This Saturday I will be GMing at a local gameday, and I’m going in blind.  I found out about it through the local group and tossed my hat into the ring.  It’s mostly board games, but I sent an email asking if they’d like an RPG table. The organizer got right back to me, seemed excited,  and put my game on the list.  But I’m a little nervous; it’s a double-blind situation for all of us.  This gave me the chance to reflect on how to get everyone comfortable at the table and ready for play.  I’ve used most of the suggestions below at previous gamedays.  You may already do some of these things yourself, but hopefully there will be something new here for you.
Before We Formally Begin
  • Character sheets – Have all of the character sheets on the table so players can choose one.  For a gameday, I recommend pregenerated characters so you can get right into play.  Also, limit the character choices to basic classes/roles.  Hopefully this helps new players find a role they are comfortable playing. A new player may have trouble portraying an undead, shard-touched illusionist/ranger.  If you can’t tell a player “Oh, that class is like Legolas,” or “She’s like Princess Leia,”  it’s probably too complicated for a gameday.
  • Extra dice and rolling methods – Have extra dice and make sure everyone has a set.  (I tend to loan out my really ugly sets).  If you are using non-standard dice, like FUDGE dice, or a non-standard rolling method, you might want to explain those when you give them their dice and the character sheet.
Once Everyone is Seated
  • The Tent – Give everyone an index card folded in half so they can write their character’s name, class/race, and any other information (like Armor or Defense Class) on the card.  That way everyone can see these during play.  They should put their real name somewhere on the card too, though many DM’s prefer to use character names during play.  I jot down this information on my game notes, like a little seating chart that I can refer to during the game.
  • Extra index cards – Give everyone an index card so they can jot down any notes during play.  It’s kind of like buying a program and keeping stats at a baseball game.  It really helps focus a player’s attention.
  • Introductions – These are corny, but they work.  As DM, introduce yourself and any other information you’d like to share (occupation, years gaming, etc….)  Then ask players to do the same.  Ask them to tell everyone their character’s name and the class/role they will be playing.  It gets everyone talking a least a little right off the bat.
  • Table Rules – Be sure to tell folks your policy on phones and wireless devices right up front.  If you allow them, great.  If you’d prefer they step away from the table to take emergency calls, say it.  Let everyone know how you handle initiative and turn order and any other general table rules.  Keep it brief, though; don’t try to explain the entire game system.  You want to get playing as soon as you can.
  • Table Invitations – Remind players that they can ask you questions about how to roll the dice or accomplish tasks during play.  This is particularly important for players who are new to the system.  I also like to remind players that they can ask questions of NPC’s, and can ask to buy things in town.  Some new players aren’t sure whether they can ask for more information or supplies, or if they just have to take only what the GM gives them.
During Play
  • Just in Time Information – In a way, the entire game session is a chance to make everyone feel comfortable and have fun.  Be sure to provide “Just in time information” on how to accomplish tasks duing play.  Don’t assume that players remember everything you said at the beginning.  I’ll often say something like “You need to roll a 20-sided die and get over your saving score for Dragon Breath.”  
  • Keeping the play balanced – Here’s where that seating chart helps.  Often one or two players will tend to dominate the game, especially in these double-blind convention games.  They don’t mean any harm, it’s just the way people are.  If early in the game you call on the quiet players, “Sarah, what do you think?”, you can help bring them into the action.
None of these suggestions is a guarantee that you’ll have a great session.  Obviously your preparation and people skills as a GM come into play. However, these are some things that don’t take much time, but can go a long way towards promoting a positive mood at the session.  What other techniques do you have to get players comfortable?