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From Con to Con: 2009 edition

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On August 20, 2009 @ 8:47 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

Last year I wrote a series of articles on my experiences from Gen Con 2007 and 2008, focusing on my prepping to be a GM. This year was a bit different, as I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to go so I made no GMing plans.

That left me with a lot of time to play, so play I did! While I had a lot of fun, there were a few negatives that stood out from a player’s perspective.

1. If you advertise an event as “Experience required: none” and “Yes, materials are provided” then I don’t expect to need to know the system, bring my own character, or waste everyone else’s time to generate one. Also, spend some time going over the main rule mechanics before play.

2. Building on the above, if I should bring a new character to the event then it should be mentioned in the event description.

3. Just because the latest edition of a game is being released doesn’t mean that you need to update your event with the new rules, especially if you have to do it in your hotel room the night before (and perhaps causing unintended problems). I really don’t mind playing the previous edition.

4. Never let a GM-PC take care of a threat, especially if it looks like it was scripted to happen that way.

5. Don’t be snarky about my “mispronunciation” of a word unless you’re sure that you aren’t the one pronouncing it wrong. Similarly, don’t correct  and lecture me on an aspect of the setting unless you’re sure that you are correct, especially if the setting book is sitting at the table.

6. Playtest your adventure before the Con. It’ll save lots of aggravation later, when you discover that a scene doesn’t work or a PC is sidelined through most of the adventure.

7. Make sure that your group size is manageable. Sure, letting 8-9 people play in a 6 person event helps the 2 or 3 extra players, but it may also compromise the flow of the event.

8. Don’t say that the system is in the background and that most of the game is about roleplaying if all you plan to do is read boxed text and adjudicate combats.

9. If your system offers rewards (drama points, action dice, etc) for roleplay, make sure that you hand out those awards when warranted.

Having been there myself, I appreciate the time and effort an event GM puts into it. Still, it’s things like the above that can turn a positive experience into a negative one and, if you’re acting as an ambassador to a system or campaign, you can inadvertantly turn off potential recruits.

All in all, GenCon 2009 was awesome. I look forward to 2010!

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "From Con to Con: 2009 edition"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On August 20, 2009 @ 9:56 am

Not grousing, but I don’t see how the last sentence follows from the 9 points. Is it just that GenCon is cool enough to overcome bad games, or that all of the flaws cropped up in a couple of games, leaving other great games left over?

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 20, 2009 @ 10:32 am

@Scott – A bit of both.

#3 Comment By brcarl On August 20, 2009 @ 10:34 am

I agree with Scott M. I’ve heard MANY stories about con games being run by rude, opinionated GMs and seeded with equally anti-social co-players. Though I love the idea of playing games I’m interested in but haven’t tried before, the potential pitfalls of stepping up with 4-6 complete strangers seems to outweigh the benefits.

Maybe that’s just me?

P.S.: Martin R’s story about “All Holes Filled With Harn” still haunts me. >.<

#4 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 20, 2009 @ 11:47 am

Also, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. The best event I played in was responsible for an item on the list and I had fun roleplaying my character in spite of my worst event.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On August 20, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

I ran 4 events at Gen Con this year and the feedback was great. I wish Gen Con had a way for GMs to be rated following an event. I’d love to know if the impression that I was given by the players at the table is accurate.

That said, I’ve played in games that sucked at cons. A lot of the suck can be baggage that players bring with them to the table (the kind who says something like “What do you mean World of Darkness isn’t the same as D20? This game sucks!”), and as a GM you have to get them on track quickly before they derail your event. A simple “Yes this is different from your other games, and it may not be to your liking, but if you work with me and trust me I’ll do my best to give you a great game experience.” can go a long way with such players.

As for bad GMs at a con game, well you just have to roll with the punches. I have found that when they strike upon something cool to encourage that part of the game. Say “I liked that. Can we pursue that aspect of the game further?” and in some cases you can help that GM turn a sucky game into a good one.

@brcarl – I think that the overwhelming amount of con games that I have played in were of average quality or better. Playing with complete strangers can be a lot of fun, and it often challenges me in good ways. The potential pitfalls do not outweigh the benefits IMO. Con events are a great way to stretch both your GMing and player skills.

#6 Comment By Alan De Smet On August 20, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

Point 1: Heck yeah. My wife is still bitching about her first Call of Cthulhu game at Gen Con Indy 2008. It was listed as welcoming newcomers, but the GM did nothing to reach out to the new actual newcomers at his table. He just expected them to know what “Roll Idea” meant. Happily my wife saw past this and didn’t leave hating the game, just the GM.

Now, how you handle new players is an open question. A case can be made for an introduction at the start, teaching concepts on an as-needed basis, or a mixture of both. The specifics will depend on a lot on the game and the scenario.

As for Point 5: How about, “Don’t be snarky.” It may be cool when you’re among friends and you know what people are comfortable with, but it’s all too easy to put a stranger on edge, tainting everything you do from that point forward. It can make a player hostile, and a hostile player is more likely to lash out in unproductive ways during the game, or to just walk out. Presumably you don’t want either. Be inclusive. This, of course, applies to everyone at the table.

My pet peeve: Don’t ask for the character sheets back. Players will write on them. Many want to keep the character as a memento. Paper and printing is relatively cheap, just print multiple copies for your multiple sessions. Forget some copies? There is a business services office that can make copies in the convention center. If your character sheets are unusual and you really can’t reproduce them, put them in clear plastic sleeves (the sort you use with 3-ring binders) to protect them and make it clear players should write on them. Two or three years ago I had a rash of GMs asking for sheets back. Happily, this didn’t happen this year.

