical assistant taking care of prisoners. I love to both DM and play.

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1 Etherrider August 23, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Shawn….gotta give it to you. It is rewarding when someone says thanks for making it all matter at the con. I have been lucky enough to get this reaction a few times (been game since prior to red box and DM at cons for 20 years).

The thing I love is that when you make a connection like that…you can make friends. I have some friends I only see at cons and we all have to stop and catch up and see if we can get at tables together or not…but there is always a handshake and a smile….good times!

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