This year I ran four RPG events at Gen Con. I’m confident that each was a  success based upon the feedback that I was given by the players. If you happened to play in one of my games at Gen Con this year (or attended one of the seminars I was involved in) please leave a comment with your feedback about the game that you played in. I am always looking for ways to improve, so whether it is good or bad I want to hear from those who attended my events.

DiceAndMiniI did run one stinker (at best okay) event on Wednesday night for my fellow gnomes. It was a last minute Savage Worlds game where I winged it and I had no time to prepare for it. That is no excuse though, because my four RPG events were all advertised as completely improvised Fudge games. Savage Worlds is a simple and easy to run system that is only slightly more complex than my Fudge games. I even had an advantage with the Savage Worlds game over my Fudge events: I knew the players better than the complete strangers (except for a few people) who registered to play in the Fudge games.

Now the Savage Worlds game was cut short and we only got to play for an hour or so, but that is no excuse. I felt that it was a bland game and I hate when I run a bland game. What went wrong? Why were the Fudge games a lot of fun and the Savage Worlds game as exciting as a beige rainbow?

The answer is agenda. With the Savage Worlds game I was more concerned about teaching the Savage Worlds system. Fellow gnome Kurt “Telas” Schneider and I are big fans of the game. The other gnomes and their friends were not as familiar with the system, and I wanted them to experience how much fun it is to play Savage Worlds. The irony is that by violating the first and most important rule of running a convention game I probably shot myself in the foot in presenting Savage Worlds as a fun game.

“But what is the first and most important rule of running a convention game?” You might be asking. Do not worry dear reader, for I will share that with you in a moment. I will also detail other techniques that I use to run my convention games with, but I wanted to illustrate how violating the first rule of a convention game can result in a mediocre or bad game even when you have all of the advantages that a GM can ask for.

So without further delay, here are my tips and tricks for running a convention game:

The Number One Rule

Your only agenda is for each player to leave that game feeling good about having played in it.

Simple, isn’t it? Yet often convention GMs forget this vital rule. I have played in convention games where the GM wants to wow me with his or her storytelling technique. Nothing better than paying four bucks to listen to a wannabe author ramble on for a few hours about a concept that he or she “discovered” while watching the Sci-Fi channel. Perhaps the GM is trying to “challenge” the players, meaning that  the GM uses every little rule to his or her advantage in order to humiliate the PCs for a convenient GMPC rescue to occur.

Or like my Savage Worlds example the GM is more focused on selling the system instead of running the event. The irony is that I have bought crappy systems after playing in a great convention game, and I have avoided great systems after playing them in a bad convention game. System matters? Sure, but the GM matters more.

When you GM a convention game every player has handed over to you their most valuable commodity: their time. You have about four hours to run a great game, and the only way to do that is to give the players what they want. I am not talking about making life easy for their PCs, I am talking about making their PCs matter. For four hours your players should be given the chance to live vicariously through their PCs. They will be the heroes of a great story. They will be the people who matter the most in your gameworld’s darkest hour.

How do you observe rule number one? Every decision that the player makes in regards to the game has an impact in the gameworld regardless of what the rules say. When the player says “My character intimidates the mob boss.” on a success leave no doubt in the player’s mind that the mob boss was shaken and that that is a rare occurrence. When the result is a failure have that mob boss look the player in the eye and say “I have a feeling you are someone I need to keep my eye on. How come I have never heard of you before? You got grit, for sure, but don’t try to push me around like that. It will force my hand, and I might want to hire you in the future.”

Why do this? Because it makes the player feel like his or her PC had an impact despite failing a roll. Yeah the player did not get exactly the result that they were hoping for, but that player did not get the crap kicked out of their PC for trying either. Instead they got a sense of the mob boss seeing something special in the PC, and that makes a player feel like the PC matters.

Keep rule number one in mind at all times, and the tips that follow are all as easy as pie.

Use Pre-Generated Characters

The players will most likely not know each other, and if your game needs some form of party balance you will have to provide that balance yourself in the form of pre-generated characters. I usually leave a few simple options open for the players to customize the character build with, but nothing that will take more than a few minutes to decide upon. Details such as character names, occupations, and descriptions tend to be what most players want to decide for themselves. Put the sheets in the center of the table and ask the players to choose.

Make sure the player characters are indeed balanced. If one character dominates the game based upon the game mechanics your event will suck. Give each character a unique ability in its design, and use the stereotypical builds for your game system. It makes choosing a character easier for the players if you can say “That build is like a ranger. The character has great range attacks but lousy hand-to-hand abilities. The character’s skill set makes them a tracker and hunter.” This way players know exactly what kind of character it is.

Have a few extra pre-generated characters as well. The last player to pick a character may not want to be the party cleric. Plus sometimes you will have more players than you were expecting show up. This year at Gen Con one of my 6 person events became an 8 person event when a player convinced 2 friends to join using generic tickets. Having extra pre-generated characters at that point would have been nice. Luckily for me Fudge characters are really easy to build on the fly, but with some systems that just is not the case.

