A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about taking the first step  to becoming a GM. It can be nerve wracking to cross the screen and run a game for the first time. Our organized play society, though, needs more GMs. I fear that if we ask our existing GMs to provide all the games that players want, they’ll burn out and leave those GMs who remain stretched even thinner. A few GMs volunteered to run from the very first day they joined our organized play program, but nature wasn’t providing enough enthusiastic GMs. So we decided to train our own.
So how did it go?
Turnout was good, with not as many people attending as we hoped, but far more than we’d feared. Beyond the presenters, we had ten participants—three of whom had previously GMed for our organized play in some way.
We kicked off with a round of introductions. Experience levels varied from, “I just attended a con where I ran this adventure 5 times over the weekend” to “I started roleplaying a few weeks ago”. A couple of attendees let us know that they’d have to leave early—after the tips discussion and the first adventure.
Bill, my co-presenter, gave a prepared five minute speech about how the goal of gaming is to elicit emotional responses. He talked about how it’s hard to maintain a tense or humorous tone for four hours straight, so read the adventure and consider how to dial up or provide a break for the moods that you’re aiming to convey. (It reminded me of discussions stemming Robin Laws’ Dramasystem games, like Hillfolk.)
I chimed in from the sidelines with related observations while he spoke, but tried not to break the flow or introduce too many tangents. I passed out a copy of the first mini-adventure to each participant, so they could follow along.
A brief aside: We decided to run The City of Danger, DDEX02-01 . It’s a series of five linked mini adventures, each intended to run for 60-90 minutes. Some participants let us know that they’d be attending in advance, so they got emailed one of the mini-adventures. Others “cold read” the adventure on the spot.
Bill discussed his way through the first adventure, explaining how he prepared a module. One of the first things he noted was that he studies box text for clarity. As you read the text (aloud to yourself is great), ask yourself: is the text something that you could present without stumbling? Does poor or confusing word choice muddy the text? Once you’ve skimmed the adventure, come back to the box text. Are there any minor alterations that could punch up the humor, if you’re looking for a humorous beat? For example, if you presented the first seamstress, who beats up a stableboy (already odd, right?) as a halfling, you might get smiles and chuckles.
The First Adventure Begins
Bill continued discussing the high level concepts, while I chimed in with specific examples and notes about how to read stat blocks and handle mechanics. We skimmed through the adventure, discussing how each scene could be presented or noting angles that could be played up, without roleplaying the encounters. Then we came to the final fight. At that point we had everyone roll for initiative and play at one table. Since 10 PCs was a double sized party, we just doubled the published adventure’s monsters.
Running this giant table let Bill demonstrate techniques that he honed running Dungeon Delves at Gencon. Everyone rolled for initiative, with the monsters running all together on one initiative count. Then, instead of taking down the initiative rolls, Bill announced the monster’s initiative, and asked who beat it. Then he started at the right and worked counter clockwise around the table, with everyone who beat the monsters acting in order around the table. (He ignored the specific initiative of each character for order purposes.) Then the monsters acted, then all of the PCs acted, beginning at the left and working clockwise around the table (no skips this time).
The battle was pure theater of the mind, with a rough “this many foes” on each PC. Between not drawing a map, not fiddling with specific initiatives, and players being able to anticipate their turn, the battle was incredibly quick. (As fast for 10 and doubled foes as my tables of 5 usually run.)
Part of running the battle was showing how a GM can create tension; by having several foes gang up and drop a couple of PCs, the remaining conscious PCs’ choices were trickier. Would they continue the fight, dropping foes (and the damage they inflict) as quickly as possible? Or would they treat their fallen friends, who were gasping away their last? The decisions were tense, especially after one foe struck a fallen PC; when no one leaped forward to treat their fallen ally, he failed his last death save and expired.
After the fight, I had everyone flip to the experience and gold tallies at the back. I explained that individual XP is handed out to everyone, no math required, but that monster XP is added up and divided by the party size; I shared my calculations for an example. We also discussed how to fill out log sheets. To do so, the GM makes the calculations, then writes their DCI number boldly on an index card so everyone can read it across the table. (You could pass the name and number around or just recite it, I suppose.) Then you read out the adventure title, XP, Gold, Downtime Days earned, etc. You read them aloud so the players can write them down, saving you from writing and doing math on each player’s log sheet.
I then mentioned the adjustment system—the math you do before the adventure begins to calculate the party’s average character level. With that, we read how to adjust the foes when the party isn’t the expected power level.
Bill and I then chatted about how you could respond to alternate approaches that aren’t anticipated by the module. I was able to give an example of a group taking an alternate path in the adventure we’d just played to storm the tower, and explain how I responded to their approach. We discussed some tricky areas, like how to address players who previously played the module if they metagamed. (His solution was slick; just mirror image the rooms and object locations. So the choices are down the hall or a door on the right—the door they expect and remember on the left doesn’t exist. That alone can throw a cheating player off enough to avoid the worst abuse and salvage the session for their fellow adventurers.)
One Down, Four to Go
Now that we’d demonstrated an adventure, we split into two tables (with one presenter at each) and made sure that each other participant had a different mini-adventure. If we’d had too many participants, we had previously agreed that we’d double up trainee GMs and have them alternate scenes and switch control of monsters in alternating combat rounds. I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t have a pair of participants split the GMing duties as co-GMs, but that’s not something that comes up in organized play.
Each participant had a copy of the mini-adventure they would run, and I had a copy of all of the mini-adventures. I could follow along and help out if needed, though the first GM was plenty experienced. I was able to play, occasionally mentioning the decisions and calculations that the GM had just demonstrated, when I thought that the other players they might have missed the technique.
Because Ronald had run the mini-adventure before, he was able to confidently demonstrate a different set of techniques. One of Ronald’s techniques included using a GM screen, which the other participants enjoyed as a confidence builder. Ronald also decided to try out some of the techniques that Bill had demonstrated to develop his skills, like using theater of the mind and round the table initiative.
When we finished Ronald’s mini-adventure, our third participant stepped up to GM. She explained that she had only been playing D&D with her brother for a few weeks. She was younger and a less confident reader, so her adventure style was to read everything—including advice to the GM—to the players. While it wasn’t ideal, she gained confidence as she went and left with the rudiments of how to run a game. (She’d certainly learned enough that she could run for a patient group, giving a GM the night off.)
Our fourth GM stepped up and ran his mini-adventure, which was interesting in that it featured a cool puzzle. Unfortunately, three of the players (including myself) had already experienced the puzzle, so we stepped back and encouraged the remaining two in their struggle. (That’s a lot harder than having five people’s thoughts seek out a pattern, but as people repeat play, it’s going to be more common.)
His fight, after the puzzle, was very interesting as a concept—but it had a lot of strange map updating; this scenario required the map much more than the others. We didn’t have a good way to update the map to reflect the changes… but afterward, we discussed how 2″ square cut outs placed on and off the map would be dynamic and faster than sketching, erasing, and redrawing as the map changed.
He did a good job of keeping track of foes and using their advantages in wily, dangerous ways… it made for an exciting fight, and a great way to close for the night. (Unfortunately, we ran out of time before the 5th GM could try his hand… but he’ll run for everyone on Saturday.)
So, that’s how we tackled training new GMs for organized play. Have you tried to formally teach GMing? Do you enjoy attending GMing seminars? Let us know what you’ve tried and what you’ve seen work. I’m particularly interested in seminars or techniques for helping people to GM for the first time, but would love to hear about GM training in any form.