Con Game Dos & Don'ts
Running at Con’s is very, very different from running a home game. Now, I’ve run a few con games, and I have played in a lot. There are some things that GMs should avoid at all costs, and things that are really awesome. This post is, by no means, comprehensive, but it is a good baseline for the Dos and Don’ts of running at a convention.
Because I’m a dork, I’m gonna color code things like I’m writing a guide for a character build.
AVOID AT ALL COSTS
Can be tricky
System and Setting
House Rules – When people come to cons to play games, they are often expecting to play the games the way they are written. If you are going to use house rules, make sure they are simple, and make sure you have printed out half sheets that players can reference. Also, if your house rules don’t enhance the game, then don’t bring them to the con. house rules can be awesome, but if they are Complicated House Rules, then they should be packed away.
Use an Established Setting – If you’re running in a world that people know, it will be much easier to hand wave through exposition and make assumptions. If it’s a less well known setting, a GM will have to do some work to make sure the players have the knowledge needed to play their characters and overcome obstacles. Most of my favorite games at con’s have been set in places that I know – France of the 3 Musketeers, WWI France, Japanese boarding school, Dr. Who.
Know thy System – In general, I’ve only seen an issue when people are running games for a large gaming group. Sometimes people volunteer, then show up and get handed a module to run. To effectively run a module in any system, you need to know the system. You have to be good at the system. If not, you’re going to have trouble. Players will have a range of experience from never-played-any-RPGs-ever to I-write-modules-for-publication-in-this-system. Hell, I’ve sat down with people who actually wrote for the system they were playing in. The GM really has to be on point. There’s no wiggle room here.
Bennies! – Instant rewards are important in a single session game. Since there won’t be xp and loot to enjoy over months of play, it helps to give players something immediate. Many systems have a reward mechanic built into the system, like hero points, drama point, etc, but if the system you’re running doesn’t have something, it might be helpful to add a house rule for it. A couple years ago the GM threw out random dice for good RP, allowing the player to use that die as a random bonus whenever they wanted. This was a quick and easy mechanic that can be added to any game. If you want to keep it controlled, you can use 1d4s, or to let chaos reign, throw out d20’s and see what happens.
Overpowered Fights – If the monster can one shot a character, then it’s going to be a shitty game – especially at a convention like Gen Con where the players have paid for the game. Being challenging is good, but if someone gets ganked halfway through, then it’s not fun anymore. Challenges should be possible to overcome. (Bad experience blog HERE.)
Ending Hella Early – So… if I paid for 4 hours of gaming and the encounter only lasts 2 hours, I’m going to feel cheated. As the GM, you need to have back up plans and contingencies for what to do if a game runs too long or too short. Most of the time if a game wraps up 15 mins early, that’s perfect because the players need to rush off to another game.
Something to babysit - Nothing is more frustrating than doing something that makes sense for your character, but removes you from game play. For example, if you're going to have a ship and the players are the crew, then the encounters need to be on the ship where everyone can participate, or you need to have NPCs who can man the ship while the players go do the thing. Imagine Star Trek if Kirk actually stayed on the helm, you know, like a real captain would do (looking at you, BSG ^_^). At a con game players need a chance to actually play, so make sure you design encounters where everyone can participate.
Player vs. Player – Man. So, sometimes player vs player combats happen on their own due to story conflicts, and that’s pretty cool. When a GM can create a divisive encounter so complex that characters resort to blows and rolls, that’s pretty damn cool. However, when a GM loses control over a party and lets them descend into chaos…. You have to be very careful when pitting characters against each other, particularly in a Con game, because your players may or may not know each other. They might be great at RP, or not. you can’t control who is in your game at a con, so any time you can control a situation, that’s better. When designing an encounter, I would personally stay away from PVP unless it was clear in the event description that it might happen. People don’t generally play RPGs to fight with the other players, so… yeah. But if you build it into a story that there might be a clash of ideas, that could be really awesome!
Run a Module – When in doubt, a module is a pretty safe bet. The GM just has to be sure that they know the module inside and out. It’s also important to let the players feel like their actions matter, which means sometimes a GM has to go off book. You can click HERE to read about an awesome (possibly the best) module I’ve ever played in. If the GM doesn’t know the module and sticks to the script, then it can be bad. Really bad. But if the GM knows the system, module, and is flexible, it can be awesome!
Escalating Difficulty – Four hours isn’t a long time to run a game, but that’s how long most con games last. It’s important to scale the session so that players have a chance to get familiarized with the system (since some may never have played before, or it might have been a long time since they played). Think of it as 2-3 fights. Fight 1 is the tutorial, and should be an easy victory early in the game. If you’re going to have a second encounter before the final encounter, then make sure it’s a 75% chance victory in favor of the players. The ultimate encounter can be a 50%/50% chance of victory if you want. What I recommend is to make it a 50%/50% in design, but allow successes in earlier parts of the session to push the odds in the players’ favor. When players achieve, they should be rewarded, and in a Con game you don’t have the opportunity to give them XP to use later, so they need rewards in the game session.
Complicated Pre Gens – Pregenerated characters are almost essential to con gaming. However, when those pregens have two pages of backstory and three pages explaining special abilities, it’s a bit too much. Pre Gens should be easy to play. Be careful when making characters that have too many abilities, because players may not be particularly familiar with the system. And if the backstory is steeped in lore from a particular world, make sure it’s a world the general populace will know. Don’t assume that just because someone signed up to play in your game that they’re going to know the significance of things in your made up pantheon, you know?
