Mastering The Game: Setbacks and Recovery

You have your time slot, your adventure, everyone is at the table, dice are rolling and monsters are being slain. Like a 666 Casino scenario where your mind is running like a professional gambler in a game, nothing can stop you. And then it happens. You get off track, lose yourself in the role-play, the rules, the intra-party drama, have to answer questions from new players, or look something up only to realize that you’ve lost track of time. The clock ticks like the thunderous beat of the Tell Tale Heart, the players are looking at their watches, the other tables are disbanding…oh god! You haven’t even gotten to the “good part” yet! You’ve run out of time. It happens (or will) at some point, especially while DMing at conventions. But what can you do about it? Several things, it turns out.

Optimally, you’ll want to be prepared; have read the adventure, understood the general gist of the quest and its role in the overarching plot, and have DMed it even just a little. One way to get the experience of the adventure under your belt is to run it as a stand-alone game at your local group’s next session or at the very least, volunteer to run or play in one of BMG’s “Slot 0” sessions. As either a player or a DM, you will see how the battle plans forged by the Adventurer’s League pan out, what works and what needs work. You’ll be familiar with what happens, what doesn’t happen, what should happen, and what should definitely not happen. This gives you an edge, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day; you’ve been there and done that. This allows you the opportunity to to anticipate what might cause players confusion or angst, and come up with ways to clarify or mollify them. It will also give you a sense of how long the players can spend doing their own thing – interrogation, investigation, role-playing, tracking, etc. – before you have to nudge them along.

Slightly less optimal is having a crib sheet with the major plot points, actors in your little drama, and the timing that should happen. Clipping the cheat-sheet to your DM screen is a good way to keep yourself on-point especially in those first few games of the Con. Who is the informant or quest-giver? What are the players trying to accomplish? What obstacles might be in their way? How long can I let them flounder around before we need a minor miracle? All of these are important points you will definitely need to know in order to progress in the story, otherwise the players will spend the rest of the hours together cooling their heels in a tavern (or so it’ll seem). One good thing about the crib sheet is that it can be compiled relatively quickly in a brief read-through of the adventure, even if you have to do so to cover a shortfall in DMs at the last minute.

Alternatively, and slightly more intimidating for some folk, is the option to make it up as you go along (within reason, of course). Some DMs really like to play extemporaneously and let the players riff of of each other and as long as everyone had fun, that’s sort of fine. Just remember that some objectives, items, and people encountered still have to make an appearance if the players hope to put their characters through a larger plot at the Con or beyond. The caveat with this form of play is two-fold; first, you might run into players who feel they’re being cheated by the DM who ‘made it all up’ and robbed them of the story as it was written. Second, your narrative might run afoul of the larger story arc of the con; important people might die or you might award the wrong item at the wrong time or for the wrong reason. Be sure that your on-the-fly play doesn’t derail your colleagues’ roles at the Con.

Regardless of how you prepare (or don’t), the key though is flexibility. Even the most experienced DM running an adventure he’/she’s moderated a dozen times will, occasionally, run into a problem player, problem scenario, or something else which will eat up precious table time. Suddenly, you have a time disparity. While it is generally okay to disband the table a little bit early, it is generally bad form to end late because you begin to interfere with other players’ game time or other DMs duties (and they have to try to make up the difference, which puts them behind). This is where flexibility really needs to be exercised and that preparation or crib sheet comes in handy. Know what parts of the adventure you can “montage” or skill-check through rather than have the players role-play or combat through can allow you to make up for lost time. The reverse is also true; if the players are outpacing the adventure – especially during the epic multi-tier event involving other tables – you might want to slow them down with an additional encounter (especially if they’re powergamers) or some skill checks that are relatively plausible (picking up a trail in the Underdark or fighting a sudden squall on the Sea of Swords). Whatever the reason, though, do not be hide-bound to every little detail in the adventure and think a step or two ahead of your players to that they have as seamless a play session as possible. You don’t want players for the next slot looming over the shoulders of the players for the current slot; it ruins the game for all involved.

Time can sometimes be our enemy as DMs and the play style of your players can contribute to losing track of time, leaving them unsatisfied with their game. You don’t want them to walk away from the table unhappy and feeling like they wasted their time; that is a certain sign that you’ve failed as a DM. Instead, try to prepare for your adventures or, barring that at least set up an outline to keep you on task. Of course, at the end of the day, the key is staying flexible, catering to your players, and making sure they feel like the true heroes they believe themselves to be.