TT member Troy E. Taylor (Carolina) recently GMed his first convention games ever, and I asked him if he’d mind writing up an after-action report. He said yes (thanks, Troy!), and you’re in for a treat: Troy learned a lot from the experience, and his advice is incredibly practical.
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Martin asked me to relay my first experience as a convention game master. Although I’ve been playing and running roleplaying games for a good two decades, I’ve never played or GMed Dungeons and Dragons in a convention setting.

That changed when our local game store, Dice, Daggers & Dragons, sponsored Genghis Con on Feb. 24 in Princeton, Illinois, and I signed up to run not only one game — but three.

Pre-Event Planning

Immediately, I researched all the good advice I could find on the various threads here at Treasure Tables on convention GMing. Mining all the experiences of the collective talent turned out to be a great time-saver, as well as allowed me to anticipate some of the things that make convention games unique from the more relaxed home games I’ve run all these years.

Of course, there were a wide-range of suggestions, and some of those were seemingly contradictory. Not having GMed in a convention setting before, though, it was difficult to judge which suggestions had greater validity.

However, if there was a common theme from all the online advice, it’s this: vigorously prepare. Convention-goers were in agreement, nothing spoiled a game faster than an ill-prepared GM who could not provide a cohesive scenario or make adjustments on the fly.

With more than six months’ notice, I intended to make the most of that lead time and ensure that, if nothing else, a lack of preparation would not derail my convention games.

Picking the Games

Not being confident that I could provide a complete adventure, I set a goal of trying to have a “Wow!” moment early on in each game — something the players could point back to later and say that the time was worth their while. (I was thinking of my own experience attending baseball games — few of which are competitive or result in ninth-inning heroics. But if you see a home run or two, you usually go home satisfied customer.)

The trick was devising an encounter that met that expectation. Two things popped into my head:

1) The vision of two dragons emerging from behind the tall towers of a castle they were defending and swooping down on player characters who were charging the gate.

2) Players escaping on a train while fending off attackers on desert vehicles, à la Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

All well and good, but I was still a third game short. And the second image didn’t fit traditional D&D. Pulling off the first also meant I had to get out of my comfort zone, running adventures between fourth and seventh level. Using two dragons meant a high-level game. Was I prepared to do that?

The answers to all my questions came at GenCon.


Some credit goes to Zachary, Vicki, Martin and Phil for conducting the Mastering Your GM-Fu seminar at GenCon 2006. Although there was nothing in the session’s discussion that directly related to running my convention games, this room was filled with GMs all confronting many of the same issues. That lifted my confidence.

The fact is, GMs muddle through all the time, and there is no such thing as the “perfectly-run” game. Even the panelists expressed difficulty meeting these challenges.

My confidence renewed, I visited the Paizo booth, looking to boost my collection of miniatures from their GameMastery line. My eye was attracted to the Compleat Encounter set for “The Vault of the Whispering Tyrant.”

Breaking into the pack, I discovered it also included a mini-adventure for 13th to 16th level — perfectly suited to complement my idea for the dragon assault. That’s when it hit me. I would use an old GMing tactic, pulling together component parts from various sources, then blending them with the “Wow!” moment I would write myself.

I also was looking to get Wizards of the Coast designer James Wyatt’s autograph, since his material is stuff I really admire. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything with me. They were selling his latest Eberron paperback novel, so I picked that up for him to sign.

Reading it later, I discovered that the campaign setting had airships, lightning rails, metal men marauders in a wasteland called the Mournland — all things that would jive nicely with my second idea for an adventure.

Suddenly, things didn’t seem so daunting. It was time to raid my gaming materials for the stuff I was going to use.

Digging through the Closet

In short order, I had three piles, which I would sift through later. There was stuff for my dragon assault (including goodies from my regular “Age of Worms” campaign), my Eberron chase, and then a discard pile. Then at the bottom of the closet I pulled out a beat-up green box with the likeness of Harrison Ford on the cover. It was the Adventures of Indiana Jones Roleplaying Game that TSR produced in 1984.

The game had a lousy mechanic (my apologies, designers David Cook, Tracy Hickman, Doug Niles and Michael Dobson), but it had great adventures — most of them culled from the Indiana Jones comic book that Marvel produced after the release of Temple of Doom. My favorite of the batch was “The Ikons of Ikammanen,” written by John Byrne.

