Friday, June 22, 2018

GM 101: How Not to Run a D&D Convention Game

I debated whether I wanted to write this. I am the first to admit I am not the greatest DM out there. Almost all of my advice columns come directly from mistake that I made at the table that I only recognized in retrospect.

This is not a substitute for a room description.
However, I had yet another sub-par experience with D&D Adventurers League and there seem to be some obvious adjustments DMs could make for both games at conventions and in their home. Forgive me if this gets a bit ranty, but looking back in retrospect has bubbled up all those frustrations I had during play.

Don’t Skimp the Descriptions

This is my single biggest beef with organized play… and it has happened to me on more than one occasion.

DM: You’re enter the room and here’s what you see (places some markers on a map). Roll initiative!

Seriously, this pisses this shit out of me. D&D is a game of imagination. Players can’t immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the game if you don’t freaking give them any mental picture. A square with some squiggles on a dry erase map is not freakin’ enough!

Sorry. I should not get emotional, but this is soooo important and I’ve had more than one session ruined by utterly lazy DMs (and not in the good @SlyFlourish meaning of the word).

This is where poor DMs badly misinterpret “Show, don’t tell” advice. If you draw a square room and place a couple minis, that doesn’t “show” the room. Hell, even if you have a massively intricate Dwarven Forge set up, you should still describe the damn room and its occupants.

As cool as it looks, this is still not a room description.
What do the PCs see? What do they hear? What do they smell? What are the large features of the room (an altar, a dais, a butcher block table, a chest… whatever)? Is it damp? Is it dry? Dusty with age? Or recently inhabited? Don’t just put minis on a map and call for initiative. Give some damn atmosphere.

This should be D&D Adventurers League 101. Just because you have a grid does not mean you should not create the mental picture. It is even more important to be descriptive in the same way you would if you were playing theater of the mind because the players will look at the map and believe that everything they see is exactly what you drew, when in actuality this is almost never the complete picture.

You should absolutely do all of the description before setting the first miniature in the space. Get the players to pay attention to what you are saying, not the little plastic pieces on the board. Allow them to ask questions about the scene, then put down miniatures.

On occasion, I have downloaded DDAL modules I’ve played from DM’s Guild only to find out that a crap-ton of description was just never given to the players. This past weekend, my party had an entire combat in the room before the DM told us that there was a dais with an altar and some statues at one end. Wait, what? WTF?!?

Don’t Skimp on Exploration and Role Playing

D&D isn’t just about combat. I know the format of con games can be a pain because there may be a lot of story to unpack in a 4 hour block and if there are more than 2 combats, getting it all in can create a serious time crunch. You are going to have to keep combat moving quickly (and there’s a lot of advice on the internet on how to do that), but you also have to give the players the opportunity to look around and talk to NPCs.

I know it’s hugely tempting to put everyone right onto the plot train and ship them directly from one combat to the next, but avoid that temptation. Conversely, you don’t have to role-play shopping in town in a con game. Get your players in front of NPCs that have clues to give, but don’t just data dump. Give the clues, but also give the players the opportunity to explore the environments and ask the right questions. Even when they don’t ask the right questions, you can give leading answers.

Make sure the players understand the complete picture.
What seems obvious to your mind, may not be in theirs.

Lead the Players to the Clues

Sometimes puzzles or mysteries may appear obvious when read from the module, but when described at the table, fail to land just right in order to light the brain bulb. Be the players' advocate in the game. You don’t have to give them all the clues, but nudge them when they are moving in the correct direction.

As an example, in a game I played recently, these was a floating, glowing gem thingy (again, I don’t have all the details because the DM did a crap job describing it). Apparently, there was some kind of skill challenge connected to deactivating the gem, but we weren’t given any clues that this was a skill test. My wife’s PC, knowing something was up with the floating gem, literally jumped atop of it and tried to strike it with a weapon.

DM: “Nothing happens. Take XX damage.”

We had to ask more than once what the source (and type) of the damage was, and how the gem reacted to her attack. No other clues were given. Apparently, there was even a Strength check that could have been made, but the DM didn’t give her that clue despite her literally standing atop the damn thing. There was absolutely no other information about the gem provided, or about the nature of the skill challenge to deactivate it. It almost seemed like a red herring. Seriously, WTF?

The DM said they were given explicit instruction not to give any clues related to the gem, but I’m guessing that did not mean the DM shouldn’t explain what we were seeing, or experiencing when interacting with the gem. Even a tiny hint like, “There appears to be some kind of arcane energy emanating from it. Now that you are standing on it, you can look closer.”  We don’t know if it had any runes, or roughly what shape it was. Seriously, throw us a frickin bone.

And for the record, if the DDAL crew did tell the DMs not to give even the slightest hint about the skill test, then that’s the crappiest adventure design ever. Just damn awful… but I get the strong feeling that most of the fault lies with the lack of description from the DM.

Get Some Tokens

So if you are going to be an Adventurers League DM (or Pathfinder Society, for that matter) and you play on the grid, invest or craft some tokens or other creature pawns. This was almost verbatim the conversation I had in the last game:

Source: Printable Heroes
Me: Wait, what is the blue d6?
DM: An allip
Me: And those dice?
DM: Those are wights…
Me: And?
DM: ...but that other one is a wraith.

Oh, for f#ck sake.

I’m not asking that you invest in 100's of dollars worth of minis… But if you are planning to run a table for literally hundreds of D&D players over the course of months, if not years, buy a pack of stand up pawns from Pathfinder ($45) or ArcKnight ($80)... or print your own tokens for pennies on the dollar.

Here are some links:

Put a selection of common creatures in a craft or tackle box and bring them to the con. This is especially important if your descriptions are craptastic.  Yes, you don’t need miniatures, especially if you play theater of the mind, but if you are going to be on the grid, make sure you are clear to the players who and where the foes are. Tokens or pawns may be the best way to do this.

Final Thoughts

I know how hard it is to DM. I've been doing it in my groups for years because pretty much no one else wants to do the work. I also know from personal experience how hard it is to run a big table. Add in the time pressures associated with running a convention game, and I get it. It's super hard.

But if you are going to do it, do it well. You are representing the hobby to newbies as well as old dogs. Be prepared. Don't skimp. Use evocative descriptions. Describe rooms, NPCs and foes in detail. Be clear on the objectives. Don't hide clues from your players. Make sure combat options and positioning is clear to all. Pass the spotlight to different players. Keep combat moving. Give opportunities for exploration and role play.

It's hard work, but it's not rocket science.

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