In Anticipation of GenCon: 8 Things I Learned at D&D Encounters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on August 10, 2013

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I’m going to share some important words of wisdom with all the DMs out there – running a public play game is very different than running a home game. So for everyone who’s going to be running a game at GenCon next week I suggest you read on and take notes.

Public play games are certainly a lot of fun. Personally I think I’ve become a better DM since I started DMing public play games (LFR, D&D Encounters, and Lair Assault). But improvement wasn’t immediate, it took time for me to learn the dos and don’ts of DMing public play games. To help the uninitiated I complied a list of tips that I think you’ll find helpful. Many of these tips will be especially relevant if you happen to have younger or brand new players at your table. Good luck!

Originally published on September 12, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents 8 Things I Learned at D&D Encounters.

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?

Visit the Dungeon’s Master D&D Encounters Archive for all of our ongoing weekly coverage as well as other great D&D Encounters articles and resources.


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