I knew then what my third adventure would be. I would run “Ikons,” removing references to Indiana Jones and converting it to d20 Modern/d20 Past.

Tormented by Pregenerated Characters

Three adventures, with a limit of eight players at each session, equals 24 player characters, all custom-made to fit the adventures I had planned. My confidence wavered.

It was time to make some decisions about the design of these adventures, about the corners that would have to be cut. At the same time, I didn’t want to do anything that would cheat the players of their experience.

The dragon assault session quickly became the Age of Worms game in my mind, a battle to stop a lich general from rising from his fortress to aid his master Kyuss in the final battle. After creating two 13th level PCs, I started looking for pregens elsewhere to augment what I was doing.

I found them in the “Complete” series of player accessories that Wizards of the Coast produces: sample characters come with each prestige class example. I looked for PCs of the appropriate level and those that fit the scenario. I made custom sheets, so there was room to include all the special abilities described by their prestige classes. Even so, this was a time-consuming process.

I had less luck finding appropriate PCs for the d20 Modern Ikons game. Those I rolled up from scratch. As it turned out, it was just as well. The decision to create PCs filling some pulp hero archetypes turned out to be a good one. In the hands of accomplished players, it paid off during game play.

Fearing I was running out of prep time for the Eberron game, I utilized the 4th level fast-play characters from the Wizards’ RPGA website. They were generic, but serviceable. However, the presence of an artificer class PC was essential to the team’s success. It was hard to believe that such an iconic character class, which is unique to Eberron, wasn’t available as a pregen. So that one had to be created by me. (Ugh, more die rolling.)

Writing the Adventures

As it turned out, this was the smoothest part of the experience. All along, I had kept notes about various encounters I hoped to use. For each adventure, I planned one major encounter for each of the four hours of the session, and prepped an additional four optional encounters if time allowed.

Although I had intended to borrow liberally to create each adventure, I ended up writing the entirety of the Eberron adventure. The Age of Worms adventure was about one-third my material, one-third Sean K. Reynolds’ “Tyrant” encounter and one-third pulled directly from the Dungeon Magazine series. The Ikons adventure was simply a conversion of a great story to d20, except for the wandering monster encounters I inserted into the jungle march.

To facilitate my organization, I wrote only one encounter per word processor page. I used standard monster builds whenever possible, adjusting only hit points to strengthen or weaken the encounter accordingly. The Ikons game’s NPCs/Monsters required the most customization, but I had anticipated that aspect during the character creation process.

“Reuse and adjust” became my mantra during this part of the process. I had a wealth of material at hand, including several years worth of Dungeon magazines. There was no need to invent anything. I referenced page numbers of each statted monster or NPC I was going to use, so I could create an initiative card for each one.

Initiative Cards

My most reliable tool in my GMing kit is the index cards I use to track initiative. Thanks to the database program I had created two years earlier, it was now simply a matter of entering in the d20 stats for all the pregen characters, NPCs and monsters for each adventure in a separate file.

These I printed out onto 3×5 cards and paper clipped to their corresponding pages in a three-ringed binder. All three adventures were contained in a single binder, drastically reducing the “stuff” I was going to need carry that day.

As it turned out, I only cracked one rule book during the entire day — my Player’s Handbook, to check on spell effects. Everything else I referenced was in the binder or on the character sheets. The preparation reduced my in-game page turning considerably.


I used two footmaps for the Eberron encounters. provided the maps download for Dungeon issue #143, which contained a lightning rail carriage layout. This I transferred so I could print out each train car onto a 5×8 tile card. Although this was about 75% to scale, the cars placed end to end still stretched the entire table. For the battle in the abandoned creation forge, I used the Temple of Prismatic Flame battlemap from the D&D Fantastic Locations booklet Hellspike Prison.

I decided to forego footmaps and miniatures for the Ikons game — this proved to be the most fortunate prepping decision I made. Being a D&D GM, I am so used to the tactical miniatures combat aspect of the game that I was uncertain if this was the correct decision. Not using miniatures or footmaps for the Ikons game produced a happy result — one of the most free-flowing, faster-paced adventures that I had run in a long time.