I know some players hate to play a pre-generated character, and for this reason you should include the line “Pre-generated characters will be provided for play.” in your event description. You cannot make everyone happy, and if someone attends your event insisting on playing their own character that they brought to the event say “Fine, but the event description was clear. You will have to wait until I have a chance to approve your character.” and let them wait. If someone shows up and insists on rolling up a character right there, again let them but make it clear that – a) they will have to wait until you approve the character for play, and b) you have an event to run so any character creation questions have to wait until you have a chance to answer them.

You might wonder why I am going into so much detail on what do with players who refuse to play a pre-generated character. It is because I have had rude people refuse to play the characters that I provided for play (as advertised) and then insisted that I take the time to review their elaborate (possibly violating the rules) character builds. At one of my convention events I do not have time for that sort of thing. Run the event the way that you described it, and make players who signed up for the event planning to do things a different way wait. That is the price that they should pay for showing up swinging a monkey wrench around.

Let people keep the character sheet after the event is over, and let them know that they can write all over the character sheet. Paper is cheap, but getting a character sheet that was used several times before the last event of the convention is a bad start for any convention game.

Bring Anything That a Player Will Need to Play

Pencils are cheap too, and you should have plenty for everyone at the table. If miniatures will be needed for playing the game then have those miniatures ready too (assign them in advance to each of the pre-generated characters that you provided). A blank sheet of paper for each person attending is also a nice touch even though the players can write on the character sheet. Bring some of your old dice just in case.

I once heard a GM say “Why do I have to bring the pencils? I’m not made of money.” and I have to admit that he had a valid point. My only counter is this – If you can afford to give someone four hours of your time that they most likely had to pay for, then you can afford to give them a pencil. Unlike the character sheets you can always ask for all of this stuff back at the end of the event.

Know the Rules, Especially the Ones to Ditch

Do not run a game that you do not know the rules for. If you have to keep referring to the rule book you are boring your players. Watching someone study is not entertaining, and that is what you are doing when you have to keep sticking your nose into a book.

Even if you do know the rules inside and out know when to ditch them. Tell the group that the system has some great rules for encumbrance, but that you are hand waving that in order to get the most out of the event for the players. There is nothing wrong with using GM fiat either if it is going to save you from having to ignore most of the players at the table while you focus on only one player (or even worse the rules) for an extended period of time. Just let the players know when you are ditching the rules in order to keep the game moving forward.

Use GM fiat sparingly if possible, but keep in mind that RPGs are social activities first and games second. If you think your players are going to be bored by you spending several minutes working out the details of a single attack or other such in-game event then just hand wave the results to what best suits the moment. Besides, if your system requires a lot of hand waving then you probably picked a bad game to run at a convention in the first place.

Check Your Watch Frequently

You have a limited amount of time to run a game in at a convention. You have to quickly get to the “cool” in each game and keep the players feeling that the plot is moving steadily forward because of what their characters are doing. Time is against you in this case. Just like you do not have to worry about giving the PCs too many rewards too soon because there is no game next week, you do have to worry about not getting to the main event in your game because there is no game next week!

Plan to start your event about 15 minutes after it is scheduled to begin. Use that time to get the character sheets handed out, give a general overview of the rules to all present, and time for players who are running late to make it to your event. Plan on a 10 minute break in the middle of your game for players to grab a drink and to use the bathroom during. This middle break is also a great moment to collect your event tickets from the players if you have not already done so. Finally, plan to end the event 15 minutes early because players need time to make it to their next event and some may want to ask you questions about the system or adventure that you ran.

Between the breaks move the plot forward by giving the player characters choices to make. Their decisions always result in the plot moving ahead in some way. Use the first half of your game to introduce all of the major NPCs and to establish the dramatic situation that is central to your plot. Use the second half of your event to introduce a twist into the plot followed by the climax of the plot. Check that watch of yours regularly and if you are falling behind have the “ninjas attack” and get the plot back on track. One cool in game event that results in a ton of clues leading straight to the final battle is a lot more fun than hearing “Sorry we did not have the time for you guys to fight Lord Evil Bugger!”

Also be aware of how much time you are spending on each player. Do not give a large amount of attention to one single person at the table, and try to ensure that every player is being heard. A trick that I like to use is that every time one of the players makes a decision I go around the table and ask each player what their character is doing at that time. This ensures that even shy and quiet players get some form of input throughout the game.

If you can playtest the scenario you plan on running you should absolutely do so before the convention. I improvised all of my games this year at Gen Con, but I did run the event as described at local events before Gen Con. That playtesting sparked better ideas for Gen Con, and gave me an idea as to how long encounters with various types of opponents would be.

