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GMing bootcamp

Posted By Scott Martin On February 25, 2011 @ 4:37 am In Gaming Trends,GMing Advice | 13 Comments

If you’ve been longing to hone your GMing skills, do I have a program for you. Much like the body bootcamps advertised by gyms, this innovative system is designed to increase your flexibility, bulk up your strengths, and build your endurance. It’s an intensive program–my first run lasted 18 weeks (including a couple of double sessions), and I’m currently three weeks into a 13 week commitment.

The program is D&D Encounters. Participating GMs agree to show up and take all comers, week after week. GMs develop skills they never knew they lacked, toning up weak characterization, plotting around holes in modules, adjusting balance and difficulty on the fly. It’s also like those boot camps in that you’re in a supportive environment–I’m amazed at how nice it is to talk shop and review a session with other GMs.

What Encounters Is

D&D Encounters is organized nationwide drop in play, usually scheduled for Wednesday nights. Each encounter is designed as a one and a half to two hour experience, loosely strung together into seasons, but with no commitment to show up every week.

As a player, if you have a free Wednesday night, you just head down to your local game store with dice in tow. When you get there, there are a range of attractive, full color characters with nice artwork ready to pick up and play. Or you can use your carefully designed character that you’ve brought along. Some players make it every week, consistently–while others show up when it fits their work schedule, or when class is canceled, catch as catch can.

Most weeks the scenario features a short a lead in, often a skill challenge, interaction with NPCs, investigation or exploration, followed by a fight featuring all of the crunchy goodness and combat trickery that 4e provides.

Our Experience

I’ve been amazed at our local turn out–we initially planned to have two GMs available, able to handle about 12 players. The first week we were at capacity, and we grew swiftly. Within a month 22-26 people were showing up regularly, requiring four GMs, and occasionally we’d wish for a fifth. Many of the same people returned, settling into the same tables, but there were several new people and occasional players throughout. Most of the players at my regular table had played together before the season began, while other tables built groups from scratch, based on enjoyable play week after week.

As the season wound on, we continued to encourage drop in play, but on the fly leveling to 2 (and 3 by the end of the first season) was a small barrier, as was the sense that you’d missed out on much of the story. So we started encouraging people to join us at the start of the new season…

That first session of the new season we had explosive turnout. We leaped to 30 people at four tables the first week [we stretched the last tables to 8 to fit people in], and I ran a repeat of the session the next night for a group that was unable to find a seat on the actual encounters night. The next week we had a fifth GM and every table was full…

So, yeah… there’s a bit of demand for convenient roleplaying. Even on Wednesday nights. Who would have thought it?

Who plays?

The player mix is fascinating. Here are a few of the player types we’ve seen:

  • Lapsed gamers, who last played AD&D 15 years ago
  • Brand new players, who might have heard of roleplaying, but have never played
  • GMs, who want a chance to play beside their players instead of across the table from them
  • GMs who just want a chance to play for once!
  • Brand new players, who bought the red box or another introductory book, might have played with others, but don’t know if they’re doing it “right”
  • Players who want to play more
  • Gamers who can’t talk their group into D&D (or 4e, or fantasy), but want to adventure.
  • Gamers who haven’t played in forever–they moved to a new town or their group fell apart, and they haven’t gamed since.

That Toning Thing

As an Encounters GM, you get to meet lots of players with very different experiences and histories. Some are new to the game, while others have optimized their character to do far more than the module expects. Different interests drive the various players–some want to roleplay, some accept that the discontinuous play makes the fights the exciting part, some are tired after work and just need to hack. You have excited kids whose want their characters to behead every prisoner, and experienced hands who never trust an innkeeper. Yet somehow… it all works out.

There are many reasons that it works. Beggars can’t be choosers, so some people accept any game to get their fix. Some are just there to socialize, others revel in the freedom that an episodic campaign lends, while still others appreciate the clarity that the module’s rails impose on the evening. But the biggest reason it works is that good GMs turn out and do the best they can with what they’re handed.

Your resources are…

Once you sign on as a GM, you’re given the adventure module with a few pages of overview for the season as a whole, a column or three of lead in/situation setting text for the week’s adventure, and a two page spread including a map with monster and PC start locations, stats for the various critters, occasional stray lines of strategy or advice on how it should play out, and a blurb about experience and treasure. From this, you weave a couple hours of play, entertaining whoever comes.