The only props for Ikons game included a handout that showed an exterior photograph of the temple that housed the Ikons and a map of the west African coastline, both of which were provided in the original Indiana Jones game.

The setup for the Age of Worms game was the most elaborate, and stretched the length of the table. It included the stone walkway approach to the castle (Dungeon tiles), a cardboard tower (from the D&D 3-D cardstock model kit), the castle gate (my son’s Playmobile castle set) and tile cards for the interior castle grounds (Paizo’s map packs) laid on top of a Steel Sqwire footmap.

Each PC and monster was represented by a D&D-brand miniature, provided by the convention organizer. These I tagged with a label in a compartmentalized case for quick retrieval during the course of the game. The only miniatures of mine that were used were the boss Karrnathi agent in the Eberron game, two black dragons on homemade pedestal stands and the mummy and lich metal figs from the original Compleat Encounter set that I painted after purchasing it at GenCon.

Everything was prepped and set. After making an appeal for last-minute advice on the TT messageboards, I was ready to go.

Game One: Eberron’s Operation Lightning Strike

In this adventure, the PCs had to steal a lightning rail train, brave the dangers of the Mournland, secure or destroy the creation forge in the city of Eston before rival Karrnathi agents could do the same, then return safely to the Brelish border while being chased by the Lord of Blades’ warforged minions, who also wanted the forge.

An almost poetic ending: In the final battle scene, renegade warforged were attempting to board the speeding lightning rail and stop the PCs from leaving the Mournland with the creation forge, which was loaded on a flatbed car.

It was pure chance that the lone PC left to defend the creation forge on the flatbed car was the warforged scout, who was squared off against a battered warforged titan. I thought it strange that it was those two left to square off over the item responsible for their existence.

I didn’t see this coming: For flavor, I had placed zombies on the Eston rail depot, where they had been waiting patiently since the Last War for the next train (which, incidentally, was the one the PCs were driving into town). Because the PCs decided not to stop to pick them up as passengers, they chugged on by, and the zombies, predictably, turned as one and shuffled slowly after. If I needed an optional encounter later, the zombies would have harassed the PCs as they attempted to load the creation forge onto the lightning rail.

As it turned out, there wasn’t time for that encounter. However, after the PCs loaded the creation forge onto the flatbed car, the players announced they were searching the train, in case the zombies had tried to get aboard. The PCs searched every car EXCEPT the passenger car. Perfect, I thought.

So once the lightning rail was underway and the PCs made another sweep, they discovered the zombies, sitting obediently in the passenger car, each one holding out their ticket stub. The PCs decided to leave well enough alone, as long as the zombies behaved themselves.

In the midst of the final battle with the renegade warforged, the halfling got the inspired idea to rouse the zombies. “My fellow Cyrans, we are under attack! We must defend the train!” What the heck, I thought, let’s go with this.

So the zombies rose, and as one stormed the back of the train, where they overwhelmed the last warforged boarder and the entire bunch toppled over the edge of the last rail car.

Game Two: Ikons of Ikammanen (d20 Modern)

After a fellow archaeologist is attacked, the PCs take up his cause to discover the secrets of the Ikons of Ikammanen, boarding a tramp steamer for a volcanic island off the west African coast. Not only do they brave the dangers of the island, but they also discover who tried to kill their friend.

A solid group of roleplayers: I admit it, I was so fortunate to have an accomplished group of roleplayers step forward to play this game. They really embraced all the conceits of the 1930s pulp adventure. The game was enjoyable from the get-go. I really felt as if I was along for a great ride, providing a minimum of description while they immersed themselves in the character interplay.

No minis, no problem: I had concerns about not using minis for tactical combat, because I’m so used to running D&D in that fashion. If anything, this style of game was helped by NOT having that aspect. The freeform interplay really was well-suited to this adventure. Things moved much faster. In fact, this was the only adventure of the three where I didn’t have to trim encounters, and we still finished the game in the time allotted.

A metagame solution?: The adventure contained all the tropes of pulp heroes adventures: kick-in-the-door villains, death-defying leaps, fisticuffs, a champagne villain, and on the island, an opportunity for a classic death trap escape — provided the players were willing to go along with it.

