PAX East was a big deal for me as a DM. I had never run games at a convention and had only run 2 games in a public setting leading up to it (one being session 2 of D&D Encounters). At the last minute I sent an email to the organizer offering to DM a couple sessions of Encounters and got a quick “YES!” response.
So I showed up on Friday and was immediately given a DM shirt and the Encounters adventure and told to head to the next room and wait for players. It didn’t take long for them to arrive.
My first group was great--then the changeling and goliath decided to separate the dwarf antagonist from his group and take his place. Figures. First time I’m really out of my comfort zone and they go rewriting the script. So I rolled with it as best I could. I assigned stupidly difficult DCs to the ensuing skill checks and let them have their fun. They made them all. Of course.
At this point I put the adventure down and sat back in my chair and just eyed the changeling player. "Did we just blow your mind?" he asked with a smirk.
I almost had Torm strike him dead where he stood--impertinent twit.
I answered truthfully. “Yeah, you did. Give me a minute. I need to collect my thoughts and improvise.”
When we resumed a few minutes later I played out the scene in a way to give them all the knowledge any sort of check or question would yield and didn't let the bad guys get the drop on them in the inevitable ambush that the metagaming players all knew was coming. I did add a couple extra enemies to spice things up and did get to knock a few off the bridge. That almost made up for it.
When we got to the second encounter I played the guards smart and got my revenge by dropping almost everyone in the group to negative health at one point or another (no one died, and the defenders got the 50 damage point). Best part of those two encounters? The shardmind psion shifting into the standing water with a single hit point left. When his turn came around again a single tear slid down his cheeck as he fell into the water and was engulfed by the omnivorous fish.
That evening I volunteered to run Learn-to-Play. Best. Move. Of the. Convention. It was a blast. Only two of the 6 players had any D&D experience, and that was 3E at best--not even 3.5. While the adventure was easy and boring, I quickly found out that I have difficulties keeping the minutiae of the rules out of my explanations. When you spend as much time as I reading and analyzing rules text, it tends to all want to come out together like tainted beef--with a similar effect on those near you.
After blinding these poor players with rules for a minute I stopped myself and changed my approach. I had forgotten that they didn’t know the game like I do. I was quickly going to overwhelm and drive them off if I kept at them. I slowed down and looked at item I was explaining and gave them the "what does this mean to my character from a story perspective" answer as simply as I could then, if necessary, summarized the basic use of the item in question. When we got to combat explaining how things work became easier. D&D is very easy to teach as you go and that especially shines in combat.
Learn-to-Play was easily the toughest table for me to run at PAX. Pulling myself out of the rules soup I typically swim in took a lot of effort, but I found a number of these players at my table on the final day so I think I did okay.
On the last day my "final" Encounters table was incredible. Three of the players built their characters together and already had a theoretical synergy that quickly passed the test. The other three quickly meshed with them and the table blew through both encounters in two hours.
We finished so quickly that I went over to the blue-shirted organizer and told him I could run another table of session 2 since they finished so fast. I ended up with 6 people who hadn't gotten to sign up to play due to the demand. They were all grateful have a chance to play and three had even been at my Learn-to-Play the day before. The best part of this session was the utter confusion on their faces as I kept changing the doppelgänger's pronoun from "he" to "she" and back until they figured it out.
Lessons learned: stopping the game breaks immersion, but don't be afraid to do it if necessary. I just started DMing and know that I'll gain the experience needed to be able to adapt to players jumping off the rails on the fly--but I don't have that now. Taking a 5 minute break in the middle of the scene allowed me to save the story and give the players a rewarding resolution for their creativity.
Be careful about how you teach people the game. It’s very easy to overwhelm a newbie.
DMing at a convention yields sweet rewards.