Being a "DM for Hire" for Seats.io
I've been a Dungeon Master for almost 25 years. And I had the honour and pleasure of running countless adventures for a group of close friends. It wasn't until recently that I got invited by Seats.io to run a professional game as a team-building event. So before anything else, I want to thank Seats.io for the opportunity and all who played for their enthusiasm, laughs and yes... patience.
Because some things I did right, others I had to learn along the way. You can find all my notes below. Sensible for almost any game but certainly for one-shots or when you "Go Pro".
- D&D Simplified
- Simple mission, simple world
- Simple monsters
- Simplification requires mastery
- They'll break your game like PRO's
- Aim for 4 hours by writing for 3
- Ask a break
- Strong start
- The unexpected talent
- In death waits a backup character
- Cater to your players
- Be lenient
- Maps & Markers
- No Shopping
- Go out with a bang
It's safe to assume your players won't know D&D (or haven't played for a long time) and you can't go through all the rules. So you need to simplify it as much as possible while still maintaining the flexibility required to run a one-shot.
- Simplified character sheets by copying the 3.5 D&D skill list and adding 4th edition like D&D actions. Distilling everything down to 1 page.
- Reduced Combat rules to Move and Action, Attacks of Opportunity & Flanking.
A simple mission in a simple world
The session's players don't know your world and they don't have the time to learn and discover all the beautiful subtle intricacies you built into it. You need a clear enemies and allies and they need a clear mission/goal. Matthew Colville did a "Running the Game" episode call Verbs which explains this clearly. (I'll do a separate blog-post on it in the future)
You and your nerdy entourage may know what an eye of the beholder looks like but this session's players might not. Stick to common monsters & NPC's like goblins, skeletons and city guards. Of course you can top it all off with a more exotic bad guys but keep it to a minimum and have an illustration and/or mini to properly introduce them.
Simplification requires mastery
Simplified D&D character sheets, simple world, simple mission, simple monsters... Should be simple right? Unfortunately that's not the way the world works. You're in for quite a challenge. Simplification requires mastery. But don't worry. Just as any starting group they don't have anything to compare too. And you got a great experience to introduce them to.
They'll break your game like PRO's
Don't underestimate them. Novice players will break your story and/or world as fast as any seasoned group. You can't just railroad them into a string of well prepared scenes. And you got to appreciate that. The best part about D&D is being able to do what you want. And that's something you want to show off. So like usual don't just prepare, prepare to improvise and let things go.
Aim for 4 hours by writing for 3
I get it. D&D is notoriously difficult to time. And nobody wants to run out of adventure too quickly. Certainly not during a professional game. So you prepare another scene just in case.
But keep in mind you only need about 4 or 5 scenes to fill an evening. And you still have yourself and the game to introduce. So less is more. Leaving them wanting for more is not a bad thing. After all it's an introduction, not a marathon.
And in the unlikely event that everything does break down, flow and/or timing, ask for a break.
Ask a break
It's OK to ask a break because you need to glue your world back together. It's even OK to let them know you need to glue your world back together. If they can break the game they know their actions count, they have agency. Take 15 minutes to rearrange scenes. Skip scenes to speed things up. Throw in combat in the unlikely event they're breezing through.
- It's a one shot so you don't have a lot of time.
- They'll break you story like PROs.
- You want to control the time & flow without restricting their freedom.
If you take a writing school they'll tell you "In medias res" is a great way to start your story. Sly Flourish speaks, in his book "The lazy dungeon master" of a "strong start". The "in media res" of table top role-play gaming. The only scene you control is the starting scene, so make it count. Put their heads in the right direction and set the pace. After all "A good start is half the work".
The unexpected talent
One of them is "the unexpected talent". For some reason he or she gets it. Be thankful, this is the player who makes things move along. Just don't fall in love with you new found prodigy. Unlike your normal campaign, there is no tomorrow. The spotlight needs to be shared. They all need to shine today.
In death waits a backup character
As a DM you want to be able to almost kill their character. But you can't send them home! Not even when somebody did something really stupid near the end of the evening. Respawning would take all the drama out of death so that's of the table. My solution, add a really crappy, yet lovable backup character to their normal Character Sheets and make sure they know this is what they'll play if they screw up. #ThingsILearnedFromTopGear
Cater to your players
Since you have pregenerated (simplified) characters sheets you know their skills and abilities. Make sure the adventure offers them the possibility to use them. Preferably in a spectacular fashion.
This is equally true in a long running campaign.
Your imaginary monsters and NPCs can take one for the team today, they won't care if they don't get that attack of opportunity. Just be equally lenient to all players in the group. As a side note, this is bad advice for long running campaigns. You players need to believe your world is real and sometimes brutal.
Maps & Markers
Everybody loves a good map. It provides novice players with something to hold on to and you with something to structure your one-shot around. So find yourself a map. When it comes to resources such as a map one of my mentors thought me: "Buy, build & open-source"
- Buy: Support the community. Throw a few bucks at a mapmaker of your liking on Patreon and you'll be set for how ever long you support them.
- Build: Draw your own maps. I personally love the hobby but it's really time consuming!
- Open-source: Find free maps online. Google them or start right here in our library.
Running for markers
Everybody is eager to know what's behind the markers on the map. Players who lack the knowledge to just hang around, have the tendency to simply run for each marker and jot down the list. Which can feel boring and repetitive. If this happens you forgot to place encounters in between them.
This also allows you to control time and flow. Leave encounters out, throw encounters in.
Like any experienced speaker make sure you have a glass of water nearby. It's simple and you don't want to break immersion because your tongue now sticks to .
I love a good shopping episode. But this is not what these players came for. Nevertheless if you give them a trader they will spend those newly found, "only valid today" golden coins. So sorry, but were closed....
Go out with a bang
Your monthly players might be happy by quietly completing a quest and riding off into the sunset but tonight something big needs to die! Preferably in a insanely cool, dramatic, bloody way. "So how do you want to do this, mister corporate guy?!"
Red Nose Day
I'm not comparing me to Mercer but this is how a real pro handles a 60 minute (!) one-shot. Notice how calm he remains. Even as he reminisces with a sweet nostalgic Stephen Colbert.