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conventions, Black & White

Convention Gaming Advice

Con Gaming Advice

First off running games at conventions is a massive challenge. With the players who sign-up for your game you do not know who you’ll get, if you get any players at all. However it is also the most rewarding and most enjoyable way of running games in my opinion. I run games [almost non-stop] at six RPG conventions a year and I can safely say I have run games for the cream of UK role-players.
Character Sheets

Pre-generated player character sheets are the way to go [unless CharGen is very quick and fun]. Also have good playable PreGens as well. A good mix of archetypal roles is a good idea with each character having nice hooks for role-playing them. So you might have a Mighty Knight [who is a Bit of a Coward] or a Sassy Spaceship Pilot [who Knows a Dark Secret]. These should be clearly labelled on the character sheet. The thing is to have six very playable player characters that can be played very straightforward by a novice player but an experienced player can go to town on them, chewing scenery and hamming it up.

I spend most of my prep time on making up six or seven player characters and I make sure that the character sheets are well laid out with all relevant information on them. I include some pictures and a few quotes to set the tone of the character and the setting. Also make sure that they are all useful in the scenario. No point having a heavily armed and armoured psychotic killer in a subtle investigation of a boarding school for girls!

Also make sure you know the character sheets inside and out, someone at the table should and as the players are all new, well you will have to take up the slack. The players might not be able to spot that much needed item or skill at the right time so it helps if you can point that out at the right moment in the game.

Under no circumstances should you allow any player to bring their own player character to the game, especially if it is your first time running the game. More often than not it is their own character, preciously looked after since they first started playing role-playing games. They will be maxed out with the best and coolest items, stats, skills and abilities and would over-balance your game. Also they would get most upset with you should you kill their treasured PC or worst, make them lose some of their cool stuff.

Should your game be under subscribed it is worth knowing which characters to hand out first.

The Con Game Scenario

The con game should be a self contained one-shot. That means a good beginning and an interesting middle building up to a memorable climax. It is important that you do have a good round-up ending to the scenario as you will not be able to carry it on next week like you can in your home game. Also more usually gets done in a con game compared to your home game.
Starting the scenario can take place with the safe bet of all the characters ‘meeting in a tavern’ or you can be more adventurous and go for an in media res start.
With a media res start you can use a fight, a chase or any other kind of conflict to start the scenario. It is a good way of avoiding the more boring aspects of the setting like travelling out in the wilds, or to a fabled ‘lost’ city, or finding the patron for the next mission by avoiding all that and getting the player characters straight into the action. It also allows you to showcase an aspect of the rules from the get-go but try not to force the players into doing something they may not want to do.

With the con game you can get away with doing certain things you might not in you own home campaign. The ‘safe’ rules and conduct can be thrown out the window. You can have a player character be the leader of the group by default, or be the traitor in their midst, or even have the player characters attack each other and even kill each other. Also you can mess about with the setting. Player characters could be the villains of the setting or monsters; I have seen games where the players portrayed Orcs or even Ring Wraiths on a Lord of the Rings game for example. This can be very beneficial, as the players will see things from the different side of the coin as it were, even if it is only for the length of your game. I have also seen games end with not only the death of all the player characters but the destruction of the game world as well.

Pace your scenario out so that it will comfortably run for the whole slot time taking into account a late start as people get settled in at the table [or even finding the table! :shock: ]
Also expect a few interruptions during the game. Also have the scenario designed so you can drop or add certain sections so that you can still get to the climax or a satisfactory ending before your time runs out.

The best way of finding the pace for the scenario is to play-test it first with your home group. It might be advantageous to get your home players to ‘play it up’ and try to ‘break’ the scenario for you. Find out if the player characters would really go on that mission, or pay for the trackers services, or hand over the captive to the bandits, or share out the treasure with the villages, etc.
Getting to know the weak points of the scenario might help you come up with some ideas of what to do if the PCs do something you didn’t expect that might spoil the scenario. Having that contingency ready for when the PCs go left instead of right will help you run the game smoothly and look cool while doing so!

