I've been DMing for a while in 4th edition D&D, but I've only been DMing for Living Forgotten Realms and D&D Encounters. Now I'm thinking of starting to do some home games in various systems. How can I deal with the transition from these two styles of gaming? Are they really that different?
If you've already done convention DMing (specifically LFR) and want to start running a home game..the skills involved aren't that different, but be prepared for a few things.
The number one thing I find it's helpful to remember is that the campaign is about the player characters. It's their story. The adventures and details should reflect that. Living Realms has a hard time handling that kind of individual attention because of its scope (there are tens of thousands of LFR players).
Structurally there are other changes and differences as well:
LFR's structure and tradition is the way it is, specifically because it has content that needs to be farmed out to a ton of DMs at 4-hour events in a shared campaign. Now that you are writing for yourself, and you don't have to think in terms of 4 hour blocks, you "own" the content.
You no longer have any of the old restrictions.
The fundamentals of GMing remain the same: describe, leave room for players to impact the story, every encounter needs a way to succeed or fail.
What differs most is player continuity. Players in a "home" game are far more likely to be the same core players every session, playing the same character throughout.
The other key differences are not terribly consistent, but are broad sweeping generalizations :
Abbreviations Con=Convention. Usually pregenerated characters, 4 hour blocks, limited scope Demo=Demonstration. Usually pregenerated characters, often 2-6 hour play scope, sometimes more (esp. FFG ones). Sometimes include rules subsets or simplifications. LG=Living Games. Continuing characters in episodic play. One-off: a game where the characters are not intended for being played after the adventure is finished.
Some things you might not have considered. Now that you're hosting games in a private venue, things change a little:
CON DMING Convention DMing allows you to be more of a goof--if that's your style--since you most likely won't see these people again. Along that line, your mistakes can be overshadowed by this fact and that this group might play at a table next slot that has a more experienced DM. Or they might not even care since they came to wherever it is the con is being held to have a good time. As long as mistakes don't completely destroy the session, most players are forgiving enough to allow the suspension of disbelief to continue.
However, you are usually running for people whom you are not familiar with. You don't know their play style, you've never seen their character in action (unless they made the character fresh at the con, in which case neither have they!), so it's hard to know what these players want out of a session, and what action their characters want to see. Granted, most con mods (not constiution modifier!) are RPGA-published and essentially railroad the players, but if you run a mod written yourself, you don't know what they'll want or get out of your adventure. This can be good, though, as it forces you to watch the players and see what they do, what their reactions to certain encounters are.
HOME DMING On the flipside, home DMing is usually less stressful for DMs. You know your players, most likely. If you have a campaign, you know their characters. On that note, you can have campaigns. Since you'll be playing with people in the area and will be in the area for most of the year, you can start and continually run campaigns, instead of the dungeon-of-the-day mods at cons. This allows for a more developed and dynamic relationship between you as a DM and your players and their characters. You also tend to be more comfortable, being able to kick off shoes, play at the kitchen table or on a deck, with ambient music, etc.
The one downside to home DMing is that you have to constantly change things up, have your players do so if they don't already. If you see the same 4-6 players with the same characters doing the same things week by week it can get monotonous. You must add little quirks to your game sessions so each one is as fun as the last. This is beneficial, though, for developing new ideas for the campaign or adventures you plan to run.
"Scope" will be your main concern....it will expand dramatically with a home campaign vs a tournament game. As has been said, you will have to be prepared for your players to go off on a totally random direction or decide on a plan of action that will take them out of the immediate area they are based in, unlike a tournament adventure (which is usually narrow in scope and focused when it comes to goals).
I would suggest a little preparation. Try writing up an area of about 20 square miles or so. Detail the immediate area, especially items of interest (Old Sunken Swamp, Deathshead Mountain, The Lost Caverns) populated by either random monsters or a planned encounter of your own. Definitely include a few villages (complete with inns, taverns, and churches), and find a good source for small "pickup" adventures that can take a session or two to complete (or write your own). A little bit of preparation can pay big dividends if your players decide "Old Sunken Swamp" sounds like a cool place to explore, and you have already detailed a lizardman lair, cave with a black dragon, and an abandoned Keep in the middle of the swamp. You'll make it look easy when they start wandering around there!
Your main difference will be a planned time limit/ending versus open ended gaming, but if you plan ahead, it won't bother you a bit to run a more open-ended adventure.
LFR games at conventions need to fit within the X hour time block (usually four) Moreso they are setup to challenge players within a specific level range. While mechanics are the same home games are completely different because they are extended campaigns. You could run them in short session block just like you do in a LFR module but you will missing out on the flexibility offered by RPGs.
RPGs can be run in a variety of ways, but compared to other games they are uniquely flexible in focus and scope. This is because the focus of an RPG is on individual character moving through a setting in a series of session known as a campaign. One session may be nothing but roleplaying with the various denizen of a town while another be one combat after another as the party battle their way into the lair of the big bad.
I am not criticing LFR or convention style games. For what they set out to do they do very well. I was involved both in running convention games and Live-Action Roleplaying which has it's own constraints.
However of all the styles of roleplaying I played the most flexible is sitting around the table at home with your friend running a campaign.
But where to start? Well there are several posts here and elsewhere you can look at.
The shortest answer I can give, is too think of a place that you like to see your players explore. Then talk to them and see what they like do. Merge two to form an initial campaign premise. Write a timeline of events that will occur without player intervention. Talk with each players about the setting and give them hooks that are benefits and complications.
At first your campaign will start out with the players exploring their initial hooks. The key element after this point is to follow the consequences of the players actions. Judge their effect on your timeline of events and change accordingly. Soon the campaign will drive itself as the consequences of the consequences start propelling the players forward.
The ability to dynamically change what going on is perhaps the key difference between the convention game. The player feel they have control over their world become invested in the setting. This leads to a better game for all.
They aren't that different, but you may need to force yourself to grow beyond the tightly circumscribed four hour LFR experience. (This is coming from someone who loves LFR; I play and run it a lot.) You're going to want plots that don't fit into one session. I'd take a look at the Embers of Dawn mini campaign for some inspiration -- not only is there an overarching plot that extends for the entire 50ish hour campaign, there are hooks for future adventures built in.
You also need to be ready for your players to go off in a totally random direction. In LFR, most players will tacitly accept that there's something between a railroad and a strongly implied walkway leading from beginning to end, and they'll accept an adventure from a strange guy in a bar even if he's not paying them up front. In a home game, they'll be more independently minded and sometimes they just won't want to help Yazeth Cobb. You can't be too in love with your own plot.
It may help to have a folder of prebuilt encounters, events, and so on. Doesn't have to be big, just stuff you can throw in there when the players head in the opposite direction. Random tables, likewise, are your friend. If they get interested in talking to the barmaid and you freeze up on ad libbing details, a random personality chart will get you started again.
For the purest form of abandoning your own plot, check out R. S. Conley's notes on sandbox campaigns. You don't have to run a sandbox campaign, but everything in there will still be helpful.
Find opportunities for extended roleplay, if that's what your players want. I started running a home game again recently after a year of mostly LFR, and I've been mentally earmarking some sessions as talky sessions. It forces me to get back into the habit of not rushing roleplay, plus it's good for pace. Your players will probably enjoy the downtime -- not every adventure needs to be of equal importance.