GMing at Conventions

How to run successful RPGs with people you’ve never met by Matthew Dawkins

Running a game at a convention can present challenges. If you have a regular gaming group it’s likely you’ll know your players, their tastes, the way they play and what’s more; they’ll know you. At a convention all of your pre-existing experience can count for everything or count for nothing, and that’s what excites me about doing it, every time I do it. You’re stepping into a situation where you don’t necessarily know your players. You don’t necessarily know what they’re going to want to get out of the game you’re running. It’s like opening night at the theatre and you’ve got no way of knowing how your audience will react. It can be that nerve-wracking, but the feeling of excitement cannot be downplayed. The feeling of exhilaration once you realise your carefully crafted or wildly improvised plot has paid off is like nothing you’ll feel in your weekly club game.

Let’s say you’ve never run a game at a convention before and you’d like to do so. Maybe you have an ingenious plot in mind for your Dead of Night RPG and you want to demo it at a convention before you put it into play at your club. Well do not fret as I can assure you that running your game at a convention will be easy and a lot of fun. There are several considerations to keep in mind to make sure your game comes off as well as it possibly can.

Match the tone to the group

What some folk consider mature content or others think of as farcical differs wildly. At last year’s UK Games Expo I ran a scenario of Hunter: The Vigil. The game had several hunters of various different compacts tracking the location of a slasher (the Michael Myers / Jason Voorhees type) to a small town where all kinds of dark deeds were afoot. Through basic premise alone you can probably tell that the game was for those who preferred a darker kind of tale, and the role-players who took part played their roles perfectly. Despite the embrace of darker content however, the players sank into light-hearted banter as the hunt took place, enjoying themselves and the game (one of the highest compliments you can receive as a GM is seeing your players smiling) and being altogether unprepared for the eventual moment where they confronted the slasher and what had befallen his victims. Jaws dropped. The laughter stopped and was replaced with stunned silence. Had I, as storyteller, stalked too far off of the path of acceptable horror and presented something that they couldn’t stomach? Well, as it happens, no. The player characters met the slasher with a fury that came through a mix of roleplay and pure emotional outrage and everyone lived happily ever after. I was thanked for the game and I got the impression that they genuinely enjoyed the experience.

Now, imagine I had presented them with something so horrific in a session of Starblazer Adventures without explaining prior to the session that that was my intention. When first pitching your game on the UK Games Expo website you can not only write a description of the game, thereby detailing the tone you intend to set, but you can also set age restrictions. This is an incredibly useful tool to have as not every convention considers this relatively small feature. At the start of your session you can provide a disclaimer of sorts. I do this before most of my darker games and provide the players with the options to have the game told as a PG, 15 or 18 rated tale, allowing them the freedom before the game even starts to dictate how far is too far. If a player feels uncomfortable with the tone during the game it’s your job as GM to adjust accordingly. This can be done with a minimum of fuss and most players are happy to have the tension wound down for the sake of their fellows.

My final point on tone is fittingly the conclusion of the game you choose to run. While it would be remiss to have a Call of Cthulhu game end on a high-note it is often prudent to reward players with the kind of tone they’ve been angling towards throughout play. While it’s nice to have an ending set in your mind most players find a way of derailing even the best laid plans of GMs so you should tailor the ending to the game as it happens. The last time I ran All Flesh Must Be Eaten I was prepared for the military to bomb the town containing the player characters as they evacuated the last surviving child, but due to the upbeat nature of the players, the hope they portrayed through their characters and their convincing arguments with the representative of the military, I just had to have the helicopters at the end of the game land and rescue them rather than carry out the alternative. This resulted in a happy group, and this kind of flexible storytelling leads me onto a new point.

Prepare to improvise

Let’s say your plot is that the party are recruited by an hoary old wizard who wants you to find two halves of a mystical weapon in an expansive and dark forest and then deliver it to a village full of dwarves. You don’t know that the players you’ll be getting at the convention will necessarily go along with your suggestions as willingly as players you see every week. Who’s to say that the party won’t haggle over payment? What if the player with the cleric decides to play a particularly fervent believer and may wish to deliver the weapon to his church instead?

