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.