The day before our school opens, the buses do a dry run. That way they can iron out most of the bugs before the students ride. In the same way, a dry run of your rules or adventure can help you iron out some of the problems before you place them before players. A dry run consists of running through at least some of the intended scenario, alone, making notes for changes as you go.
Before we get started, let’s stress that a dry run should NOT take as long as the actual session. Like everyone, GM’s are busy people. We don’t want to play out every possible outcome of every encounter. However, we do want to investigate the places where the rules and the scenario interact. Any place where some dice, cards, or bidding comes into play are perfect topics for a dry run.
WHEN TO DO A DRY RUN
You might want to consider a dry run when:
- You plan to run a new system or one you haven’t run in some time. (Star Frontiers, I hear you calling me!)
- You are designing a homebrew system.
- You are heavily modifying a commercial system.
- You are unsure about some aspects of a scenario. A dry run can be very helpful in assessing the difficulty of certain encounters.
WHY DO A DRY RUN
A dry run can help you:
- Iron out rules ambiguities and problems before you “go live” with players. This doesn’t mean that playtesting isn’t important. Your players will still find ways to mess up your carefully laid, thoughtful plans. But a dry run can help you spot some of the bigger issues before they do.
- Become much more familiar with the rules and their subtleties in a commercial system.
- Verify that challenge level is at least in the ballpark of what the party can handle (or can’t, if you want them to run away.)
- Find plotholes in your scenario. Now, we don’t want to build a railroad, but we also don’t want huge inconsistencies either.
HOW TO DO A DRY RUN
There are different methods of working, but no matter what, you’ll need your rules, characters, and some way to take notes. (The author prefers old school pencil and paper, less screen distraction that way.) Again, you don’t want to go through every corner of the adventure, but you do want to hit the highlights. How will they con that guard in the detention level? How will they swing across that chasm of lava? How tough is that mist hydra you created? How does the system and adventure handle those sorts of things? What changes can you make?
You don’t even need full adventure notes. You can simply run your characters through the plot of a favorite movie in that genre. I tested out my Star Wars homebrew by running the characters through, well, Star Wars: A New Hope. I found that my system was not quite as tight as I thought, and I had to figure out how to get Han to shoot first.
When testing out a new system, it’s probably best NOT to try to create a new rule for every situation. It’s much better to see if your central mechanic can be extended to cover those situations. Sometimes a little tweaking or using it in a different way is all that’s needed. In my Star Wars example, I was able to extend the rules for helping another to helping yourself. That way, Han could try a “bluff” check first, to see if it helped him sneak out his blaster to plug poor Greedo. Didn’t need a new rule, just had to see things in a different way. Without the dry run, I might have missed it.
It is not realistic to do a dry run for every session. If you’re not switching rulesets or trying a new opponent or situation, it might not be necessary. However, when there is something new about your game, a dry run can be a big help.
How about you? Have you tried a dry run? Was it helpful? Let us know below.
Dry runs can be great for figuring out mechanics; just like building a character helps you learn how to guide character generation, a sample combat helps you get the rhythm and core mechanics down.
I haven’t really used a dry run to pickup plot holes; I tend to rely on catching them during the second read through of a scenario (if published). What extra plot holes do you detect by subjecting other scenes to a dry run? Does it help you identify skill checks that aren’t correct, or help you notice that a failure will bring the adventure to a halt?
Star Frontiers is always calling. Give in to the siren song!
Dry runs are great for ironing out kinks in your thinking or system. Especially when working on new or modified rules. You really want to put them through their paces privately before putting them out in public.
I’ve been working on some starship construction rules and just put them through a pen and paper dry run. I had built a spreadsheet to do all the math and that worked great but when I did it by hand, I found that some of the steps of the process were not in the ideal order as it required you to jump back and forth to tweak values you had already determined. I realized that by rearranging the order of component selection, most of this could be avoided. Now it’s off to reorganize the rules and go for another dry run.
Thanks for the replies and the example from dagorym on Starship creation rules. What seems totally clear to me on first pass often needs more clearing up than I thought.
Scott, now that I think about it, I don’t know if the dry run helps me find that many plot holes. It does occassionally suggest other ways that the players might be able to work around a particular obstacle, though.
Like any tools, it’s not perfect and shouldn’t be used alone.
A bit of etymology: “dry run” dates back to the 19th Century and refers to fire companies’ practice runs without using water. There also “wet runs” where water is used for practice.
I had thought it refered to test runs of rumrunners in the ’20s.
Not everything comes back to booze.. Well, most things do, but still… 🙂
That is a pretty cool bit of etymology.
Very cool piece of information, Cambell, thank you!!!
That could be a scenario as well. A dry run could be a training run for Rebel or Star Fleet operatives, a chance to practice a magical duel, or a cave that in supposedly uninhabited by monsters.
But you know how those things go….
I’ve always felt a little awkward trying to work out all the rolls on my own. I end up doing a little better with an understanding group of players willing to try and work it out with me, but that wouldn’t be an option if planning to run a one-shot for a convention.
Excellent advice, as always. 🙂
I agree, too many rolls can be a problem. I tried it with the old Star Wars WEG system and got lost in all the dice rolls. Now, I still run Star Wars, but found out a lighter system was what I needed.
Like you, I’ve also been lucky with understanding players. They’ve forgiven a lot and I know I’ve grown a TON as a DM with them.