The DDXP 2012 Pre-Convention Post Part 1: DM Advice

Holy crap, DDXP is this coming weekend. I was going to do a super-lengthy, multi-part thing on it beforehand, but between work, getting stuff for the convention packed, finishing LFR content, and preparing Gnomekiller Ale and Board Game Project for the convention, I… didn’t. So. Here is what you get instead: Lists. There will be three lists. Today, you will get a list on the top three things to do if you’re DMing at the convention. Tuesday, you will get a list of the top three things to do if you’re playing at the convention. Wednesday, you’ll get a list of the top three non-D&D things to do at the convention (and I’ll post it in the morning for you jackholes that are already there, you lucky, lucky people).

So, the top three things that every convention DM at DDXP should do (and if you’re a player, you could probably learn a thing or two from this list as well):
1. Be a DM, not a judge.I already covered this one pretty extensively here, but I wanted to address a couple points that particularly apply this weekend:
A. If a player invested resources in something, don’t tell them they can’t use if it makes sense. There have been a number of discussions about the degree of success and nature of the Dungeon Master Empowerment philosophy in LFR. My personal perspective is that it was invented for weirdos like me who like to have obscure things like rituals on our character sheets. If a PC has a really good idea that looks like it should make sense given the story in the adventure, but it isn’t precisely discussed or a great fit given the mechanics of the encounter, throw the enterprising player a bone. Give them a roll, a +2 bonus to another check, or a chance to get an automatic success with a ritual (those costs moneys, folks – moneys the rest of you get to spend on toys).
B. No plan survives contact with the enemy – er, the PCs. I’d like to think that as a Writing Director, I do a pretty good job editing. I think I did well selecting authors, and they did well writing. My playtesters gave us some solid feedback. I know Pieter and Sean are awesome at editing. That said, all of us combined are about 25 people who worked on the Netheril adventures. The hundreds playing the adventures at DDXP are going to think of things we didn’t, and we’d be foolish to try. That’s where the DM comes in – to take what’s written in the adventure, take whatever crazy-ass plans the players thought of, and figure out how it fits into the framework. Hint: If your answer is “it doesn’t”, and the players aren’t trying to do something like bribe a golem with tapioca pudding, you might want to check whether you’re being a DM or being a judge.
C. If you let PCs do something that isn’t in the script, and everyone has fun, nobody cares. The point of this whole exercise is that those 4-6 people who paid for tickets, badges, hotels, driving, and the opportunity cost of skipping work and family want to have fun. Your job as DM is to help them have it. Read your tables; outright ask if you have to. Then take the adventure’s theme (for example: frightening investigation of the Ordulin Maelstrom) and give those players an experience that fits both that theme and the experience they’re looking for – as long as, again, the whole golem/tapioca scenario doesn’t come up.

2. Stay Healthy. I’m going to slip into work mode a bit here, so bear with me. Staying healthy at a convention is *not* limited to avoiding handshakes so you don’t get the Super Mutated Con Crud From Abroad (although that helps). As a DM, you’re pretty much a professional speaker for the entire slot. This is where, as a speech and language pathologist who’s worked with professional voice, I come in. In order to keep you voice healthy for the whole con, here’s what you try to do:
A. Don’t create extra vocal work for yourself. This includes everything from picking a seat at the table that points your face at a wall (so you’re competing less with other tables) to not yelling to avoiding the squeaky or strained roleplaying voices (yes, I know they’re fun, but so is being able to still talk on Sunday).
B. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. This means water, folks. I know that the Mountain Dew is tastier and keeps you awake, and I’ve been there – being alert also makes you a better DM. But. Nothing – and I mean nothing – is better for maintaining your voice for four straight days of talking than water. If water’s a taste issue for you, adding Crystal Light or the like to it isn’t terrible. Anything with sugar, caffeine, or carbonation is bad, though, so watch out for your sodas, coffee, and even lemonade. If you feel strained, go straight water and nothing else. How much is enough? Well, the most intense of professional voice users, opera singers, have a saying: “pee clear, sing pure”. Not how I’d phrase it, but my answer would be, “lots”.
C. Sleep. Yes, I know that sleep is for the weak. Yes, I know that for those of us not bringing a spouse, significant otter other, or hook-up, hanging out at the Thirsty Camel is way more fun than sleep, especially when seeing friends you only see a couple times a year. That said, if your voice is hurting when you get to the bar, you needed that extra glass of water during that last fight, or if you had to change your voice to feel “comfortable”, you may be trading a night of fun now for a day of misery tomorrow – even if you have none of the alcohols (which, incidentally, are also bad for your voice). Sleep lets the voice heal when we use it for things it’s not intended for – and it’s not intended for talking for three four-hour slots a day.

3. Keep it moving. This one’s coming from experience as well as inside information. The slots for DDXP this year are short – four hours exactly. It’s really hard to run an adventure in four hours exactly. It’s going to be especially hard with the events at this convention. I’m the Writing Director for the LFR Netheril trilogy at the convention; these are not the simplest adventures to run, and they did not always run in time during playtest (except NETH3-3). I playtested SPEC4-2; it, too, can run long. During the last edition change, I DMed the preview content at DDXP – running a new rules system with players who want to know everything (and are trying to take pictures of your stat blocks while you’re not looking) can bog down even a simple adventure. To make sure you’re not the guy starting the last fight with 15 minutes left in the slot:
A. Prep your adventures well. Read them. Thoroughly. At multiple tiers (because in some adventures, the monsters at AL 12 and AL 20 are completely different). Think about what questions may arise from players during the adventure. Think about areas where distracted players might need a nudge to keep things moving. Identify what information is critical for players to know, and which information supports the story rather than leading it.
B. Pace yourself. If you know that, the way the combat is running, the PCs will win without much more trouble, but it’s still a couple rounds off, don’t be afraid to call it, especially if you’ve got an hour left in the slot and there’s another combat. Encourage players to do things that keep the action moving, like rolling attacks and damage at the same time. Don’t be afraid to tell a table or player that’s moving slowly that it’s their choice, but they run the risk of not finishing the adventure if they don’t (piece of friendly pacing advice here). Keep an eye on the clock and any guidance the adventure might give you about pacing, and try to make sure you’re finishing up with about fifteen minutes to do paperwork and rewards at the end of the adventure.
C. Don’t sweat the small stuff. My general rule is that if it takes more that fifteen seconds to figure out a tactic or ruling, the whole table’s better off with a guess. More often than not, the guess is mostly accurate (remember those SAT prep classes that said not to second-guess yourself?), and if it isn’t, being wrong probably detracts from the game less than taking time away from play to look up rules. Also, if a group comes in and drops some crazy CharOp bullcrap on you… let them. It’s probably the way they enjoy the game, and your job as DM is to facilitate fun. Then again, if they drop the CharOp bullcrap and complain that the adventure’s too easy, maybe it’s time to be a little evil and be “creative” about things (note: evil should only be reserved for an entire table of CharOp griefers – you don’t want to ruin one guy’s game because the other five players were jerks)…

I’d also love to hear what ideas others have. What have you found makes the DMing experience at a convention a good one?

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One Response to The DDXP 2012 Pre-Convention Post Part 1: DM Advice

  1. Pingback: The DDXP 2012 Pre-Convention Post Part 2: Player Advice | John's Personal Blog

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