You learn to read what interests each table and each player–a great skill for running con games, or making sure that everyone is getting their desired reward in your home group. You’ll gain facility with box text, either learning to paraphrase or otherwise working with information in someone else’s style. You learn to signal when the information important to the season is present. The adventure is nicely balanced for an ideal party–which you’ll never have at your table. Do you need to add an extra minion or five to keep things tense? Is the sixth player actually effective, requiring extra monsters to compensate, or do they spend their actions running away? (That’s actually pretty common for first timers, I’ve found; self-preservation is pretty instinctive.)

Then there’s your mastery of handling diverse skill levels among the players. How do you coach a new player through “standard, move, minor”, while keeping up with your zany experienced players who want to spring an ambush by having the druid’s bear companion carry the halfling, playing dead, in its jaws? How do you respond to the tactics that were written assuming a standard party? You know the module writer never imagined such a scene!

Speaking of new players, I know of no better encouragement to hone your descriptions. When you’ve been playing for years, it’s easy to assume that the players know what a goblin looks like–but if your table includes a new player, she doesn’t. Similarly, a new player is a great reason to push for more complete descriptions from everyone–45 damage IS impressive, but how does it look in the game world? Ah, you raced forward and vaulted the steps two by two, before finally leaping the last five yards with your swords outstretched. Yes, that is appropriately awesome.

The Community

While you’re working through the adventure at your table, other GMs are doing the same at their table. It’s amazing how different the evening will turn out; similar PCs, identical monsters, and four fights will look and feel nothing like the others. My table might have the characters showboating, confident in their character builds, while another table features lots of interaction with the environment, a third table has the GM sweating as he rolls crit after crit, downing the PCs early, and the last table’s fight is over in 15 minutes because the players can’t miss this week.

At the end of the night, many players hang out–sometimes watching other tables (and GMs), kibitzing about the night’s adventure, predicting the next four weeks of plot, and reliving moments of glory.

When the GMs get a chance to talk to each other afterward, it’s always interesting hearing how each handled the monsters and tactics. Did they read the stat block differently? Did their monsters use different tactics–and why? Getting to talk about how everyone handled the very same adventure really underlines the differences and chance’s contribution.

You also have a chance to see what expertise really looks like. Near the end of last season, Jack built a 3D model of the gatehouse the players were defending. Every other table looked on his gatehouse with amazement–it was clear which GM went above and beyond that week. Some tables run like clockwork, where the GM has perfect recall of the most obscure rules, while others have players pushing the rules beyond any boundaries the game designer might have imagined.

In the end, you have a room full of people who had a great experience, and who come back again and again.

Take The Challenge

How do you sign up? This is a store run program, so contact your nearest friendly game store. Offer to entertain their customers and develop a loyal crowd–they don’t have to know that you’re toning away some GM flab. Try it–you’ll be amazed at the people you’ll meet and the community you’ll build.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "GMing bootcamp"

#1 Comment By BrianLiberge On February 25, 2011 @ 5:02 am

Good article. I need to remember to look it over again for PAXEast. There’s some great reminders about running games for new players, or reading the reactions of players you don’t generally DM for.

#2 Comment By Kenderama On February 25, 2011 @ 6:12 am

I run the local D&D Encounters group at my FLGS and this article is 100% on target. When I started last year, I had to pre-load my table with a few of my regular gaming group, and now we are approaching the need for a second GM.

You will see all kinds of folks – from normal everyday people, to the iconic “barely social” gamer geek, to kids just starting out. (One of my players brings his 6 year old son. The table has fun watching him play, and they sometimes ask him to help with their math on attack and damage rolls to help him learn. The kid has uncanny luck, too. The dice love him.)

#3 Comment By Volcarthe On February 25, 2011 @ 8:05 am

So is this what RPGA evolved into?

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On February 25, 2011 @ 11:04 am

@BrianLiberge – Thanks! There are several good stew articles about handling new players–I’m partial to this one, but there are lots of great articles, with each gnome hitting different key points. Walt’s From Con to Con series is great as a reminder/primer for those heading off to cons.

@Kenderama – That’s a big part of what I really enjoy about Encounters– seeing new players get their first 20, bringing old gamers back to the table again, and showing people that there’s nothing strange about squeezing some roleplaying into the middle of the week.

