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GenCon 2007’s Lessons for Convention GMs

Learning from both sides of the screen is one of my maxims for GMs [1], and it was in the back of my mind throughout this year’s GenCon.

My group played in six events, and while we didn’t always agree on how they went, we tended to at least be in the same ballpark. By my count, we had three good games, two bad ones and one so-so one — all of which suggested some GMing tips specific to convention events.

I’ve never run a convention game, but I’ve played in a lot of them. In the 2006 TT post How to GM a Good Convention Game (from a Player’s POV) [2], I identified nine general characteristics of a good con game — this time around, I’d like to do a quick case study of nine specific successes and failures.

Character sheets are freebies. When you GM a con game, let me keep my character sheet (which will go in my box of GenCon memorabilia). Even if you’re running the same game with the same PCs 10 times, we’re talking like $5 tops to print enough sheets for every player to keep theirs.

The D&D zombies game my group played this year was a perfect example: Our GM gave us sheets, backgrounds, notes about the other PCs and a character illustration…and didn’t let us keep any of it, which was a bummer.

(As an aside, in the “Signs Your Game Might be Boring” department, if you offer me my sheet and I don’t take it, I hated your game. I bet I’m not the only one who does this.)

Don’t run long. This year, our last game was a Dread event on Saturday from 8:00 PM to midnight. It ran almost an hour long, which made for a rough Sunday (yes, we’re getting old). It went over because we split the party and because the GM waited much too long to give us an incentive to get back together (see below for a tip about this).

This meant that every few minutes, one or two players stepped away from the table with the GM while the rest of us roleplayed, but couldn’t do anything mechanical, or just sat around. And consequently, we finished late.

Discourage splitting the party. In that Dread game, we shouldn’t have split the party — that was partly a metagame mistake on our part as a group. But it was also partly the GM’s fault for running a game that encouraged splitting the party.

Which was too bad, because the Dread system (a Jenga tower!), most of the other players and the scenario itself were all excellent. But because of the split-party thing, one of us sat around for nearly two hours at the end of the session, and got maybe 10 minutes of action during that period. Weak.

Run one to three robust encounters. My three favorite events this year were all essentially just expanded encounters — a great approach for a con game. They were simple and straightforward, we never got confused about what to do and all of the excitement, drama and complexity came directly from character interaction.

There’s a measure of personal preference in there, but that, in my opinion, is how 99% of convention games should be run. Interestingly, this kind of game structure sometimes gets derided as railroading — but at a convention, I want railroading on a structural level. I only have four hours, why waste even five minutes?

This is not a storytelling circle. Our very first event was a Call of Cthulhu scenario so boring that one of the players fell asleep. Our GM had clearly internalized one of the maxims of CoC one-shot GMing, “The event should end with most of the PCs dead or insane,” as, “You should put a ring in the party’s collective nose and lead them to your preordained conclusion.”

It’s 2007. We can stop doing this now.

Encourage your players. Our three best GMs had lots of things in common, but this was one I’d never explicitly considered before: They all made us, their players, feel like we rocked.

When someone did something cool, the GM said so — and gave them a bonus, if it was appropriate. Bonus or no bonus, though, being told that you just did something awesome — and seeing that was excited about it — makes for a great play experience.

Do a quick rules rundown. Nearly all of our GMs did this, and while it won’t turn a bad event into a good one, it’s a simple way to make new players feel welcome and keep experienced (but rusty) players from stumbling.

Our Dread GM went so far as to give each of us a set of quickstart rules, which was awesome — although with a more mechanics-heavy system, this option might not be desirable.

90% prepped is 10% unprepared. There’s always going to be stuff you can’t prepare for, but if you bust out a battlemat, specialized props, well-designed character sheets and other goodies…and then present your players with minis that don’t match the game, it doesn’t look right.

I have no problem with minimalist games — if cost or time is a factor, no worries. But if you have the money and the time to nail down most of the little stuff, why not address all of it?

A little player input goes a long way. In one of my favorite events, we got to pick our character names, and in another of our best games we each developed two important aspects of our characters. (Note that we did not have to create entire characters, which is the death knell of any con game, with rare exceptions).

Those little bits of input into our characters made for a much richer experience overall — without throwing off any of the GM’s careful prep, niche preservation or any of the other issues that pregenerated characters avoid.

Have you run into these features — positive or negative — in con games you’ve played? As a convention GM, do you agree with my take on these nine issues?

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#1 Comment By Jeff Rients On August 23, 2007 @ 5:50 am

Good call on the charsheets. I had never throught about them from that angle before.

#2 Comment By Telas On August 23, 2007 @ 7:12 am

Historically, I’ve had bad experiences with Con games, so I tend to avoid them.

It’s high time to change that attitude.

#3 Comment By Martin On August 23, 2007 @ 7:30 am

Telas: Bad experiences as a GM or as a player? Did you get a chance to play or run anything at this year’s con?

#4 Comment By Carolina aka Troy Taylor On August 23, 2007 @ 7:39 am

Yes, yes, yes …. and yes!

All your observations are spot on, I think.

#5 Comment By Walt C On August 23, 2007 @ 8:33 am

I signed up for four games and got to play in three. [Tune out now, Telas, I’m about to tell you about my game experiences…:)].

