Last month, we talked about preparing yourself for Dungeon Mastering in a public place. Maybe you've volunteered some of your time to stop by a game store or you've signed up to help out at a convention. No matter what the situation, it's likely that you'll be running your game in public for strangers, or at least for those that aren't your home game regulars. You're now ready for your event -- you've prepared your adventure, packed up the materials you'll need to play, and have arrived at the venue. Now what?
First, make sure that you arrive on-time for your event. Most of the time, when you DM a game in public, you'll have a set start time for your game. You're going to want to get seated, start placing your tiles, and unpack your dice at least 10 minutes before you start your game, so it's best to arrive a little early. You definitely want to keep the event organizer happy, and you don't want your players waiting for you to show up.
At some bigger events, such as conventions, there might be a mustering process for games. Mustering is used to help organize the players into table groups and to assign DMs to those tables in an orderly fashion. Often times, a marshal is present to direct the mustering process. If a marshal is present, check in with him or her a few minutes before the start time of the game. In addition to directing you to your table, he or she also might have important information or instructions to relay to you before the game begins.
Once you get seated and start unpacking for your session, introduce yourself to your fellow players. You're going to spend a fair amount of time together, and it's always a good idea to get to know them a little. You might want to bring a card with your name on it, or if you've been given a badge or name tag, hang it on your DM screen or another prominent place so the players can learn your name. While you're preparing the play area, talk to the players, chat a bit, and have them introduce themselves to you. Get an idea of the familiarity each player has with the Dungeons & Dragons game, which might inform how you later challenge them tactically. It's important to spend this time getting to know one another, since all of you will need a little time to get comfortable with a strange group. It's awkward to start a game with little or no introductions; most home groups spend some pre-game time chatting with each other and getting themselves ready to play, and you should encourage that sort of activity here, too. Just don't let it carry on too long; once you've finished setting up, get the show started.
While you're preparing for your session, jot down each character's name and their passive Insight and Perception scores. The last thing you want to do is tip your hand during a scene in the adventure when you're not supposed to -- asking the players for passive Perception while a bad guy is setting up for a surprise attack gives an unwarranted clue as to what's coming, and it slows down the game.
Most adventures start with the assumption that the player characters know each other or have worked with each other in the past. If that's the case, go around the table and have the players describe and introduce their characters one by one to the rest of the group. This helps each player develop in-character perceptions of the other characters and makes it easier for them to immerse themselves in the adventure. It also might give you some valuable clues to help enhance the roleplaying interactions at your table. If you know that a character has a certain personality quirk or dominant trait, then it's much easier to push the right buttons when roleplaying interactions with that character.
Now, you're off and running. There's great advice in the Dungeon Master's Guide (in particular, chapters 1–3) about running D&D games if you'd like a little refresher. One thing you'll want to consider as you're running your game is pacing. Make sure you keep on top of the time allotted for the session. You can always speed up combat rounds a bit by giving the players a limited time to make their decisions during their turn (1 minute is usually plenty of time) or asking them to roll damage with their attacks. If you have optional encounters, you can remove them or reduce the number of foes the PCs fight. Conversely, if things are moving along quicker than you expected, you can add more roleplaying interaction in appropriate areas. Generally, if you need to pick up the pace, you should modify combat; if you need to slow it down a bit, add more roleplaying elements or lengthen skill challenges.
Give your players a chance to take a quick break if they need it. It's pretty common for someone to need to pop away to address nature's call or take care of a quick personal matter, like an important phone call. After 2 or 3 hours of gaming, you should attempt to schedule a 5 or 10 minute break to give folks a chance to stretch their legs, refocus, or munch on a snack.
There's always a small possibility with groups of strangers that some sort of social problem might arise during the game. If a disruptive situation develops, try to resolve it with a short break in the action. Your job, however, is to DM a game, not to be a mediator for disputes. If you feel uncomfortable handling a situation or if it stalls the game, get the organizer or event staff to help. Don't let the other players' experience with the game suffer; get back into the action as soon as you can.
Make sure you finish your game about 15 minutes before the end of your scheduled time (or more, if you're at a large convention). You'll need some time to hand out rewards the player characters earned, and you'll want to give the players a chance to "decompress" after the adventure and talk about it a little before they head on their way (possibly to another game).
It's very exciting to run a game in a public place. You can learn a lot from watching different groups of disparate players get together. You'll see new tactics, new character builds, and new roleplaying flourishes that can all help you get more from your D&D game. There's also nothing like the congratulations from a group of strangers on a DMing job well done. So the next time you see a store that could use a hand or a convention that's looking for DMs, jump in and give it a try!
About the Author
Originally thought to have been raised from a humble Midwestern family, Chris Tulach actually fell to Earth in a meteorite-shaped capsule flung from a planet far outside our galaxy. While under the yellow rays of Sol, Chris’s nerdity far surpasses that of any normal human. Using this precious gift only for good, he has become the RPGA Content Designer, responsible for the development and deployment of Dungeons & Dragons organized play programs.