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 20, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

@Brcarl – This was the first of three Gen Cons where I wasn’t satisfied with the majority of my games and I was still able to salvage fun out of all of them.

@Alan – Not allowing you to keep character sheets is a biggie, but I didn’t have problems with that this year. I shocked my players last year as I’d printed the sheets on cardstock. They assumed that they couldn’t keep them (which was false; I’d accidentally purchased cardstock paper and put it to use).

I’d also add that you don’t have to write an intricate, complex adventure in order for everyone to have a good time. My favorite event this time around was basically 3 linked combat scenes, but the latitude given to the players allowed us to have an awesome Victorian steampunk feel with a climactic scene that I’m certain we’ll all fondly remember (and if any of you happen to be reading, remember the Braddock!).

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 20, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

I’ve gotta agree with Walt on this. Gen Con GMing should meet some kind of minimum standard, and it really doesn’t. Not all con games are bad, but enough are that just about everyone in my extended group (about 15) noticed it.

#9 Comment By Noumenon On August 20, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

I wish Gen Con had a way for GMs to be rated following an event.

Me too, just because Kent King was awesome and I’d like to tell him so. Other hand, it’s so hard to make everybody happy it could be pretty depressing to find out you ran an awesome session and all the feedback is bitching because you let some guy cast a Fireball on a creature with spell resistance.

I looked for the story about “holes all filled with ham” and didn’t find it.

#10 Comment By Noumenon On August 20, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

I went to Gen Con looking for “professional GMing” and I got one guy who threw us in the tavern with no leads and couldn’t handle it when we split the party, and one guy who totally immersed me within 30 minutes into his campaign that he’s been running ongoing over multiple Gen Cons. In one campaign I was represented by a ten-sided die turned to “7”, and in the other I had a painted metal mini and index cards for my magic items. So yeah, it would be great if GMs could be ranked and rewarded for their quality.

The 45-minute Dungeon Delves, in particular, could accumulate a statistically significant ranking of their DMs for preparedness, rules knowledge, and fast play. That would make for good incentives and maybe you could promote them to running the Master Delves the next year.

#11 Comment By Jonathan Drain On August 20, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

Sounds like some elementary GM mistakes here. Gives me increased confidence in my GMing skills!

A friend attended a convention and noticed that the vast majority of D&D games were third edition. He took it as a bad omen for 4E sales, but I think it’s more likely your point 3: people don’t mind playing the previous edition. Most con attendees who play D&D4E are probably 3E converts who will be happy to play a good 3E game.

I think mispronouncing words is a standard feature of D&D. Monte Cook once wrote on his blog that when you only read a new word in a novel or sourcebook and never hear it spoken, it’s easy to mispronounce it and share that mispronunciation with your D&D book. My old group fought a lot of undead spellcasting “leeshes”.

#12 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 20, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

@Jonathan Drain – The “get a PHB for $5 if you buy any 4E book” promo that WotC was running was the only bad omen I saw for 4E.

But there was a huge line at the Paizo booth for a Pathfinder rulebook/doorstop…

#13 Comment By brcarl On August 21, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

@Noumenon – the Martin Rayla article I was referring to is back at his old site, Treasure Tables. You can find it here: http://www.treasuretables.org/2007/08/all-holes-filled-with-harn

#14 Comment By silentseas On August 21, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

Definitely agree with the advice to playtest your event before you go. The Exalted game that was run by one of our group members was playtested for us in May, giving the GM time to tweak the last boss to be a bit better and even out some of the pre-gens and make sure everyone had something to do in the game. Made his life a LOT easier come Gen Con.

#15 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 21, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

@silentseas – I second that. As I think I said in my Con to Con series, during playtest of my GenCon event my wife’s character was effectively sidelined during the climax. After noticing that and discussing it with her I was able to tweak the adventure slightly so that character had more to do.

#16 Comment By Noumenon On August 23, 2009 @ 5:34 am

@brcarl: Oh, all holes filled with *harn*! With the kerning and my ignorance, I was Googling “all holes filled with ham.” And not even realizing it was a perverted Clerks reference either.

#17 Comment By kwixson On August 23, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

I thing there is something to be said for the organized play events at conventions. The Pathfinder Society stuff I played was great because in part it didn’t matter what the DM was like, we were going to get a more or less consistent experience. The rules are pretty much set, the box text is what it is, the game has been play tested to more or less pace correctly for a 4 hour time slot. I played in two Pathfinder Society games and I suspect the second DM we had probably has some wonky home rules and might be rather opinionated. If I’m right, the organized play thing kept him constrained and forced him to meet expectations.

Compare that to the d20 Modern game my wife and I played and holy cow! First there was about six pages of single-spaced content to ingest before we could play. Backstory, homerules and plot introduction, all of it carefully crafted I’m sure, but it wasn’t possible to really into it. He intended to have given this to people before they came to the con, but my wife and I showed up on generics and the people he had sent it to ahead of time hadn’t read it either. The pitty is that he could have summed it up in like a paragraph for each thing… or handed us the rules addendum and said, “here are the rules spelled out in case you really care, but in general I just changed this, this and this and I’ll let you know more if ever comes up.”

That said, I did pick up a handy idea from this d20 Modern DM… One of those pages was a list of “headlines” from the news that day, the day the game started. That was fantastic. It was short ( the headline and a couple lines from the news story ) and gave us some context and then one of the headlines was relevant to the adventure, which we realized about half way through and that was cool. I might do this for my games.

A final note: there were a lot more women there than I had expected. At each of the three RPG events we played in there was another couple besides men and my wife. In a pick-up game the night before the con there was a sister there with her brother, and at the d20 modern game there was an equal number of men and women. It was very nice for my wife that she wasn’t the only lady at the table at any of our events.


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