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“I met you five minutes ago, but I’ll traverse the depths of the Abyss to bring you back out alive.”
Yeah, it can seem weird. Have a table of total strangers sit down to play Dungeons & Dragons together. After all, D&D is by and large a social game—something that can be made or broken by the personalities at the table. By complicating that cauldron of human interaction with the unknown wants and desires of people you’ve just met, you might be setting yourself up for a challenging few hours even as a player.
But now imagine you’re the Dungeon Master running that game. Five players sit down at your table, each with their own expectations. None of them have ever met the others, and none of them know you any more than they know the person who ran their last session.
So why step out into the unknown? Why take up the challenge of being a Dungeon Master in public for a group of “randoms”?
Because it can be incredibly rewarding, opening up the opportunity for you to learn about other approaches to play—and to maybe even create new friendships by the end of your session. Playing and running D&D games with the same group of players over and over again is comfortable, relaxing, and a lot of fun. But it doesn’t challenge you to grow as a DM as quickly as running games for the masses. You might be exposed to more approaches to D&D during a single weekend at a convention than you would during an entire year of running your home game. You can become more proficient in understanding different player motivations and how to reward them (as discussed in the “Introduction” to the Dungeon Master’s Guide). You can learn how to create a memorable experience in a short time frame by learning to run games as the equivalent of a long sprint instead of a marathon.
If you’re interested in the challenge, here are some tips for running public events.
Make sure you’re even more prepared than you would be for your home game. Most of the time, I can run a session of a home game with one page of notes and a few monsters bookmarked, because I know that my players can be counted on to fill in the rest. But that’s just not going to fly when I run games in public.
If you’re using published adventure material, read the material over. Then reread it and make notes or highlight important elements that you want to emphasize. I find that combat is usually pretty easy to run once I understand what’s happening tactically, but interaction and exploration often need a bit more flourish. I like to use small hooks to help me roleplay important NPCs, assigning them the feel of TV, movie, or novel characters I want to emulate. I also like to leave notes for myself to enhance the mood when the adventure moves into certain areas. For example, “In the tomb, speak quieter and slower.”
Your normal DM supplies are probably serviceable for a public game. But during your prep, start to think about what the other players might expect. For example, I often don’t use a tactical map for my games, but I’ve run into a lot of convention players who really want that level of detail during combat. Think about bringing a tactical map, a wet-erase vinyl mat, or even paper grids along just in case the group wants to move into a more precise tracking of position during battle.
Lastly, make sure you bring things appropriate to your time spent at the gaming table. If you’re going to run a two-hour game, you probably don’t need to worry about having water and snacks on hand, since you’ll be done before you know it. But if you’re going to be DMing a game all day long, make sure you have stuff to eat and drink in your gaming bag, and arrange with the other players for the table to take breaks as you think it appropriate.
When you get to your event, make sure you arrive at your area a little earlier than your start time. Most organizers will be ready for you fifteen to thirty minutes prior to the actual start of your session. I can’t emphasize enough how much timeliness can affect the mood of the players. Your goal should be to have your space set up and ready to receive players before they get to your table. After all, you want to play host to the players, and a good host is never late.
After you’re set up, make sure you welcome the players and introduce yourself. Then have the players make their own introductions. You can have the players give character introductions as well. Keep them brief, but make sure each player gets a little time to speak to the group. First impressions are important, since they can set the tone for the whole session.
You probably don’t have time to get into long conversations about what the players value most in their own D&D games, so try to be perceptive during introductions and the first few minutes of the session. For example, if you notice one player really getting into character during his or her introduction, make sure to have a memorable NPC interaction with that player. Players who give short introductions (especially those who simply read off details from a character sheet) might be more inclined to other aspects of the game, like exploration or combat. Try to suss out each player’s motivation, and make notes to remind you about those motivations while you play. You won’t always be 100 percent on target, but you can probably get close.
If you’re terrible at remembering names (as I am), make sure players have their names visible—either on table tents or badges if possible. Calling people by either their real-world names or their character names helps to create a connection that can put a group of strangers at ease. I often start a game by using the players’ real-world names during introductions. Then once we’re in the thick of the game, I call on them by their characters’ names.
During the session, be mindful of your time. Most public games are on a strict time schedule; some players might have another game to play immediately following your session, or the organizer might need your table right after your scheduled time to set up for the next Dungeon Master. Make sure you pace the adventure appropriately. You’ll occasionally have to remove or abbreviate elements if the players are dragging along in certain sections, or you might have to slow things down by introducing an interesting NPC or location feature for the players to interact with. As a rule, try to wind down fifteen to thirty minutes before the end of your allocated time. That gives everyone a few minutes to pack up and say their farewells.
Once you’ve finished, thank your players for participating. In order to facilitate a speedy exit from the table, I ask players to help clean up if the space is messy or cluttered. Double check with the players to make sure they’ve written down any rewards their characters received if they’re playing in an ongoing campaign such as the D&D Adventurers League. If you and your players have the time, feel free to talk after your game, but be mindful about the table’s future use. If you think your space is going to be used right away for another session, clean up, head out, and then chat somewhere else.
WHAT DO I RUN?
If you want to try being a Dungeon Master in public, here are some tips on what kind of content works well for your first few games. The same advice applies whether you’re selecting something already published or creating your own adventure.
- Keep it short. Even if the adventure seems too short for the time allotted, it’s a better choice than something that might run long. It’s much easier to pad a short adventure with fun interaction than to look for ways to cut a longer adventure to speed it up.
- Keep it straightforward. Many people find that adventures with lots of combat are easier to run than adventures with a ton of interaction. However, you might be the kind of DM who likes interaction, knowing that slipping into the roles of various NPCs makes it easy for you to keep the game moving.
- Choose a low-level adventure, and use pregenerated characters whenever possible. It’s easier to predict how the adventure might play out when the character options are limited.
D&D Adventurers League adventures often meet these criteria. If you’d like to run one, simply talk to your D&D event organizer and they can give you access to it. Or you can get Harried in Hillsfar, the introductory adventure for the Rage of Demons storyline season, through the Dragon+ app right now!
About the Author: Chris Tulach is an organized play program manager for Wizards of the Coast, responsible for creating in-store and convention play programs such as D&D Encounters and the current D&D Adventurers League system for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. A gaming convention veteran, Chris has been involved with D&D organized play for over twenty years, and has been a Dungeon Master for over thirty years. He lives in Renton, Washington.