The village shaman used bolas to subdue all the players, tripping them and allowing for their easy capture. One player, our intrepid reporter, however, refused to surrender, even though he also had been hobbled and held at spearpoint. He kept trying to find ways to not to be captured, even after his hands were bound.

Finally, one of the other players said, “Relax, it’ll be OK. This is fun. This is all part of it.” In other words, trust the GM. I was just so pleased the players adjudicated that little bit themselves, rather than having me step in (although I was poised to do so).

From there it was easy to truss the PCs over the pit of molten gold, where they were slowly lowered by winch to their doom. Of course, the PC who’d suggested to the reporter to relax, came up with the solution out of the death trap, and even turned it on his captors.

Hot dice: Our Fast hero sharp shooter rolled a natural 20 for a critical threat, a natural 20 to confirm, and then with his 2d10s, rolled 10s for both on damage.

I didn’t see it coming: In the closing scene, the PCs watched the bad guys’ plane nosedive into the ocean. “Take a picture, quick!” the other PCs urged our reporter. He rolled a Craft Photography check — and got a natural 20. And the game ended with his photo leading the next edition of the newspaper. How great is that?

Game Three: Age of Worms

The PCs are summoned by the archmage to aid in the final battle to stop the wormgod from taking over the material plane. Their task is to go to an abandoned fortress and stop the wormgod’s former minions, the lich general and his mummy escort, from rising to his aid.

Bad weather hits: The weather outside conspired against us. Organizers were calling the convention over early because the ice storm that had been forecast all day finally hit. There were reports of power outages. So we were asked to wrap things up by 8 p.m. That meant trimming my adventure from eight encounters to three. Yikes!

So I ran the guardian defenders, removing damage reduction from the dragons’ defenses. I threw the undead guardians against the PCs, but removed some of their special abilities. And for the final battle against the lich and the mummy, I cut their hit points in half. We finished on time, but I was disappointed that the game had to be truncated

Well, the setup looked great: This was the game with the most elaborate setup, including the toy castle gate and the terrain cards. Interestingly, the terrain feature that figured most prominently was the cardstock tower that was placed some 100 feet in front of the gate. Much of the battle with the dragon centered there.

Average damage?: I had heard GMs talk about the practice of using average damage scores rather than rolling for everything in high level games. I had always thought that sounded like cheating. Yet, with our game under severe time constraints, I found myself employing that practice almost immediately. There just wasn’t time to roll 10d4 damage for every time I used the dragon breath weapon. I went with 20 hp damage every time and no one complained (well, about getting hit, yes; the amount of damage, no).

What Did I Learn?

Convention games are different. In this case, this is what I discovered:

1) Flexibility. In two of the three adventures I trimmed encounters to keep the action moving. I also wanted to ensure that each session reached a resolution. In that respect, was I well served by all the prep work I had done — I don’t know how many times it paid off.

My familiarity with each scenario allowed me to make what I thought were good decisions throughout the day. I am a professional copy editor for a daily newspaper, so hitting deadlines is what I do on a daily basis. I found that my internal clock, which is pretty trustworthy after 20-plus years in newspapers, worked well.

2) Running three games in one day is too much. I was blown a quarter of the way through the third session. Yes, much of my mind was on the weather outside, but I know that in the future I should limit myself to running two games well.

3) Curtail distractions. My table was in a high traffic area. We always had people stopping by to shake hands and try to start up conversations with the players. It was a source of interruption all day long.

I was glad the curious stopped by to watch, but I needed to impose some rules of etiquette, such as requiring players to take the conversation elsewhere instead of having to play the game and have a conversation on the side. I’m also banning cell phones next year. Cell phone rings got real old fast. I didn’t anticipate any of that, since those aren’t factors in the games I usually run.

4) Let the players surprise you. The best moments were those the players created. That’s always true, of course, but with a regular group, you can anticipate some things because of player tendencies. A table of strangers bring new approaches to the game.

Closing Comment

I have found running convention games to be wonderfully invigorating. A change of scenery, if you will, does wonders. And I recommend that any GM give running a convention game a try. It worked GMing muscles that I hadn’t used in a while and it also challenged me intellectually and creatively. Plus it was a lot of fun.
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A fitting coda for Troy’s first convention GMing experience: Genghis Con was covered in a local newspaper, and Troy’s Ikons game was mentioned by name as a standout event.