Scheduling Your Game

Try and find out what kind of gaming slots are being ran at the convention. Most conventions usually have a three or four hours for each game slot. Some will have time planned between the slots but sometimes the slots run concurrently, leaving no time between slots. That will affect what time you actually get to run the game for, bearing in mind the interruptions you’ll probably get as well.
Some thought will also be needed to which slot during the convention you pick for your game. The first slot of the convention usually suffers from delays due to the set up of the whole convention as well as late arrivals of the attendees.

The first slot in the morning can undergo problems as some attendees will be suffering hangovers from the night before or will be late from lying in bed if the con is residential.

The players going off in search of food/drink for lunch often plague a midday slot.

As an afternoon slot is good for most games you’ll have competition as it usually the most popular slot. Though be wary, as some gamers get a little sleepy after a heavy lunch.

Evening slots are also popular as the finish times are usually open-ended as there isn’t another slot following [apart from the dreaded all-night gaming slots of course!]. These are ideal for horror or dark atmosphere type games or games that require a specific tone or mood. Be aware though that some gamers like to party in the evening and might be too drunk to play or may not show up at all.

If you are not sure what slot or time to go for, ask the convention organisers; they usually have a member of the committee dedicated to sorting out the programme or the RPG games being ran. They would normally advise you when the optimum time will be for you to run your game.

I always have a scheduled ‘refreshment break’ about halfway through for about ten or twenty minutes. This gives the players [and yourself] a change to refresh, nip to the bar to buy a drink, to get food, have a smoke outside, or check out the trade hall. It also allows you to re-group and think over how the rest of the scenario is going to go. The players can talk to each other and plot out what they are going to do or just gossip about the last film they have seen. If the convention is a one-day event this allows the players to go and look around at the rest of the convention.

Advertising Your Game

Advertising your game is crucial if you want to get some players. Many conventions will advertise their games on their websites usually as well at the convention itself in Programme Books or via sign-up sheets.

A few things you need to consider first though before you advertise your game.
· Give your scenario a nice catchy title. Something that captures the spirit of the game you are running. ’Bloodbath at Peak Castle’ indicates a horror or martial scenario where as ’Intrigue at Peak Castle’ is probably an investigation or diplomacy scenario.
· Label your game with the rules set you are using along with which edition. If you are running it with D&D 4.8 rules then say so. If it is compatible with D&D 3rd ed. rules then mention that as well.
· Think about what level of experience you need in the players. If you are demonstrating a particular setting or rules set you may want people who are new to it or even new to role-playing to play it. Mentioning that it is ‘Newbie Friendly’ will get you new players. If you want your games to be serious and scholarly so players need a very good understanding of the rules or setting then definitely mention that. Full knowledge of D&D 4.8 edition rules especially the clunky armour system is mandatory! is a good way of narrowing down your prospective player pool. That may be exactly what you want but please bare that in mind if you do not get enough players.
· Start, finish and running times are definitely required to be on all your advertising. Fitting your game into one of the convention slots is a good idea as that limits any overlap and clashes. If you are going to run for shorter or longer make sure that is clearly labelled.
· The maximum and minimum number of players you need to run the game. If you think the game will work with just two players or if the most players at a table you can handle is five then set your limit at that. Most games I have seen say 4-6 players only, though I have ran games before for nine players at several conventions.
· Write a good but brief description of your scenario. Write it in such a way that it will draw attention to it and hopefully get people wanting to play it. I usually write a little prelude to the scenario, written in a genre style, that covers the opening acts of the scenario. At other times I use a first person quote from one of the characters about an event in the scenario, summing it up and providing a little bit of mystery. Having ’A D&D adventure same as the others’ isn’t going to sell your game. It is worth thinking a bit more about this and finding your own style to write this. The important thing is to get a good description that can be included in the convention’ literature.

With all the information gathered it is worth sending that into the person organising the convention so it can be put into all their literature and websites. If the convention has it’s own Yahoo! Group, mailing list or on-line forum it is worth posting it on there as well. The feedback you may get will be helpful to judge on the popularity of your game. It is also worth advertising your game on other forums [like this one] or mailing lists that are associated with a game publisher, gaming system or game store.

Running the Game at the Convention

Check with all the players at the beginning that they can stay for the full length of the game slot. It can be very annoying to learn too late that a couple of the players have to break off halfway through to attend a seminar on 'Armoured Were-Squirrels and their Tales' or other such event.

