Gen Con was a just a few weeks ago, marking the height of the convention season. This year, I was fortunate to play in a number of games, run by some great GM’s. But as with other years, I heard numerous complaints from people about games that were less enjoyable, and in some cases downright painful. After talking to different people about the games they played, and talking about what worked and did not work, I realized that a number of the issues that caused so much pain were only issues because the game was being run at a con, and would have been perfectly fine at a home game. This lead me to the thesis of…

Your Con Con Game Is Not A Home Game

The most common mistake people seem to make when designing games to be run at conventions is that running a convention game is the same as running a home game. It is not. You may be an established GM at your home game, but convention games are different creatures, and require emphasis on different skills. Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of GMing skills that are forged at your home table that work when you are in a convention, but you have to acknowledge the unique constraints of a convention game. Some of which are:
Time – Convention games are typically four-hour slots, but don’t be fooled, you don’t get four hours to run your game. That four hours covers everyone coming to the table, picking out characters, asking questions, taking a break, packing up. In truth you really have three hours of good gaming time. This makes story structure and pacing key.
Unknown Players – In most cases you will not know any of the gamers for which you are running the game. This means you cannot anticipate, with any accuracy, what they are going to do, how they will react, etc. This means that your session has to have a strong hook and a clear direction.
No Group Cohesion – Because you are working with strangers, there is no immediate group cohesion, which is key for getting a group to be effective and productive. This means that even simple things will take them longer, because they are not comfortable working as a group.

Understanding those constraints, you have to design the game you are going to run to deal with those issues. The better you handle the above constraints the better your game will be.

Elements of a Good Con Game

So let’s take a look at some (not nearly all) of the ways that you can structure a convention game to deal with the above constraints and make it an all-around enjoyable experience.

Straight to the Action

Time is precious, and your three-hour clock of usable game time is ticking away, so have your game open up with action and get those players rolling some dice and taking out some opposition. Avoid starting your game with a lengthy exposition about the world, the setting, etc. If you need to do that, flashback to it after you have some action. Also, consider a handout as a tool for providing more information without saying it.

My preference when designing a con game is to use the in media res technique of starting right in the middle of a conflict. This is the fastest jump into the action and it does a good job of capturing the players attention, and setting the tone for the rest of the game.

Simple Plot

Because you do not know the players and time is short, the plot for your convention game needs to be simple (i.e. get the McGuffin, kill the vampire in his lair, survive until morning). In the first scene or two the players should know exactly what they are doing for the rest of the game. All of your major scenes in the session should drive to this point.

Anything more complex than this is going to take too much time to develop and for the players to digest. Convoluted or obscured plots are also a bad idea, convention gamers are often operating on less sleep, and may not be as quick to pick up on your subtle clues ,which may result in them figuring things out too late. Avoid multiple objectives in your plot, as it can lead to analysis paralysis in the players, burning valuable gaming time.

It’s About the Players

When using homebrew games or designed worlds, there is a temptation to have the session be about showing the players how cool your world is and how awesome your NPC’s are. This is the wrong approach. Your goal in a convention game is to give the players a great and memorable experience. So when you design your game, avoid making it a travelogue of your world, and do not go into deep detail on facets of your world or NPCs. Seed your game with some interesting parts of your world, but use the rule of spice: a little goes a long way.

The only information you need to provide is what is pertinent to the session, and will assist the players in completing your Simple Plot. If the players have a great time in the session, they will be interested in your world afterwards. After the game, feel free to get a drink and tell them all about the world.

Make the Characters Shine

As an extension to the point above, your goal as the GM is to make every character shine during the game. If you are creating pre-gen characters, then gear them to all be awesome within the game you are creating. Create backgrounds (simple and short) that give the player a few things to grab onto and use in play. Design the adventure such that every character has a way to give a meaningful contribution during the course of the game. If you make a pre-gen that is loaded in social skills you had better write a scene where the characters need to use social skills to progress.

When you are running the game, make sure that you are moving the spotlight from character to character throughout the game. When a character does something awesome in the game, make a point of acknowledging it. I like to replay those moves with exaggerated gestures and sound effects.

Nothing Exists Except This Session

 The convention game exists unto itself. There is nothing of importance that happened before it, and nothing after the game matters.  

If I have a personal peeve in a convention game it is this right here, and the reason I have made it last in the list. The convention game exists unto itself. There is nothing of importance that happened before it, and nothing after the game matters. I have heard stories of players getting into games where the GM is planning on running multiple sessions for the next few years, and that the outcome of the game will stretch on for years to come. In most cases (and I will explain some exceptions below), the players who play the game are not going to come back, and so if they have a mediocre time in the game because this was rising action to a conclusion that is coming in the next session, then you have done it wrong.

The same is true about the events leading up to the session. Avoid spending a lot of time talking about the things that happened before this session. If it is directly connected to the adventure, then put it in a handout and make sure the players have it nearby. Put all the focus on what is happening in this game. Think of a con game like a movie, it is the most important day of those character’s lives.

Now the few exceptions to this point, because they exist. Dedicated groups who meet annually for the game, can have lengthy plots that span sessions. If you are running multiple games in the same con, you can get away with this a bit, but factor into your design that not everyone is playing all the sessions. If you are a large organized play group who sponsors events to create outcomes for your larger meta-plot, then you know what you are doing. If you are not any of these, then see the start of this section.

Designed for Convention Play

Gaming conventions are awesome. They are a chance to play new games, play with people you have never met, and forge new friendships. Designing a convention game should be a deliberate process, and one that is much different than designing a home session. If you use some of the tips above, you will make a more enjoyable game for your players, and they will be more apt to seek you out in future conventions.

What do you do in your convention games that is different from your home games? What are some things you have put into convention games, that should have stayed at your home table? What is your secret ingredient for a good convention game?