8 Things I Learned at D&D Encounters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 12, 2011

D&D Encounters began in March 2010. Since then, I’ve ventured down to my FLGS every Wednesday night after work to play D&D. I started in season 1 as just a player. Through seasons 2-3 I still played but I was ready to jump in and DM if needed. When season 4 began I decided to become the primary DM. Now, five weeks into season 6, I’m still the DM and still have a blast every week at D&D Encounters.

Before D&D Encounter started up I had experience with public play D&D but it was limited to LFR and D&D Game Days. Both presented excellent opportunities to play D&D but these were very different experiences than what I see weekly at D&D Encounters. D&D Encounters is designed as a gateway for new players to try out D&D for the first time. However, it also serves as a pick-up game that many experienced players can fall back on if they don’t have a regular game of their own. This leads to a variety of players with ranging levels of D&D and even gaming experience.

Over the past year and a half I’ve seen a lot of stuff while participating in D&D Encounters – some of it good, some of it bad. I’d like to think that in the end everything I’ve absorbed has made me a more savvy DM and that I’ve developed a pretty good idea of exactly what needs to be done to keep the adventure great every single week.

Today I’m going to share a few of the things I’ve learned during my run at D&D Encounters. Many of the points in my list are common sense things that most DMs are likely already doing. However, for the newer DMs out there a list like this can be a good reminder of the kind of things to keep in mind when running your weekly game.

  1. Have Fun
    This might seem a little obvious, but the most important rule as far as I’m concerned is to have fun. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or your 50th time playing D&D; my goal as the DM is to ensure you enjoy yourself. I always try to keep the mood light and the game interesting.
  2. Pacing
    When you’ve got a lot of new players you need to keep the action moving. This can be difficult if you’re running a larger table. One season we were running a table with eight players every week. There are a lot of things DMs can do to ensure that the game keeps moving. Any trick or shortcut you can think of is fair game. I personally find that pre-rolling all the monsters’ damage before the game begins saves a lot of time.
    No matter how experienced or prepared the DM is the players have to do their part when it comes to pacing. I like to announce who’s next in the initiative so that player can think about what they’re going to do on their next turn. When their turn comes up I give them time to decide what to do, but if they clearly have no idea I will then make suggestions or ask them if they want to delay. By making it clear that delaying isn’t a bad thing newer players often appreciate the extra time to make up their mind.
  3. Don’t Worry About the Rules
    When I run games for new or younger players I don’t bog down the games with every single rule. There is a time and place to get to know all the specifics about D&D and Wednesday night during D&D Encounters isn’t the place. Yes, you want new players to get a general understanding of how things work, but slowing or stopping the game to explain obscure rules that likely won’t have a significant bearing on the combat is not the best time to do it.
  4. Offer Suggestions
    Many of the newer players may not be that familiar with the mechanics of 4e. If they’re playing a pre-generated character then they’re likely just seeing this PC for the first time. One good thing about Wizards not producing any new pre-gens for the previous three seasons is that by now I can probably recreate all six of the PCs from memory. My familiarity with the pre-gens allows me to offer newer players suggestions if they’re unsure what to do on their turn.
    There’s a fine line between offering suggestions and running someone else’s character for them so don’t be too overbearing. Just because the player chooses to take an action that I may not have taken if I was running that character doesn’t give me the right to berate or criticize their decision. Let them learn by doing. They’ll realize quickly enough that they should try to use their encounter powers early in the combat.
  5. Say Yes
    During my home games my players have a really good understanding of what their PCs can and can’t do, even when it comes to the wild and crazy stuff. With D&D Encounters I try to let everything fly, no matter how outside of the box the idea. I like to encourage creativity and imaginative actions. By letting the PCs do atypical things the players learn that an attack action can be more than rolling dice. They become more immersed in their character.
  6. Encourage Role-playing
    There’s no doubt that combat is what draws a lot of players to D&D. After all, it’s fun. But it’s important to balance the combat with role-playing. Offering up a few skill challenges every now and then reminds newer players that there’s more to the game than fighting monsters. This is where I usually look to the more experienced players to help me out and take the lead. When the newer players see the veterans getting into character and role-playing they get a better idea of what they can do with their own PC.
  7. Everybody Plays
    When a group of strangers come together to play D&D it can be socially awkward for some people. As the DM I try to encourage everyone to play and feel that their idea is just as valid as everyone else’s. If there are one or two dominant (and usually experienced) players at the table I make sure they don’t take control of the game and make all the decisions. Wrangling in an overbearing player can be difficult, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to keep any semblance of control at your table. Encouraging everyone to participate and remind dominant players that they should extend the other players the same courtesy on their turn that was extended to them on theirs. This is after all a cooperative team game.
  8. Ask for Feedback
    I’ve found that asking for feedback after a gaming session is a good way to improve your ability as a DM. If the players feel that they can be honest with you they’re more likely to provide open and honest feedback when you ask for it. After all it’s in their best interest for you to become a better DM.
    This season I’ve been recording my D&D Encounters sessions. I find that listening to them again allows me to hear things that I might have missed or not realized when I was in the thick of things. It’s important to remember that for every DM there’s always room for improvement.