Remember Rule Number One

It really does come down to what is your agenda? First and foremost it should be to give each and every player a great convention game. They should be all smiles at the end of your game because they feel like they were just given the rock star treatment.

I am always a little amazed, and overwhelmingly flattered, when someone writes me an email telling me that they played in one of my convention games and had a blast. I have had players sign up for my events the next year at a convention just because they remembered how much fun that they had at a previous convention. And for the first time ever, I had players from a local convention sign up for my Gen Con events because they enjoyed the local convention game so much.

What is in common with all of these people’s comments? They usually have a line like “I remember how my character did X in that game.” Yeah the players remember that I was the GM for the game, but they only remember that detail because their characters got to do something cool in the game.

That is the ultimate goal of convention game GMing. You want those players to leave your game with such a sense of satisfaction that they remember who you are and they want to play in one of your events again despite a year having gone by. You may not always hit that mark (I know that I do not), but that is the mark that you should be aiming for.

Do you have any tips and tricks for GMing a convention game? What kinds of experiences have you had at your convention games as both a player and as a GM? Leave your comments below and share them with the rest of us. As always, remember that the GM is a player too. Have fun with it!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?



11 Responses to 6 Rules for GMing Great RPG Events at Conventions

  1. Great advice. Rule #1 in any game is player satisfaction.

  2. Very thorough. I haven’t run many con games, but I could probably do a good job just keeping the above in mind. It’s a great checklist for GMing a con game– or any one-shot.

  3. Good article. I would point out that one of the things I do when running games (like the recently 4E Game Day games) is “Setup your material so a DM has everything needed in immediate-to-use format.”

    For example, 4E games tend to have a fair amount of combat, so I print all the creature stats on individual 3×5 cards, one per creature. I also have pre-printed cards for the characters that just need an initiative roll. They are now ready to sort into initiative order quickly, and I’ve already done so with the creatures (I go ahead an have their initiatives rolled). I then do this for each combat and have them divided into groups so I can just grab a pack of rubber band cards. If the game calls for treasure, I’ll also print out the individual treasure items on 3×5 cards with their rules on them as well.

    I’ll also have my figurines for each encounter grouped in baggies with the cards. Again, just grab and go.

    Other things to have ready — quick reference sheets for the players — one per player. Don’t overload them with stuff, so keep it to a single sheet (try not to use the back).

    Oh, one more thing, even though this sounds like railroading, its not intended to be. If there are any dice rolls and/or decisions that you are going to make for the game that don’t depend on player actions, do them up front.

    It can be alot of up front work, but I figure the time I spend up front is time NOT spent at the game. Everything moves much faster and when the pressure is on to get through the material, you’ll know you did everything you could.

  4. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    @LesInk – Nice list, as well. I’d even pre-roll initiative for the critters, and have them pre-sorted into init order.

    Something I just thought of: Contact info. Request that the players email you feedback on the game, and put your name and an email address on the character sheet. Because I wish at least one of my GMs this year had done that…

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone. I hope the material is useful to all of you.

    @LesInk – Even for my home games I roll the initiative for the encounter beforehand. It just makes life easier. As long as you take that first roll I don’t see a problem with it.

    I also have index cards ready with the vital details of NPCs for 4e games. 4e may be easy to prep compared to previous releases of D&D, but it is still pretty heavy book keeping compared to other RPGs. That is why I don’t like to run 4e games at conventions. You get a wide selection of potential players, but I’d rather run a system that requires very little prep instead.

  6. Some of our members have difficulty in reaching this site due to work filters. I’ve reproduced your article on our site for their benefit (retaining an attribution to your original article).

    You can see the cross-post here:
    http://www.phoenixgamesclub.org.uk/index.php/topic,1900.msg11832.html#msg11832

    Thanks for a fantastic article btw.

  7. @Arakor – Thanks for the kind words! We gnomes maintain the rights to our articles, and I’m cool with how you quoted the article as a whole on another site. I’m glad you and others enjoyed it.

  8. Mr. Benson, this article is absolute gold. I’m saving this, printing off copies, and making all of my friends read it. Quite enjoyed.

    My thanks.

  9. Mr. Benson, this article is absolute gold. I’m saving this, printing off copies, and making all of my friends read it. Quite enjoyed.

    My thanks.

  10. @Jharviss – Thank you for the compliment! I hope that this article is useful and informative to your friends as well.

  1. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-08-28

    [...] 6 Rules for GMing Great RPG Events at Conventions I’m about to run off to Tacticon next weekend and run a few 4-hour adventures for a world that some friends of mine and I over at Fluid Games came up with and are trying to sell books about. Patrick has some great advice that I’m going to try to adhere to during my sessions. My favorite piece of wisdom is to bring anything the player will need to play. I was walking into the idea of running a conference game that all players would show up with dice, paper and pencils… I’m glad I read his post. I’ll definitely be showing up with some extras of all of the above. [...]

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