This is a bit of an odd post: I’m going to talk about some of the things that you can learn as a GM by going to GenCon as a player. This year will be my seventh GenCon, and I’ve never run a game at the con — I go to play.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about how to use my GenCon experience to improve my home games — and that’s what I want to cover with these 6 tips.
My goal here is to hit the high notes, and provide some useful advice on how to take more away from your time at Gencon.
1. Try New Games: Most gaming groups gravitate to a handful of games, although there are exceptions — and some groups are downright resistant to trying anything new. GenCon is the perfect place to try games that you’d never consider running at home, or that you’d like to see in action without having to buy all of the books, learn a host of new rules, etc. People come out of the woodwork to run every game under the sun at GenCon, so chances are if you’re interested in it, you’ll be able to find it there.
2. Learn From Great Events: Every year, I usually manage to play in at least one truly superlative game — last year it was Burning Wheel; two years ago it was a LUG Star Trek event. Sometimes I come away with a new perspective on GMing, or a handful of new tricks to try out at home — or best of all, a game so inspiring that it shifts my interest in new directions, and opens up options I’d never considered before. For me, these experiences have most often come from trying games that I’ve never played before, which is why I place so much importance on item one.
3. Learn From Crappy Events, Too: Conversely, I always seem to wind up in at least one abysmal game every year, as well. For the first couple of years, I tried to avoid this — but after a while, I realized that not only did those sessions make for great stories for years to come, they were also fertile ground for learning what not to do. Granted, once is enough: if a particular GM really stank, I’ll avoid their games in subsequent years — but that one time can be pure gold as a learning experience.
4. See Things From a Player’s Perspective: If, like me, you GM more often than you play, it can be incredibly useful to have a chance to sit down with a group of strangers — in a stranger’s game — and just see how things go. I view this as a bit of a different animal than items two and three, although they’re certainly related. When you’re playing in an event, give some thought to how you play, and what kinds of things you respond to well or poorly. I tend to keep an eye out for the stuff that really inspired me about my favorite events, and I try to include those things in my own games when I get home.
5. Find Cool Products: I admit it: I’m an exhibit hall junkie. I can prowl the same aisles with great contentment on every single day of the con, and never lose interest. But even if you’re not quite that obsessive about hunting down new things in the exhibit hall, the odds are good that you’ll find a few surprises. These can be fairly basic, like new games or supplements, or less obvious, like game aids that turn out to fit your GMing style perfectly (Steel Sqwire templates or Fiery Dragon counters, for example).
6. Recharge Your Gaming Batteries: Feeling a bit burned out? Playing in one-shot games with strangers is a great way to have fun without having to worry about what happens next. I don’t mean that you should set out to be disruptive — just that there’s something very liberating about just sitting down to play when you don’t need to look ahead, think about running the game or keep tabs on everyone else at the table.
Obviously, the main reason to go to GenCon is to have fun — but while you’re at it, why not learn a few new things in the process? Frankly, that’s one of my favorite things about GenCon, and it’s part of what keeps me coming back year after year.
As always, I’m eager to hear what you have learned from GenCon, or for that matter, from convention gaming in general. (My flight leaves tomorrow morning, and I won’t be back until Sunday; I’ll try to find a way to respond to comments while I’m gone, but I can’t make any promises! At worst, I’ll reply to your comments as soon as I get back from Indianapolis.)