Have you found your participation in D&D Encounters as enlightening as I’ve found mine? Did I miss anything obvious? What else would you add to this list?

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1 Kilsek September 12, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Feedback is critical, agreed. I love asking what everyone thought of this or that encounter, scene, or plot twist – or even just getting it as natural feedback without asking for it.

Sharing your opinion on some things – such as why a certain encounter wasn’t as fun or cool as you thought it might be – also goes a long way in starting some great feedback-rich conversations.

2 Kiel Chenier September 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm

I’ve learned a bunch from running these games at Dueling Grounds. I’ve seen the best and worst that D&D has to offer, both in its game play, as well as its audience.

More and more I find myself becoming disinterested in the game because of Encounters and the way its organized. However, I’ve come to understand that this is more MY problem than it is one with D&D Encounters itself.

I’m gonna try and step up my game as a Dungeon Master. I want players to be excited about each new session, rather than sitting down, just wanting to get things over with as quickly as possible.

I’ve got a question for everyone though. When you play D&D Encounters (which is typically a non-continuing stint of games, rather than a campaign), does anyone actually give a cuss about treasure, gold, etc? There’s treasure rewards written into the game, but they’re almost never thought of after the fact. None of my players have ever thought to solve a problem with their found gold or try and ‘go shopping’. Yet, they still clamor for it after a fight. Why?!

What do you think?

3 Sunyaku September 13, 2011 at 1:19 am

@ Lesson #5: Here, here. For beginners, why bother with strict adherence to RPGA rules? If a player describes something awesome they want to try to do outside of their normal character abilities, a DM shouldn’t have to say “no”, even if it is a “public play” event. Rules exist to handle unique situations for a reason.

@ Lesson #6: I certainly encourage a lot of roleplaying on the part of the DM to break the ice. I think the most fun I had in any given season of encounters was roleplaying the NPCs… but then again, I also enjoy voice acting. Related note– I gave Mordai Vell in Lair Assault the voice of “The French” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 😛

Adding Lesson #9: Get to Know Your Audience. Building on #1 and #8, if you have a relatively consistent group, there are certainly things you can modify to make the mod more enjoyable as you get to know the regulars around your FLGS. In my case, I usually DM’d for a veteran group who liked to play encounters scaled way up as much as they liked to roleplay and try to talk their way out of fights. Per #5, I tried to make sure any option the party chose was a valid one… and when it did come to blows, the party earned bonus XP according to the level of scaling. I think I am the only DM at my FLGS who awards bonuses for scaling… but I am a firm believer that if there is greater risk, there must be greater reward… otherwise it’s just kind of mean.

4 John Lewis September 18, 2011 at 5:59 pm

These are also great tips for running games at conventions.

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