Highly Specialized Characters – A highly specialized character who sucks at everything else might be fun to play in a home game, but in a con game it can exclude someone from game play. For example, I once played a swordmaster at a con game. There was exactly one fight where my skills came into play, but to use them I had to use a rocket pack to get to the fight. I failed so hard on my technology-use-check that my character had to be dues ex machina-ed back into the game, and that was after using all of my big abilities, bennies, etc. So the rest of the game I was tapped out. This might have been fun in a campaign where the group had to protect their glass cannon, but in a con game with strangers I felt like it was a waste of my time. If you want highly specialized characters, it's a good idea to have a well balanced party where everyone serves a purpose in each encounter.
Gendered Characters – So, here’s the thing, gender is hard. I love playing a dude. My friend also likes playing a dude. Some guys like to play chicks. Some people don’t care about the gender of their character at all. Sure, it shouldn’t matter, but when I sit down to look at pregens and see that the fighter, monk, and bard are dudes, and the sorcerer and cleric are chicks, I can pretty much tell what kind of GM I’ll be playing with. The best solution I’ve seen to this is to just not gender the characters. It’s a one-shot con game – why bother? There are plenty of gender neutral names out there. Just make sure you use the right pronouns when addressing the characters – particularly if they’re playing across their visible gender.
Existing Characters – So… I once played in this Dr. Who game at a con where someone had to play the fucking Doctor and we were all playing their companions…. I mean, it was okay, but I didn’t really like having to try to emulate an existing character from a franchise. Maybe people do like that? But it was a little rough. Most of the time when people play in a Con game they’re expecting to play one of Harry Potter’s classmates, not the chosen one himself. So if you’re going to have people play existing characters, then it’s probably best that you make that clear in the event description.
Concise Character Description – At BFG Con, I got a character description that read something like, “Lampshade doesn’t talk about where they got their nickname, or their military training.” BAM. Character. Got it. I immediately know the general archetype of my character and I had enough wiggle room to make the character my own. It was good. This does rely on the players to have basic knowledge of archetypes, but you can generally count on that among the con-going crowd.
One Paragraph Character Descriptions – Some GM’s blow me away with their character backstories. Probably the best I get are the one paragraph ones that have a little back story, a little relationship with other characters, and a plot hook for the adventure. This is just enough to give the player something to work off of. You really need to give the player a snapshot of the character. Now, I don’t need a 5 page backstory, just an explanation of who the character is now, how they relate to the other characters, and why the character wants to go on this adventure.
General Good Ideas
Roleplay! – Build RP opportunities into your game. If there are things that can be accomplished without rolling dice, that’s awesome! Or let players have a chance to RP with each other. Some systems have this built in like Savage Worlds with the interludes, but not all systems encourage RP as much (*cough-d20-based-systems-cough*) so you may need to make an effort to involve some RP. Make sure players have a chance to introduce their characters. If all the characters know each other already, make sure you have connections built into their characters so that the players have something to work off. And as the GM, you really need to bring your NPCs to life. Get me invested!
ENTHUSIASM! – Don’t run something you aren’t passionate about. Do run something that you genuinely want to share with others. A GM who just chills and reads from the module is not going to inspire me to greatness. But if I have a GM who loves the system/world and wants to help me explore all the game has to offer, then I’m going to have a hella good time!
Be Prepared – Bring everything you need and then some.
My List of Shit for Running at Cons:
Extra Dice Sets
Pens & Pencils
Notecards (to use as name tags)
Dry erase board and markers
Map (if applicable) – pre-drawn and ready to go
Character markers (I use 1 inch buttons with character images so that players can take the character button as a bit of swag – who doesn’t love collecting buttons at Gen Con?)
Short versions of the rules for easy reference
General Bad Ideas
Arguing with Players – So here’s the thing, if the player is right, then the player is right, and you have to be a grown up and admit it. Or, be a grown up and tell them it doesn’t matter. Sometimes GMs throw out the rulebook, and that’s fine. Sometimes players don’t like that. Or if I player wants to do something that will make the game not fun, then the GM has to step in and prevent it. This can be done in or out of game. It’s better to solve problems in game, because players are less likely to take it personally. Arguing at the table is just… unprofessional. If I’m paying to go to play at a con, I have some expectations, you know?
Patronizing Players – It is the job of a GM sometimes to teach players how to play. That’s part of the job and if you don’t want to do it, then be a player. If there is something that a player doesn’t know, then take a moment to explain it, or show them where to find the answers. Don’t be a superior prick and talk down to them for asking a question. Also, DON’T ASSUME THEY ARE WRONG. If there is something wrong with your game, a player might find it where you have missed it. It’s okay. No one is perfect. And DON’T ASSUME THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT. Many of your players will have as much if not more experience with the system/class/world as you do. This is the risk of running at a Con game. Be respectful. Don’t be a dick.
Wow. I think this is the longest post that no one will read I wish more people would think about these kinds of things, because playing at Cons can be as stressful as running when things don’t go well. On the other hand, when a con game does go well, it is amazing. So players keep taking their chances and hoping for the best….