So Ameron over at dungeonsmaster.com posted a list of advice for people playing in the new season of D&D Encounters: The Elder Elemental Eye. While his advice is definitely sound and certainly true, I think a few more tidbits might be merited (especially after having played in the first session this past Wednesday).
For Dungeon Masters
1. Remember you're on a time limit
One of the appealing things about the D&D Encounters program is that it's a single encounter worth roughly two hours of playtime, which can sometimes extend to two and a half if things are running long. It's a short and sweet bit of dungeon delving and adventuring during the work week.
Keep that time frame in mind, because for many players, it isn't something that can be stretched or broken.
Often at our local game store, we have a large amount of young adults and kids playing (most of them under 14 years old). These kids often have their parents waiting in the sidelines, ready to pick them up when they're done (not unlike waiting for karate practice or music lessons to wrap up). It's a school night for them, and though they might be having fun, they do need to get home on time.
For the adults, many have work or school in the morning, and perhaps husbands or wives waiting at home (perhaps even children). Their free time is at a premium, so please, PLEASE don't waste it. Keep an eye on the clock and know when you should be wrapping up. You owe it to your players as a respect for their time.
2. Simplify combat (as the night progresses)
This is something a lot of new DMs learn after running a few sessions. Combat in Type IV D&D can often become tedious and a slog as it drags on into several rounds. Often this is caused by players rolling very poorly, which is something that can happen. Whole rounds can fly by without players hitting a single target.
If it looks like things are taking a bit too long, or that the players seem to really be having trouble, here are some quick and easy solutions:
-Decrease monster's hit points (If the book says they have 34 HP, maybe reduce it by 10 or 12).
-Have set damage amounts (a monster deals 1d8+4 damage? Make it an even 6 damage every time. Less dice rolling means saved time).
-Have enemies surrender when bloodied (the heroes can question/interrogate/kill them at the beginning of the next session).
All of these things will save you and your players time, while not making the combat feel 'easier'.
3. Let your players prompt the story
This one's a bit tougher for new DMs, but when hosting a public game it will become an essential skill. All it takes is a little listening and prompting.
Not everyone at the table will be interested in roleplaying or being a part of a story. Most will just want combat and to earn XP and magic items. On the other hand, there are always a couple of players who don't care for combat: Their way of having fun will revolve around playing a character and chatting up NPCs. Striking a balance between these different kind of players can be tough.
The most important thing you can do as a DM will be this: Keep asking them "What do you want to do?"
If the majority of them seem interested in an NPC, location, or event, that's your cue to get to the provided, read-aloud flavour text, or to continue with the story at hand. If most of the players seem more stoked about fighting things, then it's probably best to skip things ahead to combat (the story can be imparted to them during combat through trash-talking with enemies and monsters).
As a DM, you might care about the grave tale of the Elder Elemental Eye, but your players might not. It's always good to keep this in mind.
4. Talk directly to each player (and use their character's names)
The worst players are often bored players. They'll get distracted, take out cell phones, spin their dice around (dropping them on the floor), chat amongst themselves, and generally not pay attention.
If you notice this happening, snap them out of it by addressing them directly. Again, you can ask them "What do you want to do?". This is even more effective if you address them by their character's name (which you should write down and keep handy).
Players who like to roleplay will often steal away the attention of a DM. They're the ones who want to be invested in the story, so they're often the easiest to play with and cater to. While it's tempting to tell the game's story bits exclusively to them, PLEASE DON'T. If you notice other players are losing focus or seem disinterested, start talking to them, asking them what their character would like to do. If they aren't sure or don't seem to care, give them a couple of options ("You could try to make a skill check to notice something OR tell the party how your character feels about this"). If you talk to them directly and prompt them to make a decision or roll some dice, you'll bring them back into the game and make them feel a little more involved.
While you might not have time to continually try this with every player, it's best to try it with every player at least once per encounter or session. Your players will appreciate it.
Also, write down every player's name and character name (if you're at a table, write them all down in clockwise seating order to keep track of everyone). Players will always respond better to you if you know their character's names.
5. Stay Organized
It cannot be stressed enough that organization is the key to good dungeon mastering. Every moment you spend looking up rules, NPC names, or statistics is a moment your players aren't paying attention.
