RPG Carnival: Suggestions for Convention GMs

It’s been a while since I took part in the RPG Blog Carnival. Now, the current one is on the theme of conventions, Ren faires and carnivals, hosted by Chgowiz at Chgowiz’s Old Guy RPG Blog.

Now, as some of you know, we had Ropecon in Finland at the turn of the month, and I was the RPG admin, or the Master of Game Masters, as I like to call myself. In practice, this meant staffing the GM info desk and working out table schedules for the Game Masters who’d signed up to run games.

Prior to this, I’d been running games at Ropecon since 2005. Mostly, I’ve run Living Greyhawk, plus Pathfinder Society at Tracon last winter. It’s been quite a few sessions, and I’ve learned quite a few things about how to prepare for running at a convention, what to expect, and what you can and cannot do in a con game. Some of these may strike you as obvious, but I have seen GMs who could have used each and every one of these pieces of advice.

First, always have pre-made player characters. Even if you’re running Living Forgotten Realms or Pathfinder Society or some other organised play campaign that will continue beyond that one session (most con games being one-shots), have pre-made characters available. Few people come to a convention to roll up PCs. In fact, were I to run something that isn’t an organised play campaign, I wouldn’t even have character creation as an option. I want to run my game, make it good, and then be on my way to do something else.

Second, write up a decent description of your game. Nobody will sign up for a game that’s only billed as “D&D 3.5” without any information as to the actual content. You want to grab your players’ attention with it. Tell them what the game is like, not about what your ruleset is (though it is a good idea to mention that, too – I would be most unhappy if I found myself at a 4E table by accident). This should also get you the kind of players you want – the people playing RPGs at conventions are a myriad bunch, and the wrong sort of player in the wrong sort of game can lead to disaster. A Nordic-style immersionist in a Living Greyhawk table or a hack & slashy D&D player in a World of Darkness game are unlikely to lead to good gaming.

There’s also always the risk that one of your players will be a maladjusted social misfit who embodies every negative gamer stereotype, smells of cat piss and tries to rules lawyer your game despite not actually knowing the rules. Accept this risk. In the end, there is little you can do to prevent it. If the cat piss man wants to come, he will come. They seem to be most attracted to mainstream RPGs like World of Darkness stuff (especially Vampire: the Masquerade) and whatever is the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

It’s a good idea to playtest your scenario beforehand, if possible. In the case of organised play scenarios, at least have played it before the con. While playtesting isn’t viable or meaningful for some types of games (character-driven revolving door games, for instance, may not benefit a lot), it is for most, and if you can, do it. Playtesting makes games better.

Length is an issue. The standard convention game is four hours long. Living Greyhawk, Pathfinder Society and Living Forgotten Realms all stick to this, with varying degrees of faithfulness, and for Ropecon, you get a free one-day ticket for four hours of GMing and a full weekend for eight hours. This is not to say that all games should be four hours in length, but it’s the standard, which is good to keep in mind. Especially for longer games, you’ll want to make sure the game is really, truly worth the time.

At conventions, the players’ time is more valuable than usually, because there’s a con going on and there will be interesting programming or other games that they will miss because they’re playing your game. Make sure it’s worth it. This means that you should preferably not be falling asleep behind the GM screen and be neither drunk, hangover, nor high. Be on time, and stick to the schedule. If you’ve announced a four-hour game, try and keep to it, especially if the table schedule is tight and there’s another GM taking over right after you’ve wrapped up.

Then there’s the question of what kinds of games you can run at conventions. The con environment is often noisy and playing areas tend to be open, with lots of people. It’s disruptive and distracting. This means that horror may be difficult to run well. It’s a good idea to ask for a peaceful area from the con organisers if you need something atmospheric, but it’s rare you can get anything approaching ideal conditions. Tracon’s soundproof rooms last winter were lovely, though. That said, the guy who generated the most positive feedback at Ropecon this year ran Call of Cthulhu.

One-shots work generally well. Since con game rarely continues beyond that session, you can run stuff like Tomb of Horrors or Paranoia, no problem. Player versus player games tend to work best at cons as well.

Comedy games and lighthearted stuff is good for a con game. For multi-day cons, this is especially true after the first day. Sleep deprivation, caffeine overdose and sugar high make everything funny.

Conventions are also ideal for running that weird-ass art game translated from an obscure Polish dialect that you always wanted to run but your regular gaming group wants nothing to do with. Personally, I’m contemplating writing up a Godlike game for next Tracon to run along with Pathfinder Society. It may also be that I have listened to a lot of Sabaton lately. Seriously, cons are excellent for running the obscure stuff. Write a good enough description and players will sign up for anything. Except maybe FATAL or RaHoWa. A convention game of World of Synnibarr or Spawn of Fashan would probably be unreasonably popular, though.

Finally, any convention worth attending will want feedback on what was good and what was bad. Fill up a feedback form or send them some by e-mail after the convention, because without constructive criticism, it is hard to know what needs improving.

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9 thoughts on “RPG Carnival: Suggestions for Convention GMs

  1. Nothing extreme, but there are a few individuals whom at least the Living Greyhawk/Pathfinder Society GMs have learned to shun.

    Edit: Scratch that. There is one, but he mostly bothers the LARP guys.

  2. Although they’re clean, there’s couple that come with mental hygiene of a Cat Piss Man.

    *shudder* I remember doing that job. I remember the terror of being trapped behind the desk and being forced to listen to them while they yammer on and on forever.

  3. The fabled “Cat piss man” in my experience is actually usually someone with out of control diabetes (not sleeping or eating properly does that) who is undergoing pretty heavy ketosis. That’s been my experience the three times I’ve encountered the “cat piss man” at a game.

    That said, I think you are underestimating the potential awesome of showing up to run a game drunk or high.

  4. I haven’t seen one in Ropecon, I knew one in Scotland who just wouldn’t shower nearly enough and thus stank to high heavens, more of sweat than of actual cat-piss, though.

  5. Pingback: Free Advice to Game Publishers: How to Demo a Role-Playing Game at a Convention | LivingDice.com

  6. Your point about giving players four hours’ worth of good gaming is a very good point and it is this that has inspired me to gravitate away from rules-heavy games in the future when running con-games. (note: I consider D&D rules-heavy)

    This is because with rules-light games it’s easier to concentrate on the awesome. If a good part of your four hour game is spent locked in the same two combat encounters where nothing meaningful is really happening then… yeah.

    This decision was also partly inspired by the fact that my best con experience was the game of Best Friends I ran last RopeCon.

  7. Pingback: Words of Wisdom from Ropecon | Northeast Wars X

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