My first experience was probably the best. I played in a Doctor Who adventure that used Call of Cthulhu rules (and some concepts). There were two GMs (one also played the Fourth Doctor, decked out in full costume). We started with a party split, but each GM led the group until we met. The adventure was split into three episodes, complete with bumper music and quick recaps (as well as a 5 minute break between them).

[As an aside, I wish the GMs had told us up front about the episodic breaks; it would’ve cut down on players running to the restroom.]

We completed the game within the timeframe and it felt like a standard Doctor Who adventure. The GMs did a great job of keeping us moving, offering suggestions on how to “use our sheets” when necessary.

My only criticism (which isn’t even a criticism depending on your style) is that the GM narrated through most combat situations. Had the GMs emphasized that the feel was “Doctor Who,” not “CoC,” this wouldn’t have been a problem.

[As another aside, the Doctor was a GMPC. This was off-putting at first, but it did ensure that all of the players were on the same level (after all, we’d all want to play the Doctor!). Unfortunately, the player stuck with K9 had no idea how to play him.]

All in all, it was highly enjoyable.

I missed the second game because our GM got lost in the “room number shuffle.” My advice here is, if you are a con GM, you might want to go to all of the identifiable “wrong” sites and post the proper information. A cell number might help too, especially if you were originally in the Omni and are actually at Embassy Suites.

The third game was Star Wars Saga and my first RPGA experience (I had to sign up in order to play). This game did exactly what I wanted it to do, which was show off the mechanics in a few encounters. However, the game was scheduled from 8-1 and the actual game ended at 11. If I’m giving you a block of time, I expect to be entertained for that amount of time (However, most RPGAers probably know the drill).

I also showed up with no pregens. Although this was an RPGA game, it was also a 1st level introductory adventure. The GM looked almost panicked when I didn’t have a character, and he was about to send me to the Central Command for a sheet (or put the game on hold while I generated one) when the player next to me helpfully handed me some.

My final experience was Victoriana, which is a game near and dear to my heart. The GM did an excellent job of summarizing the rules and gave us a highly entertaining experience. I felt that the ending felt a little unsatisfying (we learned some information that spoiled the “big reveal” and left me feeling incompetent). However, it was Sunday, and all of us were running out of steam.

And hey, at least I didn’t get railed at the ritual orgy! 🙂 (Although, I would be interested to know how you rated that game, Martin!)

#6 Comment By Telas On August 23, 2007 @ 8:51 am

Martin: My bad experiences were as a player, back when I was in high school and Reagan was in office. Every D&D game I played at a convention sucked hard, so I basically gave up on mainstream Con games

These days, I usually play intro adventures of systems I’m interested in, like Savage Worlds or True20 last year, or Og this year. I find that they display the mechanics pretty well, without turning into a rules argument.

Run a game? I may have run a few con games, but never a Con game. 😉 Sounds fun.

#7 Comment By Martin On August 23, 2007 @ 8:53 am

Great writeup, Walt!

All Holes Filled with Harn would have gone in my neutral column, just like this year’s Savage Worlds game. There were high and low notes, and enough of the latter to take the luster off the whole event.

#8 Comment By Martin On August 23, 2007 @ 8:55 am

Telas: That’s too bad — and given my group’s usual ratio of good:bad games (how are there so many bad games!?), I know what you mean.

#9 Comment By Abulia On August 23, 2007 @ 8:56 am

I’ve run a LOT of convention games. They’re not like regular games which is why I don’t grok why people go to conventions to play games in the first place! 🙂

In a convention game — for a company — I have X period of time to essentially “sell” everyone on the game. No, not the hard sell, the soft cell. That means the adventure has to be self-contained (no external references that players have to be filled in on), have a resolution and pretty much follow the three act model to a T. (Those three acts can be three encounters, just as long as it moves things along.)

The players are typically always right; there are no dumb ideas. Everything is open and a lot of latitude is given, especially when introducing a new system to most/all of the players.

I always let the players keep their character sheets, handouts, etc. In most cases I have materials and/or prizes to give out as well. Heck, I even give back generic tickets on most occasions.

If someone travels an absurd amount to time and distance and pays to play in a game I run you can be damn sure I give it 110%. I’ve run con games literally throwing up at the breaks, on a handful of sleep, and my voice nearly gone from doing 12 hours the day before.

But you treat each group as the most important group you have to run that game for.

I’ve actually had people ask when the next session I was going to run (same adventure) and pay to play just to sit in with a different group of players and try a different character. Weird… 🙂

#10 Comment By VV_GM On August 23, 2007 @ 10:34 am

I ran only one event at GenCon this year, and when a GM didn’t show I ran a pick-up game for two guys who were hoping to get another game in on Sunday. Both went well and I and the players had a good time.

For me there a couple of things to keep in mind about con games – 1) less is more, 2) reward the players and maybe the PCs.

I run con games without maps or minis (unless needed by the game) to eliminate the distractions that they may cause. I plan a strong skeletal plot for the event, and develop NPCs and write a bunch of notes about the locations. Yet I stop there and let the players direct the action. I am more there for keeping the pace and gettign everyone involved then to tell a story. By going minimalist I can cram more into that four hour slot.

The players need praise and encouragement for keeping them involved, but also to generate that infectious enthusiasm to get other players involved. You don’t have to give the rewards to the PCs, you can crush them horribly, just praise the PC afterwards (i.e. – “Sorry that your PC was fried, but that was the most heroic act in the entire game!”). Get the players into the game by showing that their actions matter.