The point here is that players will do what they like and your job as a GM isn’t just to tell a story to them but to entertain them no matter what they do. Avoid frustration when they kill the important NPC and come up with a new way for their finding out about the weapon’s location. Never tell them they can’t do something if it’s within their character’s capabilities to do it and instead flex your imagination and improvise a new ordeal for them to overcome or a new reward if they broke the last one accidentally. Improvising when necessary can result in the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have in GMing.

In a Pathfinder campaign I ran recently the player characters were confronted with a plateau surrounded by five towers of differing architecture. My plan as GM was for them to visit one tower at a time, with my handily having pointed out for them in clues which tower to visit first. The players of course decided to go and raid a tower that I had not even considered in any great depth, which resulted in my having to improvise an entire dungeon, complete with monsters, traps, treasure and intelligent NPCs.

While daunting, it wasn’t too difficult to draw on established mythology and fiction to help with improvisation. The tower was made of bones, so I populated it with undead creatures, some already established in Pathfinder and others from my own head. If you can’t think of combat encounters then just have a look at the characters being played. What does each character specialise in? It’s easy to work from those specialisations to come up with ordeals for those particular characters. Tailor something to each character in turn and each player will feel like they’ve had a unique role-playing experience. I find that GMing at a convention is less fun if you just play off of the page and more fun if you let the players do the steering.

Timing...

... is the secret of good comedy, but is also the secret of good gaming. You could have come up with the greatest Vampire: The Masquerade chronicle in the world but you have to ensure it fits within the three to four hour window you’ve been allocated. Bear in mind that many people travel to conventions and may not have the luxury of staying on for an extra hour to hear the villain’s dying speech. While you could argue that it’s better to give players their money’s worth by making sure the game runs to full-length, sometimes a story is better told and infinitely more satisfying for all involved if it addresses all salient points and concludes short rather than dragging itself out.

How to achieve this lofty aim? Have a beginning, a middle and an end in mind. While I improvise games more than I plan them meticulously, a good outline is a necessity. If you check the time and you’re unlikely to fit that ending in, cut out an unnecessary combat or a trap. Games are for the most part assembled piecemeal, so just as easily as you may think “it would be fun to include this,” you can say “it would make the game flow better to remove this.”

Be creative!

At our role-playing clubs we have the groups who never stop running Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars which means that excellent but perhaps more obscure games such as All For One, Qin: The Warring States and Eclipse Phase never get to see the light of day. Conventions provide a wonderful ground for showcasing games that you just want to try out. If board games can be promoted pre-release, surely role-playing games can be as well!

At this year’s UK Games Expo I will be running an as-yet unpublished game of my own creation called ‘They Came From Beneath The Sea!’ which is a combination of my love for B-Movies and sci-fi horror. My intent isn’t just to self-promote but to get some actual playtesting from a diverse range of players who don’t necessarily know me. Providing you’re familiar with the rules and setting of the game you’re running, there’s no reason you can’t do this.

Whenever I find myself preparing games for conventions I find myself alternating between trying to think of everything the players may try to do and then deciding to improvise pretty much the entire thing. The truth is that whichever option works for you is best, but all you really have to do is tell a riveting tale that can be influenced by player decisions. Players seem to like it most when they can come away from a game thinking that what they did with their character made a difference and it’s in your hands as GM to enable this. Let your imagination run wild so that you create multiple opportunities for players to actually role-play. Creativity is what keeps our hobby strong and keeps me coming back to GM.

GMing at conventions has inspired me to run new games at my club, come up with intriguing characters, refine my storytelling skills and made me a more confident person. This is one of the highlights of the hobby for me. I hope that at this year’s UK Games Expo you’ll get to witness and experience some superb GMing and that if you’re not GMing this year, you’ll give it a go at the next convention you visit.

Matthew Dawkins hosts The Gentleman’s Guide to Gaming on YouTube; reviews, recaps, discussions and celebrations of tabletop role-playing games.