#1 : Backstory
Hi my name is Lauren Bilanko. I own the Twenty Sided Store in Brooklyn, NY and I have been a professional Photographer and Director in New York City for the past 15 years. I consider myself more of an innovator, but if I were a D&D Adventurer’s League Character, my character sheet would look like this – [click here to view]
It wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s that Dungeons & Dragons fell into my lap, and I fell in love.
I read the AD&D players handbook cover to cover, realized that creating a D&D character was just like creating characters for a script, and gathering a group of players together was not that different from producing a shoot.
I was never much of a gamer by the traditional definition, I never hung out at a game store, I never read a published adventure, and I had no idea what Organized Play was.
By 2009, I was one of the last people in Williamsburg to still have an artist loft. I had the first floor of the building, what used to be a store front, on the corner of Grand St. and Marcy Ave. When I met Luis he was running Magic: The Gathering tournaments in the neighborhood, and after we moved in together he would often invite groups of people over to the apartment to play. Between Luis playing Magic and me playing D&D, my photo studio was now doubling as a game play space.
Luis would often fantasize about opening a game store. We would often take down numbers on retail spaces for rent, but with the new zoning laws in Williamsburg, affordable spaces were getting snagged up as prices skyrocketed and the possibility seemed to get further from reality.
Luis had a full time programming job with a graphic design firm that he really enjoyed. I had just finished shooting my sci-fi film and was getting ready to go into post production.
The following year everything changed.
It was an early busy weekday morning when I stepped outside my front door and saw an old neighborhood friend. He was standing outside of the art gallery next door. Not one to be up early, let alone wearing a suit, I asked him what he was doing?
He responded, super excited, “I know the owner of this building, apparently the art gallery needs to break their lease and she asked for a favor because she needs to get someone in here quick. I got this really cool barber shop that is interested, you’ll love them!”
I immediately responded without even thinking, “You know Luis has been looking for a space to open his game store, right!?! This place would be perfect it is right next door!” I gave him a big smile, eyes super wide.
“Oh yeah, ok… hmm… I have to show the space to these people, but I will call you tonight!”
That night he called and said the space was ours if we wanted it, but we had less than two weeks to give the Landlord an answer whether or not we would be able to take over the lease starting the following month.
This was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it felt super rushed. Luis and I spent the next two weeks going back and forth and time was up. On his lunch break from work, hoping to catch me before I delivered our decision, Luis called me, “Tell them we are NOT going to take the space. I’ve crunched all the numbers and there is no way we can do this right now. Maybe we can save up for something next year, but it totally doesn’t make any sense to try and scramble together a business like this.”
“Luis, it is too late. I just spoke with them. I said we ARE taking the space. The Landlord is meeting us tonight to sign the lease.”
That was March 15, 2011. We got the keys April 1st, and opened for business Wednesday April 6th. At first, we just ran Magic: the Gathering events. We built the business with the game play space in mind and then slowly added retail based on demand.
We wanted to get people off of their computers and back to playing games face to face. Luis logged into the Wizards Play Network to sign up for Friday Night Magic (FNM) and saw that there was something called D&D Encounters. Neither one of us knew what Encounters was, but we were interested in D&D and felt running more Wizards of the Coast events was a good idea, so we signed up.
The organized play kits arrived and inside was a module called Dark Legacy of Evard. It was a 13 week adventure for 4th edition characters level 1 – 3. I felt like I was reading a language I did not understand. I had never DM-ed and the only edition of D&D I had ever played was AD&D.
I was hesitantly telling Luis I could figure out how to run this when two college kids chimed in mid-sentence, “We can DM!” They were so excited, and I was so relieved.
Soon enough, players started to find us via the Wizards of the Coast Event Locator. We got calls asking for details about Wednesday night D&D Encounters; what to bring, what does it cost, and so on. Our first night we had a solid turnout filling both tables. By the 6th session we were down to one table and by the end of the season I had to play because we needed one more to sanction it.
There were no complaints, and everyone who came said they had a good time. So why weren’t they returning? I was determined to get to the bottom of this.
The following season I read the adventure and actively engaged with the players and DMs about what was happening in the game. We got the event back up to 2 tables and by the following season I started DM-ing. Each consecutive season we grew by one table until we hit our capacity, which was 7 DMs and 40 players before the expansion of the store.
This season, I have 7 DMs and an average of 35 – 48 players each week. We are running the complete Tyranny of Dragons season.
Every season presents it’s own challenges and I continue to find ways to improve the experience. I am here to pass on what I have learned to all of you. Each month I will provide tips geared towards store owners, organizers, or anyone interested in the business management side of what goes into organizing really great events. I will share solutions to obstacles we have overcome and answer questions you may have in support of the larger Adventurer’s League community.
Dear Master Dungeon Master,
How do you handle DMs who use house rules that are outside of the scope of D&D Adventurer’s League?
It is important to be consistent and manage expectations in organized play. The D&D Adventurer’s League has established rules that can manage expectations for players and DMs who are participating all across the globe. I try to conform to these rules as much as possible for those players that plan to take their characters from Encounters to Expeditions to Epics. I feel that the rules are in place so we all have a frame of reference guiding our decisions. Once that frame of reference is established, then a DM has freedom to bring their personal DM-ing style into play. It is ok to color outside of the lines as long as everyone is aware of where those lines are. If a DM has to make a call that will benefit the fun overall at the table, then I am ok with that. If a house rule does not meet the expectation of what Wizards of the Coast and the store has advertised to their customers then that is not ok and should be saved for home games.
How do you get DMs?
I usually seek out players who are active members of the community. I look for people with inclusive personalities, who can work as part of a team, and who have something to contribute.
I have set up a Team DM google group so DMs can discuss the upcoming sessions, figure out in-game solutions and inspire new ideas, or go over any rules questions ahead of time. Having the support group makes it much less intimidating for new DMs to step up.
How do you cultivate a good group of DMs for your store?
I compensate my DMs. I consider them staff, even it is just volunteer or consignment work. I require a full season commitment and expect every DM to be on time and prepared to run each week for Encounters. Each DM on the team has a job contributing to the overall preparations.
I have anyone who wants to run a game for the first time at Twenty Sided Store start out running a one-off game before committing to an entire season. This allows me to evaluate how that person balances a table in an organized play setting – anyone can learn the rules, but great people management skills is much harder to master.