Mandatory DM Rehearsal

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on May 24, 2011

All performers rehearse. You’d never expect an actor to perform Shakespeare after a single reading of the script. Nor would you expect a musician to get up on stage and perform flawlessly just because you know that they can read the music that’s in front of them. If you’re trying to get the best performance from an artist then you need to ensure that they’ve had ample time to rehearse.

DMs may not be artists in the same sense or category as actors or musicians (and I’m not going to insult anyone who falls into one of those two categories by suggesting otherwise) but we can look to these disciplines and borrow their best practices. DMs certainly do their fare share of prep work when they build encounters. They choose monsters, draw maps and compose skill challenges, as well as develop the entire campaign arc. But prep isn’t the same as rehearsal.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been the DM for two different groups playing D&D Encounters. Every week I run the exact same encounter twice. None of the players or characters are the same, but everything else is identical. What I’ve found is that I’m a lot more comfortable when I run that second group and I’ve come to realize that’s it because of the familiarity I gained by running it twice. The first group provides me, as the DM, with a chance to rehearse the encounter.

As an experienced DM I’d like to think that the group I run the first time isn’t getting the short end of the stick in this situation. The first session is good, but the second session is great. I feel more comfortable running it and I think this makes for a much more enjoyable experience.

Even though I know that the players and characters will be different when I run the encounter again I’m able to tweak things to suit that second party. Depending on how the first group makes out I know if I have to make the monsters tougher or weaker. I also get a sense for how things might play out differently if characters have predominantly ranged attacks or melee attacks, and if they’re light or heavy in a particular role.

I’ve found similar benefit when I’ve run Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) adventures. At my FLGS they ask that everyone take turns being the DM. It’s not an official LFR rule, but this lets everyone play regularly and doesn’t strap one or two guys to the DM hot seat all the time. Whenever my turn comes around I often run adventures that I’ve run before.

This actually works out really well for everyone. Experienced players can play the same adventure again with a different character and for newer players they can try the adventure for the first time. Since I’ve run these adventures before I’ve already completed a lot of the prep work (like drawing the maps) and I have that lessons learned from the last time I ran it. After running an adventure I’ve run before I find that I get a lot of compliments from people who felt they really had a good gaming experience.

Now I know that this idea of DM rehearsal isn’t new. At many conventions the DMs will get together for a slot 0 game. This is when all the DMs that are going to be running the same adventure have a chance to play it and get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. In a conventions situation this is an excellent idea. However, this is not something that you can really do during your home game, and therein is my dilemma.

Now that I’ve experienced the value of DM rehearsal first hand I’ve been wracking my brain trying to find a way to apply this concept to my home game. I assume that most people don’t play in multiple gaming groups. I know I have a hard enough time getting my regular group together once a week, let alone organizing a second game. And even if I could manage it, I don’t think I’d want to run the identical campaign twice every single week.

If DM rehearsal is such a beneficial experience for the DM and the players alike, then we as a gaming community really need to find a way for DMs to rehearse, or at least find a close enough parallel to gain similar benefits.

The only way I can think of to get the benefits of a rehearsal (aside from actually running the same game twice) is to learn from other DMs. Although this isclearly not the same thing, I’ve found that it helps me a lot. The easiest way to do this is to listen to actual play podcasts. Not only do you get the benefit of listening to how other DMs run their game, but you can borrow ideas from them.

Whenever I play with a new DM, or even just hear one running a game online, I learn something. Sometimes the DM does something that works really well and I make a point of trying to emulate that in my game. In other circumstances I notice a DM doing something that isn’t working and I make sure that I don’t do that when I’m running the show.

No matter how much prep work you put in to creating your game, there’s no substitute for experience. And since it’s extremely unlikely you’ll have the chance to have a group of player take your adventure for a dry run, all you can do is work on your DM skills.

Have you ever run the same encounter or adventure more than once? Did you find that the second time through was a better overall gaming experience? For those people who have DMed at conventions, what is your take on the idea of DM rehearsal? How much does it affect the gaming experience?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Blinkey May 24, 2011 at 11:22 am

Familiarity builds confidence, i couldn’t agree with these sentiments more. I’ve never had the situation arise where I could run a session more than once but now i’m tempted to find an excuse.

It occurs to me that VT software makes a great way to do this. Although i’m yet to have any experience with it personally, it sounds like a lot of the games run on the DDi VT are usually short delve-like games to give people a quick fix. With some minor reskinning (or maybe none!) it would prove fairly easy to test-drive a few encounters for a home game by throwing them at random players on the VT.

Having run an encounter at the weekend designed entirely myself, a trial run would have helped me improve it greatly (I had to make some subtle edits on the fly). I might look into this in the future. Thanks for another thought-provoking article!

2 Vance May 24, 2011 at 11:39 am

I’ve only had the ability to run the same encounter again once. I was running my normal long-term campaign, plus a four-session short campaign for a different group of friends. I had a big set piece battle coming up for the short campaign, but I was a little unsure of how it would play out. (It was a planned TPK scenario, but with the players all playing NPC’s as a flashback to a big battle that was recently lost.)

When my normal long-term game group showed up that week, one of the guys had a family issue come up and was going to be almost an hour late. Not wanting to continue without him, I set up the big battle and had my long-term group “playtest” it for me. With them playing through it, I found a bunch of things that didn’t work, and almost ended up scrapping the whole encounter completely. But I learned a lot from that playtest and tweaked the encounter to make it work much better when it finally came time for my short-term group to play through it.

I will probably never get that opportunity again, but that playtest saved the encounter for me!

3 OnlineDM May 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm

I’ve had the chance to do rehearsals before, and I agree that it helps. When I run an LFR game, it’s often one that I’ve run or at least played before. I love re-running an LFR adventure because I use my laptop, projector and MapTool for the game and being able to re-use my MapTool campaign file for the adventure is very efficient.

When I created my first MyRealms adventure, I based it on an adventure I had created and run for my home game. I ran my Friday night online group through that adventure one week when we lacked a quorum, and I then tweaked it further. I ran it in an LFR slot at my local store, and then finally I ran it at a local convention. It got better each time.

4 Ameron May 25, 2011 at 10:40 am

@Blinkey
I like the idea of using technology to run a simulated gaming experience. I’ve actually considered a more low-tech approach of simulating a combat scenario by myself just to get an idea of how a battle might shape up. But in the end it just seemed like a lot of extra work for what was likely to be a minimal payoff. Now if we can get technology to do this for us, I’m totally on board with that idea.

@Vance
Many years ago I played with two different gaming groups and I did have the chance to run some of the encounter with one group or the other as a test run. The combat part of the encounter was always improved by running it twice. Where I found things did not necessarily improve with rehearsal was the actual role-playing. As the DM I got to know the NPCs better, but the players were often so unpredictable that one groups methods and approaches to role-playing were so incredibly different from the others that playing it more than once didn’t help all that much.

@OnlineDM
We used to use MapTools so I have a great appreciation for how your prep and subsequent rehearsal would improve things (especially when it comes to the visual aspects).

For LFR I have between 6-10 adventures at varying levels that I just keep running over and over again at the three FLGSs in my community. After each game I carefully store the maps and make notes on the hard copy of the adventure. That way everything’s there the next time I need it. My prep is minimal, but the lessons learned are all recorded and each game is better than the one I ran last time.

5 Sunyaku May 26, 2011 at 7:28 pm

I like to practice my voice acting in the car on the way to events (assuming the car is empty). I also practice in the shower lolz.

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