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Confessions of a Gen Con GM: Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned

Posted By Patrick Benson On August 23, 2008 @ 11:41 am In Gaming Conventions,GMing Advice | 2 Comments

This year at Gen Con I ran three scheduled events, several impromptu games, three seminars, and had a wonderful time from beginning to end. With that said, I did have less than stellar moments and noticed areas for improvement as a GM.

The great thing about convention games is that you can experiment and try different things as a GM. The downside is that you only get one chance to make a first impression when running a game for strangers, and so you need to be acutely aware of the player’s enjoyment. These people aren’t your friends (although they may become your friends), and they aren’t just fellow gamers either. These players are your customers because they have paid to be at your table. For a convention game you need to deliver the goods and a bad game is unacceptable.

Luckily I had a few advantages. For one, all of the games I ran used the Fudge system. Fudge is based on an incredibly simple game mechanic, and I leveraged that to make sure the games didn’t become bogged down in the rules. You can run more complex systems and have a good convention game, but I wanted to appeal to the largest audience possible and did not want to limit myself to experienced players only. Using a simple game system was a very good move.

Another advantage I had was that I am very comfortable at improvising as a GM. This is a great skill to develop for any GM, but at a convention game it is essential. You only have four hours to run your game, so you have to be ready to ditch that script if the players are not interested in your scenario. This does not mean that your scenario is a bad one. It just means that the scenario was not a match for the group of six or so random players that your event happened to appeal to. Even with a well written description in the event catalog you cannot predict how the players interpreted that description. Be ready to adjust things on the fly.

My last advantage was that I was running prepared modules from one of my favorite gaming magazines. This might seem to be in contrast with the advantage of improvising, but actually it is not. While I might have strayed from the module at times I could always use it as a reference for the overall story arc of the session. I had a beginning and an end for each session, and plenty of material that I could twist and bend as needed to keep the action going at the table. My published modules were abandoned early with each session, but they were still incredibly useful to me as sources for quick inspiration when needed.

One final note about what went right before addressing what went wrong: I had a wonderful group of gamers for each game session that I ran. As a convention GM you cannot take credit for that. It is merely the luck of the draw. A good group will bring out your best and help you through your worst moments. If you played at one of my games this year at Gen Con – thank you. You made my convention experience a great one, and I hope that I did the same for you.

On to the screw-ups…

    First Game Session: Dark Horror Turned Dark Comedy

The module was a horror conspiracy with plenty of mystery, devious traps, and danger for the PCs. Set in a newly opened condo complex with a sinister backstory, the PCs were charged with finding seven tenants who had disappeared without a trace.

This session was great fun for myself and the players. We had a blast and laughed hard at the jokes everyone was making. The jokes were not a problem with this session. They were appropriate and provided a much needed buffer against the very gruesome and horrific scenes in the game.

The problem was that the scenario was too complex. It took the players about two hours to get to a point in the story that I had originally thought would only take an hour to reach. Half of the session was gone, and I had to chop out a large section of the game to get the session back on track.

Lesson learned? Don’t be afraid to toss out more clues if the players need them. The players could have used more info early on in the game, but I didn’t get it to them. The conspiracy was not the guts of the scenario but was meant to set the stage for the real threat in the story. Some cool stuff that the players probably would have enjoyed had to be dropped because I allowed the conspiracy to linger for too long.

    Second Game Session: Post-Apocalypse Survival

The module was set in the not so distant future where nuclear war and killer robots guided by a human hating artificial intelligence has wiped out modern civilization. It was The Terminator meets Mad Max set in the crumbled remains of Denver and the nearby wilderness.

This session was okay compared to the other two. It wasn’t a stinker, but it also lacked the oomph and pizazz of the others. The session was fun, but it could have been better.

Why? Because I decided to reduce the rules I usually use for Fudge even further. I was running a very subjective system to tell a very objective oriented story. This game had a military theme to it, with the PCs belonging to an organization trying to rebuild society. I wanted to see how Fudge would play with more of a storyteller approach and I let the players know that from the beginning.

Lesson learned? Make sure that your rules system matches the tone of your game’s story. There just wasn’t enough grit to the game being played to ratchet the experience of play up from good to excellent. More system and less storytelling could have made this game much better.

    Third Game Session: 1920’s Pulp Adventure

Egypt. Lost tomb of an evil pharaoh. Monsters and a mummy waiting to break free from an inverted pyramid suspended above a gateway to Hell. Seven hearty adventurers being all that stands between the forces of darkness and the world as we know it. Yep, this game rocked.

This was the best game that I ran this year at Gen Con. I scheduled it for the very last time slot of the convention with the intention of giving the players a kick ass last game to end their convention with. With that goal in mind I rolled with the punches and delivered! With one exception…

When designing the pre-generated characters I made each PC a specialist. One was the mystic able to channel strange forces and charm others, another was an alchemist who could release powerful energies with arcane concoctions. There was the strong and powerful mechanic to rely upon, the devious trickster, the lightning fast shooter, and even a last minute historian created on the spot to accommodate a seventh player for which I opened the game to after he paid with some generic tickets.

And then there was the explorer. Jack of all trades, but master of none. He could do several tasks fairly well across the board. Know what a well-rounded individual is amongst a group of specialists? A sidekick.

This player did a great job trying to get some very cool events to occur within the game, but the dice were against him. Two critical failure rolls botched some creative plans, but what really hampered the PC was that he didn’t excel at anything. Botched rolls are one thing, but not having a rock star quality is quite another.

Lesson learned? Give each PC something unique and powerful whether it be in the form of natural traits, unusual skills, or exceptional gear. The player told me after the game that he still had a good time, but it was my job to make sure that every player had their moment at the table and this guy didn’t get his. If you are that player and are reading this post I apologize.

    Conclusion

I did not fall flat on my face this year with the games that I ran. I will even go so far as to say that all of my games were successes, and that two are games that I am sure that most of the players are talking about with fondness. As GMs we know when we have hit the mark, and that is a great feeling. Yet that doesn’t mean that I was perfect either, and even your best games can be improved upon.

No matter what convention you attend, what system you GM, or what scenario you run remember that with a convention game you should put the players first. Play to your strengths and recognize your weaknesses as a GM. And most important of all, pay attention to your players and do your best to gauge how much fun they are having. There isn’t going to be a session next week, so you might as well go for broke at the table and let loose with all of your best GMing tactics. You can always learn from your mistakes later on.

That is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the Gnome Stew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget 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?




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2 Comments To "Confessions of a Gen Con GM: Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned"

#1 Comment By Rafe On August 23, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

I’ve never been to GenCon, so I’ve never participated in a convention game nor run one. I think any situation that results in satisfied nods afterwards = a well-run game, especially given the pressures that exist to run a 4-hour game for a group of strangers.

The mummy game sounds like a great concept and seems like it’d be a great one-off.

Mystery scenarios/games are one of the things that has always been difficult for me as a GM. Some groups of players are thinking and paying attention to the clues while some groups don’t. How much is too much? You don’t want to give it away, but you don’t want to become bogged down in clue minutiae. Ultimately, more is better than less. If the mystery is solved too quickly, add a twist: all facts lead to the husband, but the wife was manipulating the husband and still has a trick or two up her sleeve.

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