The best way to avoid unorganized play is to prepare beforehand. Read over the session pages for your week's encounter at least a couple of times before you come to the table to play. If you use a DM screen, apply sticky notes or something with important info on them to the back of the screen (things like NPC names, monster abilities/resistances, and XP or treasure rewards for when finished).
Keep the initiative order clear as well, as it's something that can become confusing very quickly (especially when you're with a table of strangers). The easiest solution to this is to have 'round-table initiative: The person with the highest initiative roll goes first, and the initiative order proceeds clockwise around the table.
Take a look at this previous post about how to make dungeon mastering easier.
1. Show a little respect to the DM
This is especially important for inexperienced players.
Being a dungeon master can be a little stressful at times. The person running the game is there to make sure everyone has a good time. Sometimes that's not an easy job. While it's true that you (as a player) have to keep track of a lot of things with your character, your dungeon master most likely has to keep track of ten times the amount of stuff that you do!
The best way to make it easier for her/him to run the game for you to enjoy is to show them a little respect by paying attention to the game, listening to what she/he has to say, and asking her/him questions if you are unclear about anything.
They'll feel more willing to help you or accommodate you and your character if you respect their time and patience.
2. Show a little respect to other players
This is especially important for experienced/expert players.
Everyone plays D&D differently. Everyone has a different idea of what the game should be about and how it should be played. With that in mind, it's easy to become impatient or frustrated when playing with inexperienced players or careless players.
While playing, it's best to keep these two things in mind while interacting with other players/characters:
-"What can I do to make the game more fun for the other players?"
-"What can I do to make the game easier for the entire party?"
These two points encompass being polite, playing generously, healing others, aiding people in combat, letting others speak, working as a team, and much more. Both of them are focused on enhancing and improving play for other players and the party before focusing on one's self.
If you respect the other players, they'll usually feel inclined to do the same to you.
3. Please don't play an evil character
There's a time and place to play black-hearted mercenaries, callous rogues, and outright assholes. D&D Encounters is not the time or place to play them.
The game operates under the assumption that the majority of the characters in play are decent people who are willing to fight for virtuous causes out of the goodness of their own heart, or at the very least willing to do so for money. While you might think it would be 'awesome' to try out your Undead Assassin or Revenant Vampire, the rest of the party and your dungeon master will not.
Characters who are evil or malign by their very nature (or because of their race/class) will clash with a party of all around do-gooders. You might think it's cool to play a badass evil guy who does evil things, but unless the rest of the party is playing similar characters, you'll only be making things more difficult (and annoying) for everyone. Teamwork is an important part of the game, and now is not the time to be anti-social (even if you're trying to justify it under the guise of 'roleplaying').
If you absolutely have to play a darker, more evil-bent character, the very least you can do for the rest of the party is play along with the story and help your fellow players. If it helps, remember that true villains are almost always master manipulators, willing to work with heroes to advance their own stations in life before they reveal their evil plans.
4. Remember that you can't always get what you want
During a game, you might have a fantastic idea you want to implement, or a scene you really want to roleplay, or a magic item you really want to buy/acquire. Chances are you won't get to do any of those things.
Play time is limited, and the dungeon master is limited by the resources and time available to her/him. If she or he says no to one of your ideas or pleas, do your party a favour and don't push for it.
You will get your moment in the sun eventually. It might not be this session, but it may be the next session. No one likes someone who tries to hog the 'roleplaying spotlight', or squabbles over who gets the magic item or treasure at the end of the encounter. Don't be that person. If you don't get what you want, remember that there are always more encounters in the future, and you will get your chance to shine.
5. Do your own math
D&D involves math. It's a very reasonable amount of math, usually made up of simple addition and subtraction. As a player, you're expected to do your own math quickly. Other players and the dungeon master are waiting on you. If you're having trouble understanding specific rules or powers, don't be afraid to ask another player to explain things to you (most will be eager to help).
If you're a younger player (ages 11-14), D&D provides great practice with simple math that will be invaluable later on in life. It's in your best interest to become better and faster with your addition/subtraction.
If you're an older player (age 14+) and are still struggling with the math involved with D&D, then you should seriously reapply yourself to learning basic workplace math. It's not that hard. Please don't make me weep for the state of today's school systems.
Do your own freakin' math.
Bottom line, don't be a dick.
Wil Wheaton is always saying it, and it is always, ALWAYS true.
The best way to make sure you have a good time at D&D Encounters, and that everyone else has a good time too, is to not be a dick.