We’ve had some crossover traffic from tabletop minis players and board gamers–people who had never had an interest in roleplaying, but they get caught up in the buzz, or are curious when they see so many other players having raucous fun.

@Volcarthe – It’s the remaining Wizard’s program, but it’s not really a successor to RPGA. The two programs ran in parallel for years. I wish RPGA was still pumping out modules–I enjoyed playing at the library, and have had a lot of people ask if we could host a program for ongoing characters. If Wizards (or the volunteers) bring back the RPGA, we’ll have tables running a couple of times a month–just like the Pathfinder Society. (That’s basically Piazo’s clone of the old RPGA model, just running Pathfinder instead of 3.5.)

#5 Comment By DarknessLord On February 25, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

I played once, only didn’t come back because A. I was at the table that had two “that guy”s that came every week and they wanted to maintain group consistency as much as they could for the rest of that story arc (which was like gonna be for 6 more weeks), and I took a bad route getting to the nearest shop that did it which gave me the impression it was over an hour away. The game was still fun enough that either one of those by themselves would have still been worth it. I still love to tell the story about how the group groaned when I the same tactic the dude who played my pre-gen last week used and got himself killed for (Rushing the enemy) but I actually knew how to use my powers strategically (despite the build being a throwing ranger and them only giving me two throwing knives), and actually kicked butt and impressed the group by the end.

Course, now that they’re on a new module and I can get there in 15 minutes, I have class on the nights they do it.

#6 Comment By cwhite On February 25, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

Egad, taking a week to prepare for a game? That’s stresses me out just to think about–isn’t “planning the game” what your drive to your friend’s house is for? :)

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On February 25, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

My LFGS is heavily involved in the Encounters phenomenon (they hosted the first games in the area) and it is *very* popular. If you are Long Island – based and would like to see what all the fuss is about, Google for Ravenblood Games, Plainview NY and take it from there.

I’ve not actually played because I work in NYC and by the time I get home the bad guys are already looking at getting their bottoms kicked by Player Characters.

I have observed the mayhem from nearby, though, and it looks like great fun.

#8 Comment By BryanB On February 25, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

Scott – Jack is a good GM. I enjoyed his Pathfinder game that I played in. But he’s making most of the rest of us look bad by actually building that gatehouse. We can’t spoil the players like that! Thing of the young players. They’ll come to expect that kind of dedication and extravagance and it will be chaos!:D Nice article.

#9 Comment By JackK On February 25, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

@BryanB – LOL I don’t do that for every game! But thanks to both you and Scott for your very flattering comments.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On February 26, 2011 @ 12:32 am

@DarknessLord – It’s often that way–we have a player who’d love to join us regularly, but always gets stuck with Wednesday classes.
@cwhite – Encounters is great for “ten minutes of prep = two hours of play”. Sure, it’s only because the module writer did the hours of prep–but isn’t that a more effective division of labor anyway?
@Roxysteve – It sounds like a good situation. Are there a lot of people who arrive late? We have stagger our launches for 6, 6:30, and 7:15 to catch various work and school schedules. Is the store open long enough that you could lead an X-o’clock table for other commuters?
@BryanB – You’re right–new players should have to graph their dungeons step by step on brown paper bags, just like we did. And no fancy classes either… ;)
@JackK – Thanks for running widely appreciated games.

#11 Comment By DocRyder On February 26, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

@Scott Martin – Remember, there is also Living Forgotten Realms, which is basically RPGA.

#12 Comment By hoolygan On March 2, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

Excellent article. I have been attending and bringing my daughter to Encounters for about 6 months now, sometimes as a DM, but usually as a player, and have been having a great time. Im an old school 1st-ed gamer from the early 80s who just got back into the game about 8 years ago and was DMing for 3.5 frequently for a local group of friends and relatives. I rarely got to play as a player.

With Encounters I can enjoy being a player and if I want to be a DM i can get my own pick-up game going, or run a home-brewed encounter on an off-nite when enough people are interested. Encounters is the perfect “no commitment” weekly gaming habit to get into. Now my daughter is even bringing some of her friends from school to join us. So we are training the next generation of gamers right now!

#13 Pingback By Weekly Roundup: Guest Post Solicitation Edition | Roving Band of Misfits On January 8, 2012 @ 6:03 am

[…] you want to start DMing, but find it intimidating? Why not try DM bootcamp, as proposed by Gnome Stew. We agree that this program is great for honing (or learning) DM skills, […]


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