GMing the Con (not Conning the GM)

With con season fast upon us, one of our licensors and I were discussing the games they plan to run at Gencon this year, and I realized that I had forgotten (or blocked from my memory) the great secrets of Gencon gaming. Convention gaming is its own special creature, and none more special than Gencon. Usually people run roleplaying games at conventions for one of the following reasons:

1. To show off their mad GMing skillz;
2. To evangelize a game that they really like;
3. To promote a game with which they are involved;
4. To get into the con for free;
5. To have fun; or
6. They don’t know any better.

Running a game at a con is almost, but not entirely, unlike running a game for your friends. People gather with the implied objective of getting into character, working together for a shared goal, and having fun, but their real objectives are far different. Of five players, the first is there because she is really into the game, the second is there because the first player talked him into it, the third is there because she is interested in the game but has never played, the fourth is there because the game he wanted to get into was sold out and he had nothing better to do, and the fifth is there for no apparent reason (often having signed up for the wrong game after two days of no sleep and 10 liters of Mountain Dew – Red).

Not knowing the players going in, and their lack of real-world connections, can make for some odd outcomes. If you think your one friend who likes to have his rogue pick PC pockets is bad, wait until you have a player who thinks landing a hovercraft on their heads is funny, or when one decides her character has an until-now unknown sociopathic personality. It gets even better when you have family members playing out their own dysfunctional relationships in games (all of which I have had happen at con games).

Still, these can all be dealt with. The number 1 dictum for con games, even more important than in regular games, is, “Don’t let players get bored.” Imagine that they are all 11-year-old boys and work toward that attention span. As a side note, none of my problem players have ever been 11-year-old boys. They seem to get into the game immediately. The problems are almost invariably adults (though I did have one teenage girl trying to kill her stepfather’s character all game long).

One of the advantages of running D&D is that almost all the players will know the rules, and will be willing to help the few players who do not. Running more esoteric systems (Vampire, Fading Suns, Bunnies and Burrows, etc.) requires more finesse.

One of my first lessons when running instructional games back in the Vampire days was to ignore what players said they wanted to experience and watch instead what kind of character they chose – combat oriented, social, stealthy, etc. I think a great psychological test could be made of giving someone a choice of six character types and seeing which they chose.

The next step was to have a story that always kept the players engaged, but provided different opportunities for their characters. I have used the following sequence to great success:

1. Intro the most interesting aspects about the setting first, in 500 words or less. “Fading Suns is a science fantasy game set thousands of years in the future. Humanity reached the stars, created the perfect society, and messed it all up. Now you get to play around in the ruins, as noble families duel with rapiers at grand balls and dreadnoughts in the depths of space, an oppressive Church crushes dissent under its booted heel but is split by schism and wracked by heresy, scheming merchants hoard the last of technology for themselves, while things in the dark between the stars seek to eat your soul. You have found yourself on Pandemonium, once known as Grange, ‘breadbasket of the Second Republic,’ before the terraforming machines went haywire. Now the entire population of a planet has crowded into the one city where the terraformers have stabilized things, and you are in the bazaar, the most crowded district of the most crowded city in the Known Worlds, where an entire population sells all it has in a mad attempt to get off its doomed planet.”
2. Introduce the characters and allow the players to choose which they play;
3. Explain the most basic rules;
4. Put the characters in a situation where they need to make some basic rolls and end up forced together;
5. Give them a chance to introduce their characters to each other, including names and descriptions;
6. Give them an easy fight;
7. Give them a harder fight (and explain some more complex rules);
8. Give them a chance to explore the setting quickly and use social skills;
9. Put them in a high-stakes race that involves combat, problem solving, and technology, in which every PC has a chance to meaningfully contribute. While I like to satisfyingly wrap up the main drama in one session, I also like to introduce enough cool elements that the game could be continued as a campaign, and a few times I have had a player offer to run the next adventure for the other players.

Along the way, each character’s unique skillset or abilities should have at least one chance to shine or save the day, and each character should have at least one place where the player can do some funky roleplaying if he/she so chooses.

So what is the goal of such a game? Believe it or not, the main goal is not to sell books right after (or during), though that usually happens. My main goals are that:

1. The players have fun;
2. The players want to play the game again (or even run it themselves);
3. The players keep their character sheets (with the company URL on them);
4. The players either buy or look into buying the main rulebook; and
5. I have fun

These days, getting them to blog about the game is a nice bonus 😉

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About Andrew Greenberg

Andrew Greenberg, best known for designing computer games and roleplaying games, co-created the “Fading Suns” roleplaying and computer games, was the original developer of White Wolf’s “Vampire: The Masquerade” and is lead designer on "Haunted House Tycoon" (www.hauntedhousetycoon.com). Andrew has credits on more than 50 White Wolf products and more than 20 HDI books. He has also worked on products with other roleplaying game companies, including “Star Trek Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.” His computer game credits include Dracula Unleashed, Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, Emperor of the Fading Suns, Warhammer 40K: Final Liberation, Merchant Prince II, Mall Tycoon, Dungeon Lords, The Virtual World of Kaneva, and more. His most recent computer game credits are Railroad Tycoon Mobile and the Global Agenda MMO. He serves as director of the Southeast Interactive Entertainment and Games Expo (www.siegecon.net), Playoncon (www.playoncon.com) and Faerie Escape: Atlanta (www.faeatlanta.com). Andrew blogs at http://andrewgreenberg.livejournal.com