Building a Demo

Okay, if you’ve read my blog in the past couple of weeks, you probably know that I’m running a couple of D&D 4E demos at Imagine Games on November 29 and December 13. If you’re in Winnipeg and want to try out the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, come on down and play. Games start at 1:00 p.m. There’s limited seating, so show up early if you want to guarantee a spot.

Anyway, I’m working this week on putting together the demo, and figured that I’d talk about the method I use. It’s the method I’ve used in other demos in the past, and it works fairly well, so I’m not changing it this time around. Here’s how I go about building a demo.

There are four things you need to put together in order to have a solid demo:

  • Venue
  • Adventure
  • Characters
  • Play Aids


For me, venue is the easies thing. I run my demos at Imagine Games, the local game and hobby store run by my friends, Pedro and Wendy. How do I set up the venue? I say to Pedro, “Hey. Want me to run a demo on Saturday?” Easy.

If you don’t have such a handy venue available, you may have to scramble a little. Having said that, most game stores are generally pretty open to having someone come in and run a demo – it’s free advertising for them, it generates some traffic, and it helps build the hobby. You may have to convince the manager that you’re the kind of person he or she wants to run a demo, so remember to be friendly and polite.

If you don’t have a local store available or willing to support you in this, check out the local libraries and community centres. They often have function rooms that you can use, sometimes free, sometimes for a nominal fee.

Wherever you wind up running your demo, keep in mind that, unless it’s your own personal venue, you’re a guest there. Find out what rules your host has, and make sure everyone follows them. That makes it more likely that you’ll get to come back. Remember: friendly and polite.


Once you’ve got your space, you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to run. This is going to involve a number of factors you need to consider; it’s not like putting together the adventure for your regular group. You have to keep in mind:

  • Time. How much time have you got to run? If you’ve got a whole afternoon, you can put together a much longer adventure than if you have a two-hour slot. This may be set by the venue, or it may be set by the number of participants you’re expecting.
  • Participants. How many people are you going to have at the demo? If you want to limit the number of seats, you have to make sure that people know that seating is limited. Be realistic about your ability to manage the group size, and keep in mind that more players means the adventure will take longer to run, because it will take longer to cycle through each of them. If you’ve got a large number of people interested, but a game that works best with smaller numbers, consider running multiple shorter slots instead of one longer one. Run two two-hour sessions instead of one four-hour session. You don’t need a new adventure for this; just repeat.
  • Purpose. What are you trying to accomplish with your demo? If you’re trying to attract new players, you will want to run something simple and basic. If you’re trying to showcase a new release, you’ll want to make sure you use two or three of the coolest things from that release in the adventure. If you’re trying to appeal to more accomplished gamers, you need to run something a little less straightforward. Figure out what your primary goal is, and keep it in mind.

So, I’m going to have all afternoon for my demo. It’s D&D 4E, which is tailored for 5 players out of the box, but it’s pretty easy to adjust up and down on the fly, especially if I prepare the adventure knowing I might have to do that. Turn out for some demos at Imagine has been overwhelming, and for other demos it’s been underwhelming, so I think I’m going to build two two-hour adventures that can be crammed together into a larger four-hour adventure. That gives me the flexibility to stop after two hours if there’s another group of people who want in, or if two hours is all a group wants to play, while letting me stretch out the session to four hours if I only get one group of folks who want to play all afternoon.

I’m aiming the game at people who are new to 4E, if not D&D or RPGs in general, so I want something with a basic format to it, but a couple of twists along the way. Specifically for 4E, I want to show off the way character powers work, how interesting the monsters are, and skill challenges. I’ve previously done demo adventures based around a goblin raid on a caravan; I think I’ll start with that premise and see where it leads me.

Now, you don’t have to build an adventure. Using a published one is fine, and lots of companies even provide demo adventures in their products or on their websites. In fact, I still have the Into the Shadowhaunt demo kit Wizards sent out for the launch of 4E. Why am I building an adventure? Couple of reasons. For one thing, I find it pretty easy and quick to do in 4E. For another, most of the other adventures have a little too much exposure for my taste – I want to offer something fresh to the participants, and not have someone who has, for example, read the Kobold Hall adventure in the DMG bored because that’s the adventure I’m running.


 You need pregenerated characters for a demo. The time needed to create characters with the participants as part of the demo is just too great – it’ll overshadow the actual adventure. The only time to have character generation as part of the demo is either a multi-session continuing demo (I used to do a four-session Learn Dungeons & Dragons demo, and character creation was the entire first session) or if the character creation system something important to the actual play of the game and you want to show it off (games like Spirit of the Century, Dogs in the Vineyard, and 3:16, for example).

Keep the complexity of the characters in synch with your primary audience. If this is an intro game, keep them simple. If you’re trying to show off a new feature from a supplement, make sure it’s highlighted.

My demo is aimed at people new to 4E, so I’m going to go with first-level characters, and I’m going to use options only from the core rule books. I was planning on doing up a set of characters with the DDI Character Builder beta, but there are some issues with it on Vista that are still being resolved, so instead I think I’m just going to use the characters from Keep on the Shadowfell.

Play Aids

This last bit is kind of weird. You wouldn’t think so, but having the right play aids can do more for your demo than pretty much anything else. If you choose wrong, things slow down, participants get frustrated and bored, and you can wind up with a great adventure that no one actually enjoys.

The key I’ve found to play aids is to think about them in two flavours. One is something that makes the game flow easier, and one is something that makes the game more cool. And never forget that the aids need to help you, too; not just the players.

So, for making the game flow easier, the two big things are character sheets and the adventure text. Make sure both are readable, both are easy to understand, and both have all the details they need. Do the math ahead of time when you can, so that players don’t need to figure out their bonuses every time they roll the dice, and you don’t have to fumble around with the monsters the same way. If you are going to have multiple versions of some parts of the adventure, like adjusting encounters for different numbers of players, do the work ahead of time so it doesn’t bog you down at the table. You’re going to be busy enough running and teaching the game without trying to rebuild encounters on the hoof.

Also, if you have any quick rules handouts, bring them along. Wizards did a great two-page sheet for the D&D Experience this past spring that I’m going to print out, for example. Make sure you have a copy for each of your players.

Here’s a little tip about printed material: if they’re going to be used by multiple groups, make them sturdy. Either print them out on cardstock, or spring for some clear page protectors and a box of dry erase markers. It’ll save you time and heartache between groups.

Aside from the printed materials, make sure you’ve got enough dice and writing implements for everyone. Don’t expect your audience to bring what they need – anticipate what’s needed, and provide it.

As for play aids that make the game more cool, you can go as nuts as you have time for, here. At a minimum, I’m going to be bringing a miniature suitable for each PC, and suitable minis for the monsters. I’m also going to lay out the encounters using my Dungeon Tiles, possibly with a home-made battlemap for the final encounter that I put together in Dundjinni. That, plus my DM Screen and combat tracker pad – both of which fall into both categories of play aids.

Put everything – adventure, characters, play aids – together into something you can carry easily. Check it all, and make sure you haven’t forgot anything. Specifically, make sure you haven’t forgot your dice; trust me when I say that it can happen, and it sucks.

That’s the way I put together a demo. Of course, building a demo and running a demo are two different things. Next post I’ll talk about how I run the demos.

Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.