Remember K.I.S.S.* in everything you do. The players will no doubt complicate any plot, dilemma or mission on their own with very little input from the GM.

K.I.S.S. also applies to any introduction and rules summary the GM does before the game actually starts.
Do not have a long preamble that covers the esotericia of the setting plus the last ten thousand years of history! You do not want to over-whelm the players with too much information at the beginning.
Just tell the players what they need to know to start off the scenario and answer their questions [and if they are asking questions that is good] simply and efficiently. Also it may be worth explaining some rules as you go during the game session. Explain combat when you get to the combat bits, explain the use of magic or technology when the players need to use them, etc.

If you can put the basic rules, rule examples, tables or charts on to a ‘cheat sheet’ then do so. Give each player a copy with their character sheet, as some players like to see the mechanics on paper as well as having them described to them. However some other players may want the mechanics kept ‘invisible’, they want the GM to do all the calculating, working out, etc for them. They will just want to know what they have to roll under [or over] on the dice.

Props are a good thing for certain games but that does come down to GMing style. I love maps and like to hand them out during games. My area maps are usually well detailed but I like to keep the location maps simple. Some are even basic line drawings showing walls and doors with the rest of the details filled in by the players’ imaginations during my descriptions. During my Serenity games for example I didn’t use any deck plans as I think sometimes they distract the players too much.
I have also used other props as well like issuing name badges out, handing out pictures of special items, dealing out printed money, wearing glasses or sunglasses when playing certain NPCs, etc. For the most part it is done to gaming tastes but I do know that the players do respond well to these ‘extras’.

*K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid!


Good stuff :)

"Though be wary, as some gamers get a little sleepy after a heavy lunch."

Is this in reference to those gamers who are on medication, yet don't tell you, which causes them to nod of where they sit for 10-15 miniutes!
Now this was just generally.
Sometimes I feel sleepy after a heavy lunch, especially if it is a liquid one!
"In preparation for Furnace, I've read the advice on your blog.

You suggest that a good con scenario should be basically linear, "That means a good beginning and an interesting middle building up to a memorable climax". I guess that the rest of your advice is written with that in mind.

My Shadow of Yesterday scenario starts with an fixed initial situation, but it's up to the players where it ends up. Do you have any advice for running this kind of non-linear, open-ended scenario?"

As for open ended scenarios, I think the key thing is to enable the players to lead the play in the direction they want. Avoid having instances were they get stuck in a situation as they are unsure how to proceed; this can happen with smaller groups of players. Have something in standby that gets the games play going if this happens.

Avoid allow a player or a couple of players dominating the direction of the play and hogging the spotlight just they are very outspoken. Ensure that all the players get a say and something to do.

Avoid dismissing any plans they come up with even though you know that plan may be hard to play out or lead the play where you do not want it.

Use your breaks in play to think how you will enable the play for the players, whether you have to come up with some sort of conflict, NPCs or twist to the players' plans.

The key thing is to keep the pace going and keep within the time allowed at the convention to ensure that you get a satisfying conclusion for you and your players. Many players themselves with help here as they will also realise the pace and may come up with a good ending themselves.
Ending on a cliffhanger or all the PCs dieing in a blaze of glory are good conclusions for con games as well as the usual 'happy ending'.

When I first run my scenarios I often only have an idea of where the players will start, usually with a dilemma or two and the mission itself, whether a delivery, heist, assassination, or even a rescue. I usually have a location in mind along with a snassy map. How they get the mission done, or even if they 'do' the mission as presented is up to the players. Their paranoid musings are often the source of my plans!
They can come with far more imaginative ways to screw them over then I ever could!

I also have a few ideas up my sleeve if things do flounder during play and if not used I can use them in another session or scenario.

I also prepare a list of half a dozen names for my NPCs. I do not know who these NPCs are until play starts but I like to prepare the name in advance so that they are memorable and yet not too similar to each other to avoid confusion [unless that's what you are after of course!].

I hope that covers it but I would be interested in your own views and experiences.


I'll be following this advice at GenCon UK 08

Hi Darran, surfed in from your link on the thread on the RPGSite. I'll give this a good following and let you know the results.

Thanks for taking the time for writing up this very valuable advice, it's very useful indeed!

Rob Lang