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4 Keys to Preparing for Successful Con Games

This weekend is one of my favorites for the whole year — Dundracon, the longest running gaming convention in the San Francisco Bay Area, is here! I have been attending DDC since seventh grade and, aside from some gaps in the mid-90s, I’ve been to most of them since. I love DDC for many reasons — it’s got all sorts of games, is run very well, and all my friends go there — and every year I run (at least) one official RPG that both keeps my GMing skills hot and gets me in the door for free.

Last year I ran HWLL twice and it was too much. When you’re running your own RPG, especially when it’s tied to an in-progress Kickstarter, there is a lot of pressure to do it right. Running two games last year was too much of that pressure and I promised myself I would run only one official game this year. Well, I may be running only one official game, but I have been pressured into (okay – volunteered, I’m an attention slut and I just love running games too much) running two more games, so now am running three games — one Trail of Cthulhu, one 5th edition D&D, and my own Cthulhu Dark scenario Sun Spots.

The TOC and D&D games are really just for friends, are not “official” games where I have to wonder at what sort of gamers I will get, and will start when I get my friends together, not at a specific time. They’re also written by other people, which is something I don’t normally do but realized that was the only way to run additional games and not lose my mind. But still, it takes effort to run a good game, whether official or not, and I want to cover the things that I do to prepare for running RPGs at conventions.

The feedback I get tells me I run a pretty good game, but not only am I always looking to improve my game, I also hold myself to pretty high standards. I also know some pretty awesome GMs who do many of the same things I do to prep for their games and I like to steal good ideas whenever I can. Here are some things I’ve found are key to running a great RPG at a convention:

  • Own It – First and foremost: be a goddam professional. You need to treat this like your job, and show up firing on all cylinders. To start, whatever it takes, show up 10-15 minutes early, all your materials in hand and ready to go. There is nothing that builds early player skepticism than having all the players sitting at the table 10 minutes early but the GM is 10 minutes late (this happened to me last year). Especially if you are fortunate enough to have people show up early because your game is overbooked, you want to show that this is your game. Then, start on time, unless you need to wait for pre-registered players. Even then, only wait ten minutes maximum. If a player can’t make it to your game by then, too bad. And again, if you’re lucky enough to have a full game and people are waiting to get in (what a compliment!), communicate directly with them on what they can and cannot expect. For me, I take players first-come, first-served, and will take the names of people like waiting for a table in a restaurant. Other GMs randomize. Regardless, communicate what your plan is, how many possible spots you have, and set expectations out the game. Own the game from the go and your players will quickly realize who is in charge.
  • Provide Everything They Need – I know it seems odd, but some GMs barely provide enough to get the game going. You, as a player, must provide dice, pencils, scrap paper, etc. Some GMs may even expect you to bring paper to use for your character sheet. Screw those guys (it’s unprofessional). You bring PC sheets, probably already filled out as pregenerated characters, but hey why not also bring snacks, chocolate or even bourbon. I like my players to use special dice, so I bring those too. If I’m playing in a game I’ll bring the rulebook and other supplements to share. Basically, bring everything your players need to play your game — everyone will love you.
  • Be the Ball, Billy – What does your game look like when it’s a total success? Can you see it in your mind? Athletes have been using visualization for years to win medals, so why can’t you? Days before the con, picture in your mind how the story will go, where the fun/quiet/exciting parts are, and how the whole thing will end. See yourself and the whole group having a great time, see everyone creating great memories and collaborating on an amazing game, one that people talk about for years. Spend some time thinking about your game well in advance and give yourself room to improve and grow. Sure, it may not go perfectly, but the preparation will help you create the best possible experience.
  • Go Big or Go Home – Finally, if you’re running a game at a con, you have all the permission in the world to make your game as memorable as possible (as you’re not restricted by an ongoing campaign or your friends’ pre-existing expectations), so why not make it as great as possible? Just as you’re going to own it and be a professional, don’t be afraid to put all your eggs in one basket (as it were), killing, maiming and driving PCs mad, all with the goal of creating (with the help of your players) the best game everyone had all convention. Nothing bugs me more than a tame con game — people pay good money to come to a con, and it’s your job to make it worth their while. Bring all your best ideas, craziest stories and wild inspirations for your players. Whether this is just from creating cool props and PC sheets (see above) or by killing everyone off in one big explosion in the end, leave nothing out. Give people something to talk about, and they will tell their friends (awesome) and come